Week of February 19, 2021

 

TOB and PAL after bringing the heat each and every week.


What is the *Point* of College Sports?

For decades, athletics were seen as an integral part of most college campuses. Sure, there were outliers – like one-time Big 10 football powerhouse University of Chicago deemphasizing athletics and dropping football in 1939. But for the most part, college sports have had a good run. 

Sometime around the 1980s, though, college football and men’s basketball went from big money to stupid big money. Around the same time, public colleges started to lose public funding as a share of their overall revenue. Tuition went up. Competition for admissions went way up. And over the last few years we have found ourselves in this perfect political storm: football and men’s basketball generating a lot of money, which subsidizes the other sports, while football players and men’s basketball players don’t get paid. As it happens, most football and men’s basketball players are persons of color, and most players from most of the other teams are white (especially in the so-called country club sports). 

But that’s not all, because while football and men’s basketball subsidize the country club sports, so does the campus at large. Public funding and student tuition covers the deficit that most college athletic programs run each year. This has led colleges to cut smaller sports, especially smaller men’s sports, in order to reduce budget deficits. But it hasn’t been enough at most schools.

Then, in 2019, the USC/Stanford college admissions scandals brought to light an ugly truth that had been a poorly kept secret: upper-middle to upper-class, mostly white parents have been gaming the admissions systems for decades by guaranteeing their children admission to top colleges, and at least partial scholarships, by having them compete in low-participation sports. Like fencing. And crew. And field hockey. And lacrosse. And synchronized swimming.  Nowhere was this more prevalent than California. The top 4 colleges by Olympic medals are: USC, Stanford, UCLA, Cal. 

Sure, these Olympic medal winning athletes are world-class athletes who come from all across the world to further their training while getting an education. But there are also the kids who fill out those rosters, not with any realistic aspiration for Olympic glory, but to get into a top school and enjoy the perks of a scholarship.

Stanford, in particular, has dominated the country club sport circuit, having won the 25 out of 26 Directors Cup awards since its inception in 1994. The Directors Cup is an annual award given to the college “with the most success in collegiate athletics,” as determined by a points system “based on order of finish in various championships.” After finishing second in the first year it was given, Stanford has won the Directors Cup every single year – 25 times in a row. A large part of their success are the Olympics sports, yes. But it’s also the fact that Stanford has subsidized a massive athletic department – not just in terms of world-class facilities, which they of course have, but also in terms of sheer size – 36 athletic programs, as far as I know by far the most in the country (Cal is way up there at 27; most schools have around 20).

With all that backstory in mind, this article about Stanford’s decision to cut 11 programs and the uproar that has ensued is fascinating. The news was released last summer. After this year, Stanford will cut men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling. “The 11 sports represent roughly one-third of the school’s 36 sponsored athletic programs, account for 240 athletes and include programs that have produced 20 national titles and 27 Olympic medals.” 

This almost happened about a decade ago at Cal – most notably to baseball. But Cal Baseball raised $10M and saved itself, at least for now. Stanford’s sports tried to do the same – raising enough money to endow the sport in perpetuity. And some have succeeded at raising that money:

In a six-month-old fundraising effort, team leaders have raised pledges of $40 million to fund the 11 discontinued squads, and at least three of the teams have raised enough to self-endow, fully covering their operating expenses permanently.

Wow, hey, nice job. So now those sports are reinstated, just like Cal baseball was, right? Well, uh:

Presented with this information, university leaders are steadfastly committed to their decision, showing no signs of restoring the teams.

Oh. Stanford claims a budget crisis – a $12M deficit, to be specific, and also claims cutting these eleven sports will save it $8M annually. But if the sports self-fund, doesn’t that solve the budget issue? Nope.

Using the university’s own financial figures, 36 Sports Strong generated a study to show that the elimination of the 11 sports is only a minimal budgetary impact and attributes the department’s deficit to an 84% increase in salary and benefits over the last decade, much of it tied to football and men’s basketball. On Tuesday, leaders of the group presented their financial findings to Stanford provost Persis Drell during a 35-minute Zoom call, where they also pitched a proposal: Reinstate the 11 sports and give them a five-year runway to self-endow, not just their own programs but also all 34 nonrevenue sports at Stanford. “It was like we were talking to an empty suit,” says Kathy Levinson, a former three-sport athlete at Stanford in the 1970s who is leading the 36 Sports Strong movement and was part of Tuesday’s meeting. “I would say she was immovable.”

So what’s going on here, then? I know that at Cal, the land that sports facilities are on is valuable and takes up a lot of space that could go to more academic buildings or student housing, an especially important concern in Berkeley, where the housing market remains spiked. But have you ever been to Stanford? There’s room there. A lot of it. They don’t need the land. There’s another theory, though:

Many members of 36 Sports Strong theorize that the university, in part, eliminated sports to create admission flexibility. Stanford is one of the few colleges in the U.S. at capacity academically. In this theory, the university would now have the freedom to fill classroom spots occupied by athletes with those who may generate more tuition or carry a higher academic acumen. Stanford’s athlete population was one of the highest in the nation at 12%, or one in every seven students. “Maybe there was concern that 12% of the campus population was too much,” says Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist based in California and a Stanford graduate himself. “The university admission process is trying to custom-craft a campus community.”

Aha. Stanford denies that allegation. But I don’t think I believe them – do you? Because now we come full circle. Is Stanford embarrassed by the admissions scandal and the ugly truths it revealed about how many of Stanford’s 36 sports are used to leverage admission for kids who are not otherwise qualified? Is Stanford trying to pull a 1930s University of Chicago and de-emphasize athletics? Are athletics still important to a college campus? What about when the sport is lucky to get a handful of spectators per game? Because if this isn’t about that, then why would Stanford deny reinstatement for these sports, especially the three that have already raised enough money to self-endow forever? 

Now, I get why the alumni of these sports and the current athletes and their families are upset. But that $8,000,000 they are saving, conceivably though not actually, could be redirected to the revenue generating athletes at an average of about $90,000 per year. Or it could be used to reduce Stanford’s outrageous tuition. Or fund important research. Or do so many important things besides guarantee admission to a top university to someone whose parents have the money to get them into fencing at a young age. I mean, look at that photograph of the Stanford men’s crew team at the top – do those look like world class athletes to you!? 

I don’t know, Stanford’s decision seems like a step in the right direction, if you ask me.

Also, Go Bears! -TOB

Source: “‘This Is for the Next Generation’: Inside the Fight, at Stanford and Beyond, to Save Olympic Sports,” Ross Dellenger, Sports Illustrated (02/12/2021)


Wherever You Can Find Ice

Saw this story in the NY Times, and I wondered if this would’ve even made it into the St. Paul or Minneapolis local section of paper. Still, I’m a sucker for a back-to-basics story. 

The premise: a lot of ice arenas are closed in the New York area, so people are finding other places to play hockey. These backyard rinks run the gamut: some cost a couple hundred bucks, while other folks go all out. 

Per Kevin Armstrong:

First-timers learned to negotiate inconsistent thaws and freezes, and anxious hosts added umbrella insurance on top of homeowners insurance in case injured visitors filed lawsuits. Like-minded neighbors knocked down fences to share space for rinks, while others complained about noise created by pucks crashing against wooden boards. With ice time at a premium, backyard rink owners were flooded with requests for open skating times.

One person who was in the perfect position for the unexpected D-I-Y rink boon: 24 year-old Dylan Gatsel. He developed a prototype backyard rink kit a couple years ago. EZ ICE Rinks sales are through the roof.

These outdoor rinks in backyards have been a longstanding tradition in Minnesota. I skated on backyard rinks all the time growing up. Three of my five siblings build rinks and make ice every year. 

I wondered this fall if the pandemic couldn’t have been a once-in-a-lifetime nostalgia marketing opportunity. High school hockey is huge in Minnesota, with over 100K fans attending the 4-day state tournament in the Xcel Center in downtown St. Paul. I’m guessing that’s a no-go this year. They should’ve brought it back to the basics this year and had all high school hockey games on outdoor rinks, including the state tournament. The documentary all but shoots itself (you can already see ESPN sending SportsCenter there), the merch sales would’ve been insane, and it would’ve celebrated everything Minnesotans like to identify as. 

That could’ve been sweet. – PAL 

Source: With Indoor Rinks Closed, Players Turn to ‘Speakeasy Hockey’, Kevin Armstrong, The New York Times (02/15/2021)


A Good Headline Matters

I have no strong feelings on Blake Griffin. He was possibly the last truly great men’s college basketball player (for me, only Trae Young comes close). He had good dunks and he was funny-for-an-athlete. He sneakily evolved as a player, and I thought his series against the Warriors in 2014, when the Clippers beat the budding Warriors dynasty in 7 games in the first round, literally in the midst of the Donald Sterling scandal, was really good. 

I say this because the Pistons announced this week they’d be sitting Blake while they try to find somewhere to trade him. The dude is only 31, but when so much of your game is built on athleticism and you suffer a series of lower body injuries, 31 suddenly seems very old. And when I first heard the news I shrugged. He was traded to Detroit just over three years ago. January 2018! And I had basically not thought of him since.

Ordinarily, I would have never read more than a tweet-length message about this story. But as I said at the top, a good headline matters. And when this news hit, I saw a really good headline:

Well, that piqued my interest. And damn if the article wasn’t thought-provoking. It was interesting to read a Detroit native’s perspective on Griffin’s 2+ seasons in Detroit:

If Griffin ends up in the Hall of Fame — and I think he will — he’ll be remembered as a Clipper. However, in Detroit, I think it’s safe to say the people saw him as one of them. Griffin arrived in the Motor City with a “Hollywood” label. There were the commercials, the comedy and the high-flying antics. They disguised the fact that he’s a Midwesterner from Oklahoma. When Griffin was on the floor for the Pistons, he truly embodied the grit that the city loves to see from its athletes. He played through injuries and pain. He dove for loose balls. He got in opponents’ faces. When there was very little to be thankful for in regards to basketball in Detroit, Griffin swooped in and gave the best version of himself to a franchise that didn’t always deserve it. Griffin gave everything he could to Detroit when he was able to. That shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s a nice tribute, and a nice piece of writing. -TOB

Source: How Should Blake Griffin Be Remembered in Detroit?James Edwards III, The Athletic (02/15/2021)

PAL: Dude, thank you for calling out the headline. A good headline can absolutely make me stop, and I feel like a lot of sites gave up trying a long time ago. Agreed on the quality of writing. I liked the angle, too. 


NBA Janitors

TOB’s take on the importance of a headline was in my head as I perused this AM and came upon this story about former NBA first-round draft picks trying to get back to the league and the perspective shift that requires. Excellent read. 

The idea is that these dudes drafted in the mid-to-late first round are super talented players with skill sets centered on being focal points on a team. When that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason (bad play or bad luck), and they find themselves out of the league, a shift likely needs to take place in their game in order to make it back. It’s not necessarily about putting up huge numbers in the G League or elsewhere. As Laker Alex Caruso (undrafted) put it, it’s about understanding the job you’re interviewing for. 

Per Jordan Teicher:

Lakers guard Alex Caruso went undrafted in 2016, but in a November appearance on The Old Man and the Three podcast, the former G Leaguer explained the lesson non-stars need to learn in order to fit in: “They don’t realize the position they’re trying out for. It’s like going to a job interview thinking you’re going to be the CFO of the company and they’re looking for someone to clean the bathrooms.”

Caruso represents an interesting wrinkle to this story. The expectations connected to an undrafted vs. first round draftee that didn’t make it on the first go-round. 

Again, from Teicher: 

The likes of Danny Green, Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Seth Curry improved in the G League before sticking in the NBA. However, those success stories are usually about undrafted players or second-round picks, not people who enter the NBA with a first-round pedigree.

“There is a stigma attached with a guy who didn’t make it the first go-around,” said Jim Clibanoff, director of scouting for the Denver Nuggets. “It’s such a recalibration for some of these kids. … How does the kid respond to it? We talk about hunger and desire, and that manifests itself in how you react to adversity.”

Good read. – PAL 

Source: Getting to the NBA Is Hard, but Getting Back May Be Even Harder”, Jordan Teicher, The Ringer (02/16/2021)


4,560

With fatherhood less than a trimester away, I find myself thinking about my dad’s hall-of-fame run as a sports dad and the kind of sports dad I hope to be. Check it out here to see my rudimentary math skills on full display. Here’s a taste:

Parents are like driving instructors when it comes to their kids’ emotions around sports. They ride shotgun while the kiddos take the wheel. The kids try their best to navigate the highs and lows of the wins and losses, to get the feel for triumphs and slights, all the while mom or dad are ready to take control, slow down, and get everything pointed back in the right direction if things get out of hand. 

Game in, game out. Every drive home maneuvering around every bad call, success, substitution; every interaction and how it proved so-and-so really did think such-and-such. 

The more I think about it, maybe the teenage years are the emotional equivalent of teaching the kid to drive a stick shift. 

Full story here. -PAL 


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Song of the Week Durand Jones & The Indications – “Giving Up”


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“I wanted to eat a pig-in-a-blanket in a blanket.”

-Kevin Malone

4,560

County rinks in Minnesota resemble oversized garden sheds. Concrete floors, pitched aluminium roofs, little-to-no insulation. They are cold, the ice is fantastically hard, and voices carry, including my dad’s on occasion.

“Pass the damn puck!” 

His voice thundered off the cinder block walls and ice, overwhelming the click-clack of sticks.

Like all dads, mine had a different tone of voice kept in reserve. That ‘enough bullshit’ voice. He went to it sparingly. It was a blunt object, a force used for absolute clarity. The sound of it left me cringing on the bench in its echo. He wasn’t yelling at me, not usually. 

Those hockey games were twenty-five years ago and more. How I now measure anything in that length of time is hard to believe, but here we are. Now, my point-of-view is rotating. My wife, Natalie, and I are expecting a little girl in three months. She’ll be our first, and I fill the in-between moments of the day imagining pieces of her life to come. 

I know I’m 10 years away from any real sports dad moments, as any game played by kids younger than 10 more closely resembles a chaos theory experiment than any actual sport. I’m pumped for that youth sports phase, to be a sports dad. The thought of it leads back to my dad. 

Jim Lang’s run as a sports dad is an all-timer. With some back of napkin math and conservative estimates, it’s fair to say he attended somewhere in the ballpark of 4,560 of his kids’ sporting events over a 24-year run (1980-2004), that comes out to a little more than a game every other day.

Here’s how I got to that number. I started with Tony, the oldest of us kids, and estimated his total amount of games/events played in a sports season, having shorter season game totals for younger ages (10-13), then bumping up for older years. Then I added up the total amount of games I played in (I am the youngest). I assigned the average of Tony’s total and my total for the other four siblings. Everyone played 3 sports when kids, and at least two sports through high school. I added estimated college games for my sister, Angie, and me.

My dad’s attendance record at these games/events is legendary. I said 95% and my brother, Matt, thought that figure was actually low. Put in another way, he remembers the games of his my dad missed, including the first inning of a Little League game in which Matt hit his only home run. 

I don’t know how my dad did this while running a business for many of those years. I’m not even counting the 17 grandkids and their games. The man’s put in his 10,000 hours as a sports dad. 

Adding numbers is one way to measure sports parenting. Games, years, dollars, miles. God only knows how many miles my dad rolled on the odometer cutting across the metro area to find some random soccer or baseball field behind some random middle school in a suburb across town. Worse yet, out-of-town tourneys. There’s also the emotional investment to consider. That’s not as easy to count or weigh. 

Parents are like driving instructors when it comes to their kids’ emotions around sports. They ride shotgun while the kiddos take the wheel. The kids try their best to navigate the highs and lows of the wins and losses, to get the feel for triumphs and slights, all the while mom or dad are ready to take control, slow down, and get everything pointed back in the right direction if things get out of hand. 

Game in, game out. Every drive home maneuvering around every bad call, success, substitution; every interaction and how it proved so-and-so really did think such-and-such. 

The more I think about it, maybe the teenage years are the emotional equivalent of teaching the kid to drive a stickshift. 

We’ve all heard a story or two about unhinged sports parents, and I’ve wondered if youth sports have become an outsized focus for many, not to mention a billion dollar industry. Still, youth sports are incredibly important, and not because they allow parents to help their children realize the dreams their mom and dad could’ve realized if only they’d had a stronger parental guide. And while the life lessons are invaluable, there’s a bigger reason why youth sports commandeer so much of us. 

In sports, parents witness their kid experience success and failure in public. 

Where else in a parent-child relationship is that a more regular occurrence than during youth sports? Where else can a parent watch that play out in real time from the comfort of a folding chair? Algebra tests aren’t exactly a spectator sport, and there aren’t 30 school musicals a season. First kiss, first heartbreak, a nailed or failed summer job interview— all secondhand. Come adulthood, so much success and failure is relayed, discussed with but rarely seen by parents.  

We’ve manufactured elaborate ceremonies to celebrate some definition of success. Weddings (love, family), graduations (knowledge), birthdays (not dying), sacraments (spiritual progress), retirement parties (career), funerals even (you know, all of it). These are the recognition of success, but not the act itself. As for failures, we ignore those at pretty much any cost, and have mercy on anyone who experiences failure in public or has them captured on social media.  

Success and failure. Success and failure. Over, and again. Those early glimpses of how a child will handle both certainties – it must be immensely vulnerable and captivating to watch how both shape a child. 

I try to sense the volume of the numbers and emotions of my dad amassed as a sports dad. While us kids were always his priority at those games, he genuinely cared about how the team played. How could he not? He sat through too many games to watch selfish play, timidity, or mental mistakes.  

“Pass the damn puck!” There was a lot more beneath those words than my dad simply being fed up with having to watch a kid’s failed attempt at an end-to-end rush for the fifth time in the period. I am only just beginning to feel my little girl kicking in Natalie’s belly, and I still need to learn, uh, everything about being a dad, but am I fool to think I can now understand just a bit of why my dad would yell every now and again? 

It wasn’t too much for my dad to suggest the kids play as a team. 

Not so long ago, I envisioned myself as the silent dad at my kids games. I’d played and coached enough youth sports to have made the vow so many have made: I would never be the parents losing their shit at the game. 

All of us have experienced some version of these parents. They are the ones berating an umpire making $30 a game, the ones who can’t go five seconds without frantically reminding kids of techniques from across the field, the ones openly questioning coaching decisions to anyone within earshot. Nowadays, I’m guessing these are the folks starting chat groups online to talk crap and plot like cowardly teenagers. 

Out of fear of becoming one of these idiots, I planned to be the silent dad, and that was a stupid plan. 

My best youth sports experience was my baseball team from 13-15. I always appreciated that we had enthusiastic, young coaches (my brother, Tony, and brother in-law, Jay) that connected with the kids. I’m only now fully appreciating how great the families were. Much of the families were the same every year, and while it wasn’t perfect, there was a genuine feeling that parents were pulling for each kid to succeed on the team. 

We won a lot, which never hurts, but the sports cliches regained their original meaning in large part because the parents cheered when teamwork, resilience, effort, preparation, competition manifested into great play. They would call it out when those qualities were lacking, too. Compliments were often directed to specific kids, critiques rarely were.  

As much as where I was born, those families represent where I grew up. I don’t know where I’ll be living in ten years: here in California, back in Minnesota, or maybe there’s a curveball waiting for us down the line. Wherever we are, the families sitting around us in the bleachers will make up a meaningful part of our community. They will be a part of where my kids are from. 

While I won’t threaten my dad’s career numbers, we’re still talking about many games, many miles, many hours, many emotions. If we’re signing up for all of that, then we have to try doing it right. I gotta do my part as a sports dad in helping create an environment where the cliches have meaning. I want to be a parent heaping genuine praise on all the kids when they deserve it, including mine. And for every ten ‘atta boy!’, I want to be part of community that understands yelling “passing the damn puck!” is not an aggression, but preservation. 

I don’t want to help build community in which our fear of offending means we avoid making any positive impact on each other. Sports parents can create that environment or ensure it never has a chance.

Of course, my daughter might not even like sports. Those in-between moments I brought up at the beginning of this story? When I think about the pieces of her life, the truth is the vast majority of those won’t include sports. That’s why youth sports have to be about the lessons and the community that helps teach them. About learning how to compete, being a good teammate, celebrating success, collapsing into failure, and waking up the next day moving on from both. 

I’ll end with one of my favorite stories of my dad as a sports dad. the concession. 

My sister, Libby, was a basketball player. A good one, too. She was the only one of us kids who had any skill for that game. Plus, the Langs aren’t in the height business. She was a point guard on the high school team, and played plenty on varsity as a junior. Come her senior year, she was a likely starter, but there was this seventh grade phenom. The coach decided to bring the phenom up to varsity. Libby bore the brunt of it, and rarely played. My dad was upset. Plenty of no b.s. voice when that topic came up in the house. 

The phenom was incredible, no question about it. She went on to play and coach at Marquette and now coaches at Penn State. It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t about her; my dad couldn’t get past the question as to why a seventh grader had to play varsity, and how that was the reason Libby couldn’t take her final lap as an athlete before going to college (Libby would agree that her participation on the J.V. golf team the following spring was strictly about getting a tan…she played in flip-flops, folks) 

Ultimately, there was nothing to be done. The kid was great, coach wanted her playing varsity, and so Libby sat the bench. Who knows what factors were at play—maybe the coach was worried she’d lose a future star player to another school if she didn’t play the 13 year-old right away. 

My parents still were there in the stands, even though it was clear how the season would play out. At one game, my dad walked down the bleachers, passed behind the bench and told Libby he was going to the concession stand – did she want a hot dog?

Imagining that moment kills every time. I’m laughing as the write this!

My dad has devoted the entirety of his time on building two legacies: his career and his family. That’s it. That’s the complete list of things Jim Lang cares about.  Sports have been a big part of his life because they were important to his kids.

I told my dad about this story last night. His response to when I told him 4,560: “And I enjoyed every one of them.”

My dad relished our sports successes. They made him goddamn giddy. And when the puck ought to be passed, he’d say it. When we failed, he felt it. And if concession was the last option, then he’d give us a laugh as we moved on to the next piece of life waiting for us. 

Phil Lang, 02.17.21

 

Week of February 12, 2021

 

We are going to standup, put on our big boy pants, and walk into the weekend.


NBA Players Examining Black History

The NBA players of today are the best of any era, IMO. They are the best players (by far) and the best citizens. The Athletic’s Jason Jones profiles a number of players who have made learning Black American history a priority, and it’s a really good read. He discusses what these players have learned, how they’ve learned it, and the perils of self-education on the internet. I highly recommend you read it. I especially liked this passage, from the Kings’ Harrison Barnes:

“Sometimes people have a tendency to take (Black history) and put that in a box: well that’s education, those are things you learn in school,” Barnes said. “I kind of went through that process and the reality is there’s so much about American history but specifically African American history that is not taught in schools and is not widely publicized. There are certain narratives that are taught and shared and repeated that it’s important to engage in those dialogues. If nothing else, American history is very complex, specifically African American history. A lot of times people don’t have any inclination to do the extra research on it.”

That’s a great point by Barnes, and I have been embarrassed a few times in the last year by major events in American history I had never heard of, especially in regards to Black Americans. On some levels, it’s not my fault because these events and people weren’t covered in school. As Kings’ rookie Tyrese Halliburton said:

Haliburton, like many people, has had a lot of time to look into issues during the pandemic and realized he didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of Black history.

He was able to see what he truly had never been taught.

“I learned the basics of Black history, learned about slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the big pillars of African American history,” Haliburton said. “I feel like in full honesty, African American history is not focused on enough in school … I hate that it’s acknowledged as African American history instead of American history. No, that’s the history of our country.”

But Barnes was right – education shouldn’t stop when we leave school, and that’s on me – on all of us. -TOB

Source: “As NBA Players Delve into Black History, Questions Abound on How and What They Learn,” Jason Jones, The Athletic (02/10/2021)


The Relievers Get Their Day

Life depended on it, what reliever from your team would you trust to get 3 outs in a 1-run game?  Let’s just say it: it’s a light sports news week, folks. The Super Bowl is done, winter sports are just getting going, and baseball still feels far away. In other words, not a ton of sports stories this week, unless you want TOB and me to go rounds over the Red Sox trading Andrew Benintendi to KC…yeah, I didn’t think so.

So instead, let’s turn to Grant Brisbee for a good ol’ fashion bar debate. Since we scoured the internet for a week and couldn’t find much sports stories worth sharing, it feels fitting to only now write many words about relief pitchers. The ground rules, per Brisbee: 

First, we’re talking about the best version of this reliever. You pick the season. I’m not sure if you were more impressed with Robb Nen in 1998 or 2000, but that’s up to you.
Second, it has to be a reliever. Don’t play five-dimensional chess and pick Tim Lincecum from 2008. And don’t play six-dimensional chess and pick Madison Bumgarner from 2014. He doesn’t count, either.
Third, that best version of the reliever has to be when he was with the Giants. Don’t play seven-dimensional chess and pick Joe Nathan unless you want the 2003 or 2016 version.

Let me first apply this to Twins relievers for our MN readers. Obviously, the best reliever we ever had was Jack Morris just going 10 innings in Game 7, but rules are rules. Brisbee was talking Nathan in a Giants uniform, but Nathan put together some good stats as the Twins closer. I knew that, but I was shocked to see just where his performance stacked up historically.  Per Do-Yuong Park of MLB.com:

Nathan stands alone in his dominance out of the Twins’ bullpen. The club’s all-time leader among relievers in ERA (2.16), saves (260) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.9), the six-time All-Star was the shutdown force that awaited at the back end of the bullpen for much of the Twins’ extended run of American League Central success in the 2000s. He was part of the 2004, ’06 and ’09 teams that won division championships, saving 44, 36 and 47 games during those three campaigns, respectively. He was durable in that time, too, making at least 64 appearances in his first six seasons with the Twins until he missed the entire 2010 campaign due to right elbow surgery. The right-hander’s peak seasons involved some crazy numbers — ERA+ marks topping out at 316, 294 and 284, for example — and there was hardly any inconsistency to be had in his game. Consider, for example, that Nathan converted 89.13 percent of his save opportunities throughout his career, placing him just ahead of Hall of Fame closers Mariano Rivera (89.07 percent) and Trevor Hoffman (88.77 percent).

I’ll wait while you read that last sentence again. I did the same. That’s a pretty unassailable case for MN Nathan, and yet he really made me nervous, and I think a lot of Twins fans will tell you the same. He converted a higher percentage of saves than Mo friggin’ Rivera, and I was very nervous when he was on the mound. How about that, eh? 1991 Rick Aguilera was pretty great, too. And he closed out nail-biters on that ’91 World Series run. 1 earned run during the playoffs, all high leverage situations. 3 saves in ALCS against a Blue Jays team that would go back-to-back in ‘92 and ‘93, 2 saves in the World Series, and he held his ground in Game 6 and got the W. High pressure playoff situations is really where a reliever makes his bones in my book. That’s a reliever I can feel good about in this situation.  Also, Rick’s beard or goatee was always so perfectly manicured.

Aguilera over Nathan, on the mound in a tight situation and facial hair. I can trust that first guy to keep it orderly. Chin hair guy will leave me dangling.

For the Giants, If I’m going on feel, I felt very, very good about Jeremy Affeldt coming out of the pen for the Giants in 2012 and 2014. He didn’t give up home runs (1 a piece in each of those seasons), and he had a ERA+ of 154 in 2014, which is very good (I’m pretty sure…I just want to impress TOB with my use of ERA+). He threw hard, but wasn’t a one-pitch guy, and I never felt the moment was too big for him. He wouldn’t give in, and – yeah – that can be hard to grind out sometimes as a viewer, but that kind of confidence in a veteran reliever helped make him a key bullpen guy in all three of the championship teams.  However, he really blows up my facial hair standards set up earlier, because he went to the mound with a long flavor saver quite a bit.

TOB: We have to stick to relievers here. My first thought was actually 2012 Postseason Tim Lincecum. He made 6 appearances, all in relief. He had an ERA of 2.55, a batting average against of just .150, OBP of just .209, and slugging of just .200 for an OPS against of .409. That is ELITE. 

Of course, I’m cheating a bit because Lincecum was mostly not a reliever. Brisbee specifically said not to pick 2008 Lincecum, which I didn’t technically do. Plus, I hadn’t read the article when I first picked 2012 Postseason Lincecum, so I only cheated a little, and I feel pretty good about the pick. 

But if I had to pick a more conventional reliever, I gotta go either 1998 Nen or 2011 Romo. And I think I’m leaning Romo, in part due to an all-time great walk-up song.

That song would get the crowd fired up for a win. And yeah, there’s also some recency bias with Romo. But, other than that and El Mechon, check out these 2011 Romo numbers:

Simply one of the most dominant relief seasons in history. Forty-eight innings. Seventy strikeouts. Five walks, and one of those was intentional. Romo’s ERA that season was 1.50, but his FIP was 0.96. Is it rare to have a FIP that low? It is. It’s happened four times in history.

FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching – basically your expected ERA based on walks, strikeouts, and home runs, equalizing all else to account for the fact that pitchers have varying levels of competent defenses behind him. As Grant notes, a 0.96 FIP is ridiculous. Plus, I get to walk out of the snake room, arms held in triumph with this guy:

Source: If You Had to Choose a Giants Reliever From History to Save Your Life …“, Grant Brisbee, The Athletic (02/10/2021)


The Mavs Stopped Playing the Anthem and Nobody Noticed, Until They Did

This week, a “news” “story” “broke” – the Dallas Mavericks had quietly side-stepped the kneeling-during-the-anthem “controversy” by simply not playing the stupid song before games. For thirteen home games, they played without playing the song and no one seemed to notice or care. And then a reporter for the Athletic noticed and asked. Mark Cuban acknowledged they had not played it all season and that the reporter was the first to ask about it. 

This really ends this “controversy” doesn’t it? It was never about the anthem, or about the military, or about patriotism. It was never about the song. It was about Shut Up and Dribble. It was about not wanting a person of color to rock the boat and make white people feel uncomfortable. 

Many of us knew this truth, of course. But this story really hammers it home. And for a half day I thought, “Wow, maybe the anthem will just go away before sports games forever.” Of course, that didn’t happen. In fact, the NBA chickened out. Before the season, Cuban got approval from the league to not play the anthem, but once the story broke the NBA ordered them to resume. LOL. Spineless, Adam Silver. -TOB

PAL: I read an opinion column from Ezra Klein the other day about progressivism in California. There’s a lot in there specific to California’s approach to progressive politics, but the part in his story that really resonated in the context of this Mavericks story is the following:

There is a danger — not just in California, but everywhere — that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program. It’s a danger on the right, where Donald Trump modeled a presidency that cared more about retweets than bills. But it’s also a danger on the left, where the symbols of progressivism are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand.

So, yeah, the controversy over the anthem is a dumb one. It doesn’t take much to see why someone might want to protest that song, but I also think it’s much easier to write about, comment on, argue over, symbolic gestures than it is to dig into policies that can bring about the change many seek. Each organization should make the call as to whether or not they make the anthem a part of the game experience. 


Everyone knows Gretzky is the greatest hockey player of all-time. What this post presupposes is…maybe he wasn’t?

I was scouring for stories, last night, and I found this funny little throw-away post from Defector that included a video of how bad hockey goalies were in the 80s. And so was The Great One actually great?

This video is pretty damning for 99. 

The amount of goals from the neutral zone is appalling. Extra credit for catching the movie reference in the headline. – PAL 

Source: Was Wayne Gretzky A Fraud”, Tom Ley, Defector (02/11/2021)

TOB: This feels very right to me. I caught hockey at the tail end of Gretzky’s prime – he was already in L.A., and did lead them to that won Stanley Cup Final loss. But he never did it for me. 

But I will say that 8 minutes of cherry-picked goals is not exactly fair.


Tweet Storm

As Phil mentioned, it’s a slow week. So I decided to do a quick Tweet/Video round-up because there is a lot to share this week. 

First up, this funny exchange. After baseball writer Andy McCullough wondered aloud what Royals player Kyle Zimmer has been doing this offseason, Sam Selman, a Giants player and apparent friend of Zimmer, helpfully updated McCullough on Zimmer’s goings on.

Next we have a Sacramento Kings fan with an excellent Mandalorian gif when discussing wanting to see Kings’ super rookie Tyrese Halliburton in the game.

That is perhaps very niche, as you have to be in the venn diagram overlap of Kings fan and Mandalorian fan, which fine. What’s not niche are these very relatable tweets.

Changing gears, I watched the following video at least a dozen times Thursday night.

That is Warriors player Juan Toscano Anderson, with the excellent skip pass, celebrating the Curry three-pointer before Curry has even caught the ball. LOLLLLLL. And of course, splash. Great stuff, Juan T. 

I really enjoyed this mash up of Jason Williams highlights, spliced with former Sacramento Monarch Ticha Penicheiro. It is extremely cool.

But I have saved the best for last. All due respect to Phil’s tennis choice, this is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

“If he hit the ball very far, he may run on all the pillows, around the pillows. Sometimes someone is stealing the pillows. Sometimes if a man hits a man with the ball he may run to the pillows. And the boys in the trench, they sit in the trench and they look around and they spit spit spit.”


Video of the Week 

 

Tweet(s) of the Week:


Song of the Week – Black Pumas: “Know You Better”


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“I am one of few people who looks hot eating a cupcake.”

-Kelly Kapoor

Week of February 5, 2021

R.I.P. Wayne Terwilliger at 96. 2x World Series champ with the Twins, managed well into his 80s., and recipient of the most MN retirement gift ever. Photo: Marlin Levinson, Star Tribune


Please Just Read This Story This week, ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote about the incredible story of the San Francisco Giants’ Drew Robinson, a fringe major league baseball player, pictured above. Last April, Drew decided to end his life. Here’s Passan:

His thoughts crashed into one another — about what it would look like and whom it would affect and who would find him. He was alone, alone until the end. At about 8 p.m., in one uninterrupted motion, he leaned to the side, reached out to the coffee table, lifted the gun, pressed it against his right temple and pulled the trigger. That was supposed to be the end of Drew Robinson’s story. Over the next 20 hours, he would come to realize it was the beginning of another.

I cannot recommend this story enough – it’s long, but it grabs you from the very start and compels you to keep reading. I also recommend the quasi-companion story from The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly, who wrote about Drew’s story from the Giants’ perspective, and it’s also quite the read. -TOB

Source: San Francisco Giants Outfielder Drew Robinson’s Remarkable Second Act,” Jeff Passan, ESPN (02/02/2021); How the Giants Stepped in to Help Drew Robinson After His Suicide Attempt,” Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic (02/02/2021)

PAL: “The companion’s voice was unrelenting.” That’s a line that stuck with me after reading this. How exhausting it must be to constantly having that voice telling you that any positive thoughts are b.s., and that all your worst thoughts are the truth. I can understand the hopelessness inside the endless rounds of that mental boxing match. 

And then, add to the hopper the constant up-and-downs between the majors and minors, and the absolute head games that must come with that – being so close to reaching the goal, but then being sent back down the mountain a bit, over and over. It’s mentally difficult for someone not suffering from a mental illness, but something like that could add even more weight to the “companion voice”. 

I was also blown away by the notion Robinson could play again. First thing I thought – no depth perception…no way he could hit. So I found this section fascinating: 

Myint, the eye surgeon, says that the binocular vision two eyes provide matters for up-close depth perception. But hitters typically decide to swing when the ball is about 45 feet from home plate, where depth-perception issues, Myint says, would not necessarily manifest themselves. And because, as a baseball player, Robinson’s brain has already exhibited a unique ability to track high-speed movement, the aptitude he had been showing in all these batting-practice sessions, Myint says, could be very real.

After thinking about it for a second, this makes total sense. All the calculation our brain does to decide whether or not to swing and – if so – where to swing, takes place so fast and so early. It makes total sense that depth perception and that level and speed might not be so important. 

Either way, Robinson has a lot of people pulling for him to do the unthinkable and make it back to the bigs, and who knows how many of those folk who read this have struggled themselves? We need to hear more of these stories in order to destigmatize mental health. 


Super Bowl Time Capsules

Drew Magary nailed this one. Basic premise is that he can remember where he was for most every super bowl, and that memory serves as a dog-ear to who he was. He then proceeds to run through them all. I love it.  Magary has the chops to get an audible laugh out of me. One such moment: 

1990 Drew ALSO loved the Gulf War. I remember reading about all the other wars throughout history and being like, “Hey man, when do WE get a war?” And then Bush 41 invaded Iraq at the start of 1991 and I was excited. Genuinely excited. When the news broke, I rushed around school to tell people, like I was a fucking newsboy. When Whitney sang the anthem, I cried for all the wrong reasons.

That’s the good stuff. Perfect.  Many of Magary’s memories land with me. I can smell that dorm room with spitters all over. I know the feeling of rooting against a team for no reason but a gut feeling. You remember the Super Bowls, regardless of the teams playing, and I’m not sure there’s another sporting event for which that’s true. 

But this is why the Super Bowl is a holiday. It’s not always a happy one.  But it IS always a signpost in life. As with birthdays and Christmases, you can look back in your Super Bowl Sunday archive and catch glimpses of where you were. WHO you were. 

Excellent stuff. – PAL  Source:  “Life Is Measured In Super Bowls”, Drew Magary, Defector (02/04/2021)


The Nolan Arenado Trade and “The Epidemic of Not Trying”

I don’t know if Marc Carig coined that term, The Epidemic of Not Trying, but it’s a great turn of phrase to describe the widespread tanking across the sports world lately. The Epidemic of Not Trying hit a new low this week, as the Colorado Rockies traded away Nolan Arenado, their franchise player, for…not much. Carig’s article is an expert level takedown of the Rockies’ braintrust – GM Jeff Brdich and owner Dick Monfort.

Most of the scorn is directed at Brdich, and rightfully so. The team signed Arenado to a massive extension just two years ago and then, as Carig put it, “behaved as if this was good enough.” Almost immediately after, Arenado seemed to understand that the team felt that way, that they wouldn’t spend more to improve the team, and the relationship between Arenado and Brdich soured. Brdich seems to think this is perfectly normal, saying, “There are relationships in our human existence that do last forever. But we are human beings in a business where sometimes relationships don’t last forever, and commitments don’t last forever.” As Carig points out, it’s part of Brdich’s job to ensure that his relationship with the team’s star in fact does last, well, not forever, but for as long as that star remains a star, at the very least.  Carig also gives us some insight into Brdich as a person, using Brdich’s own words to show that Brdich is a friggin snob. 

Bridich seemingly fancies himself as something of a misunderstood genius. He once boasted that he was “personally blessed with a capacity to not really care what is said about me all that much.” He was referring to the media, whom he deemed unworthy of leveling criticism because, as he explained, “the reality is — and this is going to sound petty and bad — if you just objectively look at the people who are evaluating us every day, you know they’ve never come close to doing this job and all the work that goes into it.” He’s right. I’ll never understand all the work that goes into alienating a franchise player, engaging him in a protracted pissing match, and then packaging him along with $50 million for the privilege of trading him away.

Man, Carig just crushed him. Imagine being stuck with an egomaniac prick like that for your team’s GM. The worst part about this trade for Rockies’ fans is that this is not an A’s or Rays type of trade – trading a top player and getting lots of great prospects back to build for the future. Those fans don’t like those either, but they can at least rationalize it by what you get in return. Here, by all accounts, what the Rockies got back is pitiful – and they still had to pay $50M of Arenado’s remaining salary, as Carig mentioned. Here’s former GM Jeff Bowden’s summary of what the Rockies got:

This trade is a complete disaster for the Rockies outside of the fact they’re saving $184 million of their future payroll obligations. However, they’re also paying $50 million of Arenado’s future earnings with the Cardinals. In return, they only got one of their top 10 prospects in Montero — and he comes with a lot of risk. Gomber was the only sure major-leaguer in the deal for the Rockies and he will help the staff in whatever role they put him in. The other three players in the deal — Locey, Sommers and Gil — are all fringe major-leaguers at best. Not the type of return you’d expect for a superstar. They got nothing close to what the Red Sox got for Mookie Betts, the Indians got for Francisco Lindor or even what the Rays got for Blake Snell. Very disappointing that they decided to dump him just two years after signing him to an eight-year contract. Huge mistake for the Rockies and a horrible return for Arenado.

Imagine being a Rockies fan and reading that. Not only did your team’s best, most fun to watch, homegrown MVP-level player get traded, but you got nothing in return to give you hope for the future. Unlike the Rays, the Rockies aren’t building for the future. They’re just clearing their books. They are Not Trying. If I’m a Rockies fan, I’d be out.  I’m a Giants fan, though, and so while I am not sad to see the Giants’ Video Game Boss, as Grant Brisbee put it, leave the division, it sure will make games against the Rockies less interesting. I mean, I watched this live on TV and howled in disgust before shaking my head in reluctant admiration:

That’s friggin incredible. He could have turned to that crowd like Russell Crowe in Gladiator: 

Well, damn, yeah. Hell yeah. When Arenado came to town, I always was. -TOB

Source: The Rockies are Oblivious to Organizational Failure,” Marc Carig, The Athletic (02/02/2021); “Grading the Nolan Arenado trade for the Rockies and Cardinals,” Jeff Bowden, The Athletic (02/02/2021); Giants Fans Should Miss Nolan Arenado, Even if He Made Their Lives Miserable,” Grant Brisbee, The Athletic (02/01/2021); 

PAL: My favorite player to watch live at Giants games, no doubt. The Epidemic of Not Trying sucks so bad. I love baseball so much, and I know there’s always been the haves and have-nots, but the last few years marks the first time I can remember feeling like a lot of teams weren’t even giving it a go. Why watch a game if one team (or both) doesn’t care if it wins? 

I was listening to Jeff Passan (the writer of the incredible Drew Robinson story) on a podcast, and one issue he called out was the need for a new collective bargaining agreement that, in part, addresses two critical issues in baseball: 

  1. Free agency needs to start earlier in a player’s MLB service time so that they are paid for when they are great, not after they have been great. Colorado (Arenado), Cleveland (Lindor), Boston (Betts) paid so little for the prime years, then let them go when it was time to pony-up (In Colorado’s case, a couple years later…which is why this one is even crazier…as TOB notes, 50M more for him not to be there!)
  2. Punishment for franchises losing a lot for multiple years. Don’t know if that comes in the form of lower draft picks or a reduced percentage of revenue sharing. 

Absolutely. Baseball needs a major restructuring. Hell, I’ve long been baseball obsessed, and I didn’t watch much baseball at all last year. The casual fan is gone until the World Series, but now the game is starting to lose lifers, and that’s a deathblow to the sport. 

Since we’re on the topic, here are 20 defensive highlights from Arenado. Maybe I’ve watched more than once. Man, he’s good.


Video of the Week


Tweet of the Week After Fred Van Vleet broke the Raptors’ single game scoring record, previously held by former teammate DeMar DeRozan:


Song of the Week Jerry Jeff Walker – “Sangria Wine (Live)”


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“The IT tech guy and me…did not get off to a great start.”

-Michael Scott

Running In Corduroys

Why my mom started running in her fifties, what made her stop, and the joy of watching a parent discover a new part of their life. 

Mom was in her fifties when she took her first run. On a winter night in Minnesota she ran to the snow pile at the end of Farington Circle beneath the yellow streetlight. 500 feet, give or take a few. She walked back home. 

Mom’s workout attire for the run: business casual. Corduroys, a sweater over a white blouse, winter boots, and a parka. 

I think of her first run regularly, often while I’m running through Oakland in the early morning. The story has long been a part of the family canon. Any forgotten details have been covered by the senses of memory undetected by chronology. For one, there’s little doubt her pre-run snack was a sip from a can of warm Diet Coke and a few chocolate chips from the yellow Tollhouse bag forever ripped open on the counter just to the left of the kitchen sink. Her corduroy strides zipped out in the cold as she passed our neighbors homes –  first the Henches, then Bergersons, then Collettis and all of the rest. I can scribble a picture of every house and every bare tree. 

I’ve been a runner since college, nearly 20 years. Most of my five siblings are runners, too (respect for always holding out, Tony). I’ve got the sibling marathon count around 45. Mom and Dad were at many of those races. She’d be on her tiptoes at mile 21 of the Twin Cities marathon, straining to spot one of us coming up Summit Avenue. We’d get in the Suburban after the race, and she’d be energized, thinking aloud about why she was on the curb cheering, not running. Eventually, she gave it a shot. 

Recently, Mom told me that, long before any of us ran, she would be introduced as Monica, mother of six. The number of her children was the most recognizable part of her, and she would have to convince herself that she was still Monica, separate from us. And then there was the part that had been unsaid in Mom’s presence but no doubt discussed—that she was the mom of six who’d had been really sick. Throat cancer. 

Both distinctions —the one said in front of her and the one discussed when she wasn’t within earshot— pestered her for years. Two mosquitos in a tent. No one has ever loved being a mom more than she’s loved it, but goddamn, she was more than a mom, and certainly more than a mom who almost died. More than a wife, too. First, she was Monica. 

Another certainty regarding the night of her first run: Mom visited Grandma and Grandpa on the way home from teaching at the very elementary school she attended. Their home, where Mom grew up with two younger sisters (both of whom began running later in life, too), was halfway between where Mom taught and our house. 

Grandma and Grandpa have been gone for years now, but Mom checks in with them daily. I was shocked when Mom told me only a short time ago that Grandma had not been on board with Mom having so many kids. They did not send her to college to be a housewife, to be introduced as the mom of six. 

Something in me, the bad writer still tempted to make all the pieces fit, wants to say all of those factors— her kids running, the housewife identity, the cancer survivor story she’d grown tired of, or even her hero, Grandpa, taking the time to exercise— pulled on the same end of the rope and finally got her out there to give running a shot. 

That all might be, but not even Mom could know for certain. The real explanation is a mystery, or maybe even so mundane that it was lost as soon as she got to the snowpile. Instead of jury-rigging an explanation, it feels true to let the mystery be. Epiphany has the tendency to be assembled from the evidence that survived long after the happening has passed.

Mom kept running. Cue the montage music (she would request “Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes”). Runs to the end of the cul-de-sac became runs around the block. Around the block became around the neighborhood. The routes expanded to much of Roseville, many of the same paths Grandpa walked. 

She ran down the streets and through the parks and around the lakes and through the yards that were the backdrop of nearly all of her life. 

A police officer once stopped her on Highway 36. Mom had veered left down Minnesota Ave over behind Concordia Academy and found herself on the quarter-mile off-ramp. It’s that little stretch of Highway 36 that was part off-ramp, part frontage road across from the Vietnamese Buddist temple on the other side of the high school football field. I doubt she even noticed she was technically on the highway, and I promise she never thought it was cause for police concern. 

To her, the fact that she was on a highway mattered less than the proximity of that particular stretch of pavement to so much of her life. How could that officer possibly take issue? She knew more about where she was than his finger knew about the inside of his nose. 

Mom loved running for what it did to her mind. Aside from a Discman that rarely worked, accessories were absent from her runs. So too were gadgets used to count ultimately meaningless units of time and distance. Instead, she took a special joy in cutting through yards. As odd as it sounds, she would go out of her way to cut through a yard. To this day, she gets a kick out of it. 

One time she complained to my brother, Matt, that her knees hurt. He suggested that it was probably time for a new pair of running shoes. A common issue with regular runners, which Mom had become. That didn’t make sense to her. She was still running in boots in the winter. 

She loved it, and watching a parent find something they love other than you is life-affirming. To see another part of them come to form, to witness them alive in the most childlike way: experiencing something new. 

After her runs, we’d talk. Mostly on the phone, but we would sit on the front porch when I was home in the summer. She’d still be sweating in the white wicker rocking chair, I’d be on the front step, and we’d stare down Farrington Circle. That runner’s gaze—exhausted contentment. I saw it in her, knowing its perfection myself. I loved to see her lost in the gaze. 

In many ways, I think like her. We drift on a similar current. Running gave space to think. A tempo for her to meditate on the people she loved and the ideas that she couldn’t untangle or set aside. She could stride through all of the thoughts with the power of synchronicity, of breath and stride. The idea of faith vs. organized religion, grandpa flying missions as a navigator in WWII, dinner that night, the latest from The White House, a lesson plan, the reading for next week’s mass, and her book club book—all of these thoughts connected within the rhythm of breath and footfalls, and Mom didn’t have to wait for anyone to keep up.  

Mom stopped running maybe seven years ago. She slipped a couple times and hit her head. She’s had seizures in her past, though not as a result from falling while running. Also, the radiation from the throat cancer 30 years prior caused many of the muscles in her neck to begin atrophy. Her neck bends forward, resulting in neck, back, and shoulder pain. There have been spinal fusion surgeries, physical therapy, botox, speech therapy, and more. Recently, the flap  in her throat—the epiglottis— doesn’t work too well anymore, so it became hard for her to get certain foods down. Some would go down the wrong pipe, causing her to aspirate. Pneumonia followed at least two times. 

Mom has always been a petite woman, but the swallowing issues had left her much too thin by my wedding in 2019. She’d always plow through any discomfort. Still, I was scared. She was frail, exhausted, but it was more than that. Mentally, she was loose. 

She was malnourished. A feeding tube was put in, which makes it sound like she’s now incapacitated, and that’s far from the truth. The tube has brought her back, in weight, sharpness, and wit. She doesn’t have to rely on swallowing food to get her nutrition. She still eats, orally, but just can’t rely on it for her nutrition. At night, a they attach packet of her daily dose of nutrients and calories to a tube right into her stomach.  She has more energy than she’s had in years, and she puts it to use.

I don’t put my mom’s health challenges out there for dramatics; I share to underscore just how much it took to merely slow her gait from a run to a walk. She is, without a hesitation, the most resilient person I know. She doesn’t know how to quit. 

She walks most every day, probably as fast as she ran to be honest, but her spirit is not that of a walker. She’s in it, but Mom isn’t ready for a walking life, especially after finding running so late. 

Mom’s a fucking runner. I thought she’d hate that I put it that way, but it’s the truth. Turns out, she wasn’t mad at that description at all. 

There’s absolute strength in knowing that I come from her, the lady that took her first run after 50 on a cold winter night. I’m not foolish enough to presume I have all of her resilience in me, but some of that made it to me. It must have. All of those 45 Lang sibling marathons—the ones before and after—come from the same place inside of Mom that convinced her to run up the cul-de-sac. 

OK, I admit it; I can’t be completely certain on the specifics of her work clothes on that first run, but that’s the story that survived, and there’s much truth in it. And that lady defaults to corduroys in the winter, always has. She definitely was not wearing jeans to teach the kids at Maternity of Mary. Of course there was a sweater, and what mom owns any less than 40 white blouses? 

I often recreate Mom on that run. Her breath finds a pace. Her boots crunch the snow-ice with each petite stride venturing out into the night.

Phil Lang, 02/02/21

Week of January 29, 2021

Oh My God, Please Stop the Baseball HOF Argument

The 2021 Hall of Fame voting was announced this week, with no players receiving the necessary 75%. Curt Schilling came closest, with 70% – but a number of voters have publicly or privately said they will not vote for him, due to the hateful and divisive things he says on Twitter. Barry Bonds and Roger Clements pulled in just over 60%, with a large section of the electorate still refusing to vote for anyone connected to steroids. Each of those three men have one year of election eligibility left, before they are inevitably inducted by the Veteran’s Committee in 2027.

Anticipating that news, Ray Ratto hit us with a vintage Ratto column: 

“[…T]he notion that the once-hallowed act of putting a check mark in a box next to the name of a baseball player, putting the paper upon which those names reside in a prepaid envelope and shipping it to a suburb of Valhalla, is now viewed by some as an immeasurably onerous burden. … The problem here is the same as it’s always been. It isn’t an honor because voters haven’t been named priests of baseball and should stop acting like it, and it isn’t a hassle because the envelope with the ballot inside weighs an ounce, and mailboxes are always open. Work midnight-to-eight shoving crates of canned hams at a warehouse store with a balky forklift, then come talk about hassles.

He’s exactly right. Anyone calling this a burden is out of touch with reality. The issue is the stupid “character clause” included in HOF ballots. No other sport has this, and no other sport has these obnoxious debates. As Ratto so aptly puts it:

“Apparently baseball thinks it builds character by virtue of its very existence, and cures people who lack it. It doesn’t. It makes money convincing people that a stick and a ball are more fun to watch than Meet The Press. It has embraced some chemical cheats and not others, some brigands and not others, and some malignant provocateurs. Baseball, quite frankly, couldn’t give a toss about who it hires, enriches, or glorifies, and never ever has. If it lucks into an exemplar of nobility like Henry Aaron, it is perfectly happy to take credit for him years after the fact, and that’s about the end of it. Baseball didn’t give Henry Aaron character. Aaron gave character to baseball.” 

This is spot on. Baseball is entertainment, not a bastion of good morality. It’s not just that there are already terrible people in the Hall of Fame, though there are. It’s not just that these guys should be in the Hall of Fame, though they should. What’s aggravating is the ratcheting up of the emotions and rhetoric – with baseball writers acting like the vanguard of a non-existent past, fans getting so angry they are lashing out against those same writers, and former players throwing public temper tantrums, all culminating in this absolute lunacy put out by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci:

The opening footsteps, followed by that dramatic music. And then that first line: “The weight of history in your hands is heavy, even when it is but one piece of paper.” LOLLLOLOLOLOLOLOL. TOM. C’MON. Absolute lunacy! It’s a freaking museum of good baseball players. But this is what it has come to. This video is the apex…or the nadir. Whichever it is, it must stop here. Because next year there are two newly-eligible players that just might light Baseball Twitter on fire: Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. I am crying just thinking about it. Just elect the best baseball players, period. -TOB

Source: The Hall Of Fame’s Problem Is Baseball,” Ray Ratto (01/25/2021)

PAL: I’ve said it last year when we no doubt posted about the same debate, and I’ll say it again. We can tell the history of the game—including Bonds, Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Pete Rose, and others who cheated the game—but a bust for them isn’t required. To me, that’s a fair punishment for breaking the rules of the game: they are included in the museum, but they don’t need to be inducted.

I can’t stand Curt Schilling, but his hateful form of politics have nothing to do with the game he played. His shortcomings have nothing to do with his time on the field; the same cannot be said for Bonds, Clemens, ARod, and Pete Rose. 

The other side of the argument is clearly much cleaner—put the best players in—but I never understood why people are so passionate about taking up a cause for Barry Bonds of Roger Clemens. Ratto helped me out in that regard: it’s not so much about the players but about the process of writers, especially a writer that would be a part of that ridiculous video, playing the judge one last time over a baseball player. There’s a power play at hand here. 

I think Schilling should be elected, and I despise him. I think Bonds and Clemens should be out because they took PEDs after it was banned, and I think if Alex Rodriguez gets in (busted not once, but twice for PEDs), then he’s PR agency should win a big award. I think what Pete Rose did was worse than all of these morons, baseball-wise. All of their names and images and statistics should be recorded for all of history, and so should their baseball crimes.

TOB: We disagree on this so strongly it’s hilarious. In fact, I read an article this week by Michael Baumann who made a very strong case that what Clemens and Bonds *allegedly* did shouldn’t disqualify them, because it’s just baseball – a game, entertainment – but that Schilling’s hateful and abhorrent rhetoric since he retired should disqualify him because what kind of world is it where some guys who may have taken some substances to make them play better are punished, but a guy who cheers on the insurrection at the Capitol gets rewarded? Here’s Baumann:

In the broadest sense of “integrity, sportsmanship, character,” steroid use isn’t especially condemnatory. Particularly when it happened in an era when PED use was not only an open secret, but tacitly condoned by league officials and the media. It’s a penny-ante sin—punishable, but hardly unforgivable. Schilling, though, who earned a voice because of his excellence on the baseball diamond, has espoused a doctrine of hate at a time when American democracy is wobbling like a chair with three legs. If baseball players are to be denied Hall of Fame membership for reasons of character, surely Schilling’s rhetoric qualifies.

I hope—perhaps naively—that recent events cause us to think purposefully about what we valorize, encourage, and tolerate. About who gets elevated, and how, and what message that sends. About the distinction between a great ballplayer and a great person. 

And so while I think it’s easier to just let the best players in, I also agree with Baumann here. If you’re going to pick how to apply the character clause, then whether the character issues affected the field of play should have no bearing. As Baumann asks: who do we want to valorize? Is it the guy who took steroids and now uses his money and platform who help people (When the balloting was released this year “Bonds was on hand to present a $15,000 check from the Barry Bonds Family Foundation to Second Harvest of Silicon Valley Food Distribution. The money should help feed around 800 families.”)? Or is it the guy helping to whips crowds into a dangerous frenzy that threatened to destroy our society? 

PAL: Fair point. I just feel like it’s about the game. When considering a someone for the Hall of Fame, I think it makes sense to consider their contribution to the game, and how they played it/coached it, etc. 

Should we just copy & paste this exchange next year? 


Tap The Breaks, Mike

I was a journalism major for a short time in college. Like every other sports junkie who liked to read, I figured I’d be a sportswriter. I worked for the school newspaper, and the first time I doubted if I wanted to be a sportswriter was when I found myself waiting outside the basketball locker room to interview the head coach after a drubbing. The idea of walking into the locker room – the same locker room we used on the baseball team (this wasn’t the ACC, folks) – to ask a coach why his team sucked so bad that night just didn’t appeal to me. Just like it didn’t appeal to me the last time I was faced with asking the same coach of the same bad team why his team lost Colorado School of Mines (The Orediggers, naturally) or Morningside. 

I did not want to ask a coach about the game, which was an issue if I wanted to be a sportswriter. I switched my major to English by sophomore year. 

With that anecdote in mind, I share this story from our old favorite, Barry Petchesky. He tells us about a student reporter asking the walking legend, Mike Krzyzewski a question in a post-game conference. 

First off, it needs to be said that this kid is covering Duke basketball, a very different beast than my moonlighting as the Augustana Vikings basketball reporter. To his credit, the kid asks Coach K a straightforward and fair question after a loss dropped the iconic Duke program to .500 this year. Coach K is a complete dick in his response, and I love how Pertchesky takes this opportunity to tell the kid that he didn’t do anything wrong, that coaches are really good at avoiding questions and talking down to people. 

Jake, maybe you’re reading this (if you want a free Defector subscription, hit me up). Your question was fine! It might have been just vague enough to allow Krzyzewski to dodge with that last non-answer, about moving onto the next game, but coaches are wily like that; they can almost always find that escape route. But the question was, by the standards of whether it drew an interesting response, indisputably a very good one. Krzyzewski is just a dick, or was having a bad day, or both. A valuable thing you learn quickly, if you’re any sort of decent journalist, is that these coaches aren’t legends; they’re just men.

Here’s the video of the post-game question and answer: 

We’ve missed you, Barry! – PAL 

Source: Coach K Decides Maybe He Shouldn’t Have Belittled Student Reporter”, Barry Petchesky, Defector (01/25/21)


How Much Does it Cost to Raise a D-1 QB?

This is not exactly a “new” story idea – how far will some parents go to raise their child to be a star quarterback – but there are some specifics in here that are eye-popping. For example, this accounting from Alabama quarterback Bryce Young’s dad on what they spent to get their son to this spot:

Craig Young is doing some tablecloth math.

“We’ll just average the QB coach to $100 a week, which is on the low end,” he says. “That’s $400. We’ll add another $100 for speed and weight training. Let’s say that’s $800 to $1,000 a month on training. So we could say about $1,000 a month on training. So if we add that up to a year, that’s going to be about $12,000.”

That total doesn’t include the $300-500 fee for the seven-on-seven teams Bryce played on or the registration fees for participation in youth football, most notably the Inland Empire Ducks, which Bryce led to a national championship as an eighth-grader. It doesn’t include travel costs to camps, tournaments, games and, later, unofficial campus visits.

Craig Young estimates that his family spent upwards of $15,000 a year on football training and participation for Bryce, with most of that spending coming during his high school years, and some in middle school.

What inspired Craig to drop roughly $75,000 for this? 

Bryce had only been playing football for two years, but as his father, Craig, watched him perform week after week in the YMCA Leagues of Pasadena, Calif., he came to believe his son was special.

The way Bryce intuitively sidestepped defenders and delivered throws, the way the ball came off his hand, Craig just knew it: His boy was a prodigy.

It was decided. Bryce “was going to be a quarterback,” Craig said. And that felt less like a position they picked for him and more like one that had chosen Bryce. It was destiny.

At the time, Bryce was 5 years old.

That is such a funny anecdote, and such funny writing. Nice set-up and delivery. I will say, as a father to an athletically-precocious 6-year old, I understand Craig’s feeling. But man, someone kick me in the ass if I start spending that kind of cash on training for him over the next twelve years. Or if I spend FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS to send him to an athletic powerhouse private high school, like UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s mother did. Instead, parents should take our cues from Eric Nelson, father of 4* high school sophomore QB Malachi Nelson:

When Malachi Nelson, a highly-touted quarterback prospect in the 2023 recruiting class was younger, his father, Eric, would receive calls from QB trainers who charged $100 a session, but he couldn’t afford to hire them. Instead of playing for the Inland Empire Ducks, as Young and Georgia QB J.T. Daniels did, Malachi played for his neighborhood Pop Warner team, the Garden Grove Bulldogs, a cheaper option.

Until Malachi was 12 or so, Eric trained his son himself.

“I did everything I could not to mess him up,” says Eric, a pastor.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about this article is that the QB training guru industry has become so flooded that prices have been driven down:

In the past, a quarterback like Malachi Nelson, even as he got older and his talent became undeniable, might have not had access to the quarterbacking machine that hones young prospects. Quarterbacks from low-income families were priced out. But the proliferation of quarterback trainers across Southern California and the rest of the country has driven down prices and has led some tutors to scholarship prospects, training them for free or close to it as a way to raise their own profiles.

So, don’t drop $15,000 a year for 5 years creating your own Todd Marinovich. Instead, remember the lessons of Malachi Nelson and his father:

Despite starting his QB specialization much later than most elite prospects, Malachi Nelson has offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, and other blue-blood programs like Texas, USC and Penn State.

“You have this clock in your head and you think if you’re not getting things done early, you’re behind,” Craig Young says. “Having gone through it, I realize that’s a self-inflicted urgency and you just really want to focus on getting better, improving and playing well. If you do all those things, it will happen.”

I mean, maybe it will. But if it doesn’t, you wouldn’t have wasted your money like a fool. -TOB

Source: The Cost of Raising a Blue-Chip QB: ‘God Dang, That is a Lot of Money’,” Antonio Morales, The Athletic (01/27/2021)

PAL: When I kick you in the ass, just remember you asked me to do it.  

Always a very good sign TOB and I have not only posted a link to the same story, but also pulled out the same quote. That’s what happened here (we both had the anecdote about the kindergartener sidestepping a defender. 

In all seriousness, I can understand it might be a hard balance to find between supporting your child’s ambition and encouraging them to “dare to be great” and suffocating them with your ambition for them.


Tom Brady’s Playoff Weakness: Mostly Very Average QBs

H/T to Jack Loflin for this one. Yahoo Sports ran down the list of QBs that have beat the GOAT in the playoffs. It’s a pretty funny list. Before you look, how many can you name? A beer on me for anyone that gets at least 6/7 (honor system, you morons). Click through to the story to check your work. – PAL 

Source: Who are the 7 QBs to Have Beaten Tom Brady in the Playoffs? Let’s Rank a Weird List”, Frank Schwab, Yahoo (01/28/21)

TOB: No cheating, I swear: Eli, obviously. Peyton. I believe Jake Plummer got him. Joe Flacco for sure. Oh uh the Titans QB last year – Tannehill! Man, I’m so close. OH, FOLES. Boom, I’ll take a beer. But…who is number 7? *clicks link* LOLLLL wow. Forgot about that one.


Video of the Week – Thank you to my buddies for the Hrbek Cameo!

Tweet of the Week

Hawk is 52. He was the first person to land a 900, and that was over 20 years ago.

Song of the Week: John Prine – “I Remember Everything”

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I think I’m basically a good person, but I’m going to try to make him cry. 

-Oscar Nunez

Week of January 22, 2021

Riding into the weekend like Peter Mel. Photo: Frank Quirarte

A Ride Three Decades in the Making  

The video speaks for itself. Peter Mel, a local surfing legend caught not one, but two, all-time waves at Mavericks earlier this month. Due to a monster jet stream thousands of miles out in the Pacific pointed right at Half Moon Bay, plus other perfect weather variables, Mavericks has been going off this season (perhaps fittingly, when no official contest exists anymore), and Mel did this: 

This video is fascinating from beginning to end. First of all, it’s important to note that Mel, 51, paddled into that wave. This was not a tow-in situation. Second, as fellow surfer Steve Dwyer points out – the technical know-how, the luck, and the monster guts required to ride something like that might’ve only been achievable by an old guy working for that wave at that break for decades. 

“Something Pete’s been searching three decades to accomplish. It’s a matter of ‘backdooring’ that bowl (the standard takeoff area), taking off behind the peak, and he’s been pushing those boundaries since the late ’90s. This wave was super high-risk. He had to navigate four ledges on the face, and if he falls on that last one, he’s in for the beating of his life. People watching from the lineup would be like, ‘Uh-oh, he could die.’

“Even making it down into the flats doesn’t guarantee the barrel isn’t going to clamshell on him,” Dwyer said, “but it stayed open, and he made history. That comes from 30 years of studying that lineup, seeing the opportunity, then having the king-size balls to go.”

And that guy on the jet-ski when Mel finishes his ride—that’s his 21 year-old son, John. Part of why the older Mel is out there is because it’s so much fun to surf with his boy. It’s a family thing. Mel’s dad started a surf shop in Santa Cruz in 1969 (still in operation today). 

After the ride, there’s a moment when Mel has his arms folded, and he’s got his head bowed a bit. Paired with the Jordan-esque shrug earlier, it looks like he’s honestly wondering what else he could possibly ride in his life. He caught his ultimate wave. 

“It was the wave I’ve been trying to get my whole career,” Mel said. “And then I’m thinking, now what?”. 

What followed a couple days later was another beast. Perhaps the biggest ever at Mavericks. It was simply too big to paddle into anything, so Mel worked with John to tow him into what would become the wave pictured at the top of the post.  

A great story, and it’s so cool that it’s a local guy that made this history. By all accounts from fellow surfers, Mel deserved it. – PAL 

Source: In Mavericks’ Dream Surf Season, 51-Year-Old Peter Mel Making Big-Wave History”, Bruce Jenkins, SF Chronicle (01/16/21)


One for Them: Nepalese Team Completes Historic Winter Summit of K2 

Here’s a very cool mountaineering story about, as Patrick Redford describes it, a “stunning achievement” by those who have been the unsung heroes in most every other great summit. 

Earlier this month, a group of Nepalese climbers (most of them Sherpa), made the first winter summit of K2, which looks like this:

Photo credit: Red Bull Sports

At least to my amateur brain, I think of Everest, and then the rest of the mountains. I knew of K2 because I watched the 1991 movie in my brother’s freshman dorm, and then – later – heard about it a bit more. I knew it was dangerous, but not to the tune of a 25% death rate of all who try to summit. More people have been in space than at the top of K2. 

So there’s the extreme danger of it, but also the history of Sherpa serving as a silent partner in so many of the historical climbs. It only took a pandemic for the unknowns to have a summit like this in service of their ambition.

Per Redford: 

Because of COVID, there isn’t going to be a big spring climbing season in Nepal, which freed up the Sherpa climbers to besiege history (“In 2020, we have earned not even a penny because of Covid-19,” Mingma wrote.) The 10-man team is really a fusion of two teams, one led by Purja and one led by Mingma. Purja is a former Nepalese and British special forces soldier, and he broke into the alpinism scene last year when he climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in a little over six months, shattering the previous record by seven years. Mingma is a veteran guide who has summited Everest five times and notched all 14 of the 8000ers before his 30th birthday. The two expeditions joined forces on New Year’s Eve while setting lines above 23,000 feet to K2’s Camp III. They may be alone in the history books, but were far from alone on K2. Over 60 people were in the process of attempting the first winter summit this year, including a 49-person team which included 27 Sherpa in support.

Read the full story to get more details on how they did it and more background on the history of Sherpa making it possible for foreigners to stand on the tops of mountains. – PAL 

Source:K2 Grudgingly Allows Its First Winter Summit”, Patrick Redford, Defector (01/19/21)

TOB: Loved this story. The anonymous Sherpa thing has long bugged me. It’s great to see this amazing people get its due.


Monsters of 2020: The People Who Gutted Minor League Baseball

In nearly 7 years of writing this weekly blog, we have almost never used the headline of the story we are featuring as our own headline. We like to add our own twist. But in this case the headline was so *chef’s kiss* that I had to leave it untouched. Because it tells the entire story of how MLB ruined minor league baseball this offseason. 

As a baseball fan, it doesn’t get much better than minor league baseball. I have been to more MLB games than I can count, including playoff wins and playoff series clinchers. But some of the most memorable games I’ve ever been to were minor league baseball games. I’m not blowing smoke here – I’m not saying it was the best baseball, or the most exciting. But it’s baseball, and for very cheap you can sit relatively close, and that is really memorable. As Tim Murphy puts it:

At the lowest levels of the minors, a baseball game feels astonishingly intimate. Your grasp of what is happening—stripped of the histories and stakes that shape a big league matchup—feels smaller, but your sense of the people playing it is overloaded. You can sit along the third-base line, feet up on the dividing wall, and hear everything: the ambient noise of warmups; teenagers from Georgia and the Dominican trying out each others’ slang; the exultation and frustration. The veil of mystique that separates performers from fans often slips, if it’s there at all. I’ve seen players carry on conversations for innings at a time with total strangers.

This is so true. In 2018, we found ourselves at a Stockton Ports (the Oakland A’s A-ball team) game on a random summer weeknight after our Lair of the Bear vacation got cut short due to smoke from nearby wildfires. We paid less than $10 per person to sit in the first row directly behind the home dugout. A player signed and gave a ball to my son before the game started. And as I watched, I wondered if any of these guys would be future stars. 

And that is my favorite part of a minor league game: the chance to dream on a dream. Every guy playing in that game hopes to one day play in the bigs, and you get to sit and watch a baseball game and wonder which of those guys is in fact a future star. I had no idea at the time, but that Ports team had future MLB star Matt Chapman, and the A’s next ace, Jesus Luzardo. 

So, you may be thinking of that headline and wondering: wait, who gutted minor league baseball? Why? And how? Very good questions. 

The answer to the first question is Big Business. “Moneyball” has become a convenient catch-all term for teams trying to find and exploit market inefficiencies. And if you are a reader of this blog you know I love Moneyball. But it has its downsides, and the darkest of that is those “business” people who have been tasked with running baseball teams like an investment firm would – cutting the fat, treating baseball strictly as a business and not an entertainment venture. Those people saw a problem with minor league baseball – to them, the fact I got first row tickets to that Ports game for $10 is a problem. Minor league baseball makes better baseball players, but it doesn’t make money. Again, Murphy, and here’s the why and the how:

Paying lots of people to play baseball was a problem, in developmental and financial terms, to be solved by paying substantially fewer people to play less baseball, in substantially fewer places. It’s a testament to the almost religious levels of self-absorption among Major League owners and executives that they didn’t think (or perhaps just did not care) about just how awful it sounds to tell people, publicly, that baseball games are a wasteful byproduct of professional baseball, as opposed to the entire point of professional baseball.

Even as other sports produce better highlights or cooler players, baseball’s great asset is that it’s there. A game is a nice place to be, with friends or family, reasonably close to where you live. It’s a beer garden and a playground, a Hinge date, a happy hour, a place to go when you’re on the road and you don’t want to be alone. One turn-of-the-century Masshole called his saloon “Third Base,” because it was the last place you stop on your way home. The jargon’s changed but the spirit’s the same: It’s a kind of Third Place. Most people who go to these games will not particularly care if a pitcher throws 90 miles per hour instead of 93. They might not even be able to tell you what happened on the field at all. Getting rid of the ubiquity that’s sustained its popularity for 150 years gets sold as streamlining. It’s really just strip-mining.

..

I find this crushing, as a baseball fan, but it’s not just a baseball story. By this point in the 21st century, you should know enough to run full speed away from people who talk about optimization—people who take over beloved institutions with little appreciation for what those institutions actually do, who talk about getting better by getting leaner, about rooting out inefficiencies and pivoting into a new “space.” These people buy newspapers and gut them. They buy your company and make you build a stage for the announcement where they lay you off. They take over the post office and, well, you know. As the pandemic blew up the global economy, those trends were only exacerbated. Governments might let crises go to waste but big businesses don’t. They use these moments to accelerate consolidation and remake industries. Most of America’s largest companies laid off employees during the pandemic even as they turned a profit.

And so it is with minor league baseball, starting this season. 40 teams have been cut. Others have been threatened that if they don’t upgrade their facilities, they are next. And, boy, does that all suck. -TOB

Source: Monsters of 2020: The People Who Gutted Minor League Baseball,Tim Murphy, Mother Jones (12/28/2020)

PAL: An extremely well-written piece. So friggin’ well done.


Video of the Week

Ignore the sappy tweet message and watch Brees’ daughter just destroying her brother like a pro wrestling villain.


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week: Buena Vista Social Club – “Chan Chan”

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I tried to talk to Toby and be his friend, but that is like trying to be friends with an evil snail. 

– M.G.S.

 

The Single, Part 2

Observations, guidelines, and stories from my year as the single golfer. 

They spot me coming towards them on the first tee. Ragged bag, hand-me-down clubs, trail running shoes. Their practice swings stall. What the hell are we in for? Brings me a smile every time. 

I am the single. The one guy the group hopes to not encounter.

Fieldwork

Now that we’ve established a smattering of guidelines in Part 1 of The Single, here are a few of my more memorable stories from my rounds as the single. Let’s start with the nightmares. 

I joined a pair at Boundary Oak, a nice public course in an upper-middle class suburb in the East Bay (tip if you ever play there: every putt breaks towards the hospital). There was Teddy, a husky lefty, and a guy we’ll just call D-Bag. D-Bag definitely spent more on his clubs than I do on rent, he wore a white U.S. Open (Pebble Beach) hat and had one of those annoying, metal tags from Pebble clanged against his bag the entire round. They played from the tips, but to their credit these guys were both around a 10 handicap. 

There was something from the jump about D-Bag’s entire presence that didn’t jive. Everything about him was perfect, new, expensive, and unloved if I’m being honest. And he spoke to Teddy, who I learned later in the round worked with D-Bag, as if Teddy was his caddie. Friendly at times, but a resource, a less than. 

We teed off at perhaps the busiest time on a golf course – 1:30 on a Sunday. The group ahead of us was a dad and two of his boys. It was clear early on that neither the dad nor the kids were anywhere near good at golf. Boundary is a nice course with challenging greens, but it’s also a public course and it was Sunday afternoon. With the way courses having been jamming in tee times tighter and tighter this pandemic year, this was going to be a five-hour round for us whether or not the dad with the kids hitting worm-burners was in front of us. If rate of play was important to D-Bag, then he wouldn’t have booked a tee time for 1:30 on a Sunday. 

By the fourth hole, D-Bag is standing on the tee box with his hands on his hips staring at the dad who did nothing more than seemingly help out his spouse by taking the kids out of the house for the afternoon. D-Bag is beside himself, providing commentary to a silent audience of Ted and me. 

I mean, there are par threes for this kind of crap…My kids will know basic etiquette before we ever come out to a course like this…this is ridiculous. I’m calling the marshall (which he did). 

By hole 8, D-Bag made a weak attempt at a joke, implying that the dad and his wife were divorced and it was his turn to have the kids for the weekend. He said something along the lines of how the dad has fulfilled his responsibilities as co-parent and that by now he could probably just drop them back off with their mother. This guy’s awfulness would’ve been comic if I wasn’t there choking on it. Nope, this guy was real, and he really sucked this much. Unsurprisingly, D-Bag was a mental midget, his game started to go sideways, and he obviously blamed it on the family in front of us. 

I finally said something at the turn. My round was already pretty much shot because of this guy. Not scoring-wise—I did that on my own—but the discomfort rule was shattered, so I went into a bit of a “f-it” mode. I reminded him that it was Sunday afternoon, that obviously the course is going to be busy, and this exactly the time a dad is going to come out and work through a round with his kids. He pretended to agree—I know, but…—and then proceeded to say how there are rules and expectations. By the time Teddy drained a 20-footer for birdie on the par 3 17th, I was openly rooting for him to beat D-Bag. 

I can’t stand elitism in any sport, but there’s a pungent brand of elitism that hovers over a sport that’s already elitist. It’s such an overcooked cliche, like a musician with a drug problem or an abusive dad in a Pat Conroy novel.

Speaking of drugs, let me tell you about my 18 holes at Chabot with 3 late 40s/ early 50s guys. The first bump of cocaine came out on the hole 3 tee box.

Did I mind? Hell, it took me a minute to register just what was going on. The insurance salesman asked if I mind that he snorts cocaine off a key on hole 3 for a 1:45 tee time on a Friday? Dude, I don’t care what you do, but maybe you should start caring a bit more. You’re too old to be doing coke in any company or setting, much less multiple bumps with some rando around (me) on a C+ muni.

I was avoiding any part in the conversation by the time the jokes got racial and directed at the black guy in the trio. He went along with it, which didn’t make it any less unsettling.

Most experiences as the single range from unnoteworthy (which is good) to a pleasant afternoon playing golf and having a random conversation with a couple random people. Not long ago, I found myself standing on the back of a golf cart, holding onto the roof with one hand and cold beer from a guy in the group in the other. We were trying to sneak in 9 at Tilden (right behind the UC Berkeley campus) before dark, and the high school kids in front of us were taking forever on the downhill par 4, so—at my suggestion—we decided to skip ahead in search of some open fairways. I started walking, but the group insisted I jump on the back of the cart. Two minutes earlier, one guy in the group had offered me a beer in such a genuine way that didn’t feel bad accepting. We looked like a clown car as we passed the high schoolers in the fairway…and when we passed them again making our way back up the hill. The slow play was not the kids, and I held on as the cart struggled back up the hill to the tee box from which we came. 

I played with three high-schoolers in the summer, and it reminded me of summer as a teenager just looking for something—anything—to do on a random weeknight. I played with a couple of young guys working at the nearby resort up in Tahoe for the summer who played every Tuesday afternoon. Part of their summer routine during a season that was anything but routine. One of them was probably in his late 20s, while the other was maybe 19 and from New York. Every instinct in me said the older guy was letting this kid from across the country tag along in a resort town with hardly any visitors. 

I played with a group of special ed teachers who were legit funny. The few good shots were celebrated by the group, the many bad shots were shrugged off, and I walked beside them mostly silent enjoying the rhythm of the conversation. Only old friends can find the pocket of a conversation like that. Made me want to get a regular round going with a group of my friends. Made me miss my college buddies and acknowledge this is one of the million small things given up when I moved far from home. 

Kudos to Tilden for being a dog-friendly course. Also, check out the young bucks dashing across the third fairway.

And finally there’s Wayne. My brother-in-law, Jack, and I had finished an early morning round at Eagle Vine in Napa. With the afternoon open, we opted to go back out for another 18 when a scheduled group was miraculously running late. Wayne joined us as the single. 

Wayne was a classic baseball dad. He rocked a hat from a trip to Wrigley that I’d bet anything was purchased from a street vendor and wore the golf spikes equivalent of chunky New Balance. He lit up when told us about his son playing college baseball, and couldn’t help but tell us about the kid’s pitching performance in a high school title game. Wayne was also a solid golfer with a classic retired guy game: consistent off the tee, lethal with the wedges. No flash, but no blow-ups either. Jack and I shouted when he chipped in from 25-yards early in the round. Wayne beamed at our big reaction. The shot set the tone for the afternoon, even as my game fell apart. He got a kick out of our enthusiasm. 

Wayne would join the conversation for some holes, and he’d keep to himself on others. We talked about vacations, his family, and baseball stories with his son. I have no idea what he did for work. Wayne mastered the role of the single. Even his name was perfect.

At some point after all of these rounds, Natalie and I will chat about the round for 10 minutes or so. We might spend a minute or two on how I played, and even that’s too long. The rest of the time is about the people I meet. Vignettes about some new character that’s in and out of our lives. Fresh stories to sip on. Unfamiliar names, new idiosyncrasies.

I’m not trying to inflate golf to be more than it is, which is an entry point. Of course there are many ways to interact with new people – join a casting club, a running club, a book club. Volunteer. Coach. Introduce yourself to the new neighbors, to the old guy who walks around the lake the same time as you, the barista at the local coffee shop. Golfing as the single has just been my (re)entry point, a reminder of how enjoyable, hilarious, strange, and important it is to talk with strangers. To participate alongside someone I don’t know and with whom I might not agree on anything else other than wanting to play a round of golf – I have a need for it. 

Phil Lang

Other miscellaneous observations from my year as the single:

  • You’re likely to have a good round with
    • Retired guys
    • Dad’s playing with adult children
    • High school kids – they are funny and uncomfortable, and it’s hilarious to watch them interact. Also, generally speaking, young people make for an enjoyable golf group. 
    • Slow burns – it’s not a bad sign at all if the first 4-5 holes are pretty quiet. It’s far likelier that this group will grow on you than a group that starts hot with the jokes and the beers on hole 1. 
    • From Part I, I had a note from the opening about bliss and contentment. Bliss is watching the ball you just hit squarely in flight. There are no other thoughts – the world pauses – as you stay in perfect balance and the ball reaches its apex just before its descent. 
  • You were warned if 
    • If they brought speaker for music
      • Aside: my brother-in-law and I shot up to Napa for an 7AM tee-time a month back, and the dudes we’re playing with have Mumford & Sons playing by the second tee. 7:30 is too early for music, and especially too early for “Hopeless Wanderer”, and – while I love music greatly – can there be a few places in the world where we can just listen to the sound of nature? 
    • a group of dudes roughly my age playing golf is a huge coin flip, and – generally speaking, are the worst.
    • First-time golfers – I’m all for learning – and they have every right to be on the course, but it sucks when you’re number has been called. 
    • Dudes wearing white pants.
  • I don’t need a guy to mark his ball after missing a 5-footer for triple bogey; go ahead and finish out. 
  • Yes – repair a divot or two on the green, but don’t be the guy that’s making it a big to-do, lecturing the group about how, if everyone fixed a couple divots on the green, then they wouldn’t be in such bad shape. 
  • Let’s talk head cover to club ratios. For woods, head covers are given, although I do judge a man with a cartoon character head cover – the Tasmanian Devil, Pink Panther, or – of course, the gopher from Caddie Shack. Overly accessorizing the golf club tells me one of the following is true: your family has run out of present ideas, or you bought them yourself, which means you have much too much free time. Putter covers – I’ll say it’s OK, but only because my brother in-law uses one and he’s a very nice person and genuinely A+ guy to golf with. Iron covers are not acceptable. 
  • Rate of play – It’s a real thing

Week of January 15, 2021


A Game of Catch Is Just Right for the Moment

Such a great article by Mike Wilson detailing 70-something Frank Miller just wanting to play catch, his wife reaching out on Nextdoor in the Dallas area, and a bunch of people coming out realizing they needed the same thing—a game of catch.

Photo credit: Jonathan Zizzo

Highly encourage you to read the entire story, but a couple points that really hit me square:

The Millers were surprised by the response to Alice’s Nextdoor post, but when they thought about it, it made sense. Between the dual curses of politics (“I’ve lost friends,” Frank said) and the pandemic, people are ticked off, scared and solitary.

“I think people want to reconnect a little bit right now,” he said a couple of days before the meet-up.

And this:

This was Rich Mazzarella, 73, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, worshiping the Yankees and playing in a Scrabble board of youth sports leagues: CYO, PAL, YMCA. He hadn’t thrown in 35 years and — this is unfortunate, but facts are facts — had long since given his baseball gloves to his grandchildren. He had to borrow Miller’s catcher’s mitt to play.

Mazzarella was asked why he came.

“Fountain of Youth,” he said. “The opportunity to do something that I never expected to do again in my life.”

I can totally identify with Miller’s story, and I Wilson does a wonderful job putting the sweet community story into a bigger context. Excellent read. – PAL

Source: He Just Wanted to Play Catch. They Got Relief From Troubled Times.“, Mike Wilson, The New York Times (01/15/21)

TOB: Man, what the hell. After we had a fun day taking infield at Golden Gate Park during the summer, I made a similar NextDoor post. Not catch, but taking infield. I got a grand total of like 4 responses. Which is enough to field a squad! But two of them would only do it during weekdays at lunch, and two of them would only do it on weekends, so it fell apart. I am jealous that this guy got it going.


In Appreciation of Frank Gore

I believe we’ve written about Frank Gore before, so I won’t go into the details. But the guy who was never supposed to have an NFL career, after tearing the ACL in both knees during college, is still a productive running back, more than 15 years later, at the age of 37. 

This may be the end of his career, and Barry Petchesky wrote an excellent tribute to the improbability of Gore’s career. I especially liked this very accurate description of him:

I can’t even, off the top of my head, conjure up a signature or highlight play of his. When I think of Frank Gore, my mind constructs a Platonic form of a play, one that specifically may never have happened, yet has happened hundreds or thousands of times. In this play, Gore runs straight ahead, hitting the hole (or what there is of one; he did play on some pretty crummy teams) with momentum but not much velocity. There’s contact at or near the line of scrimmage, but Gore bowls through or over and maintains his feet to drag out the act of the tackle for just enough second-fractions to pick up an extra yard or two. The gain is five yards when it should have been four; two when it should have been stopped for no gain. It’s not pretty, and it’s not flashy, but it’s mechanically cool and viscerally pleasing just for the sheer efficiency and repeatability of the thing. He’ll do it again and again, for 16 years.

That’s about right. 16 years and exactly 16,000 yards. If Gore does come back, he has an outside shot at passing Walter Payton for second on the all-time rushing list – he’d need just 727 yards, after having rushed for 653 yards this year (he has no shot at Emmitt Smith for the most all-time, whom he trails by 2,355 yards). But even if he didn’t get it, the quite and steady brilliance of Frank Gore will always amaze me. -TOB

Source: Frank Gore Kept Running,” Barry Petchesky, Defector (12/29/2020)


Harden Just Following Suit 

NBA superstars bouncing around from teams has become pretty common in the NBA. Many “franchise players” – LeBron, Kawhi, KD, Harden, Kyrie – are on their third NBA franchise. As Jonathan Tjarks explains, there’s a good reason for that. All anyone needs to do is look to LeBron: 

Per Tjarks: 

[LeBron] signed shorter contracts with opt-out clauses and used the threat of his departure to force his team to keep him happy. The way for his teams to appease him was to go all in and build the best possible team around him each year. But the end result of a team constantly making decisions for the present is that it has no future. And that’s when LeBron moved on to the next one.

He spent four years in Miami, four years back in Cleveland, and is now in his third year in Los Angeles. He was contending for a title in 10 of those 11 seasons. That level of championship contention would be much harder to pull off had he stayed in one place. LeBron’s teams can rebuild after he leaves, not while he’s there.

Those types of power moves don’t always work, even in the short term. James Harden forced the Rockets to overpay for Russell Westbrook before asking out a little over a year later. The beauty of being a player/GM is that you don’t have to live with the consequences of your bad decisions. 

Of course it makes sense. Great players are measured by their titles, and one clear way to an NBA championships pairing top 5 player teamed up with at least one other top 20 player in the league. 

  • 2020 – Lakers – LeBron & Anthony Davis 
  • 2019 – Toronto – Kawhi & … (that’s what makes it so incredible, but it was against a decimated Warriors team)
  • 2018 – Warriors – KD, Steph, Klay, Draymond
  • 2017 – Warriors – KD, Steph, Klay, Draymond
  • 2016 – Cavs – LeBron, Kyrie
  • 2015 – Warriors – Steph, Klay, Draymond 

In order for a great player to win, he needs another guy, and the team’s draft picks years down the line don’t mean squat to him (and why would they?). 

Great breakdown of the dynamics at play in this Harden trade, and how NBA franchises are—perhaps more than any other league—at the mercy of their stars. – PAL 

Source: The NBA Has Become an All-in League”, Jonathan Tjarks, The Ringer (01/13/21)

TOB: I have to be honest – this article is such a mess. Tjarks seems to want to take the “player empowerment” discussion and put a finer point on it by saying that it has caused teams to either mortgage their futures or lose their players.

But this has always been true, to a point. Stars have always wanted good players around them. But while dumb teams truly mortgage their futures to make a player happy (e.g., the Cavs with LeBron, twice), the smart ones know how to make their stars happy while also keeping their options open for the future. This Harden trade is a perfect example – their trades for and of Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook ended in a net of two lost first round picks for Houston. So what happened when they traded Harden? They got four first rounders back, for a net gain of two first rounders. In the meantime, they were title contenders for almost a decade. This is a win-win for Houston, as they are a team that did not mortgage its future at all.

Tjarks’ thesis is this:

A team that hasn’t traded away all of its future draft picks is not taking every opportunity to compete for a title. And they will probably lose to a team that does. The NBA has become an all-in league. Any team that won’t take the plunge doesn’t have any business sitting at the table.

But as I’ve just shown, Houston didn’t mortgage its future. Or maybe he and I disagree on what that term means in this context. If you have a mortgage on your house, and your mortgage payment gets too high, you can always sell the house. As long as you protect that asset, you’re never in trouble. The Rockets did that – they protected their asset by locking Harden up for long enough and then trading him young enough that he had value to his next team, and because of that they were able to pay off their mortgage and walk away with a nice little profit, in addition to all the time they enjoyed in their “home.”


Belichick Joins Another Extremely Exclusive List

Mo Berg, Jaqueline Kennedy, and Bill Belichick: an odd trio. Photo credit:

In the wake of the abject insanity that was the past week and a half, Bill Belichick declined the Presidential Medal of Freedom Trump wanted to give him. We don’t really need to get into why, and Belichick’s Trump history, but this small story this week opened the door for Maria Cramer to share the other instance (there aren’t many) when someone declined this usually incredibly high honor.

Harry Truman declined back when it was an honor specifically for acts of military valor. He did not believe anything he did while serving in the military merited the honor. 

Jacqueline Kennedy declined, and – according to Cramer – it’s believed the former first lady didn’t want to draw any attention from her husband posthumously receiving the award. 

And then there’s Mo Berg – the baseball playing spy. I mean, what a life. Major league catcher, spoke seven languages, and then became a spy during WWII. He carried a cyanide pill with him, so – yeah – he was the real deal. 

Sure seems like the reasons for Belichick passing on the award are very different from that of Truman, Kennedy, and Berg, but there’s the complete list. – PAL

Source: Who Else Has Declined a Presidential Honor?”, Maria Cramer, The New York Times (01/12/21)


HOCKEY IS BACK!

Wait, what? Back? It’s mid-January.

-TOB


What if Every MLB Player Was a Free Agent Every Year

The title says it all – what would MLB look like if it had taken A’s owner Charlie Finley’s 1970s suggestion to make players free agents every single year? Dayn Perry runs through this very interesting thought experiment. It’s a fun read but ultimately Perry correctly concludes that while free agency would be wild, the game would be pretty awful from a fan perspective, as a handful of rich teams would dominate every year, with no one else having a chance.

Hmm, sounds familiar.

Hm. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Huh. Must be my imagination. Oh well. -TOB

Source: What If Every MLB player Was a Free Agent Every Year?” Dayn Perry, CBS Sports (01/13/2021)


Video(s) of the Week:


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week: The Band – “Bessie Smith”

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When Pam gets Michael’s old chair, I get Pam’s old chair. Then I’ll have two chairs. Only one to go.

– Creed Bratton

 

The Single, Part I

Observations, guidelines, and stories from my year as the single golfer. 

They spot me coming towards them on the first tee. Ragged bag, hand-me-down clubs, trail running shoes. Their practice swings stall. What the hell are we in for? Brings me a smile every time. 

I am the single. The one guy the group hopes to not encounter.

I don’t take it personally. Golfing with a stranger isn’t preferred, but the muni will get as many paying golfers out as is possible, so the group is stuck with me and I’m stuck with them. Together we embark on a lesson of humility, punctuated by moments of pure contentment*. After four hours (if we’re lucky), or last light, we’ll fold into our respective cars without knowing each other’s last names, but we’ll drive away with an oddly intimate knowledge of one another. How we react to success and failure – our own, that of our friends, and even that of a stranger – these are parts of ourselves we don’t offer up so quickly in most every other scenario. 

I’ve played many rounds as the single in the last year. It’s a fascinating crapshoot with strangers. There’s a communal exchange taking place on the golf course that I’m not getting much of anywhere else these days in this phone-trance, headphone-wearing, socially-distant pandemic existence. Equally as important, golf has reminded me of a truth I never tire of re-learning: the ways in which people are weird is endless. That, and–goddamn–failure is an entertaining unifier.

A trip to Mexico with the in-laws is to blame for my return to golf after 20 years. While I love a pool, a book, and a margarita, I can’t lounge for a week straight. So when my father-in-law asked if we should play golf while on vacation, I didn’t hesitate. That led to some practice rounds prior to to the trip to avoid complete embarrassment on what looked like a very nice course hugging the ocean, which led to a friendly competition with my father-in-law, which led to driving range sessions, which led to twilight rounds as the single, which led to more rounds with my father-in-law, and now the brother-in-law has joined in the fun, too, and so here we are. All because I was worried about hanging out by a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean for too many days in a row. 

A year into the return, and the layoff still shows. I’ll chunk a couple most every round, and my swing can lose all tempo without notice. My entire rig is second-hand – a hodgepodge pulled out of the back corner of the in-laws’ garage. The magenta, purple, and teal bag has two working zippers and the phrase CART-TECH stenciled on it in white (and to answer your question, I don’t know just how much technology is needed to secure a golf bag to a cart, or how some copywriter in the marketing department hooked the S.V.P. of Bags at Spalding with “CART-TECH”). The clubs are a bouquet of leftovers—paint-chipped off-brands mixed in with household names: Warrior (driver I use), Calloway (driver that shouldn’t even be in the bag), Bushmills (sandwedge), Nitro Power Shot (irons, 5-wood), Odyssey (putter, left-handed), and the shaft of the 3-iron I broke at the range. 

So that group on the first tee, they spot all of that coming their way. I don’t care how gracious they might be, they see triple digits all over me. The thought all but radiates off them – what the hell are we in for? Like I said, it brings me a smile. Not because I’m there to prove them wrong (a round over a hundy is not yet completely out of the question) but because they have no idea how this will go, and neither do I. That not knowing is entertaining, a little exciting even. I’m easily amused.

What follows are some observations, guidelines, and stories from my year as the single. 

First Impressions

A hell of a lot about the group I join can be deducted before introductions. Accessories are a good place to start. As I walk from the proshop to the first tee, I’m looking for bag size, gear, attire. I’m scanning for head covers on irons, copper bracelets, guys wearing more than one item from Pebble Beach, TPC (any of them), the U.S. Open, or Augusta. Any combo of those accessories that adds up to over 2.5 and I might be in for a round of exclusive golf course name-dropping and networking jargon. Of course, there are exceptions, but—come on—not many. 

With the handshake out on I.R. the foreseeable future, I can’t fall back on approach, grip, and handshake duration for first impressions. Regardless of where someone might stand on the pandemic, it’s fascinating—like a bumper sticker—when someone chooses to skip the pleasantries and go straight to COVID on the introduction by saying something like, I mean, I’m fine shaking hands, but I guess we’re not doing that anymore. I can’t remember if his name is Beck or Brock, and yet I’m quite clear on his personal feelings about the global health crisis. I’m at the course to escape that topic for a few hours, my man. 

Right in that response, and how the other dudes in the group react to that intro between me and the alpha, will pretty much tip the hand of each guy’s role. There’s the suck-up sidekick, the fringe guy that’s been considering leaving this group for years; the dad that speaks for his almost adult son, the son that might trade his entire set of irons in exchange for this forced father-son bonding time to be over; the low-key burner, the vaper, the drinker, the dipper; the small-talk machine, the range-finder guy, the cigar dude. All shapes and sizes, folks, but always guys. I’ve yet to be added to a group that included a woman.

And then there is the issue of tees. The mainstay question of the first tee box has hung in the air waiting to be asked from the moment the starter tacked me onto the group: What tees are you playing from? I’m an easygoing to dude – I’ll play with the group – white or blue is fine. I ain’t hitting from the tips, and unless each member of the group has a handicap under 13, they can stop fooling themselves, too. 

All the pre-round routine is pushed aside when it’s time to actually put the ball in play. Of course, that first shot matters exactly as little as every other shot in the round, but goddamn does it feel good to split the fairway to get things started. For the short walk from the tee box to my ball, the group’s wondering how good I might be instead of how bad I might be.

And what about the thirty percent of the time I do shank that first drive into the cattails in front of the tee box? Without fail, and with seemingly best intentions, someone in the group of strangers will no doubt call out Breakfast ball! – the universal invitation to redo the tee-shot. It comes out friendly, encouraging, and most likely is, but make no mistake: this isn’t only about making me feel at ease – this is about how my approach to the game impacts their round. 

Truly, no harm is meant. And yet, take a step back and that interaction is pure insanity. After the first of what will very likely amount to over 90 shots, a complete stranger has encouraged me to cheat. He’s seen enough after one swing to make that call. 

Roles and Responsibilities

As the single, my job is simple. More or less, stay the hell out of the way. I achieve that with some basic etiquette and common sense that bends towards keeping things moving. Of course, I adhere to furthest from the pin shoots next, unless someone is punching out while a player further from the hole is waiting for the green to clear. I’m ready when it’s my turn to shoot – meaning I’ve lined up the shot, took my practice swings and I’m actually ready to address the ball. I note landmarks to errant drives off the tee and help look for the ball when it’s on the same side of the fairway as my shot (but he’s on his own if he sliced in when I’m on the left side of the fairway). I never spend more than a couple minutes looking for one of mine that’s gone deep into the woods or out of bounds. I give the green a once-over as we move to the next hole to see if anyone left a wedge on the fringe. 

While I do have a habit of forgetting a ball marker, I’d say I’m an otherwise solid single to the group. It seems simple, but the distinction is important: we’re in it together, but I am not a part of their thing. I can’t be an imposition to the rhythm of their group hang. I always listen to the conversation, react when something’s funny, and – only if I really got a good one – chime in with a one-liner, then back to the sidelines of the convo I go. Friendly, but not friends.  

The group’s responsibility to me is the absence of discomfort. Just don’t make it weird, man. Politics: let’s not. Don’t expect me to laugh when the alpha makes a crack about sidekick’s wife. In fact, let’s pull it back even further: pretty much anytime someone ends a statement with, am I right, Phil, they are not right and I do not want to be associated with whatever the hell was just said. Similarly, I didn’t pay $70 to be a bystander to fellas working through their rage issues on the course, and I don’t enjoy a walk through the humid silence that is father-son surrender: a dad who gave up on telling his smelly teenager to not swing so hard and—just maybe—try keep his head down, and the son who gave up on considering any idea his dad suggests for the next 5-7 years. 

On the topics of compliments – I keep them understated, and save them for compliment-worthy moments. A birdie putt, a nice up-and-down for par: a simple there is it gets the job done. Don’t fanboy when someone hits a long drive. I am in awe of Tiger Woods, of Dustin Johnson, of the amateurs keeping his composure on Saturday at Augusta; I will not be in awe of the high school kid who finally nutted a drive 290-yards down the fairway after 17 tries on the front nine. If someone does something special – say a chip in – then I let go and maybe mix in a well-placed expletive within the compliment. That’s a helluva goddamn shot sounds a lot more genuine than nice one!

As the single, I don’t want bullshit compliments from the group either. Don’t patronize. Just because I’m a 20 handicap doesn’t mean I confuse a good shot with a not terrible shot. Don’t compliment me when I hit a fat 5-iron 125 yards but straight by saying that’ll work; just leave me the hell alone and let me stew for the short walk to my ball. 

Next week: Part 2 of The Single: Fieldwork: a handful of my more memorable rounds and group encounters from my year as the single.