Week of April 3, 2020

Sigh.


Make Amatriciana Again 

Wright Thompson is my favorite sports writer going, and it’s not close. I know this because I can’t wait to tell everyone whenever I read something from him. After reading this story, I told co-workers, siblings, friends, my mom. Natalie probably overheard me summarize the story 5 times this, our third week of shelter in place. 

He writes about the ritual of sport so well, and how both the best and worst of sport is strengthened through ritual. His story about the Cubs winning the world series had nothing to do with what happened in the game; it’s a feature on some fans going through their usual rituals in an incredibly unusual time. It’s Ted Williams ritualistic obsession with hitting and fishing, and how it terribly impacted his ability as a father (and how his mother’s rituals in San Diego made him feel ignored). The Ole Miss rituals (football and otherwise) and their role in race riots in the 60s. 

With that theme in mind – ritual – it’s no wonder he wrote a story on ESPN about food and sports in Italy. 

Before I go any further, I insist you read this story. Please, just click through to it now, because it will articulate that heavy weight hovering in that gap left now that we aren’t sharing space with one another in our cities and neighborhoods, and it will give you a recipe to feel really good for a few hours. 

Thompson’s story was published on 3/28. I mention that, because the world now seems to change drastically in days for a great deal more people than was the case a month ago. On 3/28, many people were starting to understand and see images of the nightmare playing out in Italy. Many years ago, Thompson lived in Florence, and as he learned of what was happening, he thought of his time there, what he loved about Florence: the Fiorentina soccer team and a restaurant in Rome called Matricianella.

“In Italy, as in many parts of the United States, sports and food are perhaps the two most important ways to celebrate your home.”

And later, Thompson writes:  “As an employee of ESPN, I am acutely aware of the lack of sports right now, which is especially worrisome to me mostly because sports provide one of the few acres of common ground in a country where we too often give in to what divides us.”

Sports and restaurants: they bring us together to be joyous. To celebrate. This country sure felt divided before the pandemic. And while I absolutely feel connected to our neighbors as we hunker down here, fear has sparked this recent sense of community. 

Thompson, missing sports and the ritual of eating a great meal at one of his three favorite restaurants in the world, looked up and made a traditional Roman dish with a bottle of nice red wine, a bottle “that normally would be saved for a special occasion–although I’d argue that imagining the world before the virus and being hopeful about the return of that world is as special an occasion as there is right now.”

And while the restaurant in Rome is closed until…God knows when, and while Gianni–Thompson’s waiter of choice–is home alone in Rome with a silence to it like “the silence before a snowfall,” we can still celebrate. Maybe we have to a little bit. 

At the end of an article for sports website, Wright Thompson shares the amatricianna recipe from Matricianella and encouraged folks to put on an old favorite game. 

I think I’ll make Amatriciana again. Instead of using the internet recipe, I got the genuine article from the owners of Matricianella in Rome. It’s printed below, so you can make it too. Maybe I’ll find some classic old Serie A game to watch once the pasta is done. I’m thinking Fiorentina-Inter, 1997, Batistuta versus Ronaldo. Maybe if you read this, and make the recipe, and find your own game to watch, this shared ritual will briefly connect us. 

I did my best. I had to substitute uncured bacon in for the pork jowl. I paired it with what turned to be a delicious pinot noir, and I watched Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. 

It was the most enjoyable night I’ve had since this covid-19 nightmare started. I urge you to do this same. You will feel connected, and you will feel more like yourself than you have in weeks. 

Wright Thompson is the man. – PAL

Source: A Letter From the Coronavirus Quarantine: Missing Serie A, Pasta and Friendship”, Wright Thompson, ESPN (03/28/20)


Today Should Have Been Giants Opening Day, and That Sucks. But…

Leave it to Kruk to make you smile, anyways. -TOB


This Week’s Best from Posnanski’s Top 100:

No. 5, Oscar Charleston:

Oscar Charleston former Negro league star with bat.

This seems impossible, because I had heard plenty about every other Negro League legend that Posnanski had listed here: Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and others. But before this week I had never, to my memory, heard the name Oscar Charleston. And Charleston is ranked No. 5 by Posnanski. He even says:

I want you to feel the fury of this ranking, feel it down deep. I want you to think, “Look, I’m sure he was terrific, but there’s no possible way that Oscar Charleston, who played in a struggling league 100 years ago, could possibly be the fifth greatest player of all time.”

Or I want you to think, “Fifth greatest? That’s ridiculous. He should be No. 1!”

Or I want you to think, “This is pure romanticism. We have almost no stats on Charleston. We have only a handful of quotes about him. You can’t rank someone this high on the list based on a few crusty legends and myths.”

Or I want you to think, “It’s such an infuriating tragedy that we as an entire nation never got to see the greatest player in the history of baseball.”

Or I want you to think, “How is it that I’ve never even heard of this guy?”

Or I want you to think some of those thoughts together, or even all of them at the same time. This ranking, unlike the rest, is a statement and, even more, it’s a challenge. Oscar Charleston is the fifth greatest player in baseball history? It is meant to make you think about what you think.

So, I was very interested in reading this one. And boy, does Posnanski knock the intro out of the park, about a recent visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with Buck O’Neil and Willie Mays:

There isn’t much in the little room. There are a few charts showing Negro Leagues migration, a couple of photos and a statue of Buck O’Neil. The highlight is that it overlooks the Field of Legends, a baseball diamond in the middle of the museum. Beyond the chicken wire, which separates the room and the field, there are 10 bronze statues standing at their baseball positions. The names of the players are familiar to some and, even now, mysterious to others.

Let me say something else about the chicken wire, which represents the segregation black fans endured at stadiums across the country. If you unfocus your eyes a bit and look through the chicken wire just so, with your imagination taking the lead, the statues seem to come to life.

Anyway, that’s what I thought the day Buck O’Neil and Negro Leagues president Bob Kendrick and I stayed back there with Willie Mays.

“I knew these guys,” Mays said as we all looked through the chicken wire and imagined the players as they once were. “Like that guy at third base, Ray Dandridge. I played with him in Minneapolis. He helped me become the ballplayer I became.”

Everybody else in our group had gone ahead into the museum. We had stayed behind because of Willie Mays’ eyes. Those eyes, which had once been able to differentiate between a fastball and slider simply because of the way the baseball’s laces moved, had grown terribly sensitive to light. Glaucoma. Even in that dark room, Mays wore sunglasses.

He also wore a thick San Francisco Giants coat, even though it was stuffy. He seemed to be sweating and shivering at once. He was in pain. He seemed exhausted … or perhaps more precisely, evaporated. Buck tried to get him to tell some stories, but Mays was not in the mood for stories. He just looked out on the field quietly.

“Willie,” Buck said in an effort to break through, “I saw the catch on television the other day.”

“You saw that?” Mays said. He smiled a little.

“Only one other guy I ever saw could have made that catch,” Buck said.

Seven days after Mays made that catch, the only other man — the statue standing in center field on the Field of Legends — died in a Philadelphia hospital. He was not quite 58 years old and he was almost entirely unknown. His obituary did not appear in the local newspapers.

“Oscar Charleston,” Mays said as he looked out on the field.

“He was you before you,” O’Neil said.

If that doesn’t make you want to read about Charleston, nothing I say will.

No. 6, Ted Williams:

Williams was famously given the option to sit that last day and let his batting average round up to .400. As you undoubtedly know, he didn’t take that option, something that has been celebrated throughout the years.

That part has been over-celebrated, to be honest. Of course he played. He wasn’t hitting .400. He was hitting .3995. Sure, it’s easy to say that rounds up now but nobody saw it that way then. After he went 1-for-4 the day before, headlines like “Ted Williams Drops Below .400 Level” and “Ted Williams Down To .399” and “Williams Slumps Below Magic Mark” appeared all over the country.

Now, he definitely could have sat down after cracking a single off Dick Fowler in the second inning, which pushed the average up to .4008, or .401 on the back of a baseball card. He was given the option to skip out at that point, but he felt great, and he knew that even if he failed to get a hit his next time up, he’d still be hitting .400. Well, the next time up he homered off Fowler to make the average a solid .402, and then he singled again, this time off Porter Vaughan.

And then he singled again off Vaughan, 4-for-4, and his average was .405. At that point, he knew that he could go zero for his next five and still be above the .400 line. So he stayed, even played the second game, and ended up 6-for-8 on the day with that magical .406 average — the last time anyone hit .400.

He famously didn’t win the MVP that year, despite hitting .400 and leading the league in homers, runs, slugging, on-base percentage and walks. That was the season DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games and the writers gave the award to DiMag. The writers always thought Joe was the better all-around player and leader.

DiMaggio during the streak: .408/.463/.717, 1.180 OPS.

Williams all of 1941: .406/.553/.735, 1.288 OPS.

In 1999, Ted Williams rode to home plate in a golf cart for the All-Star Game at Fenway Park. He had suffered two strokes and a broken hip in the previous months, but still he stood. The greatest living players — from Henry Aaron to Willie Mays, Bob Feller to Stan Musial, Ken Griffey to Cal Ripken and all the All-Stars of the day — surrounded him and hugged him. He tipped his cap, and the crowd cheered as loudly as they ever had, and as the papers said, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

 

“Hey McGwire,” Williams shouted out to Mark McGwire, the most prodigious slugger in the world then. “You ever smell the wood when you foul one off real hard? You ever notice how it smells like burning wood?”

 

“I’ve smelled it,” McGwire said. Maybe he had or maybe he was just saying so, but Ted Williams smiled and nodded and said it was the best bleeping smell in the whole world.

-TOB

Source: No. 5, Oscar Charleston,” “No. 6, Ted Williams,” Joe Posnanski, The Athletic (04/01/2020);

PAL:  I had bumped Williams all the way up to number 3 when predicting Posnanski’s top 7. The Kid came in at 6. As I mentioned above, I read Wright Thompson’s essay on Williams a few months back. That story focuses on the batshit crazy last few years of Williams’ life with his adult children, as well as how he was, well, not a great husband or father. In Thompson’s words, summarizing to Claudia Williams, “[M]ost people didn’t understand that the two famous acts of his life–ballplayer and fisherman–occurred only because he was hiding from the third and final act of his life: fatherhood…He hid in the hyperfocus required by baseball and fishing.”

One lesson I slowly learn as I grow older is that greatness in one aspect of life is very rare and is commonly to the detriment of every other aspect of life, including happiness. The rarest of all is someone who is both good and great. 

Williams was great at seemingly three things: hitting a baseball, flying a fighter jet, and fishing. We’ll leave the flying and fishing aside for this. 

Posnanski quotes, of all people, Teller of Penn and Teller, in describing Williams hitting: “Sometimes magic is just spending more time on something than anyone might reasonably expect.” 

The M.V.P. stuff TOB mentions above is astounding. Man, he sure must’ve hated the writers, eh? His season stats are better than DiMaggio’s during the streak, and Joe wins it. Then Williams wins two – TWO – triple crowns and doesn’t win the M.V.P. 

TOB: One last thing. In the Charleston essay, Posnanski comes clean about his rankings, and it’s very funny to me:

We are now close to the end of the Baseball 100, and all along I have made certain to almost never mention the rankings. There’s is a specific reason for this: the rankings are just a device. Someone once asked Orson Welles if Mr. Thompson, the man who goes in search of Rosebud in “Citizen Kane,” learned anything or grew at all throughout the movie. “He’s not a person,” Welles raged. “He’s a piece of machinery to lead you through.”

That’s what the rankings are … they are here to give this project shape and to spark a few feelings. Yes, they’re in the basic order of a formula I used, one based on five things in no particular order:

  1. Wins Above Replacement
  2. Peak Wins Above Replacement
  3. How multi-dimensional they were as players
  4. The era when they played
  5. Bonus value — This might include postseason performances, leadership, sportsmanship, impact on the game as a whole, if they lost prime years to the war and numerous other possibilities.

But I have no illusions about the formula. It is as flawed as anything so, whenever possible, I attached the player and a number that fits. So, for instance, Mariano Rivera is 91 for Psalm 91, the Psalm of Protection. Gary Carter is 86 for his role on the 1986 Mets. Joe DiMaggio is 56 for the hitting streak. Grover Cleveland Alexander is 26 because that was his magical year, 1926.

Bob GibsonTom SeaverJimmie FoxxGreg MadduxMike TroutJackie RobinsonFrank Robinson and Mike Schmidt, among others, were all given a ranking based on their uniform numbers. I would say at least two-thirds of the numbers have some sort of connection to the ballplayer.

I even skipped No. 19 because of the ’19 Black Sox, the biggest single-year scandal in baseball history.

That’s not to say that I couldn’t defend the individual rankings. I’m sure I could. But to do so would be to say negative things about various players’ talent, which goes against the very essence of this project. And anyway, fighting over the questions — Ted Williams over Ty CobbSteve Carlton over Sandy KoufaxCarl Yastrzemski over Ken Griffey? — is a big part of the fun.

I noticed the DiMaggio 56 thing. I knew that couldn’t be a coincidence. But none of the rest – not even that there wasn’t a 19.


Video of the Week:


Tweets of the Week:


Song of the Week: John Prine – “Flashback Blues”

Hang in there, John!


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A 30-year mortgage and Michael’s age essentially means that he’s buying a coffin. If I were buying my coffin, I would get one with thicker walls so you couldn’t hear other dead people.

-Dwight Schrute

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