Monday, March 31, 2008

San Francisco, Day 1

The following is a memoir of Amy's and my trip to San Francisco this last spring break. I wrote about the on-going experience every night before going to bed, so the next few entries are to be read from my point view only hours after having experienced everything:

There in the tree, succulent orange orbs dangle between crisp leaves, and I’m about to make one of my more minor dreams come true. By placing my foot between two branches and hoisting myself up a few feet off the ground, I’m able to pluck a fruit off the nimble limb.

A fresh orange right off the tree. Seriously.

I couldn’t get the rind off of that thing fast enough—a furious, hungry action acting as a perfect metaphor for how Amy and I took in San Francisco during our first day in the Golden State.

Let me just say this: California… is… awesome.

Streets undulate like the track of a giant rollercoaster, sunshine and fresh air sweep over the city like the morning fog, and flat-roofed houses cram the hillsides like some European seaside village. There are vineyards just outside of town, and giant redwood trees, and bridges that shouldn’t be architecturally possible. It’s like this whole other world!

I will say this, though: After having spent the last few summers driving all over the middle part of the country for road trips, actually flying to a destination seems almost like cheating. To leave Chicago at 6:30 AM amidst snow and mid-twenties temperatures only to arrive in hills, sunshine, and 70 Degrees Fahrenheit a mere four hours later just doesn’t seem right. Four hours wouldn’t even get me to Cincinnati from Bloomington.

Today has been an awe-inspiring day. Driving through the country in North California to drink the nectar of Sonoma Valley’s vineyards was a real treat. Beautiful vistas and delicious Pinots and Sauvignons—just a perfect way to start a vacation.

From there it was off to Muir Woods, where we trounced around through a wooded area straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie to take in the magnanimity of the storied Giant Redwoods. I remember seeing those in my childhood Science books and not believing they were real. Guys, they’re real. Pretty intimidating in person, but totally real.

The drive back home from the top of a wooded mountain meandered recklessly down Route 1, with plenty of unbelievable views worth pulling over for.

And, of course, we drove over the Golden Gate bridge to get back into town.

Did anything special happen today? Probably not. But nearly everything we did was a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring experience—all of it—from the truly overwhelming beauty of the hills and the ocean, to something as simple as plucking a fresh orange from a grove tree.

All that, and it was only day 1. We’ve got four more days of this!

Monday, March 17, 2008

The "Joys" of Childhood Sports

In three years of YMCA basketball between 1989 and 1991, I took exactly two shots, both of which violently clanged off the back of the rim and into the waiting hands of an opponent 25 feet away from the basketball. I tried soccer, too, right around that same time. Three shots on goal, no points.

Okay, I call them “shots on goal” because I kicked them in the general direction of the white poles holding up the ratty net, but in reality the little spotted ball would roll to stop long before the goal ran up to the front of the box to grab it.

And I didn’t even play football. Hell, I had about the same weight to height ratio as Nichole Richie; I wasn’t taking any chances going up against the other monstrous fourth graders in neighborhood. There was just too much to live for.

I’d like to think I was a smart kid. At the very least I always felt a pretty solid understanding for the execution and strategy of these games. The problem was that I didn’t have the physical stamina to bring those ideas to fruition. It’d be like telling a mute person to sing the alphabet. They’d know how to do it; they just couldn’t...

Nothing was worse than hearing a coach yell, “Joel, you’ve got to call out that screen,” or “Joel, pass that ball buddy. You had a guy wide open to your left,” because the minute I made my mistake I knew the problem and I knew how to fix it. My body always just moved a little bit faster than my brain. Unfortunately, my brain’s a lot better at thinking than my legs and arms are.

This is why serious athletes like Michael Jordan and Joe Montana are the greatest ever; their bodies can make those decisions before their heads can even think about it.

Not me. Even my mouth has betrayed me in recent years. Those lips think they’ve got something really funny to say, so they say it, only to have my brain remind those stubborn lips what idiots they are only seconds later.

My body and me, we’re one big happy family.

You’d think a kid like this, with no hope of ever playing in a professional sports league, would eventually give up his dream and turn to erector sets and legos. Not me. I practiced my butt off, specifically with basketball, and I didn’t quit until I was mediocre enough to make my high school team and sit the bench.

If I weren’t so fat these days, I’m sure I could still hit a pretty solid three-pointer, or dribble around a fatter, slower defender. But all those years of insecurity about my abilities on the playing field were for naught. Those hours of practicing and lying in bed dreaming myself through pressure game-time situations—worthless.

I don’t regret any of it, though. Not the twilight of my childhood spent running up and down the court a multitude of times without ever touching the ball, not the hours of practice I put in to just ride the pine, and certainly not my time in little league (the smell of baseball—grass, leather, dirt, wood, and wool—is one of the single most delightful aromas on the planet).

“Why?” you may wonder. Because all those years spent achieving an average game at everything has given the ability to fake like I know what I’m doing in all sports. I could even tell someone I played high school football and get them to believe me.

You just run the in-route on the double post and the statue of liberty shotgun, baby.

Hut, hut, hike. Play ball.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What's In a Name? (MLB)

Apparently I have too much time on my hands these days. Either way, I won't make a big stink for an introduction. The following is a list of team nicknames in Major League Baseball and where those names come from. I started this research today on a whim and thought I'd share it with you. Really interesting stuff. Even I didn't know about 2/3 of these!

Baltimore Orioles – The oriole is the state bird of Maryland.

Boston Red Sox – The Red Sox had a lot of nicknames before they settled on their current moniker, including Puritans, Speedboys, Somersets, Plymouth Rocks, and Pilgrims. A lot of those make sense, so why the change? In 1907 the Beaneaters of the National League stopped wearing their signature Red Stockings because manager Fred Tenney believed the dye caused blood poisoning. Shortly thereafter Red Sox owner John Taylor decided to take over the red stocking thing and rename his team the Boston Red Sox.

Chicago White Sox – Actually, the Cubs franchise was the original Chicago White Stockings, but they gave up the name in favor of “Colts” towards the end of the 1800s. In 1901 Comiskey started up an American League team in Chicago and decided to revive the Chicago White Stockings name, a lot like how the Cleveland Browns of the NFL bolted to Baltimore and became the Ravens, only to have an expansion team pop back up in Cleveland a couple of years later, also named the Browns, even though it was an entirely different team.

As for how “Stockings” turned into “Sox,” the Chicago Tribune would shorten it to “Sox” for the box scores so immigrants could read “socks” more easily by its phonetic spelling.

Cleveland Indians – This name was the result of a 1915 newspaper contest, supposedly inspired by an old Cleveland Spiders player named Louis Sockalexis, a Native American.

Detroit Tigers – In the 19th century, the city of Detroit had a military unit called the Detroit Light Guard, who were known as "The Tigers." This group had significant roles in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, so in 1901 the team sought and received formal permission from the group to use their nickname. Coincidentally, the NFL’s Lions, who once shared a stadium with the Tigers, were named in honor of their landlord.

Kansas City Royals – As an expansion team in the late 1960s, the Royals were named after the American Royal Livestock Show, which has been held in Kansas every year since 1899.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – For you non-Spanish speakers, “Los Angeles” translates to “The Angels.” Sometimes it really is as simple as that.

Minnesota Twins – Minneapolis and St. Paul are the “Twin Cities.”

New York Yankees – Also known as the “Highlanders” in the early 1900s, the name Yankees first start showing up in the press in 1904. Newspapers for cities with two teams (such as New York and Boston) would often call their teams "Nationals" or "Americans" to distinguish them based off of what league they plaed in. The term "Yankee" or "Yank" is a synonym for "American," and the Yankees played in the American League.

The term "Yankee" was also in the news frequently at that time, especially with the success of George M. Cohan's Broadway musical, “Little Johnny Jones,” and its centerpiece number, "Yankee Doodle Dandy." To the creative writers of the New York press, the connection was easy to make.

Oakland A’s – “A’s” is short for “Athletics,” which is the oldest nickname in baseball, dating back to about 1860. The team started in Philadelphia and was originally called “The Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia.”

Seattle Mariners – This nickname just alludes to fishing and other marine activities common in the Seattle area.

Tampa Bay Rays – At first called the “Devil Rays” after the aquatic creatures that swim in the area, the team took “Devil” out of the moniker before this season, instead changing the meaning of “Rays” to something more along the lines of sun rays since Florida is the Sunshine State. The new logo doesn’t have the stingray; instead, there are gleaming beams of yellow coming off the letters. Either way, the team is still horrible.

Texas Rangers – This team was named after the famous Texas law enforcement group of the same name.

Toronto Blue Jays – An early member of the team’s board of directors mentioned seeing a blue jay outside his window while he was shaving in the morning. That, apparently, was enough to name the team. That’s probably the lamest of all these etymologies.

Arizona Diamondbacks – Diamondbacks are a snake common to the Arizona desert. This is a more recent franchise, so it’s no surprise that the nickname actually makes some geological sense (unlike the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies).

Atlanta Braves – Originating in Boston and at first called the “Doves,” the team got a new, tougher sounding nickname at the suggestion of John Montgomery Ward in 1912. That was the year James Gaffney of Tammany Hall—a political organization named after an Indian chief and known for using an Indiana in its logo—became the new president of the organization. Between 1936 and 1941, the team was called the “Bees,” but of course returned to “Braves” in time.

Chicago Cubs – Were originally the White Stockings, then later the Colts. The name “Cubs” started in the early 1900s when the team went through a youth movement and team rebuilding. The newspapers started calling the young Colts players “The Cubs” because of their relative youth, and the name just stuck. From 1921 to 1970 the NFL’s Bears shared Wrigley Field with the Cubbies, and the name “Bears” was given to the team in honor of their hosts. Before then, they were called the “Staleys.”

Cincinnati Reds – This was the original “Red Stockings” team, dating all the way back to the Civil War era. The team always has worn red socks and trim. The name was eventually shortened to “Reds” as an abbreviation, and it stuck.

Colorado Rockies – Very clearly named after the famous mountains by the same name.

Houston Astros – This team was once called the “Colt .45’s” named after the famous gun, which was manufactured in Houston. Like the Washington Bullets of the NBA, the team eventually had to change the name for PR reasons, so they went with Astros, which sounds futuristic and is Greek for “stars.” The new moniker was safer and paid tribute to the NASA Space Program, based in Houston.

Florida Marlins – Marlins are a popular sport fish in Florida. There had been minor league teams named the Miami Marlins for years, so when the MLB ushered in a Miami expansion team in 1993, they revived the nickname. Unfortunately, using “Florida” instead of “Miami” sort of took away from the alliterative beauty of the situation. Oh well.

L.A. Dodgers – The Dodgers were originally from Brooklyn, where they got their name because patrons had to “dodge” the trolleys on the street en route to the stadium. There are no trolleys in Los Angeles, but the kept the nickname anyway.

Milwaukee Brewers – They make a lot of beer in Milwaukee.

New York Mets – This organization was originally known as the Metropolitan Baseball Club in the 19th Century, but “Metropolitan” was too long for Box scores. “Mets” wasn’t, and that’s the name that stuck.

Philadelphia Phillies – They’ve either been the “Phillies” or the “Quakers” for the entire history of the franchise. “Philles,” of course, is short for “Philadelphias.”

Pittsburgh Pirates - The team was originally called the Alleghenies, for the river. In 1890, several players boycotted the National League and started the short-lived Players League. It folded a year later, and there was an agreement among owners that returning players would go back to their original teams. When Pittsburgh signed Louis Bierbauer, a former Philadelphia Athletic, the other owners accused them of piracy. And there you go.

St. Louis Cardinals – They were originally the Browns, but in 1899, they wore red striped stockings and red trim. St. Louis Republic reporter Willie McHale overheard a woman say, "My, what a lovely shade of cardinal." They changed the name in 1900.

San Diego Padres – “Padres” is Spanish for “father,” and the nickname pays homage to Spanish missionaries who worked in the area’s early history.

San Francisco Giants – Originally from New York and called the “Gothams,” the team became the New York Giants when their manager bragged to reporters about the stature of his players. “My big boys!” he said, “My Giants!” By 1885 the name stuck. The team moved to California in 1958.

Washington Nationals – formerly the Montreal Expos (who, by the way, were named after the 1967 worlds fair held in Montreal, called “Expo 67”), the team moved to Washington D.C. and revived a nickname used by a former team from that era earlier in the 20th Century. D.C. is the “national” capital, so it’s no wonder the team went with that for their nickname.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

We Got Spirit, How 'Bout You?

At the high school where I teach, we’re known for pretty horrible in every sport except one: baseball/softball. The evidence: our football team has won literally two games in the four years that I’ve worked here, our soccer teams are registered as “junior varsity” and still barely break .500, and the boys swim team would have gone defunct this year had our Driver’s Ed teacher not talked a scrappy bunch of ragamuffins into signing up.

We’re like those really horrible teams in Disney movies—the ones where a likeable yet completely unathletic group of boys goes from zeroes to heroes in the course of an hour and a half—except we’re just likeable and unathletic. That whole Underdog-Coming-From-Behind-To-Win-The-Championship thing never happens for us.

Even in softball—the one sport where our kids actually flirt with state championships perennially—the hype of the season goes into June, when there are no kids left around to paint their faces blue, wear Spartan t-shirts, and gallivant about like rabid soccer fans in Liverpool.

It’s been disheartening, to say the least, to watch my loveable high-schoolers have nothing to cheer about. This winter, however, one group of boys put the spirit back into our hallways.

And it was really, really fun to watch.

Our varsity basketball team made it to the Elite 8 in this year’s 2A tournament for the first time in 17 years, and in attending that final game where they eliminated by a farm school with a 6’11” horse anchoring the post, I realized that watching high school sports creates a much more exciting game atmosphere than any professional contest I’ve ever witnessed in person.

I’ve seen the Bulls and Bears both in live playoff games, and I’ve been to sports bars to watch a variety of home teams do their thing, including the White Sox on their way to the World Series back in 2005. While all of these experiences get fans riled up to levels only paralleled by the Rodney King riots, there’s just something impersonal about the experience.

Sure, we love the teams we grew up watching, but in the same way we as kids fall in love with a beautiful celebrity we’ll never meet. I love Brian Urlacher and Paul Konerko. Ben Gordon and Frank Thomas. If Michael Jordan asked for my hand in marriage, I’d probably say yes, to the dismay of my own current fiancĂ©e and despite Jordan’s history of gambling and infidelity. Those are things I can deal with because a die-hard Chicago sports fan, I love His Airness.

But at that super-sectional game in Macomb last week, with about a third of the student population in the stands—faces splotched in war paint, blue shirts undulating in bulk like a giant adolescent wave—and parents, teachers, and administrators joining in the cheers just across the way, I felt a deep love for sports I’ve only experienced a few times in my life.

I can think of three, actually. The first was a little league game when, in the top of the first inning, we whomped on a team 15-0 and were still going with zero outs. They forfeited the game right then and there. The second was winning an eighth grade basketball championship by hitting the final two nail-in-the-coffin free throws with seconds to go (that’s this whole other story). And the third was watching my close high school friends take a state championship every year at the Illinois State Cheerleading Championships (we had some damn fine cheerleaders).

That’s what it felt like at this game, watching kids I taught and invested small pieces of myself put every stinkin’ ounce of energy and ability their bodies could muster into something. Anything. As a teacher, you watch hundreds of kids do just enough to pass the class, or just enough to please the adults in the school. Out on that court, these boys left nothing to be desired.

Neither did the folks in the stand. There was love in the building, just like there’s love at pro sporting events, but the emotion was denser, tenser. There were no cheers out of obligation; every single one was raw support and familial encouragement. It was beautiful.

The team lost (which was probably a good thing because they would’ve gotten spanked by Peoria Manual in the next game, which was televised), but I left the experience feeling really good.

There may not be the same level of talent in high school sports, but the atmosphere is exponentially more emotional. Even more emotional than my newly-public feelings for Michael Jordan. If anyone sees him, tell him I’ve been sitting next to the phone waiting on his call for days…

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Dairy King

Once in a while, I remember a great story. My students have favorite yarns I’ve been known to spin, and since I tell them over and over again it’s easy to forget that one day I’ll be senile in a nursing home, careening uncontrollably with my polyester brown pantaloons around my ankles and hitting on nurses with lines from Freddie Prinze movies.

Put simply: there are some stories that are just too excellent to leave to oral tradition.

So here we go:

We’re somewhere in the late 1990s, probably around ’98, and I’m working at the Dairy Queen in Clifton. Imagine one of those newly-constructed mega-gas stations with the restaurantettes, flame-broiled burger smoke drifting through the building while patrons in coveralls and John Deere hats buy their coffees and fill up their F150’s with unleaded.

Now, understand that we’re located right off the highway and we’re the only fast food joint in a little Illinois farm town. This means two types of customers—regulars, and travelers.

Bob, who looks like a cross between Phil Jackson and Quentin Tarrantino and always smelled like cigarettes, owned the place and understood fully the difference between these two factions of patrons. Do anything you can to keep the regulars regular, including putting up with their crap if they’re jerks. The travelers should get the same red carpet treatment, but if they’re going to act like Amarosas when ordering their lunch, there’s less reason to take any abuse since they most likely wouldn’t be back anyway.

Bob put this philosophy into action one summer afternoon when a wiry, rotund little woman with California license plates came in to order a Pecan Mud Slide sundae. Our smallest, sweetest little employee took the order (we called her Muggsy because she’d be five feet tall in pumps), made the sundae, and brought it over to the testy little frump of a gal and said—I swear to God these are her exact words—“Would you like a lid for this, ma’am?”

The woman, for no reason that I can explain to this very day, got extremely huffy and replied, “Of course I want a lid,” like she was answering some offensive query, like, “You’re a female, right?”

Bobbo, the consummate professional and protector of his adolescent hirees, overheard the woman’s tone while assembling a burger and took charge, snapping a DQ bag open and asking the woman—once again, exact words—“And would you care for a bag today too, ma’am?”

The woman looks at Bob like he’s got an aborted fetus dangling from his lower lip and quips, “How about a bag for your head.”

As an owner and manager, I’m sure my boss went through the protocol for this type of situation in his own mind before coming up with a response, but very early in that process I’m sure he thought, screw it…

Without hesitation, Bob replies, “How about I shove this bag right up your ass.”

At the time, I was blending up a Blizzard to the immediate right of the situation and laughed to myself because I thought maybe Bob knew the lady and was engaged in some sort of witty banter. I was waiting for them to start roaring with laughter and slapping each other playfully on the arms.

That never happened. Instead—one of the tensest moments of silence I’ve ever experienced.

So the woman, totally outraged, cocks her arm back with the capped Pecan Mud Slide and whips the damn thing at Bob like a Cy Young fastball. Bob catches it in his gut and cocks his arm up to throw the sundae back at the woman before thinking better of it. Instead of hurting her physically with projectile iced cream, he lofted a verbal missle:

“That’s fine. You were too FAT to eat it anyway.”

Then he went out back and lit up a Merit. Best day of my Dairy Queen career.