Does This Feel Familiar to Anyone Else?

Because we live in the Age of Oprah, where no one is allowed to keep anything private, I’d like to tell you a story about my childhood. It might even give you some insight into my development as a curmudgeon.

In the summer of 1986, before my junior year in high school, I realized that my Panasonic headphone AM-FM radio (every one of my friends had a real Sony Walkman; I had to be different) would work after dark and at night. Trying desperately to find a form of rebellion against the tyranny of my parents, I began to listen to New York Mets baseball games as I fell asleep. (With the headphones, they would not know I was awake past my bedtime!) (No, really; that’s about as far as I ever went.) (Until the fall of 1987 when I stayed out past 9:00 PM to look at Mars through a telescope and my father called the police to file a missing person report. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Back to ’86. As the summer progressed, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon: the Mets seemed always to find a way to win ballgames. Of course, they did not literally win always, but in baseball winning 2/3 of the time sure feels like always. It did not seem to matter if they dominated the game from start to finish or found themselves losing in the bottom of the 9th; I, and many other Mets aficionados, just knew they would find a way to pull out the game. And, more often than not, they did. Take a look at the statistics: all but one of the Mets’ relief pitchers finished with winning records, so there were lots of late-inning heroics.

Into the fall, and playoff time. Given what had transpired before, is it any wonder that all of us stayed tuned, with the Mets down 3-0 going into the 9th inning in game 6 against the Astros in Houston? No! Of course they tied the game to send it into extra innings. The Mets eventually won 7-6 in 16 innings, and I don’t think I’ll ever witness a more exciting game no matter how long I live.

This put the Mets into the World Series against the Red Sox, who were looking for their first championship since 1918. The Red Sox had lost the World Series in 7 games in 1946, 1967, and 1975.  Is it any surprise that confidence was riding high? One day in Spanish class, Mary Sullivan, a fellow Mets rooter, asked for my Series prediction, and I replied, “Mets in four.” This caused no end of grief to Kim Petty, a Red Sox supporter. (I give you these details to demonstrate how powerfully sporting events affect Americans. Thirty years later, I can still remember where I was sitting, one row from the windows in Mrs. Roberts’ class, and what I was wearing, my grey wool sweater and maroon corduroys, when we had this conversation.)

Not even muffed predictions could dim our confidence. The Red Sox led the Series 3 games to 2, and had scored 2 runs in the top of the 10th. They needed only three outs to clinch the Series. No problem. A few hits, a passed ball, and one infamous grounder

 

later, the Mets had tied the Series. This set the stage for the inevitable, a Mets’ 8-5 (comeback: the Red Sox led 3-0 in the 2nd inning; you wouldn’t expect anything else) win.

Since then, the Mets have found their own ways to underachieve. They were expected to win it all in 1988, only to lose to the surprising Dodgers. They came close in 1999, and made it to the World Series in 2000, losing to the Yankees. A sparky 2006 team, with rising stars David Wright and Jose Reyes made it to the National League Championship Series before losing to the Cardinals. The 2007 and 2008 teams failed to make the playoffs after giving up late-season division leads. Since moving from Shea Stadium to Citi Field in 2009, the Mets have performed disappointingly in their home park.

And then came this season. When my wife and I settled down for each evening during our spring camping trip, we listened to a Mets victory every time. Talk about a great birthday present! Something seemed familiar about the scrappy, confident way they played during that 11-game winning streak, which helped them get off to a 15-5 start. They played average baseball for most of the summer, then in August and September caught fire again. I found two games especially encouraging: a victory over the Nationals after trailing 7-1, and an extra-inning win over the Braves later that week which included a 9th inning rally to send the game to extra innings.

It’s not just that the Mets are winning games; the way that they are winning feels just like it did in 1986. They never pack it in, and they create scoring opportunities when they need them the most. That’s how a team needs to play to win in the playoffs. When my friend and I attended the game against the Pirates on August 14, I was not surprised that the Mets featured highlights from 1986 in their pre-game show. It seems they’re thinking what I’m thinking.

Stay tuned.

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Let’s Do This The Right Way

As we sat in a restaurant eating lunch a couple of weekends ago, I glanced at the television over the bar and saw track and field events. In this country, that can only mean one thing: the Olympics are coming soon. Just think about it- for over two weeks next August, we’ll witness, in the famous words of Wide World of Sports,

“…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat; the human drama of athletic competition…”

Of course, the United States only cares for the thrill of victory. We spearheaded the effort to include professional athletes in the Games, because in the early ’90s, it wasn’t enough to win the gold medal in basketball. We had to win every game in 1992 in Barcelona by an embarrassing margin.

 

6 OCT 1992: USA BASKETBALL TEAM MEMBERS MICHAEL JORDAN (MIDDLE) SCOTTIE PIPPEN (LEFT) AND CLIDE DREXLER (RIGHT) ACKNOWLEDGE THE CROWD AFTER RECEIVING THEIR GOLD MEDALAS MEMBERS OF THE DREAM TEAM DURING THE 1992 BARCELONA OLYMPICS IN BARCELONA, SPAIN. Man

By the way, I don’t mean embarrassing for the opponent. I mean for the concept of sportsmanship. Over Angola by 68 points? Over Lithuania by 51? In fact the smallest margin of victory was beating Croatia by 32 in the gold medal game.

This utter arrogance resonates well with fans. Thus, in addition to the above, we see images such as this

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or this

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whenever an American wins anything.

“What’s wrong with those?” you’re no doubt asking. “That’s national pride, not arrogance.”

It’s the same thing that’s wrong with this

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and this

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and this.

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That’s right. I’m going to call out American athletic icons because what each one is doing is ILLEGAL.

Public Law 829, Chapter 806 added the Flag Code to United States law. Sections 173-178 of U. S. Code Title 36 provide the rules for the display and handling of the flag, and Section 176 spells out how to treat the flag respectfully. Let’s match the violator with the offense.

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6 OCT 1992: USA BASKETBALL TEAM MEMBERS MICHAEL JORDAN (MIDDLE) SCOTTIE PIPPEN (LEFT) AND CLIDE DREXLER (RIGHT) ACKNOWLEDGE THE CROWD AFTER RECEIVING THEIR GOLD MEDALAS MEMBERS OF THE DREAM TEAM DURING THE 1992 BARCELONA OLYMPICS IN BARCELONA, SPAIN. Man

Subsection (d): The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery.

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Subsection (j): No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.

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Subsection (b): The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.

and (multiple violations, Mr. Craig!)

Subsection (d): It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.

You can view the entire Flag Code here, and it makes for fascinating reading. Subsection (j) provides the philosophy for the code:

The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.

Hence the need to treat the flag well, with the utmost respect.

I understand that the athletes, being consumed as they are with the practice of their sports, are probably quite ignorant of this law and the expectations for handling and display of the flag. And, obviously, Mary Lou Retton did not design the 1984 gymnastics uniform. But the United States Olympic Committee should counsel all of the athletes that represent this country on just what it is they are doing at the Olympics.

They should give their best in the arena of competition in order to glorify their country. If and when they win, so much the better. Incidentally, that’s why cheating to obtain victory is such a disgrace.

However, when an athlete wraps the flag around his sweaty shoulders after a win, that indicates he thinks the flag is there to glorify HIM. Nothing could be further from the truth, or more contrary to the spirit of the Flag Code. That’s why I began by accusing the flag-drapers of arrogance.

The Flag Code does not spell out any penalties for violating its stipulations, leaving this to the states. However, it is a mistake to believe that an action is acceptable if the perpetrator does not receive punishment. Everyone in this country should feel shame when our representatives feel the need for victory at any cost and then use living symbols to congratulate themselves. Fans should not plaster Pinterest with pictures of US Flag Code violations labeled “Pride.”

I’m not just complaining, either. In the Sochi Olympics, I witnessed a positive example. Unfortunately, despite lauding this performance for its gritty determination, no pundit that I heard commented on the athlete’s respect for flag and country.

Representing Peru in a 15 kilometer cross-country skiing event, Roberto Carcelen found himself nearing the finish line 28 minutes after the race’s winner had crossed. Here’s  what he did:

 

That, USOC officials and U. S. athletes, is how to do it right.

New Anti-Defamation League Needed?

Over this past summer, two different people showed me articles relating to Pope Francis and his remarks about the Earth’s changing climate. I was initially pleased that both articles appeared supportive of the pontiff, an unusual phenomenon in the American press. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they did so in a way that, at best, showed a misunderstanding of Catholicism and, at worst, perpetuate negative stereotypes of the religion. Let me take you through my thought process.

On June 22nd, NPR.org published an essay by Tania Lombrozo on the need for modern philosophers to help society work through ethical questions raised by advancing science and evolving values. You can read the full article here. The following paragraphs caught my eye:

Issue No. 3: Pope Francis released a statement identifying climate change as a global problem, though one that will disproportionately affect the poor. He urged developed countries to limit the use of nonrenewable energy sources and help other countries on a path to sustainable development.

As Adam Frank pointed out in his 13.7 post last week, when it comes to the origins of climate change, the science is more or less settled. “It’s no longer really about the science,” he writes. Instead: “The leader of one of the world’s major religions is injecting something into the debate that has mostly been missing: the question of values.”

That sounds pretty positive, right? Still, something about it bothered me, although I could not put my finger on exactly what.

Then I read the article entitled “The Pope vs. El Niño & The Nino” on Dr. Christopher Kukk’s site. Here is the link. Dr. Kukk argues that the Pope, in his Laudato Si’ encyclical, uses science to explain the state of the world when he discusses climate change and the evidence of human factors in it. So what’s the problem with that?

The Pope’s job is not to explain the world in a scientific way. Think about the most famous time when that happened, and how Galileo’s astronomical findings unintentionally drove a wedge between science and religion.

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Catholic doctrine holds the Pope infallible on matters of faith and morals, not science (or the weather or the lottery, for that matter). When Francis speaks about science, he is speaking as a man, not a religious leader. As Pope, he (properly) directs the conversation toward values, ethics, and consequent behaviors. The point of a papal encyclical is not to settle the debate as to the veracity of scientific findings. The point is to answer the question, “If this is true, how should we behave?”

The real message from Francis: since the world has been entrusted to the care of humans, we have a responsibility not to ruin it. Both Ms. Lombrozo and Dr. Kukk hint at this, but their statements that the Pope has confirmed that humans cause climate change go too far. As  Ross Douthat observed in “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” (The Atlantic, May 2015), liberal journalists seem overly-eager to read their own values into Francis’ statements. To me, Lombrozo and Kukk are saying, “This must be true. Even the reactionary Catholics have to believe it now.” (Perhaps Francis will get with the program and promote abortion soon?) They should remember that the universe is not under any obligation to listen to public opinion.

I see an even stronger distortion in Dr. Kukk’s comments about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (“The Nino” from his article’s title). He contrasts the Pope’s acknowledgement of science with what he sees as Scalia’s denial of it. Kukk relates excerpts from an address Scalia gave to a high school graduating class. Here is part of the speech:

Class of 2015, you should not leave Stone Ridge High School thinking that you face challenges that are at all, in any important sense, unprecedented. Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were.

Kukk implies that this was an irresponsible statement since it promoted religious values and denied the fossil evidence for millions of years of primate evolution. He jabs, “I was under the impression that justices were in the habit of weighing all evidence when making decisions.”

See the problem with this? Scalia was not interpreting the Constitution or establishing legal precedent when he spoke. He was giving advice and inspiration to young people leaving school and heading out into the world. I doubt that the most important message a graduation speaker could give would be, “Reject the theory of evolution.”

I propose a scenario in which Scalia’s words are spot-on and highly-appropriate. Homo sapiens sapiens have been around for an extremely long time, on the order of a couple of hundred thousand years. (Dr. Kukk even acknowledges that Catholic doctrine does not promote creationism.) But they spent most of those years as hunter-gatherers in small, nomadic social groups.

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(“Hey guys, do you think they’ll ever talk about us at a graduation?”)

Then, about 7,000 years ago, in the midst of a drastic climate change I’m pretty sure was not caused by automobiles and hair spray, droughts forced humans to cluster around rivers as water sources. There, they learned irrigation and planned agriculture. This produced stable population centers where, by 5,000 years ago (where have I heard that figure before?) the first great city-states arose.

I think the lessons learned from living in urban conditions, close to people with selfish desires and opposing viewpoints, would be much more valuable for today’s young people than anything learned in a hundred millennia of hunter-gathering. Scalia’s message: when you go out into the real world, don’t worry; you won’t encounter anything humans have not dealt with before.

When I see Dr. Kukk’s criticism of Justice Scalia juxtaposed with his somewhat-inaccurate praise of Pope Francis, I cannot help but be left with the feeling that he’s saying, “Not even the Catholics are as bad as the conservatives on the Supreme Court!” This reduces Catholic beliefs to nothing more than a benchmark of unacceptability. I guess tolerance does not extend to ideas that differ from mainstream American liberal values.

Remember, the only true diversity is diversity of thought.