Hobbies and Such

Last Sunday,  the weather forecast indicated the temperature would reach the mid-to-upper 50s. AND IT DID. I could not pass up the opportunity, so on the last day of January I went for my first bike ride of the year. I know what some of you are saying. It has been such a mild winter that you never stopped riding. Plus you have your “smart” blue-tooth toe heaters in your new graphite shoes, so you’ve leveraged the performance parameters by uploading your blood flow numbers from the monitor in your crank to the heads-up display in your sunglasses, which indicated it was all right to keep pedaling.

But, seriously, there have been plenty of opportunities for all sorts of outdoor recreation this winter. It’s just that they are not the usual ones. It has made me observe the way I engage in my hobbies, and I can describe it best as “streaky.” I seem to concentrate on one particular pastime for a while, and as long as I get to do that thing, I don’t get cranky or impatient with life. Then, suddenly, I feel like doing something else for a while, and I concentrate just as hard on that. While I’m doing it, I think to myself, “Hey, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this.” I suppose it keeps me fresh.

You may remember that I was a competitive cyclist when I was younger, but for about the last five years, I was all about tennis. I decided to make practice time count, and actually teamed up with some hitting partners who would work on skills with me rather than want to play for points all the time. I learned to string my own racquets so that I could experiment with different types, gauges, and tensions of string. I even joined a club so that I would face different levels of competition. It was thoroughly satisfying, and I hardly thought about cycling.

Then, my wife’s youngest daughter graduated from high school. Being an avowed Anglophile, she wanted a three-speed bicycle with a basket to ride to class. While there were some new, retro-type models out there, we knew she wanted an actual vintage machine, so we searched classifieds and ordered her one. When it arrived, I started putting it together, and began again to smell the unique bouquet of road grit, leather, old rubber, and 3-in-1 oil that is peculiar to vintage bicycles. I felt the grunge under my fingernails, and it felt good. I realized how much I missed riding, and I have not picked up a tennis racquet since.

Last summer, I rode nearly every day. For the first time since I was in college, cycling became the activity I needed to feel as though my day was complete. My wife began to notice that, no matter what we were doing, I was checking my watch to calculate if we could make it home in time for a ride. We incorporated bicycles into lots of activities, like touring historic homes and visiting our favorite tea importer, but more often than not I wound up handing her the keys to my truck and riding the extra thirty miles home.

Then one day, I was done. I wasn’t burned out or injured, but I’d had enough. As fall progressed and the nights began earlier, all I could think about was setting up my telescope and searching for galaxies I had never seen before. In the same way that I had looked forward to a bike ride every day in the summer, now I planned my time to avoid the moon and made sure I had time for naps in the afternoon if my targets were going to keep me up until all hours. I did not even crave the exercise I was no longer getting, because my mind was completely wrapped up in astronomy.

I wrote in a previous post about following the Mets through the playoffs, but to get an accurate view of how that happened, picture someone sitting in pitch darkness in the yard with the radio tuned to a ball game in the background, staring through a telescope at tiny, faint patches of light whose photons began their journey toward me before human beings even existed on the Earth. For me, that’s a perfect evening.

On one hand, the mildness of this past winter made stargazing more comfortable than in most winters. Lots of my archived sketchbooks and log pages are smeared from the tears the wind has forced from my eyes. On the other hand, mild winters tend to be cloudy, and lately there have not been many opportunities to see stars. I was just beginning to feel cabin fever coming on when I received word of an estate sale arranged by the antiques dealer down the street. So last Saturday, as I browsed through the re-homing of someone’s worldly possessions, I came across a work stand that holds bicycles while you work on them. I purchased it for a song, brought it home, tinkered with my brakes, swapped some pedals between bikes, and suddenly I wanted to take a ride. And that’s what began on Sunday.

I wonder how long this streak will last.

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Out of the Depths of My Despair

Now that I have gotten over my disappointment over the results of the World Series, I can think clearly about this past baseball season. Back in September, I wrote about how the Mets’ style of play was encouraging me that they had what it takes to go far in the playoffs. [During a playoff game in October, one of the Mets’ announcers complimented the team’s beat writer on his recent article about how the team was winning by coming from behind, creating opportunities, and never giving up. Let the record show that I went there first!] Well, the run continued through the end of the season as the Mets won their division,

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won their first playoff round over the Dodgers,

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won the pennant against the Cubs in four straight games,

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and headed to the World Series to face the Royals.

I was thoroughly satisfied by the defeat of the Cubs. After all, they had earlier eliminated my actual favorite team since I was young, the Pirates. There has not been much to cheer for during the last couple of decades in Pittsburgh. After all, when they last had any success, Barry Bonds looked like this:images

fifty pounds lighter and several hundred home runs fewer. (More on that later.) I realize that the Cubs have had a far longer drought, last winning the World Series in 1908. But by now, the Cubs’ not winning it all is one of those sacred and undeniable truths of baseball. The streak’s continuation means that everything is all right with the universe.

I was so happy I failed to notice that the Mets had stopped playing in the way that had gotten them this far. They had repeatedly scrapped and come from behind against the Dodgers. But now, more and more, they stood around waiting for Daniel Murphy

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to hit another home run. This was great as long as Murphy was unconscious at the plate, but what happened when he came down to Earth?

The Royals made the Mets look silly.

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It doesn’t help that I have had a lingering sinus infection since the World Series ended. [It must have been all of the sleep I lost. Games now are long enough without extra innings prolonging them well into the morning of a work day.] But I realize now that the Royals represented all that I had praised about the Mets through this season. Although I had not listened to many of their games, they were the true masters of creating opportunities, picking each other up, getting base hits at the right times, and not worrying about hitting mammoth home runs that count the same as the inside-the-park variety with which Alcides Escobar opened the Series.

The Royals came from behind in every game they won, including the ninth inning of the clinching game 5. Everything I wrote about the Mets in 1986 was even more true of the Royals in 2015. They played small, heads-up, fundamental baseball, and the fact that this style triumphed is good for the sport. If we want to see a home run derby, we can wait for the All-Star break.

The Royals are beginning the rehabilitation of the game from the regime of Commissioner Bud Selig.

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[Would you buy a used car from this man? There was a time when you actually could.]

Back in 1994, there was a player strike that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. Disillusioned fans abandoned the sport in droves, and stayed away for several years. Then in 1998, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey, Jr. all challenged Roger Maris’ record for home runs in a single season. Fans began to pay attention again. When I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame that summer, they had live broadcasts of every plate appearance by each of the three. I guess the colossal home run is in-your-face-enough to make baseball competitive with basketball and football again, because nobody was happier about these developments than Commissioner Selig.

More and more players began to look to the example of the heavy hitters and try to gain the same competitive advantage. How were they hitting the ball so far?

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Uh, no, actually, not by drinking milk. The answer is PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS. But Selig was so happy that the fans were filling ballparks again that Major League Baseball turned a blind eye, until pressure from the public forced it to crack down. However, that did not happen until the twenty-first century was well underway. And unfortunately, with the resulting decline in offensive numbers, baseball’s resurgent popularity began to wane once again. I think the Royals are just the spark that will get people interested again.

In future posts, I’ll detail some of the other damage Commissioner Selig inflicted on baseball, along with my ideas to reform his reforms. But for now, remember that baseball is fascinating and exciting whether a player hits the ball five feet or five hundred feet.

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.