Short Story: “Rink”

rink pictureWhen I was growing up, Bobby Orr joined the Bruins and Boston quadrupled down on being a hockey town. Even when the Bruins were bad in the early 1960s, they filled the Boston Garden while the Celtics couldn’t get a sellout despite winning 11 championships in 13 years.

Orr was a revolution. He took over the offense of every game he was in despite playing as a defense man. This was unheard of at the time, and the accomplishments would grown outsized. In his fourth season, he scored 126 points to lead the league in scoring, nearly doubling his old mark of most points by a defense man of 64 set the year before. Many experts still consider it the greatest single season by a hockey player. I was 11 years old. Along with thousand of boys in Greater Boston, I laced on skates and for the next seven years I played some of the most enthusiastic D+ hockey the world has seen. I was that bad but I loved it that much.

I have written several short pieces about my own experience with hockey, one of which I would like to try at one of the local Moth events. I have a few ideas for longer-form pieces, in part because I love the topic but also because I think, of the four major sports, hockey seems to have disproportionately little written about it.

All that said, I hadn’t tried fiction yet until I wrote “Rink,” which was just published at The Quill Magazine. My thanks to Colleen Conerz for the thoughtful edits and for publishing the piece. It is entirely fiction. The protagonist and the other characters all know how to actually play.

The tennis courts had been flooded for a month, but it only turned cold enough for ice on Christmas. So, when Davey McCabe finished his paper route the next day, he put on his equipment and walked over. He heard the boys from the high school team before he saw them. There were six of them with sticks and pucks. Freddie Brown was out there, flying around the ice, pushing the puck just in front of him, then blasting a slap shot off the chain link fence. Davey watched Freddie collect the puck, skate in a low circle, pivot and skate in another low circle, then shoot off the fence again.

There were nine of the older boys now, and Davey recognized them all. Jimmy Martin and his twin brother Johnny. They were on defense and seemed to never let up a goal. Pete McCann was out there. He was chasing Freddy all over the ice but couldn’t get the puck off his stick. Pucks were everywhere. Guys were going full speed down the ice and letting slap shots go. Davey watched one puck get lodged in the chain link. He couldn’t imagine shooting a puck that hard.

Read the rest here.

 

Reading and the Value of Time

foulI was a voracious but streaky reader growing up. I would hit upon a theme–even in grammar school–and read my way through it. One year it was biographies of the presidents–I worked my way from (1) Washington to (36) LBJ. After that it was countries of the world. I would burn through a series of books until I got to the end. Then I wouldn’t read for a few weeks or maybe even longer, but would eventually find a new vein to mine.

Sports biographies were less linear. I read about Jim Thorpe of course, Joe Louis, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Jim Brown. In junior high I discovered sports biographies that were considered risque at the time: a Joe Namath biography that described how he lost his virginity and Ball Four by Jim Bouton that described Mickey Mantle’s heavy drinking. I read chunks of these in the library stacks because I wasn’t old enough to take them out, then got my older sister to take them out for me.

One day my sister was taking out one book for me and grabbed another, Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story I put it aside, then read, reread, and then reread it again. If I had been indiscriminate in my reading–and happy to read anything about a subject that interested me–I somehow knew this book was different. It was gripping, poignant, sad, and ultimately exhilarating. It  brought to life the brilliance of Hawkins as a player against the backdrop of racism, class, and power in American life.

I was 13 and hooked on good writing.

I have spent precious little reading time on poor or mediocre reading since, save my one guilty pleasure, the occasional John Grisham novel (each of which puts the formula in formulaic but somehow still keeps me reading).

The value of my time became abundantly clear in college where a contemporary novel class had me reading ten books and in one semester. That same semester had me in a Gothic novel class. Just before Thanksgiving I hit the wall while reading Melmoth the Wanderer which Amazon tells me is 704 pages but I remember as 1700. I got through it, though, and finished the semester well.

That winter break I had some required reading to do but not so much that I couldn’t pick up an odd book or two. I decided to read a social science book that a friend recommended. I’ve decided to not mention the author because the book was terrible–insipid, poorly written, and overblown. I am not mentioning the author’s name in part to not offend anyone; more importantly, though, I don’t want to say something that I would then have to back up. To back it up I would have to go back and read it again and I simply wouldn’t do that to myself.

I can vividly remember the moment I abandoned the book. I was waiting for a train at Boston’s North Station. I was sitting on the end of a bench, next to a trash barrel. I got through one last flatulent paragraph and couldn’t take it any more. I flipped the book into the trash.

It was the first book I ever threw away and the last. And, putting aside, Grisham, it was the last bad book I read.

Chasing That Dream

lancelottirickI get lost in baseball box scores, stats, and career synopses. While I used to rely on sources like the Information Please Sports Almanac (which I worked on for a couple of years), now everything is on the Internet. The definitive source is Baseball-Reference.com, where I can spend a few minutes doing things like reviewing the perfectly mediocre 1985 Red Sox, who finished the season at 81-81 (thanks in part to a five-game losing streak to end the season).

On the last game of that season, October 6, the Milwaukee Brewers and Danny Darwin beat the Sox and Bruce Hurst, 9-6 (a score only a football fan could love). Wade Boggs reached 240 hits after going 3 for 4, and finished the season with a .368 average to win the batting title. The season ended with a whimper though when Mike Easler grounded out to second to end it.

I studied the full box score and then played one of my Baseball Reference games, where I marched through the Red Sox roster year by year. I am especially interested in the lesser players. I challenge myself to remember each player each year. I can identify every player on the 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988 rosters. I stumble, though, over Jeff Stone in 1989, but I forgive myself. He had 3 hits in 15 at bats. Should anyone remember a player who hit the Mendoza Line unless his name happens to be, you know, Mario Mendoza?

Besides, I got married that year. I was distracted.

I nailed it again in 1990, despite the Red Sox having 43 players pass through their roster, including lesser names but New England natives Billy Jo Robidoux and Rick Lancellotti. I vaguely remembered Lancellotti having a long minor league career, and then Baseball Reference tells me that he had the quirky career arc of appearing in major league games in the years 1982, 1986, and 1990, and only the years 1982, 1986, and 1990. He finished his career 11 for 65, good for a career .169 batting average, with two home runs and eleven RBI. He went 0 for 8 for the Red Sox in that last year, striking out once. His last at-bat came against the Angels on August 18th of that year. In the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Sox down, 4-2, Lancellotti hit a sacrifice fly to deep right field, scoring Tom Brunansky. Lancellotti trotted off the field, never to appear on a major league field again.

That didn’t stop him from chasing that dream. By that point Lancellotti was 34 and had already played eleven seasons in the minors and two in Japan. He played one more season in the minors (for the Sox’ AAA affiliate in Pawtucket). He had a solid year, batting only .209 but hitting 21 homers with 64 RBI; still the Sox released him. After that, he apparently lied about being older than he actually was to play in a senior professional baseball league then took 1992 to play in Italy before finally, as the saying goes, hanging up his spikes.

Rick runs a baseball school outside of Buffalo now.

The movie Field of Dreams is built around a few baseball tropes including the one that a man who loves baseball might do just about anything to play one more time or to have played well even once. I believe this trope. I was a terrible baseball player but I loved it. I can still remember the two home runs I hit in little league. I can still remember a brutally hot summer day when I caught all six innings of a game on a dirt diamond. I can still remember the one time I caught a foul ball as a catcher, throwing off my mask and lurching at the last second to catch the ball and then belly flop. I can still remember the one inning I pitched and the one boy I struck out.

Rick Lancellotti had some fine seasons in the minors. In 1979, when he was 22, he hit 41 home runs with 107 RBI for AA Buffalo. He was too good a player to remember all of those home runs, but I bet he remembers a few.

Something tells me, though, that Lancellotti remembers that last at bat for the Red Sox. Standing in the left-handed batter’s box at Fenway, he worked the count to 3 and 2 off Willie Fraser. Weather Underground tells us it was 90 degrees and muggy when Lancellotti swung at the sixth pitch and drove the ball deep to right field. I am certain he would have watched the ball carry, watched Dave Winfield catch it, and watched Tom Brunansky tag and score. Then he would have turned right, trotted into the Sox dugout. I am sure some of the guys got up to pat him on the back and on the head. Dwight Evans, Tony Pena for sure, maybe even the quiet Ellis Burks.

Lancellotti would have taken off his batting helmet and put his cap back on. I bet he looked back out on that brilliant Fenway grass. He just had a good at bat in a game in a year when the Red Sox won their division. We was living that dream.

 

 

The One Job You’ve Known

FullSizeRenderI spent the day at Suffolk Downs yesterday with a couple of old friends. I’ve spent a handful of days there in the past, but it officially closed two years ago, had a handful of live racing days this year, and will have a handful next year. After that, it is more than likely gone. There are some thoughts that if they get slots there they might be able to have a few days of live racing each year, but I don’t think many people are betting on that, so to speak.

Suffolk Downs is a 2.5 mile drive from where I grew up, but less than a mile as the crow flies (or more likely sea gulls). The only thing separating my street from the edge of the racing oval was a narrow inlet and a whole lot of marsh. The men in my neighborhood drove or took the subway over, placed a few bets and drank a few beers. On a hot August night in 1966, we stood at the bottom of my street and listened to the Beatles playing there. My memory tells me we heard the screaming more easily than we did the music.

I am neither a horse lover nor a gambler. I do like how handsome a horse looks, but from afar. My wife loves them, can tell me 1000 thousands about them I would never learn on my own. As for gambling, I like my own money too much to have it leave my hands without much telling me it’s going to return.

Still, I do like watching horse racing and I liked being with my friends. I went there prepared to lose the money in my wallet and nothing more. I came home a few bucks up.

Mainly I enjoyed being with my friends. I can remember standing with the same two guys–Grizz and Butch–at least 30 years ago. They were as smart about it all then as I am still ignorant of pretty much every detail. I did used to know how to read the racing form, and I was a little disappointed it was cryptic to me yesterday. I won more when I was guessing than when I was making what I imagined was an intelligent choice. That probably says something about me, or gambling, or both.

I was struck more than a few times about the place was winding down. Some of the regulars are old, some using walkers or just moving slow. Most of the employees–save the jockeys and other people working with the horses–are my age and older. I don’t think too many people besides me were all that philosophical though. It was a beautiful day, and I think they were doing their jobs the way the always had, and that included the gamblers.

I do think there are many stories to be told there, though. I didn’t take many pictures, but if I had, it would have been of the people working. When the track officially closed two years ago, I read that 325 employees would be losing their jobs, and “thousands” of contractors would lose work. That’s a major economic dislocation any time, but Suffolk Downs is the only horse track left in New England. (The next closest one is Saratoga Race Track.) It’s one thing to be a bartender or a computer programmer and lose your job; there’s likely one in the same town or a few towns away. It’s another thing entirely for you to work in a field where the only employer in your region goes away.

What does it mean when the only job you’ve ever loved–or maybe even ever known–goes away and isn’t coming back?

There’s a story in that. Maybe I should write it.

Saying Goodbye to Football

football.jpgI am, and always have been, a huge Boston sports fan. I have to qualify it with that word “Boston,” because if there isn’t a Boston connection, I am not interested. My boys–both very good basketball players–have taught me to appreciate elements of basketball that I would have never learned on my own. I can watch at least part of a college basketball game with them, or an NBA game that doesn’t involve the Celtics.

People wax philosophically about how a love for sports passes from father to son.I think I did that with my boys, though they chose their own paths. My true loves growing up were the Red Sox–often the alpha and the omega of my sports world–then the Bruins, then the Celtics, and then the Patriots a distant fourth. My boys have their own order–the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox, and Bruins. The Bruins are truly an afterthought for my younger son; my older son has recently become a bit of a fan through his girlfriend. Girlfriends will do that to you.

I think our own loves come, in part, from how sports are imprinted on us at the right ages. When I was eight, it was 1967 and the Red Sox improbably won the pennant. They were the cardiac kids, winning one comeback game after another with late-inning heroics, usually involving Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz had an MVP season, won baseball’s triple crown, and played the best defensive outfield I have ever seen.

If you’re doing your math, the Celtics were still in their glory days. They were finishing a 13-year run of winning 11 championships, finishing with two more in 1968 and 1969. Somehow, though, they were on the edge of my sports consciousness. I am guessing they weren’t on TV as much as the Red Sox. Maybe I somehow knew they were on the descent. I do remember when Russell retired after the 1968-1969 season and the Celtics were left with Hank Finkel as their center. Finkel was a decent player, but what he truly represented was that he wasn’t Bill Russell, but then again who is.

In 1970, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and Bobby Orr took over Boston sports. He was, to this day, the most exciting athlete I have ever seen. He truly transformed the game of hockey, and every boy in greater Boston wanted to be #4. Rinks sprang up everywhere as youth hockey exploded. I joined a team at 11, and played until I was 18. I was not a very good player, but I loved it.

The Bruins faded after winning one more Stanley Cup in 1972, the and the Celtics emerged with the team that remains my favorite Celtics team–two championships in 1974 and 1976, led by Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, and Paul Silas. Tommy Heinsohn coached them to play at full-speed at all moments. Today people know Heinsohn as the shameless “homer” announcer for the Celtics, but he was a great coach, and a great player before that. He’s one of four people who are in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

And the Patriots? Throughout my childhood and adolescence, they barely existed in my mind. At one point there was some neighborhood pride in how many of the Patriots stars were Italian (quarterback Babe Parilli, kicker and wide receiver Gino Cappelletti, and linebacker Nick Buoniconti). But they were, as a New York Times article aptly said, “a comical traveling side show,” that practiced at a high school field and used some combination of Fenway Park and fields at Harvard, Boston College, and Boston University to play their games. I didn’t watch them for decades, and even their Super Bowl appearance in 1986 barely registered for me. The Larry Bird Celtics were about to win their third championship, and the Red Sox would go to the World Series that year (though we all know how that ended).

The Patriots only started to count for me when they counted for my  boys. They were eight and ten when the Patriots won their first of what would become four Super Bowl wins in 14 years. They have gone 182-54 in that time (compared to 280-327-9 in their other years). In addition to the four Super Bowl wins, they made it to the Super Bowl two more times, and made it to, but lost, four other conference championship games. In other words, in a span of 15 seasons, they were among the four best teams 10 times.

What Boston-area, sports-loving kid wouldn’t love this team?

I’ve never come out and said this to my boys, but I have been along for the ride, and not always happily. To me, as much as I like the Patriots and love that my boys have them to root for, I loathe the National Football League, and I don’t use that term lightly. They embody all the negatives in American sports–the insane amounts of money that could be put to far better use, their role as a vehicle for money from the lower- and middle-classes to pour into the hands of the very rich, their tolerance for criminal behavior, and–most importantly–their dishonesty and callous disregard for the health of the men who play the game.

The concussion scandal alone should have done it years ago. I was reading about the problem as early as 2008, and the news has only gotten worse.The statistics alone should horrify you: of 79 autopsies recently done on NFL players who had exhibited brain problems, 76 were confirmed to have significant brain disease, And if statistics don’t convince you, read about some of the saddest stories. I have to confront it:these were men playing a game–a game–and billionaires were getting rich off them, from money I was helping to put in their hands.

There’s more to it. There are so many NFL players who have been arrested that there are even databases for it.I am enraged at the way public lets the NFL play them for suckers, spending public funds for private gain when the money could be spent in a thousand better ways. I wonder, too, if the billionaires just laugh or also light up cigars at the fact that 80% of NFL players retire broke. Of course these young men could have managed their money better, but they also should have been paid many times more, and they shouldn’t be the products of college “educations” that more often than not only prepare them for professional sports and nothing more. The recent astonishing sports scandal at the University of North Carolina garnered a few headlines and promptly disappeared.

Just what are we up to here? We’ve created an industry that pours men, like gladiators, into stadiums. We watch them risk their health for our pleasure. We live with the fact that many of them are doomed–again a word I don’t use lightly–to a life of poor health, or even devastatingly bad health–mental illness, cognitive loss, substance abuse, and sometimes violence or suicide.

Two weeks ago I read a very good article about the concussion problem in the New York Review of Books. It showed I am not alone in my feelings. There are books about the NFL’s problems now-serious books–and at least one excellent documentary. They suggest the NFL is about to go into decline over these problems. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I hope it is. I hope for the sake of these men, and for the kids down to the age of five and as small as 35 pounds who are out there right now in uniforms and helmets, learning how to tackle and block.

I can’t solve the problem. If a few people are reading this, I doubt that I can even convince you. I only know what I can do, and I am out.

Baseball, in so Many Words

800px-Coco_Crisp_on_June_6,_2011As much as I love all the other sports, baseball is, and probably always will be, my favorite sport. I can blame being eight years old in 1967 and Yaz having one of the greatest all-around seasons in the history of the game. I can blame 1975 and Lynn and Rice and Tiant. I won’t blame 1978 or 1986. Of course I can blame 2004 and 2007 and 2013, but especially 2004. Especially 2004.

Part of the reason I love the game, though, is the language. I submit, without documentation, that baseball has a language and terminology that vastly outstrips its competitors. Seeing-eye single, Texas leaguer, tipping your pitches, punchout. I love Eck-speak–yakker, cheese, going bridge.

I especially love baseball on the radio, and the language that fills my ears. Even the names can be great. Take, for example, my half-baked, pun intended, Major League Baseball All-Food Team.

Coco Crisp is the veteran switch-hitting centerfielder who played for the Red Sox for a few years. I don’t even want to know if it is his real name or not, as it rockets him to the top of my all-time Food Team. It puts him past Catfish Hunter, Mudcat Grant, Tim Salmon, Steve and Dizzy Trout, and one-time teammates Chili Davis and Candy Moldonado. Let’s not forget Alfredo Griffin. Bill Bean (and Billy Beane). Randy Bass. Bob Kipper.

(There was also a Barry Wesson in the majors, but I haven’t come up with a rule yet for brand names. That would open the floodgates to the likes of Bill Campbell and Tom Prince, for starters.)

I prefer a name like Strawberry over, say, just Berry. There is only one Strawberry in the history of major league baseball. There are a number of Berrys in the history of baseball; the one I always think about is Ken Berry, who played most of his career with the White Sox and was a nemesis to the Red Sox.

Besides Crisp, the Red Sox have had a few food-named players. Jim Rice of course. Steve Curry. Charlie Berry and, much later, Sean Berry. Jeff Frye and Jack Coffey (admittedly a stretch on spelling, but this is more often a spoken discussion than written, and would allow for names like Johnny Oates and Bob Veale to be added to the larger roster). Rob Deer (if you include game) and Jimmie Foxx (if you include game and allow for a stretch on spelling). Catfish Metkovich (you could look it up! No, really, you could look it up.).

For later discussion, words that are not food per se but food terminology, such as Bernie Carbo, Eric Wedge, Guido Grilli, Jack Baker, Tom Brewer, and old-time player Ralph Glaze. Don’t forget Wes Stock and Taffy Wright.

OK am hungry. Must take a food break.