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Father’s Day 2016: A Poem In The Cards

This is a chapter from a book I’ve had in progress for more than 15 years — one day I may finish it, but for now, here is my tribute to fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and fathers’ friends, all of whom help us craft poetry out of our allegiances. Hat tip to Cory Doctorow who provided inspiration along the way.

“..so the cards stayed in the glass cases in Eddie’s…And after a while I no longer opened my shoe boxes…And the surprising thing was that I never really missed them. Or even thought of them in any special way. And very gradually the memory of it all faded….And that is the way you always lose your childhood.”
– Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book”

“It all made poems…when I spread them out in front of the TV, and arranged them just so, they made up a poem that took my breath away…A thirtyish bachelor trying to spend half a month’s rent on four glasses so that he could remember his Grandma’s kitchen was a story and a poem.”
–Cory Doctorow, “Craphound”

My childhood was never lost, not with the passing of Willie Stargell and not with university commencement and not when my baseball cards were thrown away, because my Mom never thought to dispose of the briefcase in which they were safeguarded. My childhood retreated and went subsurface, only to be reeled back into current events with my own kids. Collecting sports memorabilia, especially sports cards, is the cornerstone of that rebuilding.

I love collecting things with a past. They form a jigsaw puzzle, missing some center pieces, telling most of a story with only a few salient details left to be discovered or invented. I have an entire box of world coins, collected by uncles in various tours through Europe, stamped with mint dates between the World Wars, in currencies or from countries that no longer exist. The older, more worn coins have history encoded in fingerprints and scratches. Their person to person circulation stopped when pocketed by someone like my Uncle Ziemel, saving a coin from every country where he had a cup of coffee and told his own stories.

Coins were something to be studied and tucked into cardboard albums; baseball cards were the circulating currency of my youth. I remember the smell of the bubble gum inside the wax paper packages, the slightly gritty feel of the card unlucky enough to be riding shotgun with what passed for gum but had the taste and consistency of an ill-fated marriage of gum rubber and sugar. Baseball cards arrived in my hands from a number of sources: cards won in flipping contests with classmates; payment for some nerd oriented activity – my biggest haul being payment for the home-made Phillies jersey t-shirt that eventually ruined my friends’ laundry; a reward after a Little League game long before the snack bar became a staple of the 60-foot diamonds.

I sorted, arranged, cataloged and read my baseball cards with interest ritually required for rabbinic interpretation, fearing that I’d overlook some subtle nuance or fact that might prove useful later in life. It’s how I learned that Willie Stargell was from Oklahoma; that he owned a chicken restaurant that was his off-season occupation; or that some baseball players took time off for military service before resuming their careers. Baseball cards were the intersection of nerdiness and sports; they let me be a student of the game without actually playing the game. They were a view into the game; they elaborated on players’ lives off the diamond one sentence at a time; they were a mass of statistics and numbers and checklists and other things to thrill a budding engineer. I never had the urge to collect famous players or complete sets; I had what I had and was happy to pick up the occasional extra Willie Stargell card as well as additional Pirates or Mets. Too young for Mickey Mantle, too old for baseball cards as a serious business. Cards were the harbinger of elementary and middle school springs, pre-dating televised spring training games or fantasy baseball magazines on the variety store shelves. An old business-suitable briefcase served as safe haven and predictor of their eventual value in someone else’s business, and prevented them from suffering in the periodic childhood closet pogroms.

Somewhere between 7th grade and having kids of my own, sports cards went from “my business” to Big Business. Collectors fret over the nuances of a card in mint condition and look at the quality of the image on the card stock. Price guides abound and cards represent a brisk business on eBay, creating a stock market for childhood memories. Sports cards don’t have the well-traveled history of a 1923 Czechoslovakian coin. They go from sealed pack to plastic holder to eBay or memorabilia retailer, untouched, unworn, maintaining their “near mint” status but losing some ability to carry the memory of touch. The sports card industry has somewhat made up for this by embedding pieces of game-worn jerseys or equipment in the cards themselves, so our associations with the cards are through experiences with the literal sports thumbnails wedged between the pasteboard slices.
Before commercial interests established formal systems for card ownership, my own grading system went something like this:

  • Pack Fresh. Smells of bubble gum, and minor nicks where the glue that holds the wax packs together leeches onto the face of the cards. They last approximately 36 seconds in this state before being shoved into pants pockets, thrown into boxes, or deemed fit only for spoking. Should a particularly interesting card surface in the wax pack, the lifespan of pack fresh cardboard increases correspondingly, but eventually the goods have to make it back to your bedroom.
  • Unlaundered. Rescued from pants pockets before the washing machine could bleach ink from the paper, corners slightly damaged from last minute shoving out of a teacher’s line of sight, but reasonably legible.
  • Game worn. Today “game worn” means the card has that small slice of a jersey, bat, glove, stick, or other equipment wedged between the front and back faces. It is a bit of the game reduced to trading size and delivered to the collector. In middle school, “game worn” meant that the card had seen its share of flipping, trading, last-second jamming into desk trays in home room, and any other signs of having been played with by pre-teens.
  • Spoked. Shows clear signs of being clipped to the fork holding a bicycle wheel. Spoking a card, or a set of cards, meant that your bicycle made a cool thwack-thwack-thwack sound as you raced up and down the street; if motorcycle mufflers were filled with papier-mache you’d get the same sound effect. Much of the ink on the front is worn off, and at the atomic level card is barely held by the weak nuclear force. There are definitely times when, as fans, we feel we’d like to take one of our less favorite players and administer a virtual spoking, but as kids we did it symbolically and regularly. I humbly apologize to the man in the Pittsburgh hot corner, Richie Hebner, for spoking him. Multiple times. Not my fault he showed up in wax packs with the alarming regularity of the telephone bill.

Most of my baseball cards – and one errant pack of basketball cards, whose story figures prominently into my little sports montage – lead back to Grandpa Herman’s general store. The prime funding timing and sources for my little cardboard empire were spring and summer afternoons spent at my grandparents’ house. Each invariably brought a trip across the street to the general store, where the candy assortment seemed to stretch from the front door to the darker regions where the meat cases began and younger interests faded. Grandpa Herman’s store evolved from a carriage stop; Smithburg is midpoint – the way the crow flies or the carriage is drawn – between New York City and Philadelphia. A disorganized mosaic of office supplies, hardware, cold cuts, and engine parts defined the boundaries of the store, only Grandpa knew everything’s true location but you never had to ask twice for any item. You could get a tank of gas pumped and the same person (frequently my father) made you a sandwich, tossed in a bag with carriage bolts and some oil (sandwich or crankcase, your choice). The shelves ran floor to ceiling; the days ran dark to dark o’clock.

Somewhere near the front door, just to the right, where the grandchildren could look up at Grandpa, and he would look down over the counter to his grandchildren, were boxes of Topps baseball cards, seated proudly on the candy shelves next to the Necco wafers. On Sundays when the family congregated at our house, Grandpa brought an all-star selection from his general store along in the trunk, a true grab bag with all of the younger cousins bobbing for whatever goodies we chose without visual cues. The unmistakable feel of a pack of cards in your hands, the promise of what lay inside, is a juvenile lottery ticket on which there is no way to lose. Even if you get your fourteenth Richie Hebner card.

One Sunday in the late 60s, several of us – the kinder, as our grandparents referred to us in Yiddish – popped into the store. In the floor, near the register, was a small trap door that functioned as a safe at one point. Inside were all of the trappings that didn’t quite make the candy aisle, including a dusty box of Topps trading cards. We were handed several unidentified wax packs of cards, with Grandpa’s shrug indicating that he didn’t know what they were either, but his smile said that he was happy we’d take them. We tore into the packs that afternoon, realized that they were basketball cards of some unknown vintage. Faced with players who looked like our parents in their wedding pictures, from cities of uncertain basketball heritage (Syracuse? There were professional teams in Syracuse?) they were shoved into a back pocket while we hoped for another dip into the paper goody bag once we had crossed back to the house side of the street. Those hoops cards were dumped into the big briefcase along with the rest of my cardboard memories, where Willie Stargell, Ted Williams, and a collection of Pittsburgh Pirates (including a pristine Richie Hebner) sat protected from the elements. Most men will tell you that their baseball card collections died a more pitiful death than transit through the washing machine – they were thrown out during some room purge; my parents simply insisted that I clean out my room, and the briefcase moved with me to Massachusetts where the pieces of the Topps jigsaw puzzle would finally slide together.

It’s necessary to fast-forward to adulthood and my own married life. Taking a hint from the numismatists, sports cards today are slabbed and graded; once they become an investment they are no longer something you can touch to enjoy. That robs you of the feeling, of the connection, that this was little cardboard token was part of someone’s life, perhaps part of your own. I adore my old Willie Stargell cards that are far from mint condition with perfect centering and sharp color because they survived four tours of duty in my favorite school pants. Willie Stargell went to science class with me and sat where wallet and car keys sit today. The briefcase full of cardboard wonder came to rest at our house in Burlington, Massachusetts, where, between moves, I decided to examine its contents more thoroughly and was again caught blindside by sports tradition.

One of the advantages of living in a major east coast city is that the sports teams tend to have long histories, so it’s easy to pattern match childhood possessions against popular culture. Those nondescript wax packs of cards from Grandpa Herman were a set of 1957 Topps basketball cards, the first year such a set was produced. In the middle of the pack was a man in a kelly green uniform, sporting the #14 of the Boston Celtics: Bob Cousy. In my single-digit years this never registered with me; he was another guy with the wrong ball in a strangely lit picture. With the briefcase open, and the business of my cards displayed before me, I immediately recognized one of the saints of Boston sports. Gently slipped him into a plastic protective sleeve, then and ever since that afternoon Cousy runs above my desk, frozen in time dribbling toward the hoop, evoking the voice of late Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most with “a notion, going right to left”. Cousy’s backstory doesn’t involve basketball for me; it’s about my grandfather, a first generation immigrant to America; the humble beginnings of a major sports derivative business; boys and the little swatches of youth that we cling to forever. Or at least until we decide to part with them via eBay.

Fast forward to early 2005 when I am stuck at home with a broken leg, battling cabin fever, making it time to once again dip into my cardboard history. If the cards don’t hold my interest, there must be someone else who can put a time and place to a face, a quote, or a number left open on a checklist. Turns out that 1957 Topps basketball cards have a following somewhere north of ice hockey in Florida but less than current all-star baseball players; there’s significant activity and action as I lovingly photograph, describe and post most of the cards. Cousy watches the whole thing, immobilized in his plastic trap, as my trading business gains critical size and momentum. I am momentarily in middle school again, and thanks to the crutches, just as clumsy.

Riding shotgun in the wax pack with Cousy was a player named George Yardley who set the single-season scoring record in the 57-58 season. Yardley was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and is enshrined at the other end of Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even if you follow basketball, it’s likely you didn’t know that much about George Yardley, or any other NBA baller from that season. They were, and are, in the words of someone who met most of those players, “very nice, humble men”. Nice and humble don’t trump “valuable in this condition,” and my eBay transactions continue. This results in the hobbyist’s own worst enabler: more money to spend on the hobby.

Sales of old basketball cards fuel purchases of hockey cards. This dates back to the beginning of our family love affair with our favorite New Jersey Devil, Patrik Elias, when I asked Ben “What if we try to collect every Patrik Elias hockey card?” It seemed a simple way to get him interested in one of my childhood pastimes, a simpler diversion in a day of video games and movies on demand. Simple questions have complex answers. Obvious simple questions have very complex, difficult, expensive answers. “Every Patrik Elias” card tops out at close to a thousand unique items, ranging from the simple rookie card printed before anyone in New Jersey knew that the terminal, accented Czech “s” sounds like an “sh”, to cards highlighting milestones and carrying the ever-popular slices of game equipment. A first approximation of buying all of them would make it the most expensive hobby that didn’t land me in the hospital.

When they became big business, sports cards also lost their childhood. They became a stock market in their own right, with the card companies annually creating new products with ever-decreasing print runs. Today, sports cards are about numbered editions, jersey cards, game-used equipment cards, short-print (fewer than average) run, and rookie cards. They are about acquisition and ownership, not knowledge and collecting. However, they still have the ability to make adult men think about days spent looking at the faces of heroes, arrayed before them in a system that only made sense at the time, gazing back at us.

Starting with current cards selected from packs, and adding small “player sets” picked up on eBay, we had a good starting point. A year of more precise searching, bidding and research brought us more than halfway through An Illustrated History of Patrik Elias, in full color and mint condition. At that time, Ben and I hit what most collectors think of as the “hard ones” – the difficult cards were what remained as empty spaces in our collection; the easy finds were found and now equal combinations of money and luck were required. Immediately after becoming flush with hobby funding from I discover the existence of the Elias “Country of Origin” card. With some mix of bravado and stupidity, I decide I’m going to find one.

Sadly, there may only be one to find. The Beckett Price Guide, de facto authorities on sports card values, doesn’t list a price for it due to scarcity. This puts its value in collectors terms roughly on par with the Hope Diamond, with only a slightly better chance of finding one in the wild. Supposedly there are a dozen that have been printed, but I’ve only seen proof of two in existence; a picture on a web site and an eBay auction that I managed to misjudge. I search eBay listings and online catalogs to no avail; there are no more Elias Country of Origin cards than in-the-wild large bore diamonds to be found in New Jersey. That’s when luck comes into play, as one of the two is re-listed on eBay and I simply bid until it’s mine. I exchange the price of a good dinner for a small rectangle of high-gloss paper, an inch-tall picture of Patrik Elias on the side, and a square inch of jersey real estate wedged in the middle. Without eBay, I would have been forced to go to card shows, trawl through dealer inventory, and simply hope that a 3 ounce card and a 250 pound man crossed paths with a “do you know” radix of no more than two. The minor miracle urged along by good obsessive-compulsive online shopping habits lets me have a daily reminder of a great day involving two generations of heroes.

Three winters earlier, Ben and I attended the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It was a magic weekend of “guy time,” watching hockey, talking about hockey, glimpsing athletes in and around the hotel, going to parties and generally celebrating in a city known for celebrations. Elias was voted onto the All-Star team, wearing a maroon jersey for the World Team, facing off against teammates Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur skating for the North American All-Stars. During the pre-game warm-ups, Ben ran to the glass, watching the players skate without helmets, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elias as he sped by. Before the game started, the 1980 Olympic hockey team was introduced. My heart jumped up into my throat, nearly a quarter century of my own hockey memory looking back at me, waving again from the ice, this time in person. I quickly and quietly explained the Miracle on Ice to Ben, letting the video montage and the rink announcer provide the details. Two weeks later, at the opening of the Salt Lake City Olympics, we smiled again having seen this hand tipped as the 1980 hockey team lit the torch. Those are the moments that forever bond a father and son; not the winning or championships; just seeing heroes as men, made human without helmets or equipment, smiling for all to see. During that warmup period, when the players and the fans were all smiles as well, I captured one badly focused picture of Ben looking back at me, Elias looking back to the blue line, both of their blond curls in the frame, with a red, white and blue Czech flag jersey patch on Elias’ shoulder visible just past Ben. If you know countries of origin and hairstyle, you can figure out the puzzle, otherwise it’s another blurry picture taken in a major sports arena by an enthusiastic father. I love that picture for both reasons.

When the bubble envelope containing my personal Honus Wagner equivalent arrives, I wait for Ben so we can open it together. Nestled deep inside the mailer is a smaller package, wrapped with card protectors and tape, a hard shell inside the soft outside. We peel it open, and I show Ben the card with a jersey patch segment in the middle, a tiny window on a Czech flag waving to us, having gone from Elias’ shoulder to our kitchen through a card manufacturer. The look on his face tells me that he gets it immediately; he’s seen that player in that jersey with that patch, and we have the picture to prove we were there when the jersey and patch were game-worn. There’s a soundly reassuring circular logic to it, value in a shared memory far greater than the price tag. Even though our Elias cardboard mosaic now contains hundreds of little rectangles, there’s only one that sits out on display in my office. It frames a small lineup of a plastic-cased Bob Cousy, a well-worn Willie Stargell, and a flag-waving Patrik Elias. It’s the poem of multiple family generations, a haiku tinged with regret that I didn’t know my grandfather well enough, but hope and promise for what and who comes next.

Ecstatic with this happy end, I still have cards to mail out as payments trickle in, completing the flow of funds that funded my mental excursion back to Los Angeles. On the way to the post office with the George Yardley card, I notice that it’s addressed to someone with family name Yardley. This cannot be a coincidence, so I email him as soon as the bubble mailer is en route, asking if he’s related. The buyer returns stories of professional basketball players who are nice and humble and a George Yardley card is his own Country of Origin: his father is pictured on the front. He was putting together sets of his father’s sports cards for each of his kids. My grandfather’s desire to clean up his safe area, followed many years later by my desire to clean up piles of old trading cards, will connect another generation of Yardleys to their grandfather. I’ve returned whatever karmic balance in the universe that caused the Elias Country of Origin to re-appear out of the wild, as both Yardleys and I have bridged generations with a story told in pictures of our childhoods.

The value of memorabilia is the tensile strength with which it ties a thing to a point in your or your family’s life. I doubt Nick Swisher will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his photograph on my wall of signed pictures reminds me of the summer of 2009 when daughter Elana and I watched the Yankees together en route to a World Series win. It’s more Richie Hebner than Reggie Jackson, but it makes the memory tangible as well. The artifacts make poems, the poems tell stories, and the fire of those stories forges family tradition.

Thirteen on 13

I made a conscious effort to quantify more things in 2013 – my weight, health, reading habits, and a catalog of good things. Somehow the quantified self didn’t roll over into the more reliable self, but my Withings stats would tell you mathematically. Three weeks into the new year I don’t have resolutions per se that have been broken, but my lack of regular writing output also includes a failure to write an annual list (see 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2011 2012 historical references). This marks a decade that I’ve been writing publicly, which is an entire lifetime on Internet time. Rather than delve into a “best of” that’s already time deprecated, here are thirteen good things about 2013:

  1. Celebrated 25 years married to Toby. When we were 8 years old, and I saw her standing on the deck of a beach house in Harvey Cedars, I feel in love for the first time. That was 43 years ago, and she’s spent more than half of them with me. I am blessed. We celebrated with Israel, Ukraine, good friends and a lot of strange foods.

  2. Started a new job. After working for technology vendors for nearly 25 years, I seized an opportunity to go back to applied technology full-time. The problems are thorny, require the right mix of computer science and design, and I have a great team.

  3. Rediscovered the joy of recorded music. Working from home most days meant that “drive time music” was whatever I was humming while stumbling down the stairs. I’m now listening to an average of three albums a week commuting to that new job, and it’s great. Music defeats the aggravations of New Jersey traffic, weather, and makes for a nice segue between venues.

  4. Experienced one of the best hours of live music ever. Shared with good friends and our son, at Jones Beach, as a 6-hour rain storm ebbed and we wrung ourselves out, I heard Phish do a tour-de-force of my musical history. Oh yeah, got to meet Trey before the show too. All part of one of the best years of live music in a variety of venues, from Phish arena shows, to Rush, Frampton and Joe Bonamassa in smaller theaters, to some local area acts in Boston and western Massachusetts.

  5. Went to a Phillies game with my father and ran the circle of life counter clockwise. This time I took the pictures as he walked the bases post-game, at the modern instantiation of the same ballpark where I saw my first major league ball game and my real life hero took pictures of my boyhood sports hero (Willie Stargell, Pirates at Phillies, circa 1973).

  6. Witnessed one of the best displays of sportsmanship ever while dressed as Santa, handing out candy canes post-practice. One of my mite-aged hockey players asked for an extra candy cane for his brother who left the ice early. Sometimes being on Team Santa is its own reward.

  7. Visited the Ukraine for an exploration of my own history that was more emotional than I had anticipated. And more revealing. As my Uncle Ziemel used to say, “Nothing that is broken off is truly lost as long as you remember to search for it.” Half of a street address on the back of a 100 year old photograph tied together the threads of how my great-grandfather made his way from a small village to Kiev to Rotterdam to New York.

  8. Spent time with old friends. There is nothing better than re-igniting the sense of familiarity you shared a decade, ten area codes, four moves and a few kids ago.

  9. Toured the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Between Babi Yar in the Ukraine, the Day of Remembrance in Israel, and the World Trade Center site, I had a hat trick in understanding the impact of conflict.

  10. Sipped a coffee sitting outside of Cool Beans in Bay Village, on Long Beach Island, where I’ve spent at least a long weekend in about 80% of my summers. Even though some of the old haunts seemed smaller seen from the height of adult perspective, the memories were just as wonderful. And Crust and Crumb elephant ears are still worth every single calorie.

  11. Got kicked out of the Academie Francaise in Paris. After joking about it for more than 30 years, first with friend Steve, then with our daughter, I took a detour after a work meeting. Epitomizing American swagger, I walked in and was promptly asked to leave, but not before thoroughly butchering every known conjugation, pronoun and tense to get my picture taken by the security guard. It was one of the more weird things on my bucket list, but if Madame Scharf is reading this, Sheris and I were listening the whole time.

  12. Sat in on a recording session in one of the most intimate, well-engineered studios in New Jersey. Details coming on the band, the results and the process, and yet another bucket list item checked.

  13. Read more than thirty books, venturing away from a steady stream of science fiction to learn musical backstories.

There are any number of things that form the background radiation of a good year: Having kids make good adult life decisions, going to Israel, getting to work on interesting projects, loving every day that my wife puts up with my craziness, fixing my first guitar pedal and feeling like all of those late nights in the basement of E-Quad weren’t a total waste.

The Stargell Bobblehead Obsession

What’s in the confluence of eBay, late-night PowerPoint editing, and a disgust with Alex Rodriguez that borders on something you accidentally stepped in while using a public bathroom in the Port Authority? Bobbleheads. Willie Stargell bobbleheads and figurines, to be specific. After re-arranging my desk (retired the tired old iMac desktop, moved some pictures around, and decided to aggregate anything Stargell-oriented on its own shelf) I made the fatal mistake of seeing what eBay might have to offer to fill up my personal Hall of Resin Fame.

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

I use eBay for a work break the way I used to use a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies as a paper-writing motivation. You start with a small reward, then you’re up to a cookie each time you finish a page, and the whole thing collapses when you’re alternating word completion and cookie bites. In many cases, it starts with a simple search to see what new and exciting items I might have to add to a collection, or what inventories are showing up in the resale market. And this turned into an itemization of the various and sundry Willie Stargell bobbleheads available. Because if one mass-produced resin tribute to your boyhood hero is good, then ten of them reflect a healthy obsession. Or a flush PayPal account. Even if one of the figures is from the Danbury Mint, and owning anything from a pseudo-mint in one of America’s worst traffic states is a sign that there’s an AARP card with your name on it.

My desire to collect is also driven by a need to reconnect with my happier memories of baseball: A time when players had jobs in the off-season, and realized they were lucky to be playing a game for at least part of the year. Teams that had character, like Pittsburgh’s “Lumber Company” of the late 70s (Stennett, Sanguillen, Parker, Oliver, Zisk, Stargell, Hebner – 7 out of 8 position players who could deliver a hit when needed). Ballplayers who were humble, self-effacing, and hustled, all without the benefit of a lab in Florida. This counter-balances the rising tide of disgust I feel for the Yankees. They have the audacity to charge ticket prices that would bankrupt a family of four, hold onto or re-sign aging players in some hope they will jump-start a team without a soul, and find themselves in fourth place due to their inability to have both pitching and hitting on the same night. A-rod’s insistence on turning every stepping stone in his sordid path from post-season disappointment to Pete Rose sentence companion just pours more fuel on the fire. I’m quietly cheering the Red Sox, and of course the Pirates, knowing that somewhere “Pops” is smiling that his Bucs have figured out all of the pieces of the puzzle and might be headed to the playoffs. My Stargell shrine cannot hurt, of course.

Teamwork and Accountability

We can dish out blame for last night’s Devils playoff loss all over the place: the inconsistent referees, the fact that Kovulchuk skated like he’s got a “lower body injury” (groin, hamstring, torn back), DeBoer’s line shuffles that accomplished nothing, Marty’s decision to play the puck without looking at the forecheckers, Volchenkov once again managing to take himself (stickless) and Zach Parise (borrowing a stick) out of the play. This one is way beyond blame for individual details or efforts.

The Devils lost as a team, just as they did in the Game 3 disaster. The question is: do the Devils have the team work and the individual accountability, and those things in the right proportions and blends, to win two games in a row, and make a playoff run that doesn’t end with a May Day call? As players, coaches, and trainers, when you look in the mirror, before, during or after Game 6 and (hopefully) Game 7, please make sure you can honestly say that you’re delivering on your end of the experiences we expect, we demand, and we hope for as your fans.

I had hoped, entering this season, that it would be a neat bookend to the first year in which Ben and were season ticket holders – the 99-00 Cup run, the first year he played ice hockey. In this last year regularly sitting next to me at dinner, on the couch and at games, I’ve probably over-rotated on high expectations, facing a shortly empty nest. But at the same time, sports memories from our last year in high school sit on the saddle point of experience. They are the net summation of people, places and things chosen for us by older family members, and the first events we can pick through given the independence of spending money, a driver’s license and formal adulthood.

Baseball had diminished interest for me in 1979 until my first sports hero Willie Stargell led his Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series as I wrestled with college applications and parallel parking. Stargell united a diverse group of players; the “We Are Family” soundtrack to their pennant run wasn’t just a media post-production effect. They came together as a team, played as a team, and won as a team. Everyone did their part. Just a few months after he died in 2001, I had the opportunity to pick a jersey number of my own and I remembered my fondness for all things related to first baseman, number 8, Willie Stargell. The twin circles on my back are a continuous refresh of those memories that illustrated sportsmanship, leadership, bridging differences and taking personal responsibility for winning.

There are lifetimes of memories waiting to be created – for our families, for the Devils team’s families, for fans and potential fans across the Garden State – and two games in which to make them.

Feeling Old On A Friday Night

Bily Crystal wrote in 700 Sundays that he felt old when Mickey Mantle died, his first childhood hero’s death forcing him to deal with mortality. I felt the same way when Willie Stargell died in 2001, on the very day that the more-than-lifesize statue of him was to be unveiled at the new Pittsburgh baseball park. Earlier this week Yes cancelled their “Close to the Edge and Back” tour due to the hospitalization of lead singer Jon Anderson. Yes was the first band for which I developed true fanaticism, with multiple playings of “Close to the Edge” and “Yessongs” fueling the completion of innumerable nights of algebra, trig and differential equation problem sets. Anderson is suffering acute respiration problems, and suddenly I feel very old as one of my favorite rock singers is suffering from problems treated with, not caused by, serious chemicals.

A Yes show was also among the first to which I took my son Benjamin, at the ripe age of four (he made it through the first set). During the last Yes tour, we journeyed to Philadelphia to see them, and when Jon Anderson took a jaunt through the crowd Ben managed to touch his hand as he jogged by our seats. Wishes for a complete recovery to Jon Anderson so maybe we can catch (at least) one more tour with even more heartfelt high-fives from your fans of nearly four decades.

Celebrating With Willie Stargell

In his book 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal remarks that he finally felt like an adult the day that his boyhood hero Micky Mantle died. Six years ago, I had a similar experience: as the Pittsburgh Pirates prepared to open the new PNC Park for their home opener, Hall of Famer and personal boyhood hero Willie Stargell died, far too young and far too full of potential for good. The event prompted me to go for a physical, and I found that I was inhabiting a body that checked out ten years older than I was. It was the event that spurred me to take the hockey gear out of the basement, throw away the stuff that was too small, moldy, or fabricated from hazardous materials, and lace up to play ice hockey again. It re-ignited my love affair with the number 8, Willie Stargell’s number, the twin circles that made snowmen on the back of every jersey for which I had been able to pick the number.

Five months later, my 9-11 birthday went from a date I shared with Julius Caesar to one I shared in observance with most of America.

33 years ago, my parents took me to the other ballpark in Pennsylvania (Veterans Stadium) to watch the Pirates play, so that I could get a glimpse of Willie Stargell. The Pirates were in between World Series runs, and while we had a great time, it wasn’t until I was in my senior year of high school that I saw the healing power of sports. Willie Stargell led his racially and emotionally diverse Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series title in 1979, with the old Three Rivers Stadium bouncing to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” a song that came to represent the team unity that started with captain Stargell.

This year, I got to celebrate my birthday with some of our government and education systems engineers as well as a few customers at the new PNC Park. We walked in by the statue of Willie Stargell, as large as he must have seemed in real life, and then found our seats just past the food court that features “Chicken on the Hill” (a reference to the restaurant Stargell ran in the off-season) and “Fam-i-lee BBQ”, a less oblique nod to the 1979 World Champions. My dinner won’t help this year’s annual physical report, but I savored, literally, every moment to celebrate in the shadow of a hero.

With my birthday nestled on the calendar between the unofficial end of the Jersey summer on Labor Day, and the official start of spiritual accounting marked by the Jewish New Year, I prefer to see 9-11 as a day on which to take stock of opportunity. What can I do more of, do better, or do differently? What’s the scope of “We are Family” in 2007?

Something to think about delayed for four hours in the Pittsburgh airport.

Hot Times in the Igloo

Went to the Penguins-Canadiens game Thursday night (2/1) in the Igloo in Pittsburgh. Work related, not purely for fun, although it was a fun game. The Igloo is a complete toilet by most standards of modern ice hockey arenas. The ceiling is low and domed, there are a scant few luxury boxes, there is exposed ironwork that leads to some creative views, and it’s impossible to walk anywhere on the concourse. If Denver’s Pepsi Center is a 9, and the Continental Airlines Arena is a 5, then the Igloo is about a 2 on a good day. It does have character, and it does capture the complete essence of Pittsburgh sports (I rubbed the Willie Stargell plaque in the Gate 1 entry just because). Aside from that, it’s an inelegant place for an elegant game.

Nobody cares. The fans come to watch some outstanding hockey.

The house was packed. Literally: Sold out, over 17,400 people, all standing room slots filled. And nobody was masquerading as a red seat; every seat had a butt in it. Only two thirds of the crowd was male; and there were a significant number of school age kids there. The Penguins have a following, whether from outstanding young players, local television exposure, loyal fan base, long-lived family traditions, the consistency of Pittsburgh sports theming (all teams are black and gold, from Pirates to Steelers to Penguins), or just because the Igloo is a good place to get out of the snow on a Thursday night. The guy two rows in front of me was giving me high-fives on every Penguins goal, and I didn’t have the heart or cajones to tell him I was secretly rooting for Montreal to keep a double-digit distance between the Burgh and the Swamp teams.

Down the stretch if the Penguins need that little push over the edge, the bit that makes them “go to eleven”, they’ll get it from the guy in Section 21 who hollers “Colby” to Colby Armstrong every shift, like a dog barking at the moon, or from the guy who took his son into the men’s room and was proudly demonstrating use of the trough system (outside of Fenway Park and the old Princeton Stadium, it’s the only other urinal trough I’ve seen for that many people).

Attention, Devils fans: The Steel City cannot out posture us down the stretch.

Sole disappointment of the night (aside from the Penguins pulling it out in the shootout): Didn’t make it to Primanti Brothers for a sausage, peppers, slaw and french fry sandwich. Last one I had was two years ago and I’m still dreaming of it.

Elias Signs, Everybody Dances

Patrik Elias just demonstrated everything that I have wanted to ever teach about sportsmanship and loyalty. He signed with the Devils for $42M over 7 years, netting him a cool six million a year. While it’s a nice jump over where he is now, you have to frame it within two endpoints: during Elias’ first contract years, he felt like the Devils were underpaying him (they were), and most recently reports out of Montreal said that Bob Gainey had put an offer on the table to pay Patrik upwards of $7M a year. Elias could have asked a team for up to $8.8M a year, the maximum under the current salary cap.

He took a home team discount. He put loyalty and team above wallet.

In these days of free agency and market pricing, there are very few players who chose to stay with the team in which they make the show, let alone the team that drafted them. Patrik’s contract signing reminds me of Number 8 himself, Willie Stargell, who played his entire 21-year career with the Pirates, from being signed as an 18-year old to playing in their farm system to eventually having his likeness engraved in bronze in front of their stadium. Stargell was the heart and soul of the Pirates in the 70s, and Patrik will be the same for the Devils in the nineties, the naughties, and the teens.

All of our Czech merchandise is ready to be worn again, including the 3-by-6 foot Czech flag that I picked up in the Prague airport this week. You never know when you need to say mokrat dekuji, Patrik (Thanks, Patrick) visually from row 8 in the Meadowlands. I’m just thrilled we’ll be able to do that for the next few years.

Remembering The Goofy Stuff

Jose Reyes hit for the cycle tonight. My son and I saw the triple, which made him 3-3 and left Reyes only a single away from accomplishing the feat, and then we managed to catch his single that put him on this list of rare accomplishments.

What other baseball statistical class includes Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner, Kirby Puckett, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, but excludes Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and every Yankees player since 1995? Hitting for the cycle requires power, speed, bat control and sometimes a bit of good mojo at the plate.

It’s one of those goofy, unimportant sports events you remember for a long time. The first player I saw hit for the cycle was Richie Zisk of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a 14-1 drubbing of San Francisco in 1974. Brought up to replace Roberto Clemente, Zisk proved himself a hitter in all aspects that day, and he became the first Buc in 10 years to hit for the cycle. At that time, the last Pirate to join the club was Willie Stargell, who hit for the cycle in his third season. A generation from now, we won’t remember who won the game (the Mets blew it in the 9th), or who else was playing, but my son and I will smile when we think about the last school night of 2006. Sure beats studying for a social studies quiz.

Links, Communities and Cycles

Tonight’s post-Mets game quiz question: What baseball statistical community includes Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Yaz, Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell and Ted Williams, but excludes Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and every single Yankees player since 1996? Answer: Players who have hit for the cycle, collecting one hit of each type in a game. Hitting for the cycle requires a rare mix of hitting for power (home run), hitting for average (single and double), and base speed (triple). Stargell did it in his third professional season, when he still hit the occasional 3-bagger.

Jose Reyes of the Mets became the first player in 2006 to hit for the cycle. The Mets ended up blowing their lead in the 9th inning and lost the game, but that’s the unimportant piece of data. My son and I will remember this one because we watched it together, just as my father and I saw Richie Zisk hit for the cycle for the Pirates in 1974 (that was the first cycle completion by a Buc since Stargell did it in 1964). Zisk’s accomplishment made Pirates fans believe that there was something special about the outfielder who stepped into Roberto Clemente’s cleats. It’s a rare enough event that you file away its context, so that you can place it next to other memories of value.

This is how communities are formed and exist over long periods of time; you find some shared context that binds you to the next person who shares an interest. It works for sports fans as well as non-profit and community organizations; it’s the glue that holds Little League boards of directors together even as the players grow up and move onto larger fields.

The community glue is hardened a bit more when you have wikipedia on your side, of course. Within 10 minutes of Reyes’ single that completed his cycle, his Jose Reyes entry was updated, as was the list of players who have hit for the cycle.