A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

Life is a funny thing. It had been a while since I thought about Bob Calsyn, my old graduate school friend. But then I recognized that a post I wrote five years ago was getting visited more than usual today. Clearly, the fifth anniversary of Bob’s death on September 21, 2012 isn’t going unnoticed. He deserves notice and remembrance. I’ve not known a better man.

Memory has a different place in our lives than in ancient times.

The pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of the heaven Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited.

Bob would not have liked Hades. He lived for the sunlight, not the shadows.

The life of the pre-literate Greeks was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American survived only about 50 years. The brevity of our time above ground was certainly known to the ancients.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated those men. (And I speak of men only, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged, seen as having almost no function other than sex, companionship, rearing children, and producing domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used.

Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and material things, too – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. It took the form of reputation or fame continuing beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. No one was going to write a book about you, since there was yet no Greek alphabet.

The point being, Bob deserved more than a little of the old-style glory. Telling you his tale once again is the best I can do and the least I can do.

As you might imagine, I have lots of feelings today. If you read this post before I hope you will take another look. And, if you haven’t, then his admirable life will be a fresh experience for you. For those of you, especially my female readers who have been disappointed with my gender, perhaps Bob’s life will give you a bit of hope to keep looking. Regardless, maybe knowing him a little will make you a better person, as knowing him a lot made me. Here is the link: Bob Calsyn

One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

George Altman and the Art of Living

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Nineteen-sixty-one began well for George Lee Altman. The year also looked positive for Jack Randolph Stein — my brother, Jack — the ballplayer’s best nine-year-old fan. Jack studied the newspaper box scores and memorized Altman’s statistics. He defended Altman to any “unbelievers” who might have preferred some other big league star. No defense, however, was needed in 1961: by baseball’s All-Star break Altman led the league in hitting. The 6’4″ black outfielder blasted a home run in the game. Only a better Cubs team would have made the world of George and Jack perfect.

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Ah, but the baseball gods are capricious and the long ball Altman drove over the fence proved the highpoint of his Major League career. After another All-Star year in Chicago he was traded to St. Louis and then to the New York Mets at a time when a ballplayer might be considered a “well-paid slave,” to quote Curt Flood about his own baseball career. But this story ends well so don’t lose heart. George Altman never did.

I offer you two stories here: one, a brief recounting of the life of an extraordinary athlete and man, and the other of a little boy who admired him. A tale, too, of the unexpected turns you meet if you live long enough.

Altman was 27-years-old in 1961, Jack at the age boys acquire heroes. Baseball permitted the love of a man of a different race in a way not allowed by almost any other public activities of the day.

Jack modeled himself after Big George. He adopted a similar left-handed swing of the bat; played the outfield as his hero did. My brother even hoped to spend time with him, something impossible after a ballgame in an ad hoc autograph line.

Jack wrote to the athlete at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. “Mom will cook you a meal of steak and beer,” he included as an enticement. No brewery inhabited our basement and no beer lived in our refrigerator, but the letter found its way out the door. Jack waited. The whole family waited and wondered.

My brother received a picture-postcard with Altman’s photo on one side and his autograph on the other. No mention of steak and beer. No comment at all.

A little history: George Altman played a part in advancing race relations in the United States. In 1947 Jackie Robinson, enabled by the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager (Branch Rickey), broke the informal collusion among Major League Baseball’s owners to keep the game white: the color line. From Robinson’s arrival it took until 1959 — the same year George Altman joined the Cubs — before every team had at least one black man. Big George was among the last to play ball in the Negro Major Leagues (a gifted dark-skinned player’s only alternative to the barred door of the Majors). They began to unravel when some of their best athletes found jobs in the newly integrated big leagues.

A rough road greeted “colored” men (as they were then called) even if they did leap the first barrier. Salary was modest, most took off-season jobs to survive, and racism among some of their white teammates presented itself. Managers were all white and informal limitations prevented “too many” dark-skinned men from taking the field as “starters.” Blacks had to room with blacks, whites with whites. Segregated hotels sometimes separated the races further. Little inter-racial socialization happened after the game ended and, even in the dugout, the dark and light often sat apart.

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Altman had another superb season in 1962, but his trade to St.Louis left both the ballplayer and brother Jack disappointed. Injuries undercut much of Altman’s remaining time in the big leagues, but he eventually became a huge star in Japan for eight seasons. Even then, however, he was a person on the outside. No longer an African-American in a white world, nor a college-educated-man in a group of men of more limited learning, he became an American in Asia.

George Altman grew up in North Carolina. His mother died of pneumonia when he was four. Willie Altman, his dad, made a living as a tenant farmer who became an auto mechanic. The senior Altman could be a hard man, a man of few words and hidden feelings; one who didn’t encourage his talented son’s growing athletic success or attend his games. But the junior Altman gave his all to succeed at everything he tried, including the back-breaking labor of picking cotton and tobacco during teen-aged summers. Altman graduated from Tennessee State thanks to a basketball scholarship. He later became “semi-conversant” in Japanese during his playing days overseas, and a commodities trader at Chicago’s Board of Trade representing himself from the seat he purchased with some of his relatively high Japanese earnings. Along the way he beat down colon cancer.

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Before he left Chicago, George Altman started a chess club for young people and helped build the Better Boys Foundation. The 83-year-old continues a focus on high school-aged kids and combating the evils of drug abuse, but Chicago claims a special place in his heart.

The tall childhood hero once again came to Jack’s mind with the recent World Series Championship of the Cubs. Perhaps, he hoped, a 55-year-old meal ticket could be punched as well. Jack tracked down his 1960s idol and made a date to visit him near Altman’s Missouri home.

The men who broke baseball’s color line are thought of as having advanced the status of their race despite the initially punishing reception of white baseball. Surely this is correct, but not the whole story. They also served all Americans of the time, not only by displaying their particular genius for the game. Blacks were not just stereotyped, but invisible in mid-twentieth-century America: no black newscasters, no blacks in commercials, few blacks on TV or in the movies; and then, almost always in roles fueling the worst stereotypes of the time.

That changed with the vanguard of “Negro” baseball players. Even bigots now observed African-Americans in a new role, heard them speak in radio and TV interviews, and read human interest stories written about them. Unseen, anyone can be stereotyped. A man or woman in the flesh becomes a person, not so easily molded into an object of derision. The black athletes of Altman’s generation played baseball well, but they played a more important role in transforming America. The frozen, deformed national consciousness of people of color reformed because of their courage. We are better because of them, if still not perfect. We are better because of George Altman.

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Expectations nurtured over time become unspeakably high. The goal, once achieved, usually disappoints: too much pent-up anticipation. Not this. The still trim Altman met my brother at the appointed restaurant. The ballplayer didn’t remember the “steak and beer” invitation, nor did the pair dine on the menu items Jack had promised, but the 55-year-old wish was otherwise satisfied — and not only because of the former Chicagoan’s pleasure at the success of the World Champion players who wore the same uniform he did. Here is Jack’s voice:

After a while I brought up some of the tragedies he endured, from poverty to racial prejudice to his son’s death in a head-on collision with a drunk driver; the loss of his grandson, too. Despite all this, George is an absolutely positive guy who appreciates his life and how he handled his most difficult times.

Since George is not legendary ballplayer, he seemed surprised anyone would drive a long distance to spend a couple of hours with him over lunch.  He enjoyed my detailed interest in his career and the recollections we shared of some of his greatest games.  For me, as I have learned more about George from his autobiography and our meeting, the hero of a nine-year-old boy became his hero again at 64-years-of-age. It was a happy experience for both of us.

Responding to a note of gratitude from Jack, George Altman wrote this:

Jack,

I thank you for the honor of your visit this afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. You reminded me of some great experiences I had in baseball. Thanks for the memories. I’m honored that you would drive almost 700 miles (round trip) to have lunch with me. I am amazed at your knowledge of my career.

God bless you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Geo.

Where do resilience and grace come from? In the dedication of his autobiography, Altman first thanks God and then his mother, “whom I never really knew. Everyone who knew her said that she was a beautiful, kind, and loving person. I have tried to use her legacy as a guideline for my life.” Then he names his wife, Etta; children, relatives, and friends, all acknowledged for “their love, comfort, and support.” Last, gratitude is expressed to five coaches, perhaps father figures, individually identified. As John Donne famously wrote, “No Man is an Island.” Whether he knows the line, George Altman knows the lesson.

The Stein family, ca. 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

The Stein family, circa 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

Back in the childhood I shared with my brothers we never thought about players writing books or their lives in retirement. We were too busy watching those still active. The “stars” were, quite literally, in our eyes.

Mid-twentieth-century America presented an easy opportunity to believe in heroes. I mean the celebrated athletes of the time, especially baseball players. As Homer said of Trojan War combatants, some were “godlike” men. The human imperfections of anyone in the public eye today, however, have become inescapable. Each man’s and woman’s Achilles heel is x-rayed, dissected, and shamelessly exposed. We live in an age of full-frontal-news. We know more, but are perhaps poorer because of it.

And then there are George Altman and other people like him, quietly living out their lives. There are never too many: intelligent, decent, and hardworking; gifted, grateful and resilient. How many of us can stand comfortably on a pedestal erected by a worshipful nine-year-old? The 64-year-old version of that little boy, my brother Jack, would tell you he met one last year: a man who made a difference, the rare example of a life well-lived.

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Most of the information on George Altman’s life comes from his autobiography, written with Lew Freedman, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. The second image above is Norman Rockwell’s, The Dugout, which appeared in the September 14, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting well-symbolizes the futility of most of the Cubs teams my generation watched when we were growing up. The video tribute that follows is worth the attention of any baseball fan. After a number of vintage photos there are some wonderful clips of Altman in action. Younger fans will note how much Wrigley Field has changed over the years. The following dugout image includes, from left to right, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman. I do not know the names of the other players, but would be pleased to be informed by those who do.

“Do They Still Play the Blues in Chicago?” Cue Up the Post-World Series Blues

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I am about to rain on the victory parade, but with a smile. I offer a few thoughts on the psychology of experiencing the first Chicago Cubs World Championship since 1908. Plus a word of condolence to the Cleveland Indians and their fans.

  1. Enjoy this now, Cubs Nation. Unless you are all immortal witch doctors, you will not be present at the first rainfall after another 108-year drought. The rain delay in Cleveland was a reminder.
  2. The faithful who gathered near Wrigley Field while the game was played elsewhere are a dedicated bunch. They paid attention to the score, drank, worried, talked, stood, cheered, and chafed their hands from overuse in prayer. They thought about the dead relatives who wore out their bottoms waiting in the station for the victory train that never came. They wept when the contest ended. To paraphrase what someone on Facebook wrote, “I guess now we have to start dating again.”
  3. My last post suggested rabid fans get to attach to something bigger by saying “we’re number #1” and holding up giant foam-rubber hands with the index finger extended. Well, who am I to take their joy away? I do realize, however, much as I’m pleased the Cubs won, “we” watchers didn’t achieve the victory: “they” (the players) did. Don’t believe me? Ask the boss for a 15-million-dollar annual salary, guaranteed for the next seven years, because of your contribution to the championship season.
  4. What is possible after the impossible? Red Smith, famous baseball writer, wrote about a different game in 1951: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
  5. If the Cubs are more than a pastime for you, if you were resurrected from a miserable existence by the 2016 team, your life might just have peaked. Yes, the glow will only fade slowly, perhaps not disappearing until Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or maybe it will vanish on November 8, Election Day, and the inescapable reality of US political problems.
  6. Even if the Cubs win more championships, the experience of last evening was like lots of other “firsts:” first kiss, first child, first wedding. Magic isn’t easily duplicated.
  7. Rooting for the Chicago National League Ball Club, LLC guaranteed you a like-minded group of people who all shared the belief that no matter how fresh the carton appeared in the refrigerator, the milk would curdle as soon as you tried to pour a glass. To the good, however, you had millions of other humans for commiseration. You will now need either different things to lament or a personal surrender to optimism and a change in your philosophy of life. Yes, being positive is a tough job, but someone has to do it.
  8. You thought tickets to Cubs Park were expensive before?
  9. Listen to the old Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is? Cubs fans are now like the dog which chased the fire truck its whole life and finally caught the big red machine, looked around, and thought “now what?”
  10. Hell just froze over, but was bumped from the front page by the Cubs victory.
  11. Everything happens for a reason. I thought I’d throw in this quotidian thought, since no matter the life event you are describing you can always utter the phrase. You could also say everything happens for a raisin, the wrinkly kind. If God didn’t have something better to do than decide it was finally time for the Cubs to become winners, he wasn’t paying attention. Can you receive an ADHD diagnosis and still be the deity? A rhetorical question.
  12. Here is another consideration on the subject of gods and reasons: atheist Cubs fans now own one less of the latter to justify their belief an all-powerful and all-good being can’t possibly be in charge. Cleveland Indian rooters who were religiously faithful until today will be seen fleeing the house of worship of their choice. Or going back in to pray harder. They now claim 68-years without a baseball crown.
  13. Don’t take any of the above too seriously. Except the part about enjoying the moment. Cheers, in every sense.

The photo of the 2016 Cubs World Series celebration is the work of Arturo Pardavila III as sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

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I’ve known serially unfaithful men who were also among the most loyal and devoted people on the planet. A contradiction? They were untrue to their spouses but lifetime cheerleaders for a different “one and only”: a sports team. Please follow along as I consider this paradox. Perhaps we can learn both a bit about romance and about being a dedicated male fan in the process. I’ll use baseball as my example, but you are free to substitute the competitive team physical activity of your choice.

Most of us fall in love for the first time with a ball team. One of our parents, usually the dad, leads the way. We bond with him, try to please him, want to become him. He takes us out to the home field and we are dazzled by the immensity of the stadium/stage for the physical theater about to unfold. Our innocent devotion to the parent leaches into an attachment to the team he also loves. Virtually every die-hard fan can remember the first time he went to the ball yard and with whom. The experience, like meeting a first-love romantic partner, is unforgettable.

Before long we join our playmates in some version of the same game, all the more to identify with our fathers, older brothers, and the players on TV. We bond to friends through shared love for the sport and being on the same team, pulling together, praying to the same baseball god. Sports is like a civic religion, as many have written: something bigger than yourself, outside yourself.

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The crowd’s roar is intoxicating. Goose bumps. When we play the game, the full-bodied effort of running, stretching, leaping, diving, sliding, and swinging is as “in the moment” as life gets, as love gets. The day is warm, the wind is cool. The physicality of the in-person experience, whether on the field or in the stands, is not sex, but consumes the body and enlivens us, as sex does. They both involve a sweaty intensity.

Fandom and romantic love put us in jeopardy, as well. We give our heart to someone or something else. In a sense, we have no control, certainly none in the case of our team’s performance. Well, at least if you are in love with a person you can sometimes influence the destiny of your affair or marriage. Ecstasy and agony are part of the standard rations of fans and lovers.

Remember those early dates with your heart-throb — the anticipation and the preparation, the clock-watching as the time came closer? Not so different from a fan’s mental state before a big game. The urgency of seeing the hero, being next to the young gods, hoping to get an autograph or a photo proves the preoccupation.

Unlike love, however, the worshiped participants on the playing field are forever young. Even when fan favorites age and retire we transfer our loyalty to a replacement, but still a member of the same squad. Our spouses, however, are not ageless. Nor are we, of course, yet we delude ourselves into thinking so. Listen to the out-of-shape, middle-aged fan saying, “Oh, I could have made that play!” somewhat indignantly.

You take your children to the park and bond with them, as you did with your father. We display pride in carrying the multi-generational torch, either to repeated visits to the Promised Land of World Championship or, for the long-suffering fans of forever losing teams, toward a first time experience of becoming vicarious champions.

Material objects take the place of a genuine fiery beacon. I once had a baseball caught by my grandfather in the Wrigley Field stands, just as I own a scorecard dad got signed by the legendary Rogers Hornsby. There is more shared energy and positive emotion and identification among the united Chicago Cubs Nation than the fraught relations within the United States or the United Nations.

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How interesting that we never betray the multi-generational pact we have with our relatives, friends, and fans by quitting the “team,” but some do cheat on a spouse. Where else in the world can you be #1 except by identifying with a team of élite magic-makers? Not at home, where our foibles are on display and beg forgiveness. The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.

Perhaps part of the reason some flee the spouse is that we can do all the complaining we want about the men on the field, quite unlike an actual mate. Criticizing a beloved human is more costly. The partner tends to push back, the players don’t. You can berate the young men, they don’t berate you. The only cost is the price of a ticket.

Where else can you tell someone he isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe at home with your kids, but you will easily alienate and injure them. Rarely is the boss or the spouse fair game unless you want to corrode the relationship, lose your job, or sleep elsewhere.

Another difference: baseball, whether playing or watching, is recreation: the “Great American Pastime.” Marriage is not. Marriage takes work if there is to be ongoing reward.

A relationship, of course, offers many benefits not provided by fandom. Requited love, sex, offspring, consolation, trust, understanding, and shared intimacy. A sports team will not reject you (unless it moves to another city), but it provides no meaningful looks, tender embraces, quiet confidences and shoulders on which to cry. Most fans would not give up on the idea of ever having a partner, despite the complications. A sports team, by comparison, is like making love to a blow-up, plastic woman. Put differently, sports — in this fan’s opinion — should be taken for what they are, not the dearest thing on earth: a good and loving woman.

There is no escape from heartbreak as a fan or a spouse, however. Indeed, athletics, particularly if you are on a Little League losing team or simply the youthful fan of the Major League variety, is a preparation for life. Yet we seem to mate for eternity with a uniformed bunch of men, not necessarily with a spouse. An able-bodied squad, significantly, is a sometimes thing, an observed entity, not a person you live with in-season and out. Ballplayers go home for the winter. Fans, in a sense, do too. Partners don’t.

I met only one faithless sports fan, ever. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the wisest man on the planet. Many of you know that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, when they lost in seven games. Lost, I might add, the World Championship that has eluded them since 1908. My friend was rooting for the Cubbies and was more than disappointed at the result. Soon after he made a major decision: he would never cheer for the Cubs again, never ever.

As a consequence, the gentleman in question enjoyed the ensuing 70-years far more than the rest of the Wrigley loyalists.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight-years-old in 1945.

The top photo displays Maurie and Flaurie (named after the original owners, husband and wife) of Superdawg, a Chicago drive-in and landmark. The W Flag is similar to the one that hangs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a Cubs victory. It is a practice going back many years, before the time we could consult our phones to discover the outcome of the game. Two different elevated train lines passed within visual distance of the flag, thus alerting fans of the day’s happy or sad tidings. The third image was taken by Arturo Pardavila III on October 22, 2016 before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo requires no explanation.

How Much Does Your Reputation Matter?

 Your reputation

It is hard to run from your reputation. Like your shadow, it keeps pace with you.

There are several aspects of reputation to consider:

  • How does a good reputation help you?
  • What factors influence whether you have a good reputation?
  • What are the consequences of being too concerned about your reputation?
  • Is there value in thinking about the reputation of others?

1. A recent study on baseball demonstrates how an especially fine reputation is helpful. Even if you aren’t a sports fan, I think you’ll find this of importance, but I’ll keep it brief.

As baseball fans know, the pitcher of the ball is trying to keep the hitter from getting on base. The rules require that if the pitcher throws the ball outside of the hitter’s “strike zone” four times, the hitter is automatically allowed to “walk” to first base. The formula is four “balls” thrown out of the “strike zone” = a “walk.” Unfortunately, however, Northwestern University’s Braden King and Columbia University’s Jerry Kim, have found that the pitcher’s reputation causes umpires to bias their judgment of those pitches that are not put in play by the batters.*

For example, “…umpires tended to favor All-Star pitchers. An umpire was about 16 percent more likely to erroneously call a pitch outside the zone a strike for a five-time All-Star than for a pitcher who had never appeared in an All-Star Game. An umpire was about 9 percent less likely to mistakenly call a real strike a ball for a five-time All-Star. The strike zone did actually seem to get bigger for All-Star pitchers and it tended to shrink for non-All-Stars.”

King and Kim further state:

Baseball insiders have long suspected what our research confirms: that umpires tend to make errors in ways that favor players who have established themselves at the top of the game’s status hierarchy. But our findings are also suggestive of the way that people in any sort of evaluative role — not just umpires — are unconsciously biased by simple “status characteristics.” Even constant monitoring and incentives can fail to train such biases out of us.

Simply put, we are influenced by status and reputation in ways that are difficult for us to overcome. It might lead to getting better or worse future grades because of your reputation as a good or poor student. It might mean that your reputation for work performance lands you better or worse jobs. It might mean that the school you went to (say Harvard or Yale) makes people think better of you, treat you differently, or automatically assume that you are smarter than someone who was just as intelligent but who could only afford to go to a more modestly priced school or no college at all.

2. Now for the second question: what factors influence whether you have a good reputation? I’ve already mentioned a few, but let’s consider others. For example, in the Ancient World of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it was common to ask people not only where they came from, but also ask who were their parents. This might sound a bit rude in today’s Western World, but it routinely came up early in contact between strangers at that time. You see some of this in the Bible, too. One’s lineage was assumed to say something important about who you were; better, in other words, to be the child of a king (and the heir to the king’s wealth and the ability to benefit from his gold-filled pockets) than the offspring of a slave.

We do participate in the same practice today, although it may take us a little longer to find out the information. We frequently want to know details of one’s parentage, upbringing, and life history to form an “opinion” about whether a relatively new social contact is someone we can trust and rely upon.

There is a downside, too. If your family of origin has a history of alcoholism or drug abuse, mom or dad can be quite a social liability. Indeed, your own parents probably discouraged you from being friends with certain other childhood neighbors because of what they already believed about those potential playmates’ families. At the greatest extreme except for murder, is perhaps when there has been a suicide in the family in question. Although suicide was seen as a perfectly honorable act by some in the Ancient World, Christianity apparently changed the view of it. Now, many think of it as dishonorable, cowardly, or sinful, even if they are not Christian. Moreover, it raises questions about the suicide victim’s spouse, children, parents, and sometimes even others to whom he was close; that is, it can throw a shadow over their reputations.

3. What are the consequences of being too concerned about your reputation? At one level, your reputation is important to making a living. If you are thought to be industrious and creative, your ability to make a good living is likely to benefit. The reverse is also true if you are thought to be lazy, unreliable, untrustworthy, or dull. Naturally, then, some awareness of your reputation is important, as is a desire to have it shine a good light on you.

But there is an alternative view of this, especially regarding those who are insecure, preoccupied with status, overly sensitive, or believe they have things about themselves that must be hidden from others. Such a person might be forever trying to find out what others are saying and thinking about him or her. He might be afraid of becoming close to people for fear that they will find out the source of his shame. At the extreme then, ever-present reputation concerns can be an ongoing nightmare. This is especially unfortunate if we remember that most people spend much more time thinking about their own ups and downs than about you or your history.

The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it well when he said: “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…” John Wooden, the famously successful UCLA basketball coach, went so far as to focus away from reputation to what he believed was more important: “Be more concerned with character than reputation. Character is what you are, reputation is what people think you are.” Winston Churchill, the great British statesman, said the same thing in a slightly different way: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” In other words, have the right character and the strength to stand for what is important to you despite what others may think.

4. Finally, how much value is there in thinking about the reputation of others? Put differently, is it important to consider what you’ve heard or read about people, but haven’t actually experienced directly with them or from them?

People in new sexual relationships often don’t give reputation enough value:

Friend: “He’s a player. Don’t trust him. He’ll hurt you!”

The Innocent: “Oh, but he seems so nice and considerate. That can’t possibly be true.”

History may not be a perfect predictor of future behavior, but it is often the best one we have. We sometimes ignore that history at our own risk. As a therapist, I know very well that people can and do change, but not all do, and not all want to. Those with a history, sometimes even a history of early life mischief, can return to lying, cheating, and breaking promises in their own self-interest; and they are often capable of rationalizing their reversion quite successfully.

That leaves us with some dilemmas, doesn’t it? Not all reputations for good or ill are deserved. Yet some are. Too much trust and you will be someone’s fool; too little and you will have no friends.

Not all people who appear to be decent are decent. They may either be “confidence men” or men in whom your confidence is justified. They may be either people who have made genuine and lasting changes or those who will abandon you or steal, lie, and cheat when the chips are down. Only experience and street smarts will help you tell who’s who and I’ve never met anyone who always has the perfect measure of others.

Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but it is also heaven if you are lucky to meet the right ones and have the good judgment to tell the difference most of the time.

One more thing to remember. Be careful about being too judgmental. None of us is as good as we could be. I’ve never seen a perfect person, including the guy who looks back at me from the mirror.

 *This op-ed, What Umpires Get Wrong, appeared in the March 30, 2014 New York Times in the Sunday Review, p. 12. The actual study will soon be published in the journal Management Science.

 

 

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/winstonchu135210.html#PeKiGTagK0MzsQcy.99

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/winstonchu135210.html#PeKiGTagK0MzsQcy.99In research soon to be published in the journal Management Science, we studied umpires’ strike-zone calls using pitch-location data compiled by the high-speed cameras introduced by Major League Baseball several years ago in an effort to measure, monitor and reward umpires’ accuracy. After analyzing more than 700,000 pitches thrown during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, we found that umpires frequently made errors behind the plate — about 14 percent of non-swinging pitches were called erroneously.

 

The Lament of the Middle-Aged Sports Fan

Dale Kasel

Spectator sports, like therapy sessions, have their ups and downs. For the middle-aged baseball fan, even some of the downs have value. And so, as a public service, I will offer you a few thoughts on why millions of people spend billions of dollars watching something they can’t do and probably never could do very well; something that causes much aggravation and that, by season’s end, leaves most of them disappointed, year after year.

First, the painful fiscal facts. There are thirty Major League Baseball teams. In every season, the fans of 29 of them will observe that they rooted for a team that did not win the World Series. In the 2012 season:

The Fan Cost Index, the total price to take a family of four to a game increased by 2.4 percent to $207.68, according to Team Marketing Report’s exclusive survey.

The Fan Cost Index is created by combining four non-premium tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two programs and two adult-size hats.

I’m thinking the two adult-size hats were included because the alleged adults needed to cover the hole in the head that allowed them to spend over $200 for the privilege of a bad seat and a day shot on fighting the traffic just to watch the home-favorites lose. And remember, I’m a baseball fan!

So what explains this exercise in self-flagellation and taking the fast-track to a life of poverty?

  • Comradery. Most of us find it very easy to talk at least a little to our fellow-fan of the home team, for the simple reason that we know he thinks like us and feels our pain; he experiences the same joys and sorrows as we do. We are bonded just by sitting in adjacent seats. It is a pleasant feeling and people out for a day in the sun usually start that day in a pretty good mood.
  • An Opportunity to Complain. Complaining, unless you are a member of the Tea Party, is seen as being a bad sport here in the USA. We think of ourselves as a “can do” people, who need to be blindly optimistic no matter the circumstances. But sports gives us a socially approved opportunity to vent and we all need some venting. That’s why we purchase air-conditioners and keep the windows open when we drive.
  • The Illusion of Youth. Where else can a 350 pound middle-aged man get away with saying, “That was an easy ground ball. Heck, I could have fielded that.” This, from a man who cannot see his own shoe tops while standing. Really. We all want to think of ourselves in the heady and fit days of our youth, when agility had not yet been replaced by flaccidity and ill-timed flatulence. For $207.68 you get four tickets to a place where people don’t laugh at you when you imply that you are a better man than someone half your age.
  • Distraction. Baseball is a pastime. It takes you away from the fact that your car needs repairs that you can’t afford, your son needs braces on his teeth that you can’t afford, the boss needs work you can’t afford to botch, and your spouse wants you to repair 18 different parts of the house that you can’t afford and have no idea how to fix on your own. A baseball park offers a place of escape, a Never-Land of illusion, a temporary refuge from the steam-roller of life.
  • Identification. Most of us lead pretty ordinary lives. We are not great heroes and athletes. No one we pass on the street points to us and says, “There goes godlike Achilles! Wow, I wish I could be like him.” But at the ballpark we can identify with wonderful athletes who can do things that we can’t and never could. When they hit home runs, so, in some sense, do we. For our $207.68 we borrow the hero’s prowess and glory in his achievements, at least a little bit. And, should the team actually win a World Series Championship, we hold up the foam finger we bought for even more cash and shout “We’re Number One!” We?
  • Looking for Something Bigger than Ourselves. Nietzsche said “God is dead.” That wasn’t entirely good news. Most of us seem to need something bigger than ourselves to attach to and believe in. We need other fellow-worshippers, too. And so we go to the ballpark, where the faithful at the green cathedral continue to hold on to the belief that, finally, “This will be our year.” That all those who believe in other teams are actually worshipping false gods. That the ballpark is a substitute for a church, a temple, or a mosque. And that the cost of admission is like a donation or a tithe — a small price to pay for the privilege of worship; to see the ballplayers, AKA the priests, perform (we hope) their magic on the field of play and give us reason to “believe” in spite of the fact that the team is 30 games behind the leader in the standings with only 25 games left to play. It is, in other words, a place where a die-hard baseball fan prays for a miracle.
  • Bonding with Our Children. Whether you have a boy or a girl, there is something quite wonderful about watching the game together, teaching them the rules, letting them share your excitement, and recalling for them the time your dad took you to the ball park, and the time that his dad took him to the ballpark, in a never-ending line of shared experience and love.

I have a confession to make. Until I was in my early-60s and suffered a torn meniscus in my left knee, I actually thought I could still play ball passably well. Yes, I was one of those people I’ve just described. Self-deluded. Holding on to a youth that was long past. Rooting for a team (the Chicago Cubs) that still hasn’t won a World Championship since 1908.

We need our illusions, our attachments, our distractions.

Perhaps $207.68 is a better deal than I thought.

The top image is a photo of Dale Kasel in 2007, then an outfielder for the Air Force Academy baseball team. It was taken by an unknown author and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.