October 2, 2012 | by James Santel
My grandfather died in St. Louis last year on October eighth. The following night, Chris Carpenter pitched a three-hitter against the Phillies, lifting the Cardinals into the NLCS and alerting the nation that rather than just a squad of plucky underdogs, the Cardinals might be a team touched by something phenomenologically greater than a hot streak. For certain members of my family, my grandfather’s mid-playoff death offered a locus for the sense of destiny awakening around the Cardinals; in the weeks to come, as the team mounted increasingly improbable victories, more than one relative offered comments in the vein of, “Wally had something to do with this!” or “Wally was watching over the Cardinals last night!” Being a skeptical and ragged Catholic, I responded to these remarks with quiet derision, as I do to all suggestions that the Almighty would choose to meddle in the outcomes of our mortal diversions.
But as the weather here in St. Louis finally cools after a boiling, interminable summer—a summer that saw the maddening Cardinals muddle their way to a fragile hold on one of the devalued wild-card spots—I find it difficult not to look back on last fall’s championship run and see a team touched by divinity, or magic, or fate—a moment when a higher realm reached through the portal of sport and touched this mortal plane. The Cardinals may well make the playoffs this year, but I have to confess that I’m finding it hard to care. Whatever illumed last season, it’s gone, and here in St. Louis, we’re learning to live in its aftermath.
“Baseball,” as Michael Chabon observed in McSweeney’s no. 36, is “a game that somehow seems to offer more room, a greater scope than other sports, for the consciousness of failure and defeat—has always been associated, in its own history and my own, with a sense of loss, the idea of the lost arcadia, the last patch of green folded into a pocket of the world of brick and asphalt.” The sport is a dissonant blend of nostalgia and modernity. On the one hand, as Chabon says, it is a sport stubbornly resistant to change. The unhurried pace, the managers in uniform, the persistence of Fenway and Wrigley, the timeless sound of vendors calling out over the chatter of multitudes—these are all dogged holdouts, boulders in the stream of capital-P Progress, a refuge of familiarity in a world that often feels bent upon making itself unfamiliar from one day to the next. As George Carlin once put it, the objective of baseball is to go home.
September 12, 2012 | by Scott Korb
Most of what I read about professional tennis, particularly the profiles of the game’s biggest names, appears around the Grand Slams, three of which are played over the summer here in the northern hemisphere. This was the summer of Roger Federer, Andy Murray and his new coach Ivan Lendl, and Venus and Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic, the world’s top men’s player when the summer began, had had his moment in Vogue in May 2011, during a season when, at one point, he’d string together forty-three straight victories and lose only six matches.
Near the end of that season, about a month after Djokovic saved two match points against Federer’s serve to win their U.S. Open semifinal, the New York Times Magazine ran an essay by Adam Sternbergh called “The Thrill of Defeat.” The occasion for the piece was the “278 million to 1” odds against the Boston Red Sox’s “epic” collapse during the 2011 pennant race. To a Federer fan looking back to the Open, though, those odds seemed about right. What also seemed right were Sternbergh’s thoughts about the basic absurdity of sports and, my affinity for Bart Giamatti notwithstanding, the “terrible sportswriters” who “argue that sports are a grand metaphor, a stage on which we witness essential narratives about determination, bravery and heart.” Read More »
September 10, 2012 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
At its best, my slice backhand follows the flamboyant path of a violin virtuoso’s bow striking the climactic note of a concerto—from above my right shoulder plucked diagonally down to my left shoestring. The ball’s tone is a hollow pok on hard courts and a chalky chh-chh on clay that dies on the second bounce. All these dramatics—mere vestiges of a time when I wanted to impress Angela, my middle school crush.
Angela played number one singles on the undefeated coed spring team at our private school in Princeton, New Jersey. Her long Italian American locks springing along with her high jumping-forehand, her second serve ball tucked in the spandex beneath her pristine tennis skirt—she was a vision of beauty to watch. Her movement around the court traced the Etch A Sketch path of someone fully in control of the game’s portrait.
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert describes how Dolores Haze plays singles at least twice a week with a classmate, Linda Hall, employing teasing tactics against her and “toying with [her] (and being beaten by her).” The particular beauty of Dolores's tennis game is, for Humbert, a prerequisite for an amenable afterlife, or so he whimsically hyperbolizes one crisp afternoon as Dolores plays in Colorado: “No hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she was then, in that Colorado resort between Snow and Elphinstone, with everything right …”
August 20, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
I arrived at the spring-training complex of the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Florida, around ten A.M. It would be a typical mid-nineties March day under a relentless sun. I was looking for Charlie Montoyo, the forty-six-year-old manager of the Rays’ top minor-league affiliate, the AAA Durham Bulls.
Outfielder Jeff Salazar pointed me toward the “half-field,” a regulation infield with no outfield on the outskirts of the sprawling complex. A chain-link fence separated the infield dirt from a swamp. There, I found Jamie Nelson, catching coordinator for the Rays organization, tossing pitches to Venezuelan catcher José Lobatón, who was crouched in full gear. He caught the balls, exploded out of his position behind home plate—helmet and face mask falling off each time—and threw darts to second base, where Montoyo straddled the bag and gloved the throws, then tossed the balls underhand into a rolling cart.
The three men executed this drill for fifteen minutes, saying nothing. I considered returning to the car for more sunscreen. Then I thought about “deep languor,” a term Richard Ford once used to describe the pleasant monotony of baseball and its routines. Read More »
July 31, 2012 | by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi
At the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, to which Britain did not send a delegation but at which it did earn two medals by virtue of owning Ireland, the first-place finisher in the marathon, a New York City bricklayer, was disqualified for having covered eleven miles of the course by automobile. The runner-up, a British-Bostonian brazier competing for America, whose trainers had administered him strychnine and brandy and egg whites and who had been borne along by officials for part the race, was declared the victor. At the 2012 London Olympics, in a video clip shown during the opening ceremony, the comic actor Rowan Atkinson (as Mr. Bean) was digitally inserted into the beach run that opens Chariots of Fire; imagining the scene as a race, Atkinson flags, veers offscreen, then overtakes the other runners in a car, rejoining the pack just in time to win.
Such filmed-to-order interludes, which cutely recontextualize iconic personages for special occasions, are familiar from Academy Awards broadcasts, and their appearance in a live Olympic commencement marked conspicuously the London show’s direction by British filmmaker Danny Boyle. Read More »
July 10, 2012 | by Chris Wallace
Late in the third quarter of a blowout loss at North Torrance High School my junior year I woke up in a blurry huddle. Grids of stadium lighting were smeared on the South Bay night sky as if they’d been moved before they dried. My teammates stood around me in their away whites, the sateen jerseys looking smudged and shabby in the dark. I shouldn’t have been surprised if a star suddenly dilated just to wink at me, such was my loopy state of mind—and my self-regard as a high school quarterback.
A timeout had been called, apparently. There was no apparent rush to get back to the line of scrimmage, run another play. And our coach was in the huddle with us. Oh, thank god, I thought, Coach is playing. I’d never seen him in uniform before, but didn’t think to question it—we needed all the help we could get. Though, standing next to the star receiver with whom he’d traded outfits, he did look a lot taller than normal.
Reassuring counsel was given by someone, maybe me, as we gathered ourselves to go back on.
We settled on a simple play: everyone run as far as you can as fast as you can, and I’ll throw the ball to one of you, ready, break. I stepped under center in a kind of euphoria, took the snap, dropped back and threw our coach—or, rather, the receiver onto whom I’d transposed Coach’s face—a forty-two-yard touchdown, and walked off the field, vindicated and giggling.
A blink and it was two hours later. Read More »