Monday, January 6, 2014

How The Cows Were Cool

The man in the Carhartt coveralls offered me a cup half full as I ran by. My acceptance of his offer was more an act of reflex than of thoughtful strategy.

I was having problems that two ounces of sports drink weren’t likely to resolve. 

I craved an act of decency more than I craved any item at the aid station and this man, who had been standing in the breakdown lane for hours in a 25 mile per hour wind on a 21 degree day, provided a bit of hope to everyone who ran by. I wanted to tell him how much he was appreciated. I wanted to tell him that his acts, and the acts of others at times like this, when the recipient was riding the red line, were more valuable and appreciated than any offered during moments of physiological homeostasis. I wanted to tell him that he was one with the saints, and rescue workers, and hospice nurses. Instead I took the cup, broke a hole through the layer of surface ice with my teeth, snuffed an ounce of lemon-lime Gatorade directly into my sinuses, spilled the rest on my face, and gasped “Thansuh”.

“You’re welcome” said Lawrence Nightingale, “You boys are doing great. Two miles to go!”

“Boys?... Plural?... Who the hell…!??”

I thought I was alone. But when I took a quarter glance behind me and me I found myself staring into the eyes of “Dude in red”. He wasn’t always known to me as dude-in-red. Once, when I was young and the starting gun was firing, he was a fuller human being. He was one of many strong-looking runners striding out in the early yards of a fifteen mile road race on a winter day. He was polite and focused and completely in control. I stalked him for 9 miles, passed him with authority, and left him for dead. Those were the rules. Every child knows them. When you are shot you lie down and play dead. But this fellow, unlike the others, didn’t buy my act. He seemed to have a few grey hairs himself and he knew a bad thespian when he saw one. He knew how to race. And now he knew that I was weak; my insecure glance back and Gatorade-induced coughing fit provided evidence. I might be bought off with a lawn chair and a promise to fight another day. And he seemed to know that too.

We ran up a short but nasty little hill into the teeth of the wind. I was well behind the leaders with no chance for an award of any kind. Not that it would have mattered; the prospect of a trophy carries no vote in the congress of a racer’s mind. It was decision time. I had a forty yard lead on him. I decided that if he was to steal the suddenly all-important 7th place finish in this local race then I would make the bastard earn it. This, I realized, is why we came here today, dude-in-red and I, to race each other. We didn’t know that until now but here it was, clear as day. Every other runner was at a hopeless or safe distance from us by this point. It was just us and every move now was a fake. Look strong until the next telephone pole. Run this hill hard. Pretend the finish is just a few hundred yards away. He will see how strong I am and quit…then I can ease up a bit.

But he wouldn’t crack. He was the type, I began to fear, who would not ever give up. It was hopeless. But at this point the cards were all dealt. I couldn’t go back to acting like this wasn’t a race and neither could he. This was gonna be pain all the way to the finish. The Penguin and George Sheehan were nowhere to be found. Somewhere someone’s foot crunched poetically into the virgin snow of a wintry trail, somewhere hard bodies did crunches to loud rock music in a warm gym, and somewhere someone ate a sensible lunch washed down with a fistful of antioxidants. But they were not here either…just two middle age guys, with frozen spit on their faces, riding a hypoxic conveyor belt to the finish, each trying to gain an inch on their newfound opponent.

This is who I am and so this this is what I do…sometimes.

I was born with a congenital inability to sense the difference between a 77 mile per hour fastball and a 97 mile per hour fastball. My lack of skill in this regard made me a lousy baseball player but has saved me thousands and thousands of dollars. I love baseball. I don’t really understand it; I just love it. I like how most of the time nothing happens until suddenly something does. Then it’s interesting for a while until it isn’t any more. Just like running a road race. I cannot distinguish high quality performances from very high quality performances. Because of this I enjoy the Columbus Clippers, the AAA minor-league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, every bit as much as I enjoy the tribe itself. For six dollars apiece I hit a bunch of Clippers games each summer. In fact shaving one or two of the A’s off the triple AAA classification doesn’t douse my enjoyment either. I like the Akron Aeros (AA-Cleveland) just fine, and I was a regular at the Delaware Cows’ (single-A unaffiliated) home games, until they went under a few years ago. 

I guess I’m easy to please; I also enjoy par-three golf, Mid-major NCAA teams, and those fake Twinkies that Little Debbie came out with for a while.

The Delaware Cows charged two bucks to get in and couldn’t draw spectators to save their lives. There were only about 20-30 people present at any given game and so we all got to know each other. Jegs Auto Parts once had a free hat day and when I went through the gate they handed me three of them because they had expected hundreds of people to show up, but only fifteen people did. I gave two of the hats away but I still have one and I love it. I really do.

They once had a special promotion called “Road Kill Day” and couldn’t draw flies.

OK that last line was just me joking around. The fans used to tell little jokes like that to each other at Cows games. The players Moms would bring extra cookies for us…and I’m not kidding about that. Those ladies could bake!

The truth is that everything about the Cows was wonderful. The quality of the baseball was very high. Of the 20 people in the stands, at any given game, a couple of them would be major league scouts. The players were typically college students who played for very prestigious NCAA teams. They left their egos behind and lived in the homes of local residents, earned very little money, carpooled to games in places like Lima and Zanesville, and would risk life and limb to dive for a base or a foul ball regardless of how hopelessly lopsided a game might be. They hosted skills camps for local kids, did a charity game against a team of Special Olympians, stuck around after games until the very last fan didn’t want to chat anymore, and stayed in touch with their elementary school pen pals in the off-season. And once or twice I saw a 97mph fastball (at least that’s what the speed-gun thingy said).

Last summer I spent 173 dollars on some great seats at an Indians game for my son’s birthday. It was wonderful; it was early in the season so there wasn’t any playoff pressure yet. But there weren’t any free cookies. And I didn’t get to meet a player. If I sent an e-mail to the coach he would likely not write back. And the league manager didn’t attend my church. The Indians game was on a Friday night and so there were 40,000 people in attendance.

It really is a shame that the Cows went under.

I once heard a comedian talking about our relationship with dogs. He pointed out that if aliens came down and observed dogs barking at us, leading us around, and forcing us to pick up their poop the aliens would naturally assume that the dogs were in charge. I wonder at times if the aliens might also assume, after observing things like cost/quality ratios and human relations why we wouldn’t simply flock to a Cows game and avoid the cost, traffic snarls, and overpaid arrogance of major league games.  

I’m not na├»ve. I understand that sports is an industry. I get that livings and fortunes are made and lost based upon sexiness, money, and marketing.  I also understand the desire to be part of this revenue stream. It’s a fact that has invaded nearly all parts of our lives.  But sports stop being fun for me when I group them with real-life American capitalism. Salary arbitration might be necessary at some level but I refuse to believe that it is the least bit ennobling. The goodness of sports is, after all, what is being sold to us, and that goodness exists outside of any effort to harness it. The basics of sports are there without year-round youth travel leagues, strength programs, personal trainers and free agency. The goodness of sport exists at all levels, from the World Series to the Delaware Cows, to recreation league soccer, to two guys challenging each other to a duel that involves running shoes rather than swords. And that goodness is entirely ennobling.

At the conclusion of my race with dude-in-red one of us crossed the finish line before the other one did. Then we both stumbled into the high school cafeteria/race staging area and lay flat on our backs and coughed, until one of us worked up the energy to come over and give the other a hug.

It’s the greatest thing about sports. The immediate intimacy and otherwise unacceptable social behavior that is allowed. I love that a couple of old dudes can 6:45 per mile each other into a near coma and appreciate that we both did each other a favor. I love that I can cheer for my kids at the top of my lungs on a baseball field, or a basketball court, or a swimming pool. And I understand but regret that I cannot do the same in the middle of one of their history tests. Nor can I yell positive helpful advice as they make a move to ask a girl out on a date, or do a vocal solo at a school Christmas concert. I cannot try to break a fellow physical therapist and expect a hug at the conclusion of the contest.

In real life we can be hesitant to accept an offer from a stranger standing by the side of the road, and might be embarrassed to accept the role of cheerleader and savior to the semi-public we are placed in positions to serve.

In real life there are fewer opportunities to daydream, to display passion, to engage in acts of kindness…to accept help and challenges.

It only seems to happen in sports. It’s probably an indictment on our humanity, or maybe just our culture, that these things are limited in this way but let us rejoice that at least this one cup is half full.

Kathleen Norris wrote that the one thing that distinguishes a frontier is the precarious nature of the human hold on it. Can’t any sport, any history test, any romantic venture, be a frontier? Aren’t they already frontiers? Aren’t so many of the things we do in life an excuse for cheering, heroism, and acts of goodness, whether we take advantage of them or not?

I resolve to let my passions run toward those things in life that really elicit passion; the small things that have no market value, but make me human nonetheless. My normal work life might need to be dictated by some amount of sales and marketing. It’s the insurance premium we pay to live in a free market. But I resolve to believe that sport is more than the slickly packaged versions of things that already exist on every sandlot, every basketball court, every swimming pool, and every trail in America.

And if sports can be utilized in this way, maybe other things can as well. Maybe the beauty of sports lies in the example they serve of what we can be. The Cows were cool, and expanding upon their example would be cool as well.