Ben Chapman and the Revenge of the End Credits

Ben Chapman was a slightly above-average Major League hitter for parts of 15 seasons. He was, for a time, teammates with Babe Ruth, and a member of the 1932 World Champion Yankees. For his career, he batted .302, with 90 home runs. His game seems to have been based more on speed: he led the American League in triples once, and stolen bases a handful of times.

I know those things because I looked them up.

Ben Chapman was a racist, who, as manager of the Phillies, mercilessly heckled Jackie Robinson during Robinson’s rookie year in 1947. He was fired in mid-1948 and never managed again. Up until 10 minutes ago, that was everything I knew about him.

Chapman was a minor character in the movie 42. His racist taunts play a role in advancing the narrative of Robinson’s struggles as he adjusted to Major League Baseball (and as it adjusted to him).  The film is entirely unsympathetic to Chapman. At the movie’s end, narrative cards tell us what eventually happened to many of the major and minor characters. Robinson won a World Series in 1955 and was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame; Chapman was fired in 1948 and never managed again. The audience is made to feel that both characters received their just rewards.

I watched 42 last night with my children. They know who Jackie Robinson was from school, having learned about him (among others) during African-American History Month in February. Some of the slower parts bored them, but they still followed it. The baseball scenes appealed to them, and Nora, whose sense of right and wrong is very well developed, latched on tightly to the social justice aspects of the story. I asked her what she thought of the movie.

“That manager was a jerk,” she said. She lowered her face to conceal a small grin as she recounted the scene where Robinson’s teammate Eddie Stanky confronted Chapman. “I liked it when that other player called him a piece of shit.” Her reticence in repeating the offending word, even in quoting the movie, amused me.

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “That was a good part.”

***

Chapman of course had no way of knowing that a movie on Robinson would ever be made. No way of knowing that the only thing people might know about him 26 years after his death was that he was kind of an asshole to a legendary baseball player and American icon. In that light, it’s a little unfair to make a villain of someone unable to defend himself. But we all will die some day. We all will have obituaries written. And some of us may even be portrayed in a book or a movie about someone we know, even if we know that person only in passing. It’d be nice if more of us chose not to be the asshole of someone else’s story.

 

False Prophets

I was raised Lutheran. I went to church nearly every Sunday growing up. Sang in the Youth choir. Participated in Youth Group. It was almost without exception, a positive experience.

It’s an experience my kids do not share. We maybe attend once a month at a non-denominational Unitarian Church. Even so, I still nominally consider myself Christian. There is a great deal about the faith that appeals to me. I sometimes question the existence of Jesus Christ the Son of God, but I remain pretty sure there was a Nazarene preacher named Yeshua who spoke some awesome and revolutionary truths about how we should treat each other and the type of people we should aspire to be.

I feel extremely confident saying that guy would be appalled at the people who pretend to speak on his behalf 20 centuries later.

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If anyone ever asked me why my faith had waned, or why I no longer attended a Christian church, I could scarcely do better than direct that person to this interview. Amid all the grotesqueries therein, this one in particular stood out:

A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

Among the many memories I have from my regular church attendance growing up, a handful of Pastor D’s sermons made an impression and remain with me. One in particular, given around the time Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were having their very un-Christlike behavior become known, was a fiery denunciation of what the Bible calls false prophets.

I have no idea what ever became of Pastor D. He left our church in my 11th grade year. I have no idea how the years may have changed him, or what he thinks today of the younger Falwell.

But I know what the guy I heard preach so often would think. That guy would hold him with the same contempt he had for those other false prophets some 30 years ago. Which probably goes a long way in explaining why I do too.

One year in

One year ago today, I learned a new word. I wrote about it at the time.

 

***

December 4, 2017:

I learned a couple things today.

First, I learned a new word, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

Second, I learned it is possible to see your wife receive a diagnosis of Grade Two brain cancer and feel an overwhelming and immediate sense of relief.

The new word: Oligodendroglioma. A type of brain cancer. Like all cancers and tumors, it can be graded according to its malignancy. Grade One is benign; Grade Four is the most aggressive, and usually deadly.

Today, we got diagnosed with a Grade Two: malignant, but not aggressive. Slow-growing. Treatable. Comparatively favorable long term prognosis. We received this diagnosis perhaps an hour after receiving a different diagnosis, that of a Grade Three Astrocytoma. The sense of relief from the improved diagnosis was nearly overwhelming. The next year, the next two, three, and five years of my life look very different with a Grade Two diagnosis than they did for the brief window we had a Grade 3.

To be clear: the next two, three, and five years look incredibly difficult and challenging. We are looking at brain surgery as our starting point. Perhaps before the end of this week. Definitely before the end of next. We are looking at chemotherapy. We are looking at clinical trials, follow up appointments. Scans and different kinds of scans, and then other different kinds of scans after that. Every aspect of our lives will be impacted. The glue that binds this family, the engine that keeps us running (choose your metaphor, both are apt), is sick, and it will be some time before she is well.

***

Brief aside, regarding my personal vocabulary: Astrocytoma is a word I am already familiar with. Astrocytoma, or Glioblastoma, as it’s called when it progresses to Grade Four, killed my father-in-law not 18 months ago. Our family’s prior experience with brain cancer illuminates every reality we are currently up against with an unmistakable clarity.

***

Everything began on Saturday, late in the afternoon. My wife, complaining of a headache, mixed together birthday cakes for our two younger children, who were celebrating their sixth birthday. She put the cakes in the oven, sat down in a chair, and the next thing she remembers is being in the back of an ambulance.

My recollection is not so spotty. I was in the basement when I heard my three children yelling. Nothing new or suspicious about that. I finished loading the washer and hit start. Coming back up the steps, I ran into my son, who an hour earlier had been enjoying his birthday party, telling me something was wrong with Mom. His twin sister and their older (age 8-½) sister were at the top of the steps, yelling the same. I picked up my pace, came into the living room, and found her reclined in her chair, in full arrest. Her entire body convulsing. Foam forming at the corners of her mouth.

I know that’s a disturbing visual, and I apologize. But this is a disturbing story, and I don’t know the next chapter, let alone the ending.

It is now two days later. Two nights in the hospital for her. Two solo nights handling children’s dinner and bedtime for me. Countless examples of friends and neighbors eager to help in any way they can: Can we take the children for a night? Can we bring dinner? Anything you need, please let us know. Tonight’s dinner was provided by one friend. Tomorrow’s dinner was just moments ago delivered by our neighbor. They are all good people, and their desire to assist us is touching. But it’s hard for me to grasp things on that day-to-day plane. I don’t know what to ask for, I don’t know what we need. I feel I have to get into this process before I can begin to know what I need. I need to learn what I can let go of, what I can hand off, and what I need to step up and handle more of.

It will be that way for all of us. The next year or more of our lives stretches out before us like a vast, uncharted sea. I have spoken to my children about the need for all of us to understand that when she comes home, that does not mean life returns to normal. It will be difficult in more ways than I can imagine. But we will see our way through it, no matter where and how it ends.

My wife comes home from the hospital tonight. Her mother will bring her here. I imagine we will stay up late discussing what the next steps, the first steps, on this journey will be.  

***

Now it’s a year later. She is currently on what we hope will be her final cycle of chemotherapy. Return visits to NIH in Maryland, where she had brain surgery eight days after that was written, have generally borne good news. MRIs have shown no visible tumor tissue, which is the best possible result. But “cancer free” is not part of our lexicon. Nor is “Remission.” Those terms don’t apply to primary brain gliomas. Gliomas grow back. Always.

We are fortunate that Grade Two Oligodendroglioma grows slowly. We were told Carolyn’s tumor may have been growing for a decade. Our hope, our goal, is that medical science outpaces slow growth.

A year ago, I believed that 2018 would be remembered as “our cancer year.” And to a large extent, it will. But the battle isn’t over. We will fight this every day for the rest of our lives together.

State Fair

Yesterday, we took our annual trip to the Illinois State Fair. I wouldn’t say it’s a high point of the summer, but it’s at least noteworthy. Something the kids definitely look forward to.

State Fairs strike me as a principally midwestern phenomenon (apologies to North Carolina, which is also quite pround of its Fair). Growing up in Pennsylvania, the closest approximation seemed to be the Farm Show, held every January. The Farm Show was a lot of things, most of them genuinely enjoyable, but it wasn’t a Fair. There was also the Bloomsburg Fair every autumn. I went to college not too far from Bloomsburg, and we made the pilgrimage a couple times. But even Bloomsburg wasn’t a STATE Fair.

The idea of a State Fair seems directly proportional to a state’s agriculture industry. Iowa’s is probably the most well known, as it makes the national news every four years when would-be Presidential candidates descend to show everyone how “real” and “normal” they are as they make big displays of their willingness to eat deep fried pickles and various types of meat-on-a-stick.

The other thing about State Fairs — or Illinois’ version of one, anyway — is how frozen in time they feel. Everything feels straight out of the 1950s, or even 30s. Traveling carnival rides, rigged games, farm animals on display, and a cornucopia of different foodstuffs all but guaranteed to give indigestion.

Also, the color. Nowhere is the color more vibrantly on display than in the carnival midway area, where my kids’ growth can be measured not only by the “You must be this high to ride” signs, but by the rides they are now either brave enough to try, or disdain as “for babies.”

 

 

Unknown-1This year’s highlights included the Crazy Mouse, a sort of spinning roller coaster light years more daring than any ride they’ve attempted before, as well as annual highlights like the Farmer’s Little Helpers display, and the butter cow, which made headlines this year for the misspelling of the word “Bicentennial” that no one noticed until its unveiling on the Fair’s first day.

Perfectly imperfect. Just like the Fair itself.

On Charlottesville

A year ago tonight, Heather Heyer was alive. White nationalists with torches marched on Charlottesville, chanting “Blood and soil!” They numbered in the hundreds, and menacingly surrounded a small number of University of Virginia students who had themselves encircled the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the famed Rotunda.

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Perhaps 100 feet east of that statue, a bench sits under an old magnolia tree. It was not quite ten years ago that my wife and I sat on that bench, weighing the pros and cons of uprooting our lives and moving from greater Boston (Somerville) to Charlottesville, or C’ville, as we came to call it.

The pros won out that afternoon. In a matter of weeks, we (she) would receive and accept a job offer. Also within weeks, we (again, she) would become pregnant with our first child. Our first two children, as luck would have it.

Over the ensuing five and a half years, C’ville was home. The pros did not win as often as we had hoped. The job she accepted turned out not to be what was promised. My eventual employment at the University was fulfilling but ultimately short-lived. We made many acquaintances, but few genuine friends.

But our children were born there. Our older son lived his entire life there, 31 days in the University hospital. The outpouring of concern and affection in the wake of his death will always be with me. The people of Charlottesville are, with very few exceptions, good people.

I often wonder what I would have done, had we lived there a year ago. I remember the rage I felt a year ago, seeing that torch-wielding mob surrounding those students. I imagine I would have felt it even more intensely had C’ville still been our home. Still been my children’s home. I feel, in my heart, I would have been on the downtown mall that Saturday, after seeing those images. I know I would have been counseled by my parents to avoid it. Perhaps even by my wife. Or perhaps I would have gone in her stead. I don’t know. But I feel I would have gone.

Maybe I would have been blocks away from where Heather Heyer stood. Maybe I would have been right next to her. It’s all conjecture, all unknowable.

There were many reasons my wife and I moved to Charlottesville. Over time, few of those reasons panned out. But for five years, it was home. It’s where I became a father. It’s a beautiful city, and will always be an important part of my life. I hope everyone there has a peaceful weekend.

America’s game ain’t cheap

My son started tee ball last weeks. He’s pretty excited.

This will be his third sport, following past dalliances with hockey and soccer. It is already the most expensive sport we’ve signed him up for. Yes, more expensive than hockey.

The hockey league he tried was sponsored by the NHL. Everything – skates, pads, jersey, pants, gloves, helmet, stick, and gear bag – was branded with the Chicago Blackhawks logo. They were the Little Blackhawks. All that gear, plus the eight week introductory league, was $85. He took two sessions of that introductory league before deciding it wasn’t for him. $170 for his brief foray onto the ice. Not cheap, but not terrible. And we keep the gear. We could probably recoup some of our cost by taking it to Play-it-Again Sports or some other sports re-seller. More likely, we will just donate it.

Soccer was even cheaper. Cleats, shinguards, ball. Boom, done. Throw in registration fees and youth team sports don’t get much cheaper than soccer.

Which brings us to baseball. Even with recycling his soccer cleats, tee ball (and the baseball that follows it) is deceptively expensive. Our registration fees included nothing other than getting his name on a roster. Everything else, even a hat, is on us to provide. The cheapest glove available was $35. The cheapest bat — a “tee ball only” bat that apparently would burst into flame if used to strike a pitched ball — was another $25. Which actually isn’t so bad. But this is strictly entry level stuff; if/when he requires another bat in a year, the median price range appeared to be in the $70 neighborhood. Batting helmets allegedly are provided for games, or so says the coach. But he didn’t sound too sure that would actually be the case, so tack on another $17. Other items we decided against buying until we know whether he intends to play for more than a year or two. But they will add to the cost.

Baseball is America’s game. College and professional football have outpaced baseball as an industry, as a passion for fans. But baseball is still America’s game. Football never goes in a sentence with Mom and Apple Pie. Major League Baseball could take a cue from the National Hockey League. We live in an era where more and more parents are growing reluctant to let their children into football. It would take next to nothing from baseball’s profitability to step in and eliminate cost as a deterrent from getting kids to play.

The teams in my son’s league take their names from their MLB counterparts. There are Cardinals and Red Sox and Dodgers and Royals and even Expos. My son’s team is the Cubs. It’d be nice to see MLB invest itself a little more in making playing the game a more attainable goal for its youngest fans.

Take me out to the ballgame

This weekend, my family and I travel to Kansas City. We may visit Legoland. I would very much like to visit the Negro League Baseball Museum (particularly in light of recent incidents of vandalism targeting Negro League sites in and around Kansas City.)

The real reason for the trip is to take my kids to their first Red Sox game. The tickets were a birthday gift to my older daughter, who has always followed my lead in rooting for the Sox. (Her younger siblings have bounced around, at various times declaring themselves Cardinals, Cubs, and even Pirates fans. Although in the months since we announced this weekend’s trip, they have now followed their sister’s and father’s lead. We are a family of Red Sox fans. A poster of Mookie Betts hangs in my son’s room, a declaration of his undying fandom since 11 weeks ago.

This will not be their first trip to the ballpark. A year ago, also for my daughter’s birthday, my mother-in-law purchased tickets for a Cardinals game in St. Louis. My M-i-L is a diehard and lifelong Cardinal fan, having grown up here in the Midwest. She had hoped to make at least one of her grandchildren into Cards fans as well, and for a while it appeared she would be successful (note that the hat on the hot dog eating boy is a Cards hat). But a year later it appears I have won that battle. Sorry, Nona.

Regardless, the far more important thing is that they are baseball fans. I would rather raise a Yankee fan than a kid who didn’t like the game at all.

I have been to somewhere, I would guess, between 100 and 150 Major League Baseball games in my life, and probably a couple dozen minor league games (my post-college years were spent living walking distance from the Eastern League Harrisburg Senators). Kansas City will be the eighth stadium in which I’ve seen a game. I don’t remember all of them, but a few stick out.

 

June 21, 1977. To the best of my recollection, my first game. Baltimore was just a 90 minute drive from where I grew up, and it seemed we always made the trip for at least one game whenever the Red Sox were in town. We sat in the bleachers in right field. Luis Tiant threw a two-hit shutout. But what I really remember is George Scott hitting a home run, and my Dad teaching me that Scott’s homers were called “Long ‘Taters.” Jim Rice also homered, and he would spend much of the next 12 years as my absolute favorite player.

I probably saw somewhere between 15 and 20 games in old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. It was a perfectly ordinary stadium, but kind of close to my heart anyway. Fenway is the only park I’ve been to more frequently. My last visit there was for a Steelers/Ravens game in 1996. RIP.

July 16, 1978. I stumbled across this one on Youtube about a month ago. I had sort of forgotten about it, but as soon as I saw the screen grab from the video, it jolted my memory. I knew it was after arguing a pickoff play before I even clicked to watch. I knew the manager threw bats on to the field during the course of his tirade. It’s weird, the things that embed themselves in the brain of a seven-year old. This was game two of a Saturday double-header. Baseball Reference tells me Rod Carew went 4-for-9 on the day, because of course he did. Carew also collected his 2,000th career hit in game one of the series.

By the way, I appreciate that use of instant replay to correct umpire errors is a net good thing. But we lost something when we lost purple-faced managers going absolutely bonkers over a missed call. If this happened today, Gene Mauch would calmly ask for a replay, the play would be overturned (he was definitely safe), and not one single seven-year old kid in attendance would remember it 39 years later. That’s just sad.

June 21 and 27, 1986Roger Clemens wins his 13th and 14th consecutive games to start the season. Over two starts, he throws 16 innings and strikes out 17 Orioles, allowing four earned runs. Ho hum. The first of these two games, in Fenway, I purchased a white towel with a red “K” on it. The following week, in Baltimore, I brought the towel with me, and promptly lost it in the parking lot after the game. C’est la vie.

Note: I know how it ended, but the 1986 season was my absolutely favorite season as a Red Sox fan. Clemens, winning Cy Young and League MVP. Jim Rice, with a final renaissance season. Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs, doing Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs things. A 10-game September winning streak to finally put away the Yankees. And the epic ALCS comeback over the Angels. The World Series disaster that followed does not erase all that. It just doesn’t.

Sometime in the summer of 2005. Visiting friends in Chicago, we attended a couple games in Wrigley Field. Sat in the center field bleachers for one game, down the left field line in Ferris Beuller territory for the other. We averaged about one Old Style per inning. Shockingly, my recollection of both games are hazy. I think the Cubs won, though.

Other games, other stadiums… The Phillies beat the Dodgers 10-3 at the Vet. I remember the Phananatic, I remember Mike Schmidt going 0-4, but I remember the way the whole crowd reacted when he flied out to the warning track in his final at bat… Petco Park in San Diego, the afternoon following a friend’s wedding. I think it was against the Mariners. I remember Hell’s Bells and Trevor Hoffman closing out the win… And the Cardinals just last year. I remember the looks on my kids faces. I hope to see them again this weekend.