More Than a Diversion

Psst, pass it on: After a 32-year intermission, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series! After winning the National League West the previous seven years—this year will be the team’s eighth consecutive division title—and exiting the playoffs without the Commissioner’s Trophy, the 2020 postseason finally brought a championship banner back to Chavez Ravine.

The Tampa Bay Rays played with heart through the entire postseason. It takes untold athletic ability, strategy, and grit for any team to make it to the World Series, and while this year’s final prize went to the Dodgers, there is little question we will see the Rays again soon in October baseball. Both teams filled Globe Life Field with players of unquestionable excellence, and the six-game series came with all the unpredictability that makes baseball relentlessly nail-biting no matter your expectations.

The Dodgers simply had to get this done.

After so many failed attempts to full triumph over more than three decades, losing becomes an all-too-familiar feeling. It’s astonishing how quickly that feeling can be replaced by sheer glee. At this moment, I am experiencing glee. Devoted Dodger fans everywhere are experiencing glee. I’m finding it a different form of glee than it might have been any other year. This particular form of glee is a much-needed gulp of surely lasting but highly compartmentalized glee.

Let me try to share that qualified celebration, limited in practical application, boundless in idealistic resurgence.

So much that matters is going on in our world. We are approaching the end of one of the most difficult and painful years in our nation’s history. The year ahead of us is filled with anxiety and uncertainty no matter who is elected to lead the nation. It is only reasonable to ask ourselves why something as inconsequential as professional sports matters.

If you’re not on the team, employed by the team, or an owner of the team, does it really matter who wins the MLB World Series?

Does being a fan of any team matter?

I think it does, but only in a well-rounded, emotional context where we hold our priorities in balance.

Is the drama and endurance of a championship delivered by your home team a matter of life and death? No, in any mentally balanced sense, certainly not.

Is it a joyful diversion that can ease the burden of otherwise overwhelming demands on our time and attention? Yes, I think for many the game is just that. It has been for me.

I needed baseball this past summer. It was only a sixty-game season, but I needed all sixty of them. Even if I didn’t have time to watch them all, I needed to read about them the next day, to look at the box scores, to see who was healthy and getting the job done despite harrowing circumstances.

I needed the break from the political headlines, from the horrors of coronavirus, from the social injustices inflicted on those deserving better, from the inescapable racial bias tearing apart people’s lives, from the wildfires that came much too close to home while savaging the homes of others, and from the daily navigation of my own leadership responsibilities.

We all need things that are fun and fulfilling. Call them luxuries in perspective, but without something to capture the imagination in a time where so much focus is devoured by the absurd, our equilibrium can hang in the balance.

The Dodgers have given that to me when times were less stressful. They win, they lose, they lose when it matters most, but like every team, they reemerge every summer. This summer they mattered more.

It was more than a diversion. It was more than entertainment. It was psychological relief. It was a place I could go that really didn’t matter in the big picture of getting through 2020, but mattered enough to deflect a few minutes of serial stress each day.

I love baseball because my father loves baseball. It’s a way we discovered to connect. My dad was a talented ballplayer in high school and college. He loves to tell me if only he could have mastered hitting the curveball, he might have made a run at The Show. My brother is also an amazing ballplayer, a power hitter and respected star in high school and college. I never had the gift. I just couldn’t put the physical together with the mental. It wasn’t my thing, but it was a great way to talk to my dad.

I have no memory better than going with my dad to see the Detroit Tigers play downtown at the old Tiger Stadium. The Tigers were my first team. I collected all the baseball cards season after season. When the Tigers won the World Series in 1968, I was a little kid. I listened each night to Ernie Harwell call the game on an AM transistor radio under my pillow, with one of those really uncomfortable earplugs muffling the broadcast. To this day I can name the Tigers starting lineup in those days from memory.

There was an even more important bond I shared with my father as a child. We couldn’t afford to go to major league baseball games all the time, but he played softball every week and I loved to cheer on his team. I kept the scorebook in longhand, old school. After each game, I would calculate the updated batting average of every player on the team in longhand, old school.

I’d tag along for pizza with the softball team after their games and make the rounds telling everyone how they hit versus last week and last month. Some of them noted I was pretty good at math for a kid my age and thought I might be a decent student. I guess that was a learning moment for me. We can’t be good at everything, but maybe I’d be good at something.

Those are perennially restorative thoughts encoded in protective mode on my aging biological hard-drive. When I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I knew I was going to be here for a while, so it was time to adopt a new team. That was the team of Jackie Robinson. That was the team of Sandy Koufax. That was the right team for me.

In 1988 I had so little money the idea of going to a World Series game wasn’t a remote fantasy. When former Tiger Kirk Gibson helped the Dodgers win that series with that legendary walk-off swing in Game 1, I thought to myself the World Series would come again to Los Angeles, and then perhaps I’d have the money to see them win it all in person.

It’s been a bit of a wait.

And I still didn’t get to see it in person! With so many complications this year, traveling to Arlington, Texas, just wasn’t a viable option.

Dad and I were supposed to go to the All-Star Game this year at Dodger Stadium. Covid-19 also nixed that. We texted with ardor all through the postseason. Hey, it’s the 21st century. No more old school.

A diversion is not the same as a distraction. A distraction can be an annoyance, shifting our attention from determined contemplation. A diversion can be a gift, briefly capturing us with a complementary story thread that sheds light on our more serious obsessions.

When I am seriously focused on work or the ills of the world, I may think I want neither distraction nor diversion. The child in me may say otherwise, that I lose when I am too serious. You may not love baseball, but the child in you wants the same escape. I found mine this summer. I will again next summer.

It’s often said in various ways that baseball is a child’s game played by adults. Bart Giamatti also warned us that it will break your heart. In Field of Dreams, a father and a son mystically share a catch that was always meant to be. Not every diversion can open your mind and your heart. I was talking to a rabbi recently who assured me that anything that can open our hearts is essential to our well-being. He used the metaphor of baseball in his Yom Kippur sermon. Coincidence? Maybe.

Our trip around the baseball diamond begins and ends in childhood, where simple stories can last a lifetime. The Little Prince reminds us of the difference between childish and childlike. One undermines our maturity, the other ensures its sensible evolution. I hope your diversion may be as inspiring, uplifting, and rejuvenating as mine.

And psst, pass it on. For once after 32 seasons, our Blue Crew doesn’t have to repeat those mightily dispiriting words: Wait ‘til next year.

_______________

Photo: MLB

Wings: Remastered and Revisited

Wings_coverA few decades back, before I became a software and media executive and long before I returned to writing, I wrote the “screenplay” for a succesful computer game called Wings.  That “interactive movie” — as it was marketed — was a World War I flight simulation that followed the lives of the very first fighter pilots, trying to make combat sense of fragile biplanes curiously equipped with machine guns.  It was published by an early innovator in gaming known as Cinemaware, which set out to make games look, feel, and tell stories more like movies.  Recently the Cinemaware brand was resurrected via a Kickstarter campaign to fund a mobile version of Wings, that if successful will contain the entirety of the many pages of story and dialogue, plus a lot of new material.  I have no financial interest in the new Wings, but it does bring back fantastic memories, a slice of life from an earlier time.  The new team asked me to do a text interview to support their campaign, which I decided for nostalgia to publish here as well.  Enjoy!

Please provide a brief bio of yourself.

At the moment I’m a first time novelist, my book This is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness just released last month to good reviews.  I’m also an investor, a start-up board member, an executive coach instructor, a blogger, and former corporate executive.  I was CEO of SHOP.COM, Executive VP of Disney Online, and VP Entertainment and Education at Broderbund Software.  I read a lot, follow the L.A. Dodgers, study wine, and am active in children’s welfare issues as well as local government.  If that’s not brief enough, cut everything except the part about reading and the Dodgers.

How did you originally join Cinemaware and get to work on Wings?

I met some of the Cinemaware team at a UCLA conference called The Future of Television in the late 1980s.  They told me they were creating interactive movies.  I had just written a spec screenplay called Miniatures about radio controlled model aircraft that sort of predicted the U.S. drone program.  It was the first thing I had written on a computer, a monochrome XT.  They asked me if I ever thought about working on a computer game.  I said No.  They showed me Rocket Ranger and It Came from the Desert on the Amiga.  Then I said Yes.  Quickly.

How was it working with the Wings team on the Amiga?  What do you remember most about that time?

It was a magical time, a time of possibilities.  I had experienced five years in traditional media of hearing why we couldn’t do certain things, how everything had to be done a rigid way, and how little respect there seemed to be for the writer.  Everything at Cinemaware was, yeah, let’s try that and see if we can make it work, why not?  I also remember writing on a Mac SE/30 for the first time, and I couldn’t believe why anyone would use anything other than that — so much for my XT.  And I remember when our competitor, Origin Systems, leaked a demo of their outer space saga Wing Commander, and our team was like, hmm, that’s a pretty compelling 3D engine, but our story is way better, so back to the drawing board, and they completely rewrote our flight simulator in about 2 weeks to be more state of the art.  Oh, and I remember when someone brought in the first Amiga with a 20MB hard drive and we could install both floppy disks without having to play with disk swapping or a slow seeking second external floppy drive, and that just seemed like the best possible gaming experience you could ever have — until we heard rumor about something coming called a CD-ROM.

How did you go about doing research for the game?

John Cutter, the game’s visionary designer, and I got ourselves invited backstage at the Air & Space Archives in San Diego, where we discovered a lot of the old U.S. Army Air Corp files were stashed.  We were blown away by how welcomed we were there, the military librarians spent hours with us digging out old files, it was a smorgasbord of history, and they couldn’t have been more helpful.  They kept bringing out boxes and boxes of dusty old papers and black & white photographs and let us have at it.  It was a super find and let us dig deep into a very special time of innovation, courage, and pain.  We devoured stacks of books on World War I (we even included a bibliography in the Aviator’s Briefing Manual, I’m guessing the first bibliography for a computer game).  We watched the 1927 silent movie Wings — winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture — and The Dawn Patrol (1930) so many times on VHS by our QA release date I think we could recite the storylines in realtime without anything on the monitor — then we chose to borrow only the atmosphere: the title, the sets, the costumes, font styles from the text cards, but none of the stories or characters.

What do you think makes Wings such a special gaming experience?

I think it really was the first computer game to try to tell an epic story that was more theater than shoot ’em up, but we kept plenty of shoot ’em up.  We tried extremely hard to make the character role-playing real, to get inside the head of a 19-year-old kid who probably had about as much chance coming home alive as he did surviving enough sorties to live long enough to become squadron commander.  We obsessed on details of the period, used every pixel wisely, created a true sense of responsiveness in the story, something that would set off endless discussions about the true nature of interactivity.  We also kept the game controls immensely simple.  It wasn’t a super complex gravity based simulation where you had to be an engineer to takeoff and land the plane or fight virtual physics to keep the contraption airborne.  We simply “cut to” you in the air and said Just Fly and Shoot.  We brought in a lot of non-gamers with that simplicity, but funny enough, the hard-core gamers praised us for it as well.

Can you tell us what the team wanted to implement in the game, but didn’t have the time or resources to do?  Any special hidden gems or trivia for Cinemaware fans?

First you have to remember what we were dealing with getting the game to ship on two 512K floppy disks, as if any big blockbuster developer today could comprehend how little data that is.  Our programmers were masters of compression, and kept squeezing and squeezing.  The music  was astonishingly intelligent, but the short redundant loops made our composers crazy, so I’m sure they will be delighted with the enhanced score on the remastered version.  Every screen shot was a big hit to storage, and I remember the artists begging to include more storyboards, but that wasn’t possible.  Luckily for me text was as economical to store then as it is now, so I didn’t feel the same thrashing.  I do remember the branching tree logic making me nuts and having to write multiple outcomes for every mission, wondering if it was humanly possible to cover every fork in the story and how many people would care that on a given pass through the game they would only see fractions of the screenplay (we positioned this as a customer benefit, creating replay value).  I remember when the marketing folks “requested” we cut from three floppy disks in beta down to two in order to improve gross margin on wholesale, which almost created a revolution in the hallways.  Our indefatigable producer, Jerry Albright, reminded us it was OK for them to ask, and that we had to respect them for trying, then emphatically told them not a chance.  Then somehow our miracle programmers pulled it off and we shipped the master on Reel 1 and Reel 2.  I also remember a few brainstorms we had after we realized what a unique product we had developed, one for a CD-ROM version with recorded spoken dialogue that of course never happened, and one for a Wings sequel that would have been set in WWII, and who knows where that would have taken us.

If Cinemaware had a chance to expand on Wings, what do you think could be better developed or explored?

That’s sort of like asking the creative team who made the original movie version of Wings how they would have made it a talkie.  The remastered version being funded on Kickstarter is doing all the right things — improved graphics, enhanced music, more missions, improved physics in the engine — all of that brings out the best in what we did so long ago.  The important thing is that we gave the game heart, layered grounding in reality staying true to the source material, emotional resonance woven through a role-playing experience.  As long as you remain true to heart, the polished production values will fully bring out the best.

Ken, you also pledged for this campaign, thank you so much for the support.  What made you do it?

It is a very small sum of money to let an entirely new generation of gamers see where we started as an industry, and maybe a few grown-up parents will get to share the experience with their kids.  Really, it’s not much money for a lot of game, and it is a fun game, part of what got us here.  It’s kind of like the silent movie version of Wings we watched over and over — what if someone hadn’t bothered to preserve it, can you imagine having lost a gem like that?  I can’t, no way.  We all come from somewhere, it’s important to remember that and even more important to share the memories.

Pilot Shot