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

The Best of 75 Years

We just celebrated my father’s 75th birthday.  At dinner I asked him to note the most profound change he had seen in his lifetime, technology or otherwise.  I found his answer surprising, but not really.

Before the punchline, a little background and perspective.  Surely you can do the math in your head, but to be 75 now you had to be born after the full resolution of World War I, but before the full onset of World War II.  The United States was at peace, but not yet a Super Power.  There were no televisions in homes; radio dominated news and entertainment, respectively starring Edward R. Murrow and The Lone Ranger.  The suburbs as we know them had not really come into being, largely because our highway system was nascent.  Automobiles were becoming common, but with gasoline prices crossing a dime a gallon, middle class families got by with a single vehicle that was mostly for work commuting.  Flushing toilets were common in cities, but once you got out of cities, you could easily find yourself at a country home with a detached outhouse.  The stock market crash was still pretty fresh in people’s minds, and the Great Depression was not over.

What followed in the ensuing three-quarters of a century was nothing short of astonishing.  Adolf Hitler, a single individual of unimaginably maniacal influence, brought forth the Holocaust and World War II, ultimately defeated by an alliance that championed freedom and democracy as global standards.  We saw the invention of nuclear power and its expression in the form of a deployed atomic bomb, the first true weapon of mass destruction.  We saw the birth of Israel, the end of the British Empire, the birth of Social Security, and the end of the Great Depression.

In the United States we then experienced immense growth in our economy, reputation, and standard of living.  The Interstate Highway system connected our nation in all directions for easy travel and access.  Affordable single family homes in the suburbs became realities with the growth of tracts, sometimes referred to as Levittowns after their New York model in Nassau County.  Radio gave way to black and white television, initially dominated by local programming (a good deal of it arena wrestling), soon after dominated by coast to coast live network broadcasts, eventually in color.  Commercial air flight became real, first short hop prop planes with very cold cabins, then pressurized jetliners flying coast to coast in a quarter of a day (with decent free food even in coach).  McDonald’s offered the same hamburger at about the same price in almost every state, going to college became accessible to the middle class, and entry-level business jobs for big emerging brand factories like P&G, Kraft, and Pillsbury were plentiful.  There was Elvis, The Beatles, stereo cabinets for record collections, and revolving credit accessed via imprinted plastic cards to help pay for it all.

We fought a war with fighter jets over Korea and with Napalm in Vietnam.  We stockpiled ICBMs in an arms race with the Soviet Union — they beat us into manned space flight, we beat them into orbit and to the moon.  We saw personal computers take over our desks — first at work, then at home — and typewriters carted off to recycling.  We got cell phones initially the size of briefcases, then the size of candy bars.  We got 100 channels of cable TV, then 1000 channels of satellite TV.  We got the Internet.  We saw the dotcom bubble burst, then we got iPods, iPhones, and iPads.  ATMs and debit cards have almost replaced cash, we don’t really need stock brokers or travel agents anymore, and talking about organ transplants is only tempered by available donors.  Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Amazon sell us pretty much everything we need at real-time comparable prices, and we can travel to Russia or China without any real restrictions.

It’s a brave new world.  It’s astonishing, truly astonishing, all that progress in one lifetime, a brilliant, beautiful lifetime still unfolding.

And yet none of that was Dad’s response to what had changed most.  We talked about all of it, late into the night, sometimes with a chuckle, sometimes with misty confusion about the timeline.  It was baffling how much he had seen, how vividly he could remember the primitive then, how normal the world around him with all its developments seemed now.

Yet with all that in mind, here’s what Dad thought had most changed — people’s acceptance of others.

Oh, that.

When Dad was a child, it just seemed so normal that most people stayed among people most like themselves.  Ethnic groups lived in ethnic neighborhoods.  People of the same color lived together, occasionally interacted in the workplace, but seldom mixed freely in bars or restaurants.  Social and cultural diversity were occasional topics of intelligent discussion, but in everyday life for most people were in terribly short supply.  Interracial and interreligious marriage was a very big deal, no matter where you lived — it happened, but it was not the norm.  When Dad traveled to and from Florida in the days before Rosa Parks, there really were separate drinking fountains, separate lunch counters, separate universities.  Jackie Robinson signed his minor league contract in 1945 and walked on the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Separate but Equal was not ruled out by law until 1954.  That was change that really started the times a’ changing.

In 1960 John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic President of the United States.  Cesar Chavez co-founded what would become the UFW with Dolores Huerta in 1962.  In 1964 the first Asian American woman, Patsy Mink, was elected to Congress.  In 1965 the reverent Sandy Koufax declined the honor of pitching in the first game of the World Series because it coincided with the most sacred of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur.  Jump forward to 2008 and the American people elected Barack Obama as President, on whose watch we quickly sent “don’t ask don’t tell” to the scrap heap of divisiveness.  None of these milestones went unacknowledged, but with each the comfort level of individuals to be among those of different backgrounds became increasingly more common, increasingly more a cultural norm.

I don’t think anyone today can call our work done, but look around and you will see a heck of a work in progress.  Our friends, our families, our colleagues, we are not uniform.  We have seen a parade of civil rights, religious rights, gender rights, human rights.  We are a blended society not because we are forced to be, but because it is wonderful and enjoyable and natural to do so.  To study and embrace that which is different from our own backgrounds is to celebrate diversity as a shared value that can never be taken for granted, but increasingly warrants less special attention as it becomes more is than isn’t — less lacking, more present.  That’s what Dad sees as most different from the days when it was not so, and hopefully what children today will never think twice about as they move through their next 75 years.

That’s good change, with a lot to do still ahead, but a world that looks different and Thinks Different because it is the very reflection of progress.  We mix, we share our heritage, we worry less how we are different, we worry more about our common bonds in humanity.

That was a birthday dinner worth remembering, a real lesson in progress for us younger folks, a message forever.

Thanks, Dad.  Once again, Happy 75th.  You remembered well.  You shared even better.

Live Together In Peace.