Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Baseball isn't perfect ... but it feels like it is

The Hall of Fame Class of 2014 / (L-R) Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa,
Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Joe Torre.

"Baseball isn't perfect, but it feels like it is," said Joe Torre, one of six living inductees, whose speech capped a lively and, at times, emotion-filled day packed with wonderful stories and heartfelt memories as the Class of 2014 was honored in ceremonies and welcomed to Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. on Sunday afternoon.

On a day when baseball got it right, the tone of Torre's speech was best described by The New York Times "as if designated to deliver the greatness-of-the-game testimonial." 

And he did.

"We're responsible for giving it the respect it deserves," said Torre, who managed the New York Yankees to six American League pennants (1996, 1998-2001, 2003) and won four World Series (1996, 1998-2000).

During the nationally televised three-hour ceremony, Torre was joined at the podium by fellow managers Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa, slugger Frank Thomas and pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Each living great -- and I saw all of them play or manage -- exemplified the game in the right way. Together, they represented quite an assemblage of accomplishments across the baseball diamond: World Series championships, Cy Young Award winners, Most Valuable Player awards.

Decent men all of them, too.

Roger Angell accepting the J.G. Taylor Spink Award

Baseball also got it right when it enshrined the esteemed Roger Angell, a longtime writer and editor for The New Yorker, who received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award on Saturday, the Baseball Hall of Fame's writing honor. The bespectacled Angell, 93 and thin, is revered for his revealing portraits and essays on baseball, which began appearing in The New Yorker in the early 1960s. Since then, they have been compiled into several books filled full of meditations and observations about our national pastime, most notably The Summer Game, which I first read as a teenager. I still treasure the book's words today like the literary baseball bible it is.

In his debut as a baseball writer for The New Yorker in 1962, Angell wrote a wonderful essay full of humor and insight about attending spring training in Florida. "Big-league ball on the west coast of Florida is a spring sport played by the young for the divertissement of the elderly -- a sun-warmed, sleepy exhibition celebrating the juvenescence of the year and the senescence of the fans."

Many have acclaimed Angell as the greatest baseball writer. "Angell's prose is clear and erudite, elegant and informed; he is a fan with a wicked eye for detail, a sense of humor and a curiosity about the way athletes perform," wrote Richard Sandomir in The New York Times. "He filled his notebooks but did not have to convert his jottings into an article under a tight deadline. He had months to digest his observations and then wrote long -- very long."

Said Angell: "I didn't have to write after a game. That was unforgivable."

Angell's main job for many years at The New Yorker was as a fiction editor, a job once held by his mother, Katherine White. His stepfather was the famous children's author E.B. White, who penned Charlotte's Web. So, it's no surprise that writing became Angell's life-long passion. He was raised in good company.

"When he accepted the award Saturday at Doubleday Field," wrote Sandomir, "Angell said that he collected '.300 lifetime talkers like a billionaire hunting down Cézannes and Matisses' -- loquacious folks like Keith Hernandez, Roger Craig, Bill Rigney and Dan Quisenberry. And he gave his thanks to baseball, 'which has turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and so exacting, and so easy looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled my notebooks in a rush.'"

Peter Gammons, like Angell, a longtime chronicler of baseball, wrote: "It isn't simply nostalgia, it is a weekend that allows us a sense of where we are. As Angell spoke, one thought about a life of literacy, not tweets, that not only did he wrote so elegantly, but he edited John Updike, he edited John McPhee, which made me recall the sign Angell said McPhee had in his kitchen: 'When everything is going your way, you're probably in the wrong lane.'"

Angell is a "lover of books and words," wrote Maureen Dowd in a wonderful New York Times Sunday Review column that appeared over the weekend. His prose combines his love of language with his passion for baseball. "Who else could use 'venery' in a story and write the world's longest palindrome?" she asked.

"Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game," wrote Angell in The Summer Game, the first of his seven books about baseball"This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball, and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone in the past decade or two, remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball's time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our fathers' youth, and even back then -- back in the country days -- there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young."

Indeed, baseball hasn't always been perfect, but this past weekend it felt like it was. It made me feel forever young.

Photographs: Courtesy of MLB.com.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What a mural can tell us about our glorious past

Our glorious past / A mural depicts the famous Key System
electric trains that connected Oakland and San Francisco.

There are many colorful, vivid and fascinating murals that dot the urban landscape in my Oakland neighborhood. While some of them are reminders of the glorious past history of this East Bay city situated across the bay from San Francisco, in particular, one of them depicts the famous Key System electric trains.

Believe me, there's plenty we can learn from studying a single, neo-WPA mural.

The Key Route Plaza mural, a 23-by-14-foot colorful and historic mural created by local artist Rocky Baird in 2005, tells a story about a bygone era of transportation that once connected Oakland and San Francisco, two major northern California cities on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay.

The Key System electric trolley car company established its first transit depot at Key Route Plaza, at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and 41st Street in Oakland, in 1904. The orange and silver train depicted in the mural that is located on what formerly was part of the transit depot is Car No. 159 on the C-Line which, according to a historic plaque, made its final departure from Piedmont Station on April 19, 1958 at 6:45 p.m.

The quixotic creator of the Key Route, Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, is a larger-than-life giant figure shown in the mural. He was a Nevada mining magnate who made his fortune in borax before he lost much of it in transit. The key that he is holding "has three rings at its handle to symbolize three lines to Berkeley, Oakland and Piedmont. The long stem represents the Key Pier, which carried trains about three miles over the bay, and the teeth represent the ferry slip," wrote Sam Whiting in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article.

At its height during the 1940s, the Key System had over 66 miles of track and serviced the hills and dales of Oakland and Berkeley as well as other East Bay cities like Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, El Cerrito, Richmond and Albany.

A historic plaque at the site of Key Route Plaza.

According to the commemorative plaque at Key Route Plaza, back in 1939 it took the streamlined trains 27 minutes to travel from Oakland's Piedmont Station over the Bay Bridge to the First and Mission Station in "The City." Not bad considering that in 2014 it still takes 20 minutes to travel by light rail transit on BART from MacArthur Station in Oakland to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco.

The Key Route Plaza mural is filled with other symbolism, too. There are sections of the mural in which we see figures representing the Black Power and Women's Suffrage movements as well as a link to U.S. military might and our need for petroleum.

According to the artist, who was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle about the mural, "the mural took two months of research and three months of painting." At a cost of $5,000 to create, Baird sold off the window seats in the train at $500 each to help raise funds.

Today, half of the depot sits idle while it awaits refurbishing into a cafe, while the other half has morphed into a popular municipal parking lot, which tells the fate of a train system that was displaced by the rise and popularity of the automobile.

To learn more about the history of the Key System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_System

To read more about the history of Oakland's electric trains: http://www.oaklandmagazine.com/Oakland-Magazine/January-2008/When-Trains-Ruled-the-East-Bay/

Photos by Michael Dickens ©2014.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History /
Ken Burns in conversation at San Francisco's Castro Theatre.

Why do we cry when we see a Ken Burns documentary? Perhaps, it's because the documentary filmmaker has a remarkable talent for telling stories through real people.

"History is sharing the process of discovery," said Burns, whose 1990 film The Civil War brought him to the forefront of documentary filmmaking in the United States. He is known for his style of using archival footage and photographs. "Preserving the past is one of the greatest things you can do for the future."

Burns, 60, has also directed films about other subjects familiar to Americans, including: Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Central Park Five (2012).

This fall, the Emmy Award-winning Burns returns with a new film that depicts the monumental saga of an exceptional American family whose impact is still felt across the nation.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, a new seven-part, 14-hour documentary directed by Burns and written by Geoffrey C. Ward, will debut nationwide on PBS on September 14. The film weaves together the stories of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of one of the most prominent and influential American political families.

Recently, I had the chance to preview The Roosevelts: An Intimate History during an evening with Ken Burns at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, which was sponsored by KQED, in partnership with Kraw Law Group and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Burns was in San Francisco not only to promote The Roosevelts in front of a captive and enthusiastic audience, but also to interview legendary San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie Mays for a future documentary he is currently working on about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the 1947.

In The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, said Burns, for the first time we truly get to veer into the private lives of the most public of people. And, it's the first time their individuals stories have been interwoven into a single narrative.

Over 20,000 archived photos went into the making of The Roosevelts. We see Theodore, who was once a sickly boy, storm into Washington like an officer charging into battle. We learn of Franklin, struck down by illness, and how he pulls himself back up while at the same time lifting the U.S. out of the Great Depression and World War II. And, we see how Eleanor redefines the role of First Lady while inspiring millions of Americans. The documentary follows the Roosevelts for over a century, from the birth of Theodore in 1858 to Eleanor's death in 1962.

"You can't expect people like that to happen all the time," said historian David McCullough, who appears on camera throughout the documentary. Adds fellow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also appears on screen in The Roosevelts: "It's an extraordinary story. The drama is unmatched in our history."

According to Burns, the story of the Roosevelts raises many questions, such as: "What is the role of government in society?" and "What is heroism?" While it may be impossible to sum up in a sentence or two what Burns learned from working on The Roosevelts, one thing he said he took away from his work is this: FDR had an extraordinary ability to communicate.

The only thing we have to fear ... is fear itself.

"History is a rising road," said Burns. "Human nature is always the same. There at times has been incivility, but what's interesting is what's the same."

To learn more: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Photograph: Michael Dickens ©2014.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The latest chapter in an amazing tennis story

Novak Djokovic kisses the most coveted trophy in tennis after
winning the 2014 Wimbledon gentlemen's singles championship.

You can learn a lot about world-class athletes by the way they comport themselves during an awards ceremony and in post-match interviews. Such was the case following Sunday's nearly-four hour epic Wimbledon gentlemen's singles final between the seven-time champion, Roger Federer, and the world's no. 1 player, Novak Djokovic. It was their 35th meeting and, always, there's familiarity when these two meet on court.

Sunday's match did not produce a storybook finish to this year's Championships at Wimbledon that many, including myself, had hoped for as Djokovic won 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 to prevent Federer from winning an eighth Wimbledon title. However, it did give everyone who witnessed the Centre Court clash of titans, in which Federer came from down 2-5 in the fourth set to win five straight games while holding off one match point, a sense of hope that there are more chapters remaining to be written in Federer's amazing story.

From perspective, Federer knows he can't go on forever and each Grand Slam final is a precious opportunity. He expects a lot of himself. Had Federer, a living legend just a month shy of his 33rd birthday, won on Sunday, he would have become the oldest Wimbledon champion since the beginning of the Open Era in 1968 and his eighth Wimbledon crown would have meant his 18th career Grand Slam title, too.

"It was a great final. I can't believe I made it to five. It wasn't looking good for a while," said Federer, during his on-court interview with the BBC's Sue Barker following the trophy presentation. "Going into a match with Novak, it's always going to be tough and physical. He plays athletic points. I can only say 'congratulations' today. Amazing match; amazing tournament once again. Well deserved.

"I enjoyed myself a lot. See you next year."

Federer and his family have been royalty at Wimbledon's Centre Court since he won the junior boys' title in 1998. This year, his parents, wife Mirka and his twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, attired in matching floral dresses, were all there to bear witness. Always gracious in victory or defeat, the very public Federer shed no tears in accepting his runner-up plate. Later, he said: "It's even more memorable when I see my kids there with my wife and everything. That's what touched me the most, to be quite honest. The disappointment of the match itself went pretty quickly."

Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Djokovic's seventh Grand Slam title was special for him. The way in which he bounced back during the ultimate fifth set against Federer -- overcoming mental and physical frailties -- showed a lot of determination.

When it was time for his name to be called out during the trophy presentation, Djokovic lifted his head and raised his arms to the sky, partly in jubilation and partly as a means of giving thanks. During his post-match interview with Barker, Djokovic fought back a lot of emotions.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer
with their Wimbledon trophies.
"First of all, I want to congratulate Roger for a great tournament and a great fight today," said Djokovic. "It was a great match to be proud of. He's a magnificent champion, a great athlete."

Turning to look Federer in the eye, Djokovic remarked: "I respect your career and everything you've done. Thank you for letting me win today!" It drew a smile from Federer.

Continuing his praise of Federer, Djokovic said: "In important moments, he comes up with his best shots. That's why he's won 17 Grand Slams and is the best in the game. After dropping the fourth set, it wasn't easy to regroup. I had to compose myself and find the necessary energy to win the fifth. I don't know how I managed to do it."

Asked to put winning this year's Wimbledon title into perspective, Djokovic said: "This is the tournament I always dreamed of winning. It's the best tournament in the world, the most valuable one. The first tennis match I ever saw, when I was five-years-old, was Wimbledon. That image has always stuck in my mind. To be able to compete at such a high level, I'm so grateful for this opportunity and to be able to hold this trophy."

Finally, it was time for Djokovic to recognize those who played a role in his victory: "I dedicate it to a few people," he said. "First of all, I would like to dedicate it to my future wife (Jelena Ristic), and our future baby. I'm going to become a father soon. I'm still preparing for that. It's a great joy in life. I would like to dedicate it to my family: my parents, my brother, and all of the family in my team." Djokovic's team included his coach, three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker. "Of course, they've sacrificed a lot of their free time and life in order to live the dream and be where I am at this moment. And, last but not least, I would like to dedicate this title to my first coach that taught me all the basics of tennis shots and behavior and everything I know about tennis, Jelena Gencic. She passed away last year. This is for her."

Djokovic lifted the winner's trophy aloft and kissed it. He was grateful for the opportunity to so publicly share a poignant moment. The Wimbledon final was broadcast to over 180 countries around the world.

Off the court, Djokovic called Sunday's Wimbledon victory "the most special Grand Slam final I've played. At the time in my career, for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row. I started doubting, of course, a little bit. I needed this win a lot."

Looking back on Sunday's championship match with a day's-worth of perspective, one thing is certain. What a treat for tennis fans around the world this year's final provided us with to remember: Five sets of extremely high level of play stretched out over almost four hours -- with lots of resilience and mental and physical fortitude -- was exuded by both athletes. Regardless of whom you wanted to win, you had to admire and appreciate the level of tennis that Djokovic and Federer brought to Centre Court.

No doubt, both players left the Wimbledon grounds with their heads held high.

A postscript: Four days after winning his second Wimbledon title, Novak Djokovic married his long-time girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, in the grounds of Montenegro's Aman Sveti Stefan resort.

Photos courtesy AELTC/Google Images. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Still much drama to come

American true grit / U.S. goalie Tim Howard's 16 saves against
Belgium was the most in a World Cup match since 1966.

If there's one thing I've learned during the first three week's of the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, it's this: International football (still referred to by most in my country as soccer) is a truly global game, but with a new world order in the making.

Old Europe -- as represented by England, Italy and Spain -- are out. New Europe -- defined by Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland -- are in. Somehow, France just keeps on winning by the slimmest of margins while Germany just plain wins.

Meanwhile, Central and South America, represented by Argentina, upstart Costa Rica and host nation Brazil, have played very well, and Colombia is all business-like in this year's World Cup. Lionel Messi has been, well ... Messi the Great, always a treat to watch when he has the ball on his left foot. He rescues his team -- and, by extension, his country -- when they need him the most. And, both the Canarinho and the Ticos, that's Brazil and Costa Rica, respectively, were blessed to have advanced to the quarterfinals last weekend, thanks to winning on penalty kicks -- the ultimate tie-break experience.

Among those who advanced out of group play, Mexico, Nigeria and Algeria each acquitted themselves nicely and each showed they belonged in the new world order.

Two of the remaining teams, Costa Rica and Colombia, have reached the quarterfinals -- the last eight -- for the first time. There are four repeat teams from four years ago: Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina.

Further north up the Americas, the United States gained a lot of attention and national interest even when it wasn't always winning. On Tuesday, Team USA got its chance to play OT when it fought to a nil-nil tie after 90+ minutes of regulation time against Belgium. Like four years ago when it lost to Ghana, lightening struck twice against the Americans and Belgium scored early during the extra time period en route to a thrilling 2-1 victory in Salvador, Brazil.

Here in the U.S., we're used to clear-cut outcomes in our sporting events. So, imagine our surprise when a recent draw against Portugal felt like a victory and we celebrated after a 1-0 loss to Germany because it still advanced the Stars and Stripes out of their vaunted "Group of Death" and into the "Knockout Round" against Belgium. What we've learned is this: International football can be won by the slimmest of margins and lost by the slimmest of margins, too. And, they play on during stoppage time until the referee blows his whistle.

Sometimes, it's alright to be valiant in defeat.

In describing the Americans' grit following their elimination by Belgium, Jeré Longman wrote in The New York Times: "All the great rush and fevered desperation were spent now, the tension released. Their bodies and chances exhausted, the Americans bent over, collapsed to the ground on their backs, stared ahead at what might have been.

"In another epic game in a mesmerizing World Cup, the United States took Belgium to the edge of its marvelous capability. The Americans absorbed wave after wave of attacks, countered with the fearlessness of youth and survived for long stretches on the gymnastic goalkeeping of Tim Howard, whose dexterous arms and legs seemed to be playing soccer, hockey and basketball all at once."

U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of his team: "I think they all went to their limits." Goalie Tim Howard, still one of the world's best at age 35, made 16 saves Tuesday, the most by a goalie in a World Cup match since 1966. Howard single-handedly kept the game within reach for the Americans.

The U.S. took us for quite a thrilling ride through its four matches: a victory over Ghana, a draw against Portugal, and close losses to Germany and Belgium. "It's really awesome getting through the group, but it means nothing," Howard said before the Belgium match. "The sting of failure is the same if you lose in this round as if you didn't get out of the group."

Collectively, five of the eight Round of 16 games went to extra time, the most since the round was introduced in the 1986 World Cup. Each of the eight games was won by the team that won its group.

Throughout the U.S., there has been been plenty of national attention given the World Cup, coast to coast, from New York to San Francisco, as well as in heartland cities like Kansas City and Chicago. Our eyes have been glued to the action. It's been a national, shared experience for sports fans of all ages. Personally, the World Cup has given me an opportunity to talk international football with Facebook friends from Mexico, Costa Rica and Algeria, and to learn what it's like to be a fan of in each of those countries -- even to care about those teams, too.

ESPN, the U.S.-based global cable and satellite television channel that is primarily owned by The Walt Disney Company, has provided North American fans with tremendous TV coverage, both visually and in its studio and match commentary. In print, The New York Times has devoted countless column inches and pages each day to cover the action on and off the pitch and it's given its readers a keen, socio-economic perspective to the story of this futebol nation, a sport which has helped define Brazil's place in the world.

It's been a pleasure to see, read and learn the fascinating history of the beautiful game, and to listen to the now-familiar voice of Englishman play-by-play commentator Ian Darke calling all of the important matches on ESPN. Darke, a veteran of the network's 2010 World Cup broadcasts, has a wonderful command of the English language and, sometimes -- OK, always -- he enjoys a lovely flair for the dramatic. Last week, in its soccer blog, The San Francisco Chronicle spun its own version of a classic Aesop fable, "If Ian Darke recounted the tale of the tortoise and the hare", that's worth a good read. Meanwhile, there's still much to be said and written about this year's World Cup, which culminates with the championship match on Sunday, July 13. And, there's the beautiful visuals of the Copacabana Beach in Rio, too.

Like an enjoyable West End theatrical, the 2014 FIFA World Cup has had its share of divas and dives as well as its thrills, spills and pratfalls. Yet, with seven matches remaining to decide this year's World Cup champion nation -- and eight countries still very much in contention -- we all look forward to much drama and excitement ahead in the World Cup's next act.

Photo: Courtesy of Google images.