61*

If you’re a baseball fan, of a certain age at least, you think of 61 as a number that inevitably is accompanied by an asterisk.  That’s because, in 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s decades-old single-season home run record of 60 by bashing 61 home runs — only to have his feat placed in the record books with an asterisk.

roger-maris-1961The 1961 baseball season was an exciting one, with Maris of the New York Yankees and his Hall of Fame teammate Mickey Mantle each chasing Ruth’s record.  Mantle was the a hero to many and the sentimental favorite, but it was Maris who broke the record by hitting his 61st home run on October 1, 1961.  They even made a made-for-TV movie, 61*, about the season.

Some people weren’t exactly happy that Maris broke Ruth’s record, though.  Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, a friend of the Babe, insisted that Maris’ record go into the record books with an asterisk, to recognize the fact that Maris hit his 61 homers in a 162-game season, while Ruth hit his 60 round-trippers in a 154-game season.  It was a pretty bogus move by the Commish, because even though Maris held the record, the asterisk cheapened and delegitimized it somehow.  It communicated, implicitly, that 61 was not an authentic record and required explanation. It’s the most famous use of the asterisk in sports history — in fact, probably the most famous use of punctuation, period, in sports history — and the asterisk dogged Maris for the rest of his career.  (And he probably wasn’t comforted by the fact that asterisk comes from the Greek word for “little star,” either.)

The key point, though, is that I’ll always think of 61 as carrying an asterisk.  So today, when I celebrate my 61st birthday, I’ve got to put an asterisk after that number.

What’s my footnote?  I guess that I really don’t feel like I’m 61, and in fact am a bit shocked that I’ve been around for 61 years.  I can’t say that I feel like a kid, but inside I’m more of a forty-something.

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Celebrating Gold Pants Day

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Today members of the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes football team received their treasured gold pants.  For members of Buckeye Nation, it’s a day worth celebrating.

In 1934, after years of Michigan gridiron dominance over the Buckeyes, legendary Ohio State coach Francis (“Close the Gates of Mercy”) Schmidt told the Men of the Scarlet and Gray that the Wolverine players put their pants on one leg at a time, like everyone else.  In short, the players on That Team Up North were human and could be beaten.  Ever since, players on an Ohio State team that beats the Wolverines in The Game receive an old-fashioned “gold pants” charm.  It’s one of the cooler traditions in the tradition-soaked world of  Ohio State football.

If you click on the link above, you can watch a video that Ohio State football released about the distribution of the gold pants, including comments from J.T. Barrett and some other recent Buckeyes about The Game — and how many pairs of gold pants they’ve earned during their Ohio State careers.

On To Baseball, And (Eventually) Summer

Today the 2018 Major League Baseball season starts.  On Opening Day, fans of every team can approach the new season with optimism that this might just be the year for their team to win it all.

1cfa76df7b9fae74e7898045efb9d360Fans of the Cleveland Indians, like Russell and UJ and me, are hoping that, on this 70th anniversary of the Tribe’s last World Series title, this might be the year that the team ends a very long drought.  With the winless streak now celebrating its 70th birthday, we think it’s time for its mandatory retirement.  And after last season, where Cleveland won more than 100 games but lost to the Damn Yankees in the playoffs, Tribe fans are hoping that the team has the pieces in place to make another legitimate run for the championship banner.

But Tribe fans are not alone, of course.  The start of baseball season is great, because every baseball fan everywhere feels inward optimism about their squad, even if they won’t admit it publicly.  Lightning can and does strike.  Sometimes teams just gel, and unlikely heroes emerge, and rookie phenoms actually pan out.  Every year, it seems, there is a Cinderella story, and at the start of the season every fan hopes that their team will end up donning the glass slipper.  The sense of hopefulness and possibility is intoxicating — but also can be brief and ruined by reality.

This year, though, at least for those of us in the Midwest and East who’ve been enduring the Winter that Won’t Go Away,  there’s another reason to celebrate the arrival of baseball’s Opening Day.  If the Summer Game is finally here, we can hope that summer itself isn’t far behind.

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Sports

Last night two bad things happened:  the Ohio State Buckeyes went down to defeat in the NCAA Tournament, and during the game Mr. Sports emerged.

The Buckeyes’ loss wasn’t unexpected; they’d gotten whipped by Gonzaga earlier in the season and were the underdog.  Ohio State gamely fought back from a 15-point deficit at the start of the game to briefly take the lead in the second half, but ultimately Gonzaga pulled away.  It was a good game, but also one where, from the standpoint of Ohio State fans at least, it seemed like every rolled-out layup and rattling in three-pointer and missed-shot carom just favored the Bulldogs.   Sometimes that happens in sports.

1281989935452That’s where Mr. Sports came in.  That’s the name I’ve given to the harsh, foul-mouthed, angry personality that sometimes takes over during TV sports broadcasts when one of my favorite teams is playing in a big game.  Mr. Sports wants his teams to win so badly that any adversity or bad break causes him to surge to the forefront and launch into vicious tirades about referees, opposing players, the fates, or even the opposing coach’s wife or Mom and Dad celebrating an impending win.  And, because college basketball is a game where so many bounces or debatable foul calls can happen, it’s prime territory for Mr. Sports.

Last night Mr. Sports was pretty bad.  Kish and I had decided to watch the game together, but after Ohio State fell far behind and was struggling to catch up, one of Mr. Sports’ loud and profane outbursts caused Russell’s dog Betty to leap off the couch, and Kish decided to retreat upstairs in disgust.  Mr. Sports then watched the rest of the game by himself, fulminating about the unjust fates.  After the game ended I went back upstairs, feeling sheepish and stupid about my loss of control in front of my disappointed wife and the two dogs.  Recently I’ve gotten better about keeping Mr. Sports under wraps — combining age, presumed maturity, and avoidance strategies like just not watching much college basketball this year — but sometimes the power of Mr. Sports is simply too strong.

The Atlantic recently carried an interesting article about the positives and negatives of being a sports fan, and concluded that the benefits outweigh the negatives.  And I know from personal experience how thrilling it is when one of your teams wins it all.  But it is embarrassing when Mr. Sports thunders out from my id and starts raging at the TV, and it makes me feel bad to disappoint my baffled wife, who just can’t understand how sports can cause such a fundamental change in behavior in the blink of an eye.

I’m 60 years old, and I’ve still got some growing up to do.

Totally Imperfect

Somebody, somewhere, somehow calculated the odds of completing a perfect NCAA tournament bracket at 1 in 9.2 quintillion.  A quintillion is a billion billion, or 1 followed by 18 zeroes.  Numerically represented, the odds of perfection are 1 in 9,200,000,000,000,000,000.

screen-shot-2018-03-16-at-11-51-24-pmThis year, again, no one is going to beat those overwhelming odds.  After the end of the first-round games in the 2018 NCAA tournament, no perfect brackets remain among the millions of brackets that were submitted in the five major NCAA tournament challenges sponsored by the likes of ESPN and CBS.  Virginia’s shocking loss to the University of Maryland Baltimore County — the first time in NCAA tournament history that a number 16 seed beat a number 1 seed — knocked out the few remaining perfect brackets.  Virginia’s loss probably caused a lot of people to toss their office pool brackets into the trash can, too.  (Two of my friends are diehard Virginia fans.  As a Cleveland sports fan, I can imagine the excruciating mental anguish they are experiencing right now and am deeply sympathetic.)

At the other end of the spectrum, one ESPN bracket challenge entrant managed to achieve a different kind of perfection — going 0-20 in the first 20 games.  Alas, his or her bid for reverse perfection went awry when Nevada beat Texas.

The NCAA tournament is a fun time for both serious and casual sports fans, and I think it’s a good thing for the country, too.  In a country as large and diverse as America, there aren’t many unifying events, but the NCAA tournament, and the submission of office pools and pick sheets, is one of them.  Just don’t expect perfection.

Testing Your Limits

Some people, at least, regularly test their physical and mental limits.  They may have a job, like soldiering, where the training involves dealing with bodily stresses that would overwhelm normal humans, or serving as a test pilot, where the ability to think clearly and analytically in moments of enormous emotional and psychological pressure is essential.  Such people work at pushing the envelope of what they can tolerate because it is a key aspect of surviving and succeeding in their jobs.

eh3vj3c2r36jslu3rdf7Then there are people who test their limits voluntarily, because they find it intriguing and personally challenging.  Athletes, whether professional or not, often set goals and work like crazy until they exceed them, whether it is trying to surpass a weight limit on the dead life or running a faster marathon.  They endure lots of physical pain and fatigue and make great sacrifices because they need to do so to reach their objective, and when they reach the objective they feel a sense of real accomplishment.

But would you ever hold your breath underwater to the point where your body is wracked with spasms, called involuntarily breathing movements, and your brain and every instinct in your body is urgently telling you that you need to breathe — just to see how long you can go, to the point where your body is saturated with internal carbon dioxide?  The New Yorker published an article about the competition in extreme breath-holding, and recounted the experience of one American diver who stayed underwater, holding his breath, for 8 minutes and 35 seconds — which isn’t even a world record.  He became hypoxic and experienced tunnel vision, but seemed satisfied with his experience in pushing his body well past its normal limits.

I read the article and concede, as someone who as a kid enjoyed sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool at Portage Country Club, blowing bubbles, that being able to hold your breath for more than eight and a half minutes is impressive — but I still wonder, why do it?  Why risk some kind of serious physical or mental injury just to hold your breath, or climb a sheer rock wall, or engage in some other daredevil stunt?  There’s an impulse at work in such people that exists nowhere in my psyche.

Me?  I’m perfectly happy to stay well within my limits, and I will promptly obey the signals I get from my brain to draw a breath, or step away from the edge of a precipice, or steer clear of danger.  So far, at least, my brain has done a pretty good job of keeping me toes up.

Messing With The Summer Game

Spring training is underway, so it’s time for the hand-wringers in the executive suites of Major League Baseball to float their latest harebrained ideas to add “excitement” to America’s Pastime.  Every year, it seems, the baseball kingpins make little changes to speed the game up — like this year’s change limiting the number of visits to the mound — and also consider other, much more disruptive, potential changes to jazz things up.

The latest colossally bad idea that MLB executives apparently are discussing is intended to make the ninth inning more exciting, by allowing the team that is losing at that point to decide which of its batters get sent to the plate that inning.  The argument for this change is that baseball is the only sport where, with the game on the line, the best players might not be on the field.  If you’re three runs behind and your 7-8-9 hitters are coming to the plate, the proponents of the rule change argue, you might as well write the game off.  Why not let the trailing team choose to have their 3-4-5 hitters come up, so they’ve got a chance of winning?

It’s a stupid idea, because it changes the game even more fundamentally than the designated hitter rule.  Why should the team that is behind get “helped” by being given an advantage?  What if a perfect game is being pitched?  What about the idea that baseball is a team game, where every player needs to contribute and strategy and managerial moves can make a difference?  For that matter, why should the ninth inning be viewed as more important than every other inning?  Why shouldn’t every inning count equally?

If MLB execs are looking for other stupid ways add more twists and turns to the game, how about these?  Allow each team to strike one player out of the opposing team’s lineup.  Only have the best five players on each team bat.  Make any runs scored with two outs in an inning count double.  Or let a midget bat, or give a free suit to any player who hits a home run that hits a bull sign in the outfield.  (Wait a minute — I think those last two have already been tried.)

Why can’t baseball just accept the game the way it has been played for more than a century — the same game that our Moms and Dads, and Grandmothers and Grandfathers, watched and enjoyed?