Jazz, Baseball, Politics and the Beltway Blues: Our American Dialogue, Part II
Well, that's over.
$2.6 billion later, the U.S. presidential election is history. No more polls, no more red state / blue state electoral maps, no more trash-talking. Right on its heels, the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) announced the results of their voting for the league MVPs, Cy Young and other annual awards, and then issued the list of 2013's Hall of Fame candidates, whichgaspincludes known users of PEDs... here comes the hand-wringing. The only front-page election news left in 2012 will be the Grammy nominations' clamorous weeks of attendant insults, praises, rants and double takes, as voting members of NARAS publicly second-guess or dismiss the messy-but-colorful politics of their peer-review version of democracy ... while privately acknowledging the talent and hard work that all the artists have gone through as they try to make a buck with recorded music.
The lesser page-two items between now and New Year's will just be the usual pot-stirring lists and predictions, speculations on everything from the December 21st deadline for the End of Mayan Civilization As We Know It to the breathless blow-by-blow accounts of each dare and double-dare in the Capitol Hill game of chicken, while the ship of state is sailed over the cliff into fiscal year 2013 ... you've heard it before.
This season's real October Surprise wasn't Hurricane Sandy (surprise is hardly the word), nor the release of Gary Golio's terrific Spirit Seeker (Clarion)a slender, beautifully illustrated volume about John Coltrane, ostensibly written for children, and a certain ASCAP Deems Taylor candidateit was that, despite being held to a scant six runs in the World Series, the toothless Detroit Tigers managed to play an extra inning before being mercifully swept by the San Francisco Giants.
You think I jest?
Yes, I jest. Gallows humor.
Politicians really ought to listen to more jazz and lighten up. It could help them understand Americans in a way that they obviously do not. For precisely the same reason, they should also watch more baseball. In the unlikely event they are unable to snag a last-minute luxury box from a lobbyist, they could do what the rest of us do and watch it on television. Or maybe even combine the two activitieswatch the local Mudville Nine broadcast with the sound muted, and listen to Dizzy Gillespie at the same time.
The defibrillator paddles of jazz and baseball could undoubtedly get those tickers ticking pretty hard, but in time would soothe their savage breasts as they deal with the harsher realities of Western Civilization. Leaning back and listening to Thelonious Monk play "Hackensack" might un-furrow their worried brows a little, give them a purposeful distraction as they ponder the intricacies of minor-league affiliations and what on earth educator/historian Jacques Barzun (whose own October Surprise was dying at age 104, for those of you keeping scorecards at home) really meant by his radical admonition to understand baseballthat other indigenous art form to which politicians pay such loving lip servicein their attempt to understand America.
They might gain a little perspective. After hearing the Count Basie Orchestra's silken collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald's scatting or Frank Sinatra's crooning, the Mitch McConnells and Harry Reids of the world might start to relax and listen to each other, conceivably learning to appreciate and even support someone else's viewpoint. Not to compromise with it, but to accommodate it. Statesmanship isn't so much a question of finding a middle ground as it is of listening to the other person's viewpoint well enough to actually understand itand in a representative democracy, accepting the right and duty of that elected official to voice it.
The Democrat and Republican leadership both understand this country's big problems fairly well and often get a lot right. But neither can be trusted without the balancing influence of the other, especially with the additional hedge of a vocal third party's nagging to help keep them in line. The yin and yang of what comes through a democracy's front door is a bitchno matter what it is, no matter how much you like it, too much of anything can make you sick. Which is the very practical reason that British politician/historian Sir John Acton, a 19th century champion of America's experiment in democracy, was led to write that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The U.S. is unquestionably spending more dollars than it is collecting in federal taxes, then borrowing whatever is needed to pay the bills at the end of the month. That approach is called insolvency. It can't last much longer. But in the process of rebuilding a collapsed economic engine to achieve productivity againi.e., an engine capable of being solventwe also need to responsibly enable the engineers, protect a citizenry undermined at every turn by a corrupt banking industry that whipsaws world currencies and uses inequitable IRS tax laws to perpetuate itself.
To repair all that, we need honorable leaders committed to finding solutions by listening closely to each other. The Good Guys vs. Bad Guys model is a ruse, and doesn't work. We've seen quite enough of the sordid Hatfields and McCoys act. The venal campaign contributors and special interests with their quid pro quo extortion schemes have produced nothing but politically expedient corruption and a policy of deceit. The resultant bitter enmity will either end soon, or kill us all.
Chris Christie and Barack Obama are a pretty odd couple. But here's a concept for you. Remember the idea of a Loyal Opposition, that critical component of democracy that British parliament member John Hobhouse used to describe his dealings with King George IV? Remember the famous presidential working relationships like Everett Dirkson and JFK? Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan?
This might be a good time for our elected leaders to revisit the idea, and grow up, take their own sanctimonious advice and eat their vegetables, especially the spinach. There's going to be a lot of heavy lifting. It might work.
Maybe. The sound of wolves at the door could soon encourage them to communicate instead of arguing, cooperate instead of trying to dominate. But it probably wouldn't be that simple. It would be simpler ... simpler to just take the uncomplicated advice Miles Davis gave to a young saxophonist in his band, John Coltrane, who told his boss that he had so many things he wanted to play during his long solosso much he needed to saythat he didn't know how to quit once he got started. Miles' suggestion: "Try taking the horn out of your mouth."
Perhaps the folks in Washington just need to be shown how that's done.
Jazz DemocracyHow It's Done
Much of our existence on this blue little planet truly is a battle between hurricanes and governors. But not all concernscommercial, social, political or otherwiseand not every minute of everyday life, need to degenerate into the chaotically squalid street fight that American politics has become, as described earlier in Part 1 of this essaythat incessant contest between bullies and cowards, aggression and retreat, truth and lies. Fortunately, even though many contests really are a matter of life and death, many are not. Any game can make you crazy. Some games are immensely entertaining and enjoyable to play. A few are fun, even therapeutic to watchas theatrical re-enactments of life's daily badda-bing-badda-boom, or as aesthetically pleasing, non-lethal microcosms that mirror and illuminate this blood sport called life.
A live jazz performance is a useful example. Someone calls the tune, and everybody in the band agrees to play according to its rules and limitations. They sort it out until they do, the big stuff immediately, and the rest as they go along. When everyone knows what compositional form it will take, what the required key(s) and time signature(s) are, they just do it. Somebody counts it in and the game is played: together or separately, improvised or note-for-note, the professional standard is harmonious interaction and beauty. If somebody is assigned a solo, another player's job is usually to accompany it without unnecessary interference. The soloist, who has been elected into the group because of proven ability, is given free rein to fly like an eagle or crash in the rocks with a thudeither way, when it's his turn to play, it's time for everyone else to lay out.
Keeping in mind, of course, that when it's handled right you may not crash at all, even if you are rapidly losing altitude. Herbie Hancock tells of the important lesson he learned one night early in his career, playing with Miles and bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne ShorterThe Quintet, as it is called. The multi-Grammy, Academy Award-winning pianist says the band was playing along when he brought his fingers down on all manner of wrong keys, producing a sound he described as not just mildly dissonant, but bad, not even music. He was horrified at his mistake. But Hancock says that without missing a beat, the master trumpeter/bandleader played a single note on his horn that magically integrated the sounds from the piano chord with what the other musicians were playing, unifying it and what the band were doing with the tune's harmonic and rhythmic structure, and moving it all forward. He says the audience never knew the difference. And it wasn't that they hadn't noticed the mistake, but that there had been no mistake to notice.
Baseball DemocracyHow Life Imitates the League Divisional Series
Baseball is another example... at least in most years. Sadly, if a casual baseball fan happened to have tuned in late this year, just in time for the World Series, it was anything but entertaining to watchnot even the last innings of the final game, if they bothered to stick around that long. San Francisco's ignominious four-game rout of Detroit wasn't any fun for anyone to watch. Not even died-in-the-wool baseball fans could watch it without wincing, not even the Giants faithful. Even the two teams' respective journeys to league pennants had been unusually tame fare.
No, the hot-ticket games this year came very early in the post-season. The newly added sudden-death wild card games produced the playoffs' two standout teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles, but we had to wait for the League Divisional Series to discover it. Once again the games were broadcast to an unfortunately small audience on Ted Turner's funky little cable station. But small audiences or not, each of the best-of-five series went the distance and was grand theater in its own way. San Francisco and St. Louis both spotted their opponents to two-game leads before mounting necessarily herculean three-game surges to win. Washington, the new darlings of the National League, were a sure World Series bet right up until they met Tony La Russa's terrifying doppelgänger, Mike Matheny.
But by far the hottest ticket of the LDS tier were the five Yankees and Orioles matchups. Lightly or intermittently engaged baseball fans likely missed them. Which is a shame, because these were easily the best games of the 2012 post-season.
Both New York and Baltimore played games of such total commitment and unblinking situational skill that either team could have won the privilege of moving on. Every victory came by the thinnest of margins. At the conclusion of these titanic battles, both teams' squads were utterly exhausted, emotionally and physically. It should have ended there. That was 2012's baseball time capsule.
But instead of going home for the year, like the Oriolesthere to rest and view game film, scheming and contemplating the glorious possibilities of next seasonthe weary Bronx Bombers taped up their bruises and sprains, and went back to work the next day for Act II against the freshly rested Tigers. Predictably, that series' ominous Game 1 injury to Derek Jeter, their captain and spiritual leader, among other things, seemed to utterly silence the team's already less-than-thunderous bats. They couldn't have won a best-of-seven series against the Toledo Mud Hens.
But no matter. They'd played with everything in their considerable arsenal against Baltimore, and won. It's possible no other contending team in the post-season could have done the same.
The unpredictable late-September AL East pennant race had portended something dramatic. Somehow, the symmetry of Buck Showalter managing the Orioles' charmed rise in the standings (like a mostly out-of-control hot air balloon) had provided the precise conditions Joe Girardi needed to awaken his Yankees in the midst of their gut-wrenching September swoon, to engage their near-genetic pinstripe birthright and replicant DNA, setting the stage for the kind of energized, season-ending confrontation that inspires teams to take championship form. Despite the Orioles' difficulty in scoring a run against the hulking Sabathia in the fifth and deciding game, at no point before the final out was the outcome ever certain. A best-of-seven series would have gone seven games, and if it had been a best-of-nine set, like the turn-of-the-century playoffs of yore, it would have taken all nine games to decide the winner. Three of their five contests were decided by a single runone, a twelve-inning game won by the Yankees, another a thirteen-inning affair won by the O's. When the Yankees at last prevailed, the only flaw in the athletic dramaturgy is that one of the teams had to lose.
Even the shocking developments three hours later, forty miles south of Baltimorewhen the Washington Nationals had their own dream season suddenly and violently crushedcouldn't extinguish what even the most bitterly disappointed Orioles fan knew in his heart of hearts, despite the black cloud that had descended over Chesapeake Bay by midnight. While millions of stunned Nationals fans slept fitfully that night, stuck inside the Beltway with the baseball blues again, Orioles fans awoke the next morning knowing they had witnessed one of the best playoffs in recent memory. They awoke knowing that their Orioles were as good or better than the Yankees, or any other team in the American League, and knowing they would be back again next year.
More than that, if those same fans had stayed at home and watched the series of games unfold on TBS from beginning to end, observed through the focused lenses of Cal Ripken, Jr., and John Smoltz, with Ernie Johnson's play-by-play setting the table for them, they had witnessed another kind of history: these were among the best-called baseball broadcasts ever.
A History Lessonthe Media Are the Message
Obviously, though it isn't a guarantee, great ball games are required to make truly great broadcasts even possible. But quite aside from the play on the field, anything is possible in the boothbroadcasting acumen can run the gamut from sublimely good to ridiculously awful. Some broadcasters have such poor communication skills or stilted styles that they make a mess of it, regardless. Some don't understand baseball. Some are so inattentive or unobservant that they meander and never find their way into the gamethat, or they occasionally get snapped back to reality by all the commotion and expel gales of excited jabberingor they become rhapsodizing John Keats wannabes showering praise on all living thingsor, at a loss for descriptive language, they stare straight ahead and warmly recite laundry lists of events the viewer has already viewed, hoping to get a nod of agreement while bobbing along in a shared sense of community.
Of course, any shortcomings can be temporarily overcome by an appropriate burst of exultation in the face of baseball glory.
To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the media are the message. They have been since roughly October 3rd, 1951. The press box that day at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan was like a baseball announcers' Mount Rushmore, all there to see the deciding game of a playoff necessitated by identical 96-58 regular season records turned in by the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Similar to the 2012 Orioles' post-All Star break winning tear, the Giants had put on an incredible 37-7 charge at the end of the season, placing them in a flatfooted tie for the pennant with the staggering Dodgers. The amateur audio tape of second baseman Bobby Thomson's walk-off homerun for the Giants, now known as "the shot heard 'round the world" (borrowed humbly from Ralph Waldo Emerson's description of the first shot fired at Lexington), is the most played sports recording in history.
New York Giants play-by-play man Ernie Harwell, not wanting to describe what you could damn well see with your own eyes on the first ever coast-to-coast nationally televised sports contest, called the homerun with a characteristically brief "It's gone!" for NBC's WPIX affiliate. Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber called it for WMGM-AM, succinctly, like any other homerun, adding ..."the New York Giants win the National League pennant and the Polo Grounds go wild!," then buttoned up and filled the airwaves with crowd noise.
Of the Hall of Fame broadcasters in the booth that day, it was Russ Hodges (accompanied by partner Harry Caray) who actually did go wild, making his now-famous call for the Giants on WMCA-AM. Hodges' over-the-top partisanship was in direct contrast to the standards of the day, set largely by people who considered themselves bound by pre-radio-journalism ethics (to such an extent that Red Barber was openly critical of Hodges' shouted call), i.e., people who were more naturally comfortable writing a story than talking into a microphone.
Announcing a baseball game changed after 1951. Television was in its infancy then and not yet taken too seriously in sports broadcasting, a field dominated by local AM radiowhich in 2012 has been entirely replaced by local cable stations who actively encourage their team-sponsored announcers to develop a unique brand or style that is equal parts bullshit and bravadoand national cable television interests, whose corporate approach enriches MLB coffers to the tune of over $800 million annually while branding their product with Madison Avenue graphics and soft rock, and encouraging their announcers to have nothing to say whatsoever. Describing and analyzing the action on the field have disappeared with AM radio. Cozy chatter and entertainment seem to have taken priority over cogent analysis.
A good number of baseball writers still consider the details and nuances of the game to be highly relevant. And to this day, oddly enough, stadium security will eject local print journalists who cheer a particular organization, while giving free rein to radio and television broadcasters, who are often employees of individual teams.
But there's also been a growing trend in some corners of the television industry that began anew with ESPN's hiring of Harold Reynolds in 1996. It is catching on. Slowly, of coursethe idea that a well-spoken, opinionated ex-major leaguer would be a more valuable analyst than a golden-throated communications major is apparently a difficult concept for network execs, who struggle to find a way to introduce journalistic quality time into their bigamous marriages to Ms. Lowest Common Denominator and Ms. Bottom Line. So for every Dennis Eckersley over the years, there has always been a Steve Lyons; for every John Kruk, a Tim McCarver.
Intelligent Analysis Comes of Age
This year, lightning struck at TBS.
By the end of the first broadcast in New York, these two had raised the bar for baseball announcing. Instead of fatuous deliberations pointing out the obvious, uttered with studied gravitas and practiced diction by the usual collection of microphone milquetoasts (second-division ex-major-leaguers who can't really analyze the game, side by side with play-by-play scions, or recently-fired-but-available managers) viewers were treated to a quantum leap in insightful baseball analysis. Not resting on their considerable Hall of Fame bona fides, Ripken (a 98% first-round inductee) and Smoltz (likely, when he becomes eligible) chose to exercise their extensive knowledge and expertise in detailed, highly intelligible discussions of pitching strategy, hitting psychology, base running skill and talent vs. mistakes, the limitations of athletic prowess, expectations for specific pitchers and hitters on different ball-strike counts (not the generic pablum of accepted wisdom), how good infielders will adjust their field position and footwork, etc. These two professionals were like two retired surgeons who'd kept entirely current on their medical journals.
More accurately, Smoltz and Ripken were effective thinkers and communicators, reminiscent of an old-school broadcast team like Bob Wolff and Joe Garagiola, or even Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They were as engaged and aware of the nuances of the game as they had been as active players. There were no corny stories, no distracting asides, no gauzy remembrances or comparisons of the current state of baseball to the way it was played back in the day, no cheap or insincere praise. Each offered unapologetically frank viewpoints based on high-level observations of the game. There were opinions offered occasionally, but not peevishly. They were almost clinical in their examination of mistakes or poor play, which of course made their positive comments far more valuable. Hopefully, Joe Garagiola the Elder got a chance to see them in action. He would have been proud.
For those fortunate enough to see and hear it, this was a unique opportunity to witness sports journalism of the highest order, done live and in the moment. Not only were these two worthy of the tradition first established long ago by great announcers like Red Barber or Mel Allen, they made it clear that there is a new breed of MLB player-turned-baseball analyst, and they are likely the best of the lot. Intelligent and well-spoken, each composed his thoughts in a way that was instructive to the viewer. Both were effortlessly well-mannered, never uttering a cheap shot, and were willing to be silent if nothing needed to be said.
Ripken would make discerning comments that applied so directly to the current game situation that they elicited immediate inside-baseball discussions with Smoltz, on a level practically unheard of in radio or television broadcasting. They often provoked each other with their remarks; whether it was purposely or inadvertently didn't seem to matter a bit.
Neither was bashful about responding or defending his own statements. During a discussion of fielding position on different pitches, the ex-shortstop/third baseman said that throughout his career, he'd make sure he "always knew what the next pitch would be." Smoltz was incredulous. "You always knew what the pitch would be?" he asked Ripken, unconvinced. "Yes, always," Ripken replied. "If I didn't know what it was going to be, I'd find out." It is unlikely that many other shortstops could make the same statement.
Despite his initial disbelief, Smoltz did not counter with anything. He was digesting the comment. More than that, Smoltz's silence didn't inspire Ripken to press the point or otherwise continue. It was apparent to attentive viewers that despite having played with Chipper Jones and Rafael Furcal behind him, the great Atlanta Braves pitcher appeared to have never known an infielder like Ripken, one whose head was so entirely "in the game." Indeed, there have been very few. He was woodshedding his baseball analytics on the air with one of the finest shortstops in history.
Almost as often, it was Smoltz's turn to take Ripkenand usto school. At some point during the running 5-game commentary on Alex Rodriguez's hitting woes, he availed himself of this unusual on-air baseball clinic that had developed, and broke down the specifics of what he thought was happening with ARod. Any idea that a pitcher at this level of the game hasn't studied every habit or tendency in the hitter he is facing, every grain of minutiae, was demolished. Despite having played in a different league most of his career, Smoltz knew Rodriguez's tendencies in detail and proceeded to analyze the Yankee slugger's mental and mechanical problems. Then he dove into a discussion of how a good pitcher would/should pitch to those weaknesses when the hitter is slumping and caving in emotionally as badly as the highest-paid ($30M annually) player in baseball was. To which Ripken added a few appropriate comments, of course, but mostly he listened.
As the seriousness of Rodriguez's disintegration became apparent, Smoltz expanded on a discussion he had introduced earlier of "pitching plane"a technical term used inside baseball, but until recent times, used more by flying instructors or golf pros than baseball announcersand how it was being used with the hitter. When manager Joe Girardi eventually did take the extreme step of benching his star in the last game of the series, Smoltz's coolly clinical observations had almost made it seem inevitable.
Except for one thing. He, and especially Ripken, disagreed with Girardi's move, immediately and vocally. True, ARod hadn't been hitting, but neither had Robinson Cano or Nick Swisher. In a must-win game with the series tied at two games apiece, and with the very real possibility of a single run deciding their fate, the Yankee skipper's decision seemed a poor choice to the two analysts. Correctly, neither made mention of the New York press/blogosphere chatter about Rodriguez's dugout tantrum or alleged flirting with girls in the stands in the middle of a game. The salient point was that Girardi needing hitting of the baseball variety, and wasn't getting any from his third baseman.
The discussion that ensued was the sort that, had Girardi been available for an interview, would have begun, "With all due respect, Joe..." As the conversation wound down it came to one final question. John Smoltz and Ernie Johnson were raptly attentive to what Ripken had to say when it was asked: What exactly can a manager do with a key player who is slumping, especially in a critical game, especially in a playoff game? Since a baseball manager in Joe Girardi's position would certainly have long since dismissed using any silly sports psychology claptrap, his options would be limited to either taking the player out of the lineup, or leaving him in and letting him sort it out ... right?
Baseball's prototypical power-hitting shortstop, the pioneer big man who had borne the pressure of getting a key hit in order to rescue his Orioles on so many occasions, answered with something short and direct. "Pitchers pitch differently to a hitter like that in those situations," he said. That is, with a much greater deliberation and finesse than usual, which is considerable. "As a hitter, you have to put it in perspective, and hope the other hitters can do it. That's why it's usually someone you don't expect who gets the key hit in one of these series." To wit, David Eckstein in the 2006 World Series, Edgar Renteria in the 2010 (and 1997) World Series. In this particular Baltimore-New York series, Raul Ibanez. Or Ichiro Suzuki.
Smoltz, a pitcher who had sweated and analyzed, strategized and re-strategized before throwing many a clever pitch past many a dangerous hitter in a clutch situation, was silent, as was Johnson, while they and anyone watching the game mentally scanned their memory banks and recognized those countless critical moments when a pennant or World Series had seemed to rest on the shoulders of a big star playerwho was then pitched to so effectively that he hadn't been able to get the key hit. It was demonstrably true. So many of those dramatic games had been won in the exact manner Ripken had just described. There was nothing more that needed to be said.
You Say Po-TAY-toh, I Say Po-TAH-toh
It was obvious throughout their conversations that Smoltz's frame of reference on the game had been fundamentally formed by way of a pitcher's orientation. As you would expect. His opinions would occasionally collide forcefully with Ripken's, which were, of course, based largely on a hitter's viewpoint.
Their discussions often escalated into debate, but never seemed prolonged by either one of them having the urge to win an argument. So in addition to being confident enough in their ideas that they felt no need to nag, or dig in their heels, they showed genuine respect for each other.
No matter how strongly one disagreed with the other, they would each state a viewpoint and be done with it. Often, silence followed when no more discussion was merited. Nearly as often, however, silence ensued when the other held a different view of the matter. The most curious thing about this on-air team was that despite both having very healthy levels of self-respect, there was a noticeable absence of that curious brand of television egotism that demands getting in a word edgewisethe kind of disguised insecurity that needs to constantly drop reminders of one's value to the audience, and especially to the network employers. Instead, each departed the standard model and repeatedly sought out his counterpart's insights in an effort to learn something, personally and on behalf of the viewer.
Their civility with each other often gave the impression that they agreed on a particular point when they did not. In fact, upon close observation it was clear they disagreed as often as they agreedwhich in my mind was what made the dynamic between the two so valuable to watch and listen in on. This archetypal Hitter and Pitcher likely view each other as friends, but they disagreedand likely will continue to disagreeprecisely because their orientations are so fundamentally opposed. The relationship between a hitter and pitcher is in every way an adversarial one. But a comment from one that seemed likely to elicit a retort would often go unremarked. No visible ill feelings at all. It was astonishing!
When they disagreed they did so without hesitation, but somehow kept things going without rancor. A little momentary discord, maybe, but no hostility.
Well, not much.
Ichiro and Improvisation
Ichiro Suzuki's career-long adherence to the strategy advised by Hall of Famer Willie Keeler (.341 lifetime BA, 2,932 career hits)to "keep your eye clear and hit 'em where they ain't"has resulted in his breaking several of baseball's oldest hitting records.
With the Yankees it also resulted in his leading the team with eleven post-season hits. His maddening ability to capitalize on errors and fielder's choices, plus his lightning quickness out of the batter's box and daredevil base running skills, have driven many a pitcher around the bend. In one such instance early in the series, he slapped a squibber into the infield and took off for first base like he meant to leg it out. And did. And, in the process, advanced the base runner. Smoltz's instinctive pitcher's prejudices overtook him suddenly, and his disgust spilled out. As the Bronx crowd cheered wildly, Smoltz growled disdainfully, "That's just lucky hitting. I wouldn't call that great hitting."
"I would," Ripken responded. And then he clammed up, not uttering another word. Didn't so much as clear his throat. The chilly autumn air got chillier.
Part of it was that Smoltz hadn't had as many opportunities as Ripken to observe Ichiro in action, and part of it was that throughout his long, successful career as a professional pitcher, he'd instinctively ascribed any number of singles, doubles, triples and homeruns to a hitter getting luckyin the same manner as hitters like Ripken, who, having been gunned down too many times to mention by a rainbow changeup or unmoving fastball that should have been hit into the seats, will say of a pitch that "the pitcher got away with one." Perhaps the biggest part of baseball's essential battle between a pitcher and a hitter is to never fully credit the opponent or grant him more respect than necessary. It's hard enough as it is.
That was a significant element in the standoff between Ripken and Smoltz. There is also such a thing as an insurmountable difference of opinion. No matter how well you know, love and respect someone; no matter how much you believe a person has the right to an opinion; no matter how willing you are to defend to the death their right to say it, you remain unwilling to relinquish your own viewpoint or entertain a discussion that would allow another to erode it. Ripken and Smoltz were in their corners,
A readily available option in this situation is to suspend any further discussion for the moment. Not forever, just for now. No one needs to win the argument. You can be right without your opponent being wrongyou can both learn something from the experience. Maybe after more returns come in, maybe after further review, the tectonic plates will bump or slide slightly.
Ripken was thinking: Lucky? Ever heard of a swinging bunt? Ever seen anybody hit and take his first step toward first base in the same motion? Then move a pair of 38-yr-old legs fast enough to arrive ahead of a professional infielder's throw? Do you know what the all-time record with 262 hits in a season and a .322 lifetime batting average mean?
Smoltz was thinking: That's great hitting? Are you kidding me? That cheap little hit? Hell, even I could swing through a pitch and occasionally catch a piece of it. Running out the hit, well...
Fast-forward to Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. With Derek Jeter on first and Russell Martin on second, two outs, Detroit's Doug Fister pitches to Ichiro Suzuki, whose infield hit bounces lightly to shortstop Jhonny Peralta like a flat stone skipping along the surface of a pond. Instead of killing the rally, #51 runs the 90-yard sprint to first full-out, and beats the throw. The bases are loaded for the Yankees.
For the ALCS, Smoltz has a new broadcast partner, former Mets/As/Expos pitcher, Ron Darling. These two ex-hurlers have been talking shop pretty seriously since the beginning of the broadcast. After Ichiro has just hit one where they ain't (or at least, ain't ready), has flown up the first baseline and is safe at first, you can almost hear Smoltz smiling to himself as he recalls the exchange with Ripken. Describing Ichiro's swinging bunt, he says to Darling, pitcher-to-pitcher, "Once again, Ichiro has done what he does better than anyone..." I know I smiled. And I'd be willing to bet that somewhere, Ripken was saying something on the order of, "Watch Sabathia's pitching plane... he's 6'7," but to a right-handed hitter, his pitching plane looks higher than that, like he's going to bounce it off your head."
What a difference a day makes.
The Color Purple
What John Smoltz and Cal Ripken accomplished in the space of five telecasts is something the U.S. President, Senate and House of Representatives should consider trying to accomplish in five weeksyou know, allowing them extra time for lots of backroom deal-making, long lunches of spinach salad and twice-a-week workouts at the gym, and listening to jazz.
Because what Smoltz and Ripken did in five nights, and the Capitol Hill gang could do in five weeks, jazz musicians do every night.
They improvise and make it happen.
Jazz performance is the most democratic activity on this planet. Not only do the musicians have their own viewpoints and approaches, they are encouraged by the other musicians to have them! Put on the spot and asked to perform, they don't hem and haw or call for a meeting, they use their imaginations and improvise. Like Ichiro, with his gymnastic, sideways slide into home with the first Yankees run of the series.
Can you imagine a political system operated that way? No Good Guys versus Bad Guys, no Republicans versus Democrats. No Red States versus Blue States. Just me and thee?
Below is a map of the United States of America, designed "with Photoshop and a calculator" by New York musician Cousin Cole. Instead of portraying all the states according to how their electoral votes were cast, it is designed to show the popular vote in each state. Clearly, we are not a nation divided by our political or geographic boundaries. In the 2012 presidential election there were only a very small handful of demonstrably Democrat Blue states (aside from the 91.4% of Washington, D.C.'s 240,000+ votes, the highest popular vote percentage in one of the fifty states was 67.0% for Obama in Vermont) or Republican Red states (the highest was 72.8% for Romney in Utah). All the rest are thorough admixtures of both, shown by the many shades of purple, magenta, lavender, mauve, violet, etc.
No matter what your political persuasion, you are within a stone's throw of an enthusiastic supporter of the opposite hue. Standing next to each other, your shared aura is a lovely shade of purple.
You can't beat real life.
Which jazz musicians seem to have known from the start. Jazz music is a world view. Your value to the rest of humanity doesn't lie in being the same as other people, doing the same activities and having the same things as everyone else, but in being who you are, and having something of your own to contribute. Blending in and doing it the way everyone else does it is easy virtue. Keeping what you can do to yourself, not sharing it, is the sin. A jazz musician's unique qualities are his or her calling card, especially the personally developed technical skills, that combination of a classical musician's chops and a blues musician's sense of swing that takes the ordinary and makes it jump to life.
Much of what makes you different is what makes you valuable in jazz. Chick Corea's story of his first gig with Miles Davis illustrates why. Herbie Hancock was Miles' pianist at the time, but was unexpectedly waylaid in South America with a case of food poisoning. When Tony Williams suggested Chick as a replacement, Miles had him fly in just before the show. When they met in the hotel lobby, Chick asked the usual questions about which tunes, what changes, if there would be a rehearsal, etc., to which Miles said to just show up for the first set and "play what you hear."
Corea was understandably nervous. He was a promising young pianist/composer in 1968, ambitious and totally aware of what a successful performance with the most celebrated jazz musician/bandleader in the world could mean for his career. When the bandThe Quintet described earlier with Williams, Carter and Shortertook off on the first tune, the time and changes were flying incomprehensibly fast, so he did what Miles had instructed and just played what he heard. At the break, rattled and anxious, he went to the bar and was sipping a drink, trying to calm down. Miles came up behind him and when Chick turned, offered him a great jazzer's compliment: "Chick, you are a motherfucker!"
Lifepolitical life in particularreally could imitate jazz to great benefit. Mixing it up live, raw and unrehearsed, similar to the selection process Miles used to audition Corea (who he subsequently employed full time for the next two years) just might be the solution.
For the sake of the congressional elections in 2014, and for the next presidential election in 2016, we American improvisers might consider experimenting with the approach suggested by Seattle-area novelist (and baseball fan) Bruce Fergusson in his intriguing blog article entitled "Kleroterias."
The general idea is to institute the Greekspecifically Atheniansystem of election by lottery. Don't laugh. Okay, fine, laugh ... but read the essay (it's a short, 5-minute read, unlike this one). Fergusson's piece was written just prior to the presidential election. It contains a degree of partisan bias with an endorsement (now moot, of course), but ironically, if you read what he says closely, you'll see it is germane to his commentary.
Added to Fergusson's suggestion of establishing a presidential lottery, I would include a few other items in a Campaign Reform Act of 2013, in the interests of informing the voting citizenry and keeping the Fourth Estate honest:
1. Let the television networks broadcast all the congressional debates or other get-to-know-you pieces they want, with a few very strictly enforced rules. a) The debates, etc. are broadcast unedited, without interruption, and later made indefinitely available gratis from any participating media outlets. b) Each participant chooses one moderator apiece; the network selects a professional referee from a local sports franchise who enforces one rule: no candidate can be interrupted by another candidate, or by a moderator. Penalties for rule violation to be determined by referee. c) As a result of b), no arbitrary topic restrictions or time limitations will occur or be allowed. 2. No commercial or registered non-profit news organization, network, newspaper, magazine or other media outlet may endorse a political candidate or party. Violating entities to be given a fine of $10 million for the first transgression (which is then raffled, one ticket per taxpayer ID number), a 2-year suspension of all applicable licenses for a second, indefinite termination of all licenses for a third. 3. Any entity in 1. which sells or freely gives away any kind of advertising space or airtime to one party, must necessarily grant it in equal kind to the other(s) unless removed from contention by their respective parties.
Additionally, I would encourage Major League Baseball to grant free admission to all MLB and minor-league games for anyone who can provide a picture ID indicating membership in the U.S. Senate or U.S. House of Representatives, or the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the President, his cabinet and White House staff.
Finally, I would encourage any jazz musicians with recordings still in print to donate as many promo CD copies or mp3 downloads as possible to a newly forming organization called the United States Leadership Encouragement Fund, whose job will be to get them into the hands of all those grim-faced people occupying the stone buildings inside the Beltway. Columbia Records could get things rolling with copies of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (the top-selling jazz recording of all time) and so could RCA, with donated copies of Glenn Miller's Greatest Hits (his "Chattanooga Choo Choo" was awarded the first-ever gold record in 1942) to everybody on Capitol Hill.
Let the party begin!
And may the best party win.
Page 1, Rob Carr/Getty Images
Page 2, Lorraine Feather
Page 3, Ronald Martinez / Getty Images North America
Page 6, Courtesy espn.go.com
Page 7, TBS screenshot courtesy of baltimoresun.com