Only in Baseball . . .

As a long-time Red Sox fan, I love the sport of baseball. Being in Boston in 2004 and celebrating in the streets when they came back to beat the Yankees and then again when they beat the Cardinals in the World Series ranks among my favorite moments. Still, I sometimes can not help but cringe at some of the stranger rules and regulations embraced by the sport.

Take last night’s Dodgers game, in which Don Mattingly, filling in as manager for the ejected Joe Torre, may have cost his team the game by stepping back on the dirt of the mound after speaking with closer Jonathan Broxton. An obscure baseball rule dictates that a manager’s visit to the mound ends when he steps of the mound, even though it begins when he crosses the foul line on to the field of play. So, by stepping back on the mound, Mattingly was visiting the mound for the “2nd” time, and as a result, Broxton had to be removed from the game. The Giants went on to win the game and Mattingly’s gaffe became fodder for this post.

Here is my problem with all of this; baseball is a sport, and it should be about competition between the players, not obscure, silly rulings. While there is no guarantee that the Dodgers would have held on and beaten the Giants if Broxton had not been removed, it seems silly that they were denied his further services over something seemingly so trivial. Major League Baseball would do well to eliminate these sorts of issues, because I’m going to bet that a lot of people want to see the games won by the players rather than influenced by rules arcana. Only in baseball . . .

Once and Future King?

 

NBA Star LeBron James

Good to be the "King."

 

Adrian Wojnarowski’s thought provoking article, State of LeBron: Live at 9, from his ego, illuminates exactly what’s gone wrong in the NBA under the watch of NBA Commissioner David Stern. The celebration of individual greatness has become an ode to the narcissistic young stars who are told how special they are from the moment their talent emerges, and lost in that sea of greed, ego, and excess is a sport that at its best can be an elegant celebration of the collective, a song to the power of the whole rather than the individual.

Credit David Stern for growing the league in the aftermath of the Magic-Bird era, but make no mistake that his calculated efforts to push the admiration of great individual performances has poisoned the NBA. Great as Michael Jordan was, and as much as he saved the league in an hour of need, his legacy has now been twisted into one that tells the young superstars of today it’s okay for them to make it all about themselves.

Cameras follow Chris Bosh around to record his free agency experience and LeBron James has the audacity to schedule an hour-long special on ESPN to announce his decision about where he will continue his basketball career. Perhaps the most amusing twist of all  is that LeBron now looks as though he may sign in Miami to join Dwayne Wade and Bosh so that the three of them might unite for a championship. Apparently it takes more than a self-inflated ego to win the NBA’s ultimate prize.

As a Celtics fan, I watch the circus that surrounds LeBron James and his cohorts, and I contrast it with the simple, quiet manner in which both Paul Pierce and Ray Allen resigned with the Boston Celtics. Maybe Pierce and Allen are over the hill. Maybe the Celtics window is closed. Whatever the truth of the matter, Pierce and Allen can finish their careers with dignity, knowing that their sacrifices for the greater good of the team brought them at least one championship and a chance at another.

Here’s to hoping that maybe one day LeBron James can learn that its not just about it him. Maybe then he can truly be the King that he proclaims to be.

I Spy, You Spy

Well, recent news of the arrest by the United States government of 12 people accused of spying for Russia has to be one of the more surreal news moments of recent memory. This is the sort of thing you expect to read about in fiction or see on a television show of the scripted variety.

Emerging reports indicate that the accused spies hid the information they were sending in digital pictures. Apparently this sort of thing has been a fear of counter-intelligence types for quite awhile. In a way, it really is quite brilliant. Hiding messages in the digital code of a picture without altering the image itself allows only those who know there is something more too look for to find the information. As the linked news article points out, file sizes limit how much information can be transmitted this way, but it just goes to show that even with the Cold War a thing of the past, a spy’s work is never done.

Now where’s James Bond when we need him?

Passing to Eternity

The below is an early (read: first), potential draft of the first chapter of a book that I’m currently working on. This is – as previously discussed – a chance for me to share some of my “other” writing projects. This first chapter is tentatively titled “Passing to Eternity.”

“And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work!” cried the preacher, sweat beading on his brow as he spoke. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last! Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” The preacher’s words were fiery missives that seemed to cut through the air like bullets, lodging in the mind with distinctive force.

I tried to concentrate on his words rather than his forceful delivery style, but the heat and the oppressive presence of the parishioners packed in around me distracted me. Never one to remain calm and patient in the face of such petty annoyances, I fidgeted as the animated preacher continued to preach from the Book of Revelations, exhorting the true believers to prepare themselves for the coming of Armageddon as he whipped the faithful into a frenzy with deliberate gesticulations. It struck me that some part of Reverend Jeremiah Wheeler believed every word he said, but then Southern Baptists often took the words of the Bible quite literally. There were those who would have proclaimed him a walking cliché, but it struck me that anyone who did so would be selling the Reverend short. Looking into his aged eyes, I knew there had to be more to him than the face he showed the world.

I tried to fan myself with the order of service leaflet the usher had handed me, but my efforts were to no avail. I glanced beside me to my beautiful fiancée and tried to smile. Amanda Folsom, of course, was the reason I found myself in a Southern Baptist church in the little town of Addison, Alabama. As northerner with a strong bias for the east coast, I had been stubborn about visiting Amanda’s hometown, but her persistence had worn me down. She had informed me that she would refuse to marry me if I would not visit her family in Alabama. As I was very much in love with her, I acquiesced after putting up a token defense. Sometimes you have to sacrifice for those you love. My parents had taught me that much.

Amanda and I had met as college sophomores at Boston University. Though we came from totally different worlds, we were drawn towards each other. It took us three years and a great deal of prodding from our friends to realize that we were meant for each other, however. Now engaged, Amanda and I were as happy as we had ever been, although my current surroundings were serving to dampen my good mood. Never much for religion, I had come to Amanda’s old church with her out of a sense of duty, but I felt now that I had made a mistake. I had long hated the way that some people seemed to use their believe in God as a weapon to denigrate others.

In trying to force myself to be objective, I had to acknowledge that my study of medieval history in college had left me with a rather cynical view of organized religion. I understood only to well that the reality was a complicated one of course. Christianity had served as a civilizing force and had indeed done some good, but the historical record made it difficult for me to not weigh the Church’s sins equally on the scales of balance. Amanda’s right hand touched my arm, pulling me from my own thoughts. I smiled at her briefly as she brushed a lock of straw blond hair away from her face with her free hand. My eyes fixated on that stray lock of hair that seemed to have escaped the severe ponytail into which she had cajoled her hair. Part of me was struck by just how different it was from the carefree style in which she normally wore her hair.

Turning my head back to the front of the church, I tried to focus back in on Reverend Wheeler’s sermon. He was quoting now from Genesis, as he said, “Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” I remembered the passage from my youth.

My mother had told me tales of the Nephilim when I was a child, but I had dismissed it as yet another of her oddities. Despite her love for angels – which included the habit of collecting angel-themed trinkets of questionable value and aesthetic – I had never imagined my mother a religious woman. She never seemed to go to church, and though nominally a Christian, she never demonstrated a particular affinity for any given sect. More fascinated by the tales of angels and demons than the gospels of Jesus and more interested in the flowery and oft disturbing language of the Book of Revelations than she was in the Gospels of Jesus, my mother imparted in me a desire to understand the Bible not as a believer, but rather a scholar.

The sermon ended as I looked over at Amanda’s shining face, which seemed to glow from the slight sheen of sweat brought on by the heat. We stood up together to sing the closing hymn, and I kissed her forehead before the choir and the organist launched into a towering rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. Amanda smiled up at me as the congregation joined in the song, and in that moment, I felt true happiness. All of the irritation of the crowded church and the moist heat seemed to melt away as the entire church sang. The Choir and Reverend Wheeler shuffled down the aisle and out of the church as the hymn continued. With the song’s end, people began to file out.

I took a long look at Amanda as I handed her purse to her after lifting it from the pew in which we had been sitting. She smiled and kissed me quickly before taking the purse from me. I marveled at how fabulous she looked in the simple sundress that she was wearing, and I silently reminded myself that the outfit was one benefit of having come to Alabama, for she rarely wore such things in Boston, preferring to “maintain a sophisticated look for a sophisticated city,” as she always said. I rarely bothered to remind her that we New Englanders were not as sophisticated as some of us pretended to be.

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself, Gideon?” she asked with a playful smile as the two of us stepped out into the aisle amidst the crowd headed for the church’s exit.

“Well, Miss Folsom,” I replied with a droll and affected seriousness as I attempted to maintain a straight face, “if it is amenable to your father, I should like to come call upon you this evening.”

“Why, how forward of you Mister Wainwright,” she replied in a perfect southern accent as she batted her eyelashes at me. I couldn’t help but laugh.

I took her hand as we walked down the aisle toward the open door of the church. The light of the sun streamed down, illuminating the open portal in a fashion that struck me as rather like a painting you might see in a high-end art museum. I dismissed such thoughts as we slowly reached the door, the people in front of us taking their sweet time to speak to the Reverend as he greeted everyone at the exit. I too took his hand, shaking it with vigor, but my gaze went to the Reverend’s eyes. The sadness of those aging brown orbs struck me profoundly, and I wondered what they had seen to carry such a burden.

Amanda squeezed my arm, breaking me from my reverie, and with a quick nod, I released Reverend Wheeler’s hand. Amanda looked at my face, but I remained impassive as we descended the steps of the church. The first shot barely registered in my mind as it sounded, but I felt a sudden, intense eruption of pain as it connected with my right shoulder, jerking my body to the side with the force of the impact. As I stumbled, I again heard the report of a rifle, and I watched in horror as a crimson stain spread across Amanda’s chest. She looked at me in confusion before she gazed down at the gaping wound in her chest.

I tried to move toward her, to take her in my arms as I had so many times before, but the whole world moved in slow motion around me. The screams of the people around us barely registered as they ran for cover. I wondered in the eternity that passed as I reached out for Amanda if escape were possible. The thoughts that passed through my mind in those interminable moments were vivid but fleeting, as elusive as the strands of time itself.

Another shot rang out. Amanda fell, the bullet striking her in the forehead. She crumpled to the ground as I reached her. A rational mind would have understood that it was too late, but such rationality had fled me already. As I reached her, another bullet struck me, this time in the abdomen. I spun half way around, falling to my knees beside Amanda. The life that had filled her eyes only moments before had fled already. I tried to scream, to cry out, but I could not tell whether any audible sound issued forth. A third shot struck me in the left shoulder. I could feel no pain though my body jerked with the impact of the bullet. I had no idea how many shots had been fired as I tried to pull Amanda’s limp form into my lap.

All around me, people moved, their arms and legs becoming an indistinguishable blur to my quickly fading mind. I heard the rifle fire once again, though I perceived no evidence of where the shot went or even where it came from. I brushed the stray lock of hair from Amanda’s face and spoke her name as though I had the power to call her back from death. No such miracle occurred, however, as a fourth shot struck me in the chest.

As my lungs filled with blood, I felt the sudden insight that I would die. Such a thought should have occurred to me before, but somehow my mind had denied that possibility. Never had I considered the possibility that my life might be cut short with such violence. Did I not deserve to die of old age? Why should my fate be to die a random death on the steps of a church? I could sense now people gathering around me as my eyes closed and my body slumped.

My life did not flash before my eyes as I died. Instead, I saw nothing but the darkness of oblivion. Humanity fears death – the end of existence in the mortal world. The unknown obliterates the familiar certainty of daily life. I would be lying if I said I understand what humans go through. I never had the chance to learn what happens when a mortal dies, because for me, death was simply a new beginning.

NBA Referee Image Problems Resurface

While it’s certainly nice to see the esteemed Howard Bryant of ESPN agreeing with what I wrote about in my post “Why we should all be rooting for the Boston Celtics to win the NBA Championship,” I wanted to address something else after last night’s debacle in Orlando. Many people have dismissed the claims of disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy that NBA referees are part of a conspiracy to fix NBA playoff games. I put myself largely in that category, as Donaghy has an obvious reason to lie and a history of dishonesty. Yet, when I see things like what happened last night in Orlando, Donaghy’s claims nag at me.

Let me add that I generally hate the blame the referee mentality that we often see in modern sports. Referees are human and fallible, and most of the time, I’m willing to chalk a bad call up to that. Where I start to wonder if Donaghy’s claims don’t hold some legitimacy is when it becomes quite clear that the refs are blatantly favoring one side or another, “missing” obvious calls, or calling one thing a foul when committed by one team and ignoring the same exact thing when the other team does it. I saw all three of these things last night in spades, and it leads me to believe that the refs were trying to make sure that the series between the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics goes to six games. David Stern, let me be the next (I’m hardly the first) to tell you that your league now has a very serious image problem when it comes to officiating.

Before I get into the disturbing events of last evening, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to the pivotal game 6 in the 2002 Western Conference Finals between Stern’s precious darlings the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. I remember watching the game at the time in complete disbelief at how much the referees did everything in their power to help the Lakers win the game and avoid being bounced from the playoffs by the smaller market Kings. I sat in stunned silence after the game ended, unable to believe what I had seen. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, and I remember Kobe Bryant blatantly getting away with one of the most vicious and egregious hatchet jobs in the history of sports as he shoved and elbowed Mike Bibby, committing a clear foul directly in front of a ref who pretended he saw nothing. Worse, the refs then had the audacity to call Bibby for a foul on Bryant. The officiating of that game was so atrocious, that consumer advocate Ralph Nader called for an investigation. This game was at the heart of Donaghy’s argument about the NBA fixing games, and give the man credit where it is due, he picked the right game to point to. To this day, I feel that the Sacramento Kings were jobbed out of a chance to go to the Finals and I don’t consider the Lakers 2002 Championship legitimate. I don’t know how anyone but a Lakers fan could.

With that history noted, it brings me to last night’s game between the Celtics and the Magic. I had a very bad feeling when early on the referees ignored the text book example of an offensive foul when Dwight Howard led with his elbow as he bowled over a planted Paul Pierce. Elbows and Dwight Howard have become a theme, but the NBA doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge it. The night only got worse for the Celtics from there. Any time Kendrick Perkins or Rasheed Wallace so much as brushed Dwight Howard gently, they were called for fouls, while Howard’s flailing elbows never seemed a problem, not even when he knocked Glen “Big Baby” Davis into a concussed state. Then of course there was the matter of the two ridiculous Technical Foul calls on Kendrick Perkins by referee Ed F. Rush that got the Celtics center ejected. The league has since rescinded one of them, although even the ESPN announcers agreed that both were illegitimate.

The saddest part of all of this is that the Orlando Magic may well have won the game without all of the blatant favoritism from the referees. They shot the ball incredibly well from 3-point range and generally played a solid game. I’d prefer to be able to give the Magic the credit they deserve for persevering, but it is awful hard to do that when the officials are overshadowing the play on the court.

The NBA has an image problem with it’s officiating, and unless and until they take real steps to address it, that will continue. Sweeping it under the rug by fining anyone who dares say anything will never solve the problem. The bedrock of good officiating is being impartial, and  it’s pretty hard after a game like last night to really buy the idea that NBA referees are particularly impartial. I really wish I could.

Uh Oh, Now Daddy is Mad . . .

Well, since I’ve been following the North Korea situation pretty closely, it seems appropriate to mention the latest developments, which may actually be a good sign.

North Korea has always counted on China to provide it protection from those “Horrible, Mean Western Aggressors,” and China has been all too willing to use North Korea as something of a buffer against interference – particularly from the United States – in continental Asia. Perhaps U.S. influence in Japan and the events of the Korean War hardened China’s position, and that is understandable on some level. Whatever the case, China has often served as the biggest obstacle to holding Kim Jong Il and North Korea responsible for their activities.

If China is truly willing to stand with the rest of the world in condemning North Korea for the craven torpedo attack on the South Korean ship, then perhaps progress can finally be made. Lets hope that these leaks about China’s willingness to accept the independent investigation’s conclusion that North Korea was in fact responsible is a sign that North Korea’s proverbial father, always overbearing and overprotective, is finally ready to punish his little boy for relentlessly pushing the buttons of all the other kids. Anyone for a spanking?

North Korea Takes Its Ball and Runs Home

North Korea is at it again. The annoying child that keeps pushing buttons now wants to play the offended and aggrieved party. It would almost be laughable if not for how dangerously unstable the country’s so-called leaders seem to be.

War is never a welcome prospect, but North Korea has now walked over a line that may lead to a very unfortunate conclusion. Much like the angry, petulant child who keeps lashing out until he gets put in his place, North Korea has decided to end the game and take its ball home while screaming about how much everyone else sucks even as the other kids look on in disbelief. Of course, if I were in charge in South Korea, I would tell North Korea, “Hey, you want to cut off communications with us? Go right ahead because I’d rather not talk to you anyway.” I mean, really, is it much of a threat when your worst enemy tells you, “I’m never going to talk to you again!” South Korea’s response should be, “Do you promise?”

Kim Jong Il and his backers long ago left reason behind, and soon enough South Korea and probably the rest of the world are going to have to make a decision about what can be tolerated and what must be punished. Maybe the time has come for the petulant child to get the spanking it needs. Let’s just all hope that the price for indulging North Korea this long does not come back to haunt us all.