Summer in the Citi

I briskly walk down the steps of the subway station on a gray and unseasonably cold weekday afternoon in August.  I am in Queens. It is six days after my 38th birthday, and I can’t remember the last time I rode a subway in New York. As the steps fall beneath my feet and the overhang of the station clears my view, I see the reddish-brown brick rotunda and the giant red apple in the plaza in front of me. I am at Citi Field.

A man sitting on a low wall near the apple talks to me about the park. A plane takes off low overhead. I call my friends, who I will meet inside the park later, and laugh. I am smirking as wide as a 9-year-old boy when they lower the lights and bring out his candle-topped birthday cake.

I buy my tickets from perhaps the most patient ticket agent in all of New York, and I cynically think, is this what it is like when you have a .500 ballclub that doesn’t sell all of its seats? Is it the Mets, or do teams just treat their fans better when the home club is playing poorly, the experience created because this is a weekday game for a non-pennant contender? No reason to ponder this further; my first impression of a 2010 Mets representative is a positive one, and a ballpark looms.

I enter the rotunda and, of course, I look up at the high, arched windows, and I look down at the marble floor. It is 90 minutes before gametime, and the crowd inside the rotunda is small. I go through the team store and I poke my head into the Hall of Fame museum, but only briefly. I ride the escalator up and walk around a bend and I see the field. It still gets me — how green the grass is for major league baseball, whether your team is in first place or last. The park is both larger and smaller than I expected, and I can’t stop taking pictures with my camera-phone, and I walk around the entire field-level concourse, even up and down some stairs to peek through the fence at the bullpen and behind me I see how close the auto-chop shops are across the street, and I love this new stadium.

It is a windy late afternoon, and it will become a windy, misty night, and with our seats in the upper deck promenade, I am glad I wore my rain jacket on this August night. But that is later. I as am giddy as a child on this first trip to this 2-year-old park of my adopted team.

I complete my circle around the concourse and then double back to the food area behind center field. I take a peek at the kiddie wiffle ball field I hope my son will get a chance to try out someday, and I buy him an orange Mr. Met T-shirt that he will surely outgrow in six months. I go upstairs eventually to check out our seats and am satisfied.

The author (right) and "friend."

The author (right) and newfound superfriend (with saxophone) outside Citi Field.

My friends arrive and call me from the center field area I just vacated. I practically run down the stairs to meet them and we embrace and eat soft tacos and drink beer while standing a table in center field, the wind battering us like we were on a fishing boat in the bay. We watch R.A. Dickey from a distance, warming up in right field. I grab a second round of beer just before the National Anthem, and we stay at our stand-up table underneath a giant scoreboard for the first inning while buffeted by the wind and I love every minute of watching baseball, drinking beer, eating food, and spending time with my friends, away, temporarily, from work, family, household chores. I miss my family, admittedly momentarily, but I also think about how I can’t wait to introduce my 4-year-old son to this baseball experience (minus the beer, of course) and how I can’t wait to point out all the architectural nooks and crannies to my wife over good food. But, selfishly, not tonight. Tonight is my birthday present to me, and the Mets later add a cherry on top with a ninth-inning win.

But the victory is secondary to me, paradoxically, to getting to experience a big new park for the first time, to eat (separately, of course) Mexican tacos behind center field and a Kosher hot dog topped with pastrami high above the left field line, to cheer with friends for the Mets, for a 35-year-old knuckleballer, for Mets hitters coming up to the plate to the strains of the Stones’ “Start Me Up” (for rookie Ike Davis) and Van Halen’s “Panama” (for the aforementioned Dickey), to enjoying the company of old friends for a few hours, wind and light rain be damned, to enjoy a few last laughs and photos, and to finally take an express subway and a long commuter train back to my parents’ home, where my precocious boy sleeps peacefully on an air mattress at his grandparents’ house.

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On dodging career bitterness to become the ‘other guy’ and escape ‘the depths of Mordor’

In what has become a disaster of a Mets season after so much promise in June, R.A. Dickey remains a highlight and perhaps the most inspirational story to come from on-field performances in this baseball season.

Dickey’s story has been well-told, but for readers of this blog who are neither Mets fans nor baseball fans, here’s some catch-up: Dickey was born without (or perhaps it atrophied as a youngster) an ulnar collateral ligament — the primary tissue that stabilizes the elbow — in his pitching arm. He shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without pain, let alone pitch.

He was drafted out of college by the Texas Rangers, but a team doctor discovered the oddity in his arm, and the team downgraded a promised $800K offer to $75 grand.

After wandering through the majors and minors and through several organizations for more than a decade — the very definition of a journeyman — Dickey has found success in his first season with the Mets this year by mastering the unpredictable knuckleball, a pitch so rarely used that only two Major League hurlers use is as a primary weapon (Dickey and Boston’s Tim Wakefield). Dickey is doing this at 35, an age when most professional ballplayers are in their decline stage (though some top-level pitchers do throw into their 40s, as do many knuckleballers).

Oh, and by the way, in the world of monosyllabic jock quotes, Dickey was an English major in college, is an avid reader, and is a thoughtful quote.

But what continues to strike me, and what gives me inspiration as a 38-year-old former English major with what feels like a stalled career and little understanding of what to do about it, is R.A. Dickey’s attitude about his own career, which saw such promise (and promise of riches) turn to a kind of professional wandering in the desert, and then to an eventual career reboot that is well on the way to redemption.

As he told the New York Times in 2008 (while still working on, but not yet perfecting, that knuckleball):

“‘Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,’ said Dickey, who signed with the Rangers because he assumed no team would give him a chance again. He reported to the minor leagues knowing that precious little was keeping his elbow together, that each day pitching could be his last.

“‘Every day I had to decide whether I was going to be bitter, if I was going to be that guy — woe is me, you know?’ Dickey said. ‘I had to choose every day to be the other guy.'”

Or, as announcer and Mets legend Keith Hernandez said in the Mets broadcast earlier tonight (in a bit of coincidental and unfortunate timing, just before Dickey gave up a game-tying home run), Dickey’s career was “in the depths of Mordor,” and now he is a candidate for comeback player of the year. Read the rest of this entry »


Mets’ R.A. Dickey and the gift of perspective

Friday night’s seventh inning notwithstanding, R.A. Dickey is officially my favorite New York Met.

Not only was the man an English major in college — like me — but his career reboot is happening for him now, at age 35. A recent article at MLB Fanhouse summed it up perfectly: his entire career has been like The Odyssey. Here he is, starting over, perhaps for a long time, and maybe finally finding himself (or at least, finding success and confidence on the mound) at age 35, largely the result of re-inventing himself a few years earlier as a knuckleballer.

It’s a story I can entirely relate to. At age 37 (and shortly, it will be 38), I still often wonder what I’ll be when I grow up. A decade after leaving sportswriting full-time, I’m still looking for my own knuckleball, the pitch to re-invent my career, a way to re-boot to my season, or at least find some profession that will give me satisfaction, confidence, and self-worth.

Perhaps I’ll never find it, the way R.A. Dickey has for these last two magical months. I’m blessed with a radiant wife and an exuberant nearly-4-year-old son, a warm home with a roof over my head, a purring cat, and relatively healthy parents. These are real things. And even if you don’t have the career you thought you would at 21 years old, just merely seeing and rooting for someone who finally gains success in the second half of his 30s gives you both hope and perspective.

That’s why R.A. Dickey is my favorite Met.

(published concurrently at my baseball blog, Clutch Bingles)


The Icepick Begins

I’m in the mood for a re-boot. Or at least, a bit of a re-imagining of the blog, maybe just for a couple of days or weeks, maybe permanently.

I suppose, I’m tired of being angry. When your 3½-year-old can self-ignite a Three-Mile Island-sized meltdown — seemingly with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe — over shutting off the TV, or leaving for preschool, or coming to dinner, you start to wonder if you’re looking in the mirror at a Yoda-sized image of yourself, and that maybe you should be a better dad in changing that image — on both sides of this metaphorical mirror — for the better. Or perhaps it’s an extension of the Terrible Two’s (or Trying Three’s, or whatever they’re called).

Anger seems to be enveloping us all, a lot of it warranted, a lot of it unfocused, a lot of it downright scary, and almost no one is looking in the mirror. When a person like this can attract a following by both patronizing and stoking that anger, when a person like this can incite near riot-level rage without any personal accountability and deflecting the blame onto her perceived enemies, you have to be worried about where the country is going (and, no, retromingent tea partiers, er, pirates, I’m not talking about our government, or, to borrow FDR’s sometime sobriquet, That Man in the White House). And that’s to say nothing of the anger people pour forth that reveals, unintentionally or not, once privately held prejudices and racism, an impossibility of identifying with anyone who doesn’t look exactly like you, and a lack of simple empathy and self-reflection (again, look in the mirror; or look at 1930s Germany; take your pick).

OK, so there’s that.

Then there’s baseball. Readers of this blog sort-of know I was once a sportswriter. To borrow a baseball analogy, I never made it out of the Short-Season Class A newspapers up the organizational ladder to The Show, though I twice covered MLB games (call it my own version of a September call-up, if you will).  That was more than a decade ago. No, I’m not still bitter.

But I still love baseball, more so now as a fan, more so since my still-current rooting for the Mets since I left the Yankees (er, since the Yankees left me), and even more so for a reason I’ll discuss in a moment. The Mets came in fourth place in their division last year, finished 12 games below .500, are off to a dispiriting 2-4 start, and are losing 8-0 in the fourth as I write this. The Yankees won the World Series. I’ve always been a big believer in buying low and selling high, but I digress.

As for my generational viewpoints, I feel like I’ve written a lot on the topic, and I’m not sure what else I have to say on the intersection of American generations. By dint of my very age, I’ll still be writing from the perspective of a person born between 1961 and 1981 (or 1965 and 1979, or what have you). I love reading about the world from the perspective of my fellow members of Generation X, and I would direct you to any of the blogs listed in my primary blogroll for unique insights by these talented writers, all of whom put my meager skills to shame. Bravo and Brava!

So, more baseball. Burying my head in the sand to avoid the national mood, or simply a mood swing by a mercurial blogger? Who knows. Or perhaps in the words of John Bender, who cares?

Well, one person, at least, makes me care.

Read the rest of this entry »


Howard Zinn and writing

Howard Zinn died last week, having the media misfortune of passing away the same day as J.D. Salinger. Though I doubt Zinn’s death would have garnered much more notice had he died without being overshadowed by someone else’s passing. As the New York Times’ Bob Herbet put it in a column a couple of days ago: “His death this week at the age of 87 was a loss that should have drawn much more attention from a press corps that spends an inordinate amount of its time obsessing idiotically over the likes of Tiger Woods and John Edwards.”

Maybe it was that Zinn felt comfortable presenting himself as a radical, whereas I never thought of, say, my own personal favorites Studs Terkel or Nelson Algren that way. Maybe it’s because, from what I remember from my very cursory knowledge of him, Zinn was about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and that approach worked for him.

Bob Herbert asks: “What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?”

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Algren, Hemingway, outrage and not writing

Happy post-holidays, happy new year.

Mrs. Icepick got me the best Christmas gift this year — the 50th anniversary critical edition of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. I was mooning about missing a talk this fall at one of the local universities on one of my favorite writers (in honor of Algren’s 100th birthday), so Mrs. Icepick bought me the novel, which of course I already owned and haven’t fully read since college. But the gem of this anniversary edition is the critical notes about post-war Chicago’s bard (even a Chicago that apparently dismissed him for so long, until it didn’t any longer, sort of) with essays from writers like Vonnegut, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and others. Russell Banks, who was one of the panelists at the talk I missed, is sadly not included here in this edition — Banks was mentored at one time by Algren and was positively influenced by him.

I was introduced to Algren’s writing by an English professor who had no use for the typical dead-white-male cauldron of Twentieth Century Writers (the first half of the century, anyway). Though she introduced us to some great works not authored by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, et al., I missed out on reading those “classic” works. Seems like there should have been two separate courses, because it turned out to be rather easy to graduate with an undergrad English degree with a concentration in American Lit without reading a lick of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and so on.

But I digress. Because the happy by-product of this was an introduction to Algren, and for that, I am eternally grateful (plus, I picked up and read from the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner nexis on my own, though it would have been nice to have some professorial guidance).

So, where was I?

It may be impolitic, I’ve found, to admit to being both an Algren and Hemingway fan, but there you have me. Hemingway was certainly an Algren fan, perhaps to the bemusement of some Algren scholars, and Algren of course visited then wrote about Hemingway.

(Digression: I loved my gift so much, but I am a piss-poor caretaker. We keep many of our opened Christmas gifts under our tree for the ensuing weeks, partly for reasons of laziness, partly to fill up the space under the slowly dying tree, partly to keep the cat from drinking the water from the damn tree stand (fail). One night, somehow, I managed to over-water the tree stand and not realize it, and the next day I was crushed to find my new book soaked. Serves me right for not putting it away, and the back pages are now all stiff and crinkly from my drying the book on a radiator.)

Anyway, geek that I am, I’m going through the essays in the new book first, rather than the novel proper. I’ve become a sucker for critical analysis in recent years. As soon as I got home well after midnight from a 10:40 p.m. showing of Avatar last weekend (awesome, by the way) I looked up movie reviews online. I do that after watching flicks on cable for the first time, too. With novels, well, who has the time to re-read the whole thing, eh, so I just jumped into the essays. So it goes.

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Death in the pre-afternoon

My own Black Friday tragedy didn’t include the trampling of a 270-pound temporary worker at a Long Island Wal-Mart, or the more pedestrian fist-fights among shoppers looking for a $10 DVD player or whatever. Shit, I didn’t even need to heed Gawker’s advice. Instead, it included the mauling of a female deer on a winding rural road in the wilds of Vermont as we celebrated our New England country Thanksgiving with relatives and friends. But what the hell, I got two pair of khakis and a pair of dungarees at Old Navy. So I got that going for me. Which is nice.

On our way to partake in the annual American retail orgy that is the day after Thanksgiving, I hit a deer with our Pontiac station wagon. Mrs. Icepick and Icepick Junior, passengers in the car, were fine — Junior, blissfully unaware of the deer now convulsing eight feet in front of our car, asked, “Why did that kitty run in front of the car?” before falling asleep for his afternoon nap.

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