Dear Baseball: Please Don’t Play This Season

WAYNE TWITCHELL AND Terry Harmon.

These are the names I remember.

Yes, yes, of course I recall Schmidt and Carlton and Bowa and Maddox and Luzinksi and Boone. But when I think back on my earliest — and I mean my very earliest — sports memories, the Phillies of the mid-1970s, it was players like Twitchell and Harmon and Jerry Martin who lodge in the back recesses of my mind, where more important things should rest.

On lazy, endless summer days, theirs were the names Harry Kalas smoothly announced on radio broadcasts — on KYW 1060, I believe. I’m back in Upper Darby, playing step ball in the center of a block-long strip of row homes, AM radio squawking, drenched in treble, Twitchell and Harmon toiling on the brutal, sizzling Veterans Stadium artificial turf.

And, yes, I also distinctly remember watching afternoon NLCS games in 1977 and 1978, Phils and Dodgers, and night games, too, Lefty slipping off the mound in the pouring rain, Bowa snaring a carom and throwing out Davey Lopes only to have the first-base ump mistakenly call him safe, the Bull fumbling a fly ball against the left-field wall.

When Tugger somehow threw a limp fastball past Willie Wilson, securing the Phils’ 1980 World Series win, I can still see where I was: in the family room in our South Jersey home, wearing a Richie Ashburn bucket hat that my dad and my brother and I were handed before a Sunday-afternoon giveaway game a season or two before. Tug leapt off the mound, bouncing on his tiptoes, and Boonie arose triumphantly from home plate, hands raised high in victory, and Schmitty leapt onto the pile at the mound, and I grabbed my hat and tossed it high toward the tilted ceiling.

I remember this. I remember it clearly.

This is to say that I love baseball. It has been my sport since the very beginning, even through high school, when it was never the cool sport. I played Little League ball for six years, made the freshman high school team, and still regret not trying out for the varsity squad.

Major League Baseball is cranking up to start an abbreviated, 60-game season in a month, and I think it’s a potentially tragic mistake. I love baseball, and I want it to shut down until next spring.

Seven Phillies players have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Seven.

Several team staff members have also tested positive.

COVID-19 is not the common cold. It is a vicious, often lethal disease, even among those who are otherwise healthy. And it spreads like mad in close quarters … such as locker rooms and clubhouses. There is, of course, no effective treatment. There is no vaccine.

Is it worth playing a 60-game season for our entertainment if players and front-office members die?

I love baseball. I love it. Which is why I don’t want it played this season. | DL

Father’s Day Feels Different This Year

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, R. stepped up onto a stage set in the middle of an empty high school stadium. The principal called her name. She walked across the stage, accepted her diploma, and moved the tassel across her cap.

Just like that, I was — am — dad to a high school graduate. And the gravity of what I’ve been doing since September 6, 2001, has never felt weightier.

img_a807d1926a3c-1I began blogging on Father’s Day 17 years ago. R. was not quite 2. This is what I wrote in that first post:

Among the many changes fatherhood wreaks on a man’s life is the destruction of any significant chunks of personal time. When you consider yourself a writer who happens to have a day job, this is a major negative, in that one of the things serious writing requires is, well, significant chunks of personal time.
Hence this blog. Here I hope to post my thoughts — sometimes serious, often not — on things that matter to me and things I find interesting. My New Yorker debut will have to wait until my sweet, wonderful daughter generously returns some of my time to me.

(I wrote some other stuff, too, and some of its naïveté makes me cringe. I’ll post some thoughts on that later.)

That sweet, wonderful daughter is, on this Father’s Day, researching dorm furnishings as I write this. She will depart for college in August — coronavirus willing — and somehow nearly 19 years have elapsed in blindingly fast fashion. Parenting is the ultimate make-it-up-as-you-go activity. When R. begins her freshman year, I can only hope that J. and I have made it up well enough to have given her the values to help her learn more about the person she wants to be, and the tools to help her get there.

That would be the ultimate, best Father’s Day gift any dad could ever receive. Even better than debuting in The New Yorker.| DL

COVID-19 No. 18: Gaming the System

WORK IS AT HOME and home is at work. For many if not most of us, there is no physical place to escape to when we need to check out for a while.

Which is how I rediscovered my Xbox.

Since that first Atari 2600 when I was 9 or 10, I’ve gamed, though it was always more off than on. I went to the arcade at the mall every so often, but I was never the guy who piled a ten spot’s worth of quarters on Galaga or Tempest and locked myself in for the long haul. The Atari was fun, but no more than that — if I had any obsessions at that age, they were baseball and reading, not video games.

When I got my master’s, Mrs. D bought me an Xbox, and I had fun with a Tiger Woods-licensed golf game and, notably, Halo, a nifty first-person shooter. You could (and I did) battle with friends on a split screen, as well as make your way through a solitary campaign in which you were charged with destroying evil alien forces on a far-off planet. It was complex and layered and ridiculous and utterly fun. On vacations with my brother or brother-in-law, one of us would bring along our console and, once the families were put to bed, we’d drink beer and play late into the night.

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Then jobs got busier, kids got more active, and middle age began to rob me of evening energy. The Xbox quietly made its way to the back of the cabinet on which the TV sat, relegated to semi-yearly appearances. A couple of years ago, our children much older and no longer needing hourly attention, a bunch of us upgraded our units and played a few times online, trash-talking via headsets from our respective locations on the Eastern seaboard. We meant to make it a regular gathering, but it just never happened.

And then, a couple of months ago, we all ended up indefinitely homebound, in need of both brotherhood and escapism.

For the last few weeks, whoever among us is available has fired up the Xbox at 8:30 or 9 in the evening, launched Halo, connected online, and lost ourselves in make-believe worlds and cartoon violence. We play for an hour or two, laughing all the while, forgetting the tragedy of life in 2020.

On top of that, I‘ve returned to solo play. I’m back making my way through the original campaign, sometimes before dinner, sometimes late at night. When this one’s done, I hope to move on to the next campaign, and the next and the next.

It makes me feel … not like a kid again. At my age, the mantle of adulthood weighs too heavily to be forgotten, even briefly. But while I play, that fantastical world is the one I inhabit. A world where I can vanquish the bad guys, rise from the dead, and protect my people. The real world, the one soaked in illness and death, amplified by corruption, evil, and incompetence, fades into the background, providing a precious respite from my rage and sadness.

Welcome back, Master Chief. | DL

COVID-19 No. 17: Being Able to Spot a ‘That Guy’ Has Never Been More Important

WHEN YOU’VE BEEN CONFINED to your house for six weeks, you take your victories where you can get ’em.

We’re bingeing our way through Veronica Mars, having plowed through the original three seasons, which aired in the mid-2000s, the Kickstarter-funded film from 2014, and a handful of episodes of the relaunched series, which began last year. Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, and Jason Dohring reprise their roles as Veronica, her father, and her boyfriend, respectively, and with the exception of Doering’s leaner, ripped physique, the three look largely unchanged from a dozen or so years ago. Some of the regulars from those first three seasons are popping up here and there, too, and are also easily recognizable.

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In the episode we watched the other night, Veronica met with a new character. He was completely unremarkable, a “Guy No. 2” in the credits, until he began speaking and a growing familiarity took hold in me.

I don’t know if it’s like this with your family and friends, but among my set, the bragging rights conferred by being the first to spot a relatively obscure actor in a new setting are exquisite.

“Pause!” I said. “PAUSE! It’s that guy!”

Q. grabbed the remote and hit the button, and the screen froze. Isn’t that, I asked, the [name of a tertiary character who had appeared in maybe a third of the episodes from season 3]? He was hardly recognizable. In the ensuing decade-plus, he had gained a fair amount of weight (no judgy!) and gotten a hell of a lot shaggier. But I spotted him! And when I mentioned the character’s name, my family lauded me as if I were Nick Foles after the Philly Special.

When I came down the next morning, I told Mrs. D, “I still can’t believe I was able to pick out [the character’s name] from the show last night.”

“You’re still riding that?” she said — completely correctly. “That’s what we’re celebrating these days?”

Okay, point taken. My exultation may have been disproportionate to my announcement. Still, six weeks into isolation, yup, that’s what we’re celebrating. A win is a win, even if it’s utterly meaningless. | DL

Reviews: ‘1917,’ ‘The Sacrament’

THE LARGE SWATHS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE are the domain of the historians. Eras, wars, empires, kingdoms, presidencies, movements — even pandemics — are contextualized and explained, their antecedents and consequences laid out and analyzed that we might understand not only what happened, but also why and how.

The individual players and moments from those times belong to the storytellers — the writers, painters, musicians, playwrights, and filmmakers. Artists deliver us perspective and meaning that help us make sense, at a human level, of the historians’ chronicles.

1917Sam Mendes’s World War I drama 1917 offers up a simple premise. A British force of 1,600 is about to attack what is believed to be the retreating remnants of the German army. Aerial reconnaissance, though, shows a much larger enemy group massing to catch the British in a trap. There are no lines of communication allowing those at the rear to warn the 1,600 not to attack.

A young soldier named Blake is summoned to a makeshift field headquarters; he enlists a fellow comrade in arms, Schofield, to join him. The pair meet with a grim-faced general who charges them with making their way to the attacking troops before they charge the next day, and delivering a letter ordering them to stand down.

Why Blake?

His brother is one of the 1,600.

The wanton destruction and vast suffering wrought by the War to End All Wars — if only — are ever present. But they are brought down to a personal level by Mendes’s focus on two soldiers, painfully young men, fighting their way to the front to save lives. It is a completely engrossing story, in no small part because for Blake, the stakes are as high as possible.

The gimmick of the movie is that Mendes filmed it as if it were a single shot, and that only enhances the intimacy. We are never far from Blake and Schofield; we see what they see and only what they see. The scale is personal, which engages us with their quest even more.

Similarly, Olaf Olafsson’s trim, quiet novel The Sacrament examines the larger issue of child abuse by Catholic priests through the eyes of a middle-aged French nun. Twenty years after traveling to Iceland to investigate allegations made against a school headmaster, Sister Johanna Marie has been contacted by a man she believed was one of the headmaster’s victims as a boy. She is sent by the Vatican, in the form of a cardinal who has long known of a personal secret Johanna Marie carries, back to Reykjavik to meet with the man.

SacramentOver the course of her journey, she recalls her life-altering time studying at the Sorbonne, the charming young Icelandic woman she roomed with, and the original investigation, with its intriguing cast of characters.

The themes are overarching — memory, identity, justice, redemption, spirituality. But by giving us the gentle, disarming Johanna Marie to tell the story, and by setting it not amidst the Machiavellian intrigue of St. Peter’s or in bustling America but within the relative obscurity of Iceland, Olafsson forces us to look an appalling travesty with much greater focus than we otherwise might.

Additionally, just as Mendes reduced the scope of his story with the single-shot technique, Olafsson only rarely directly quotes anyone. Dialogue is rendered without quotation marks, as if it is not conversations being reported but Johanna Marie herself pulling up a chair and telling us what happened as she recalled it. We are inside her head, living with her doubts and regrets, and it gives the novel emotional punch.

Journalists have been chronicling COVID-19’s everyday happenings for months, and they will continue to do so in the months and years to come. Eventually, the historians will weigh in, undoubtedly uncovering even more proof that so much awfulness could have — should have — been prevented.

But it will be the artists who will give all it truly human meaning, just as they have always done. | DL

COVID-19 No. 16: Hey, People Are Listening! Well, Okay, Most of Them …

IF MY TRIP TO THE GROCERY STORE this morning is any indication, we are taking the situation much more seriously than we did two weeks ago, when I last visited.

Then, I rolled up about 5 minutes before the store opened and still made the first wave of 15 people to be allowed in. Today, I got there about 20 minutes early and was 17th in line, requiring a 20-minute wait.

Then, shoppers mostly paid lip service to social distancing, standing uncomfortably close while waiting in line. Today, the gaps were at least twice the recommended 6 feet.

Then, about half of shoppers wore masks. Today, it was all of us, with the exception of the guy in front me in line, who at least had a scarf covering his face. Of course, lest you think that everyone in southeastern Pennsylvania has embraced science and the expertise of biomedical professionals, when I encountered Scarf Guy inside the store, his face was uncovered.

As happens often, if not always, this crisis has brought out our best and our worst. Healthcare workers are literally risking their lives daily, and so many people have stepped up with uncommon charity and generosity. Yet the brazen, depressing selfishness of others seems equally prevalent. From spring breakers and bar hoppers who didn’t want the party to stop, to megachurch shysters insisting their worshippers praise Jesus in person, to runners breaking into parks to log their miles with friends, a shockingly large number of people have been putting others at great risk of debilitating and possibly fatal illness.

That’s to say nothing of the continued incompetence, stupidity, and corruption of the federal government, whose botched handling of this from the earliest days has caused vast amounts of unnecessary suffering and needless deaths. I have to force myself every day not to dwell on this, because the rage simmering within me at this evil — and that’s what it is — would be all-consuming were it to come to a boil.

Anyway. The sample size I’m describing here is far too small to draw any large conclusions. But what I saw in line and in the store was encouraging, and these days we need all the encouragement we can get. | DL

COVID-19 No. 15: In Search of Solitude

IT FINALLY HIT ME the other night, and the wonder of it is that it didn’t happen sooner.

I am both an extrovert and an introvert. The extrovert in me loves public speaking, cracking the joke that makes everyone in the conference room laugh, and joining 45,000 other fans screaming our heads off in support of the home team.

The introvert in me needs to go away by himself on a regular basis to recharge the batteries, refill the bucket, and simply enjoy the solitude. It could be browsing through a bookstore and then settling in at the cafe to enjoy coffee and my new reading material. It could be a bike ride by myself. It could be staying up when everyone else goes to bed so that I can watch a ballgame or play Halo. If I don’t get that time, I get squirrelly and anxious.

The past month has not been the most conducive for solitary activity if you live with others, as you may have noticed. The four of us have found our own spaces during the day, which has helped. But on Thursday night, the reality of indefinite forced togetherness — even with people I love — got to me. I felt off. Not depressed exactly, or anxious, but helpless and angry.

A little later on, R. and I settled in downstairs to watch 1917. I’ll have some more thoughts on the film later; it suffices for now for you to know that it is very suspenseful and quote engrossing. The two hours zipped by, and R. and I spoke only sparingly.

By the time the end credits rolled, I felt better. It was as if the escapism of the work itself provided, or perhaps served as a stand-in for, that much-needed solitude, despite the fact that I wasn’t alone.

I consider it a valuable lesson learned, one that I will need to call upon to stave off the inevitable feelings of mental claustrophobia as these ominous weeks drag on. | DL

COVID-19 No. 14: All the Sleep in the World Can’t Help

ALTHOUGH MY HOUSEHOLD is holding up reasonably well, there have been recent moments of turbulence.

The extension of Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order and a continuance of school closures, both modified by the most dreaded of words — indefinitely — have exacerbated the uncertainty of our circumstances. And uncertainty, for me, at least, can be emotionally troublesome.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The girls have demonstrated remarkable resilience, but they’re teenagers, and they’ve been forced to deal with a world-shaking catastrophe they had nothing to do with. It is challenging enough for adults to have to pick our way through this minefield. For teens?

It’s amazing they haven’t taken up arms against the generations — mine included — that have dealt them the shittiest of hands, knowing what the cards were and not caring.

During a low period a couple of days ago, one of the girls noted how tired she was.

Maybe try taking a nap? I suggested.

It’s not the kind of tired that makes me want to sleep, she said.

And, boy, did she nail it. This is an exhausting time. The hourly fluidity of the situation is terribly draining. And even if you try to consume it in small doses, the relentless torrent of pandemic-related news gives rise to an ever-present nervousness that buzzes quietly in the background. Keeping the buzz at bay requires mental bandwidth, and expending bandwidth seeps energy. I feel exhausted just about all day long.It’s not the kind of tired that makes you want to sleep, she said.

I am reminded of the chronic pain I endured when a disc in my lower back blew out, coming to rest on a nerve and sending searing sciatic pain screaming down my leg. Keeping the pain at bay so that I could function at the most basic level sucked up bandwidth. It left me tired. But, as my daughter astutely observed, not the kind of tired that sends you to bed in the middle of the afternoon.

In my case, it was the kind that makes you clumsy and forgetful. In her case, it was the kind that jumps you on the pier and casts you adrift, unsure of when or where you’ll make landfall.

Control what you can control, I tell my kids. That counsel has never felt more salient. | DL

COVID-19 No. 13: We Had All Kinds of Time

THIS WAS GOING TO BE another measured, thoughtful post on everyday life during the topsy-turvy times that COVID-19 has dumped on us.

And then I learned, via Twitter a few minutes ago, that Adam Schlesinger died today.

He was just 52, a mere year older than I, and was a cofounder of and songwriter for the unparalleled power pop band Fountains of Wayne. If you know Adam Schlesinger at all, it’s probably from his Oscar-nominated song “That Thing You Do,” from Tom Hanks’s charming film of the same name, and “Stacy’s Mom,” an impossibly catchy tune that still pops up on commercial radio, 17 years after its release.

And that’s a shame, a damn shame, because Schlesinger and Fountains of Wayne were so much more than that.

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Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

“Stacy’s Mom” was a hit, possibly more for its subject than its musicianship, and, again, that’s a damn shame. The album on which it appears, Welcome Interstate Managers, is one of those rare just-about-perfect records, a front-to-back work of sparkling songwriting, exquisite harmonies, and joyfully jangly guitars.

I may be feeling overly sentimental because when R. was much younger, Fountains of Wayne was a staple of our singalongs. Even today, we can sing deeper cuts word-for-word, reveling in their sharp lyrics and disarming accessibility.

Yet FoW’s other stuff is similarly bouncy and thoughtful, much of it thanks to Schlesinger, who went on to win awards for his stage, TV, and film work, and was also part of the wonderfully ethereal band Ivy.

I don’t mourn celebrity passings, with exceptions that can be counted on one hand. There is too much tragedy among us regular folks to devote emotional bandwidth to the rich and famous. But there are those whose talent is snuffed far, far too soon, who deserve my sadness and regret.

Kirsty MacColl was one. Adam Schlesinger is another.

Many feel the same about the playwright Terrence McNally, felled by COVID-19 last week. The influential singer-songwriter John Prine is, as of now, in critically condition. We will lose more in the weeks and months to come, and that’s on top of loved ones, family, friends, and coworkers who will leave us much earlier they ought.

It didn’t have to be this way. It did not.

The bourbon sits inside me

Right now I’m a puppet in its sway

And it may be the whiskey talking

But the whiskey says I miss you every day | DL

COVID-19 No. 12: Tumbleweeds in Place of Tellers

monopolyMORE MUNDANITY RENDERED EXTRAORDINARY and bizarre by everyone’s favorite pandemic:

A trip to the bank.

The final paycheck from my previous job was delivered not via direct deposit but as a slip of paper that arrived in the mail. In ordinary times, that would necessitate a 20-minute lunchtime errand. In these times, it entailed a 5 a.m. alarm and a creepy drive through very dark, mostly deserted streets to the closest branch.

Per guidelines, if I have to be out, I want it to be when I’m least likely to encounter other people. While the introvert in me needs such solitude with regularity, my genial, more social side misses simple human interaction.

Depositing a check at 5:15 in the morning for the sole purpose of not running into anyone. Like I said, extraordinary and bizarre.

This typically banal daily errand didn’t fill me with the existential dread fostered by last week’s grocery-store run, but I was hardly comfortable. As I stood outside and slid my ATM card into the slot to unlock the door, I saw myself reflected in the glass.

Black jacket, black gloves, charcoal baseball cap.

Jesus, I thought. The cops are gonna think I’m robbing the joint.

All went uneventfully, though, and I was home and in the shower before long, trying to shake off the unease that shrouded me over the course of my trip. I’m so ready for the mundane to be mundane again.

I mentioned that the streets were mostly deserted. A handful of cars did pass me. And standing in the middle of a usually well-traveled road was a deer that seemed as startled to see me as I was her. Guess she didn’t get the memo about social distancing. | DL