(Mostly) Spontaneous Baseball Road-Tripping

Inside my shirt there was a beetle.

I was driving south on Route 11, somewhere between New Market and Tenth Legion, traveling fifty-ish miles an hour, when I felt it crawling on my skin. Pitch black, 10:30 at night, no lights except for the occasional home or oncoming car and the glowing letters of the Endless Cavern sign on the distant mountainside — and there was this thing inside my shirt.

Carefully, very carefully, I slipped a hand under my shirt and found the bug, closing my hand around it. It squirmed in my hand. In the dark I couldn’t see it; I only assumed it was a beetle. For all I knew it had a stinger, and I was risking my health and sanity the longer I held it in my bare hand. I then unrolled a window, held my hand out over the highway, and let it go. Who knows what happened to the beetle, suddenly buffeted by the still air? I didn’t stop to think that it was far removed from its habitat, nor that decelerating from fifty miles an hour to nothing as I let it go could have killed it. I certainly didn’t care. I was simply glad that it was gone. After all, what’s a road trip without a random, unexpected, and very much unwelcome encounter with nature?

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Did Amelia Earhart Survive?

Has a forgotten photo in the archives of Naval Intelligence answered the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance?

I have no idea. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But that’s the claim of an upcoming special on the History Channel.

The reporting on the photo hasn’t made a case for believing that the photo does what its claimants say it does. Perhaps the special will have more information, with a chain of evidence that will link this back to a specific time and a specific place and reasons for believing that two of the figures are Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan.

Right now, however, all I see is an undated photograph of people of indeterminate age and ethnicity standing on a wharf in the Pacific at some point in the past.

Update! The answer is, no, the photograph does not show Amelia Earhart. The photo, it turns out, was “first published in Palau under Japanese rule in 1935, in a photo book,” two years before Earhart and his navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on their round-the-world flight.

However, this raises a question in my mind. How and why did this photograph end up in the archives of Naval Intelligence? That we will likely never know.

Scott Simon’s My Cubs

The night the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, I knew, then and there, that there was only one book on the Chicago Cubs and the 2016 season that I wanted to read — David Ross’s. One hadn’t been been announced yet, but it was inevitable, just as it was inevitable that there would be a dozen (or two!) books on the season within a year. I expected books from most every player, Cubs beat writers, fringe fandom figures. A book from Wrigley’s janitorial staff on the 2016 season wouldn’t have surprised me.

My Cubs coverWhen Scott Simon’s My Cubs: A Love Story was announced, the number of books I wanted to read increased to two.

Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, has been a part of my life for the better part of the last twenty years. His voice — rich, distinguished, measured and warm — has the assurance of the radio men of old, the latest in a line that stretches back through Robert Siegel and Bob Edwards back to Edward R. Murrow and the Golden Age of Radio. Simon invites listeners into his world, makes them feel at home, and tells them stories, painting pictures with his voice, whether he’s reporting on the death of four Boy Scouts in Iowa or interviewing one of my favorite bands.

A Chicagoan, one of Simon’s favorite topics is the Chicago Cubs. Simon wears his Cubs fandom like a battered yet beloved baseball cap, part of his identity and something that shaped him into the person he is. Whether he’s offering a paean to Wrigley Field or telling the story of his uncle, 1940s Cubs manager Charlie Grimm, and a famous Norman Rockwell painting, Simon’s love for the Cubs — the team, the culture, the history, the city of Chicago itself — shines through, and in My Cubs: A Love Story Simon pulls a lifetime of memories together to tell the story of his love affair with the Cubs.

As I read My Cubs, I could “hear” Simon’s voice — so warm, so familiar — in my mind, as though I were listening to him on the radio on a Saturday morning, a mug of coffee in my hand, sunlight streaming through my apartment’s windows. Yet at times there was another voice I heard in the background, that of Frank Delaney, the Irish journalist and writer who passed away suddenly in February. Delaney was an occasional guest on Simon’s Weekend Edition Saturday, and their conversations ranged from James Joyce to diving at the World Cup. Scott and Delaney had a warm rapport, two erudite and eloquent moen, bonding over a shared love of words and ideas — and life itself. Though they never discussed the Cubs on Weekend Edition, I imagine their conversation would have gone something like this, something like a running commentary on My Cubs:

Delaney: You know, Scott, in Kildaire in the tenth century the King’s personal retinue of knights were named in the Irish Chronicles the ‘Little Bears,’ or, as you would say in your home town of Chicago, the ‘Cubbies.’

Simon: And these ‘Little Bears,’ how victorious were they in battle?

Delaney: They were reputedly cursed by goats and a black cat as well, and when they were overrun by the invading Vikings in the eleventh century, no more was written of them.

Simon: Fortunate for my Cubs, then, that today’s Vikings play an entirely different sport.

The stories Simon tells — playing baseball in Chicago’s alleys in his youth, sitting with Jack Brickhouse in the reporters’ lounge at Wrigley in his high school years, sharing his love of the Cubs with his daughters and practicing to throw out a first pitch at Wrigley, weighing whether or not he even wanted to attend a World Series game in case he was the Cubs’ jinx… and then making friends in the stands — may be specific to Simon’s life yet the feelings of passion for the Cubs and of the community of fandom are universal: the Cubs are a shared language that transcends time, bonding generations into a family bound by love, triumph, heartbreak, and hope.

In the opening pages of My Cubs, Simon recounts a dream of pitching in the World Series alongside Cubs legends from the distant past (Mordecai Brown), the remote past (Ernie Banks), the recent past (Ryne Sandberg), and the present (Kris Bryant), showing that even history that exists only in still photographs and dry newspaper accounts, history that has fallen out of living memory, lives on today, shaping and informing the present, still making its influence felt. As Delaney would note, stories bear within them an innate power of their own, and the more people who share those stories, invest themselves in those stories, and carry those stories with them the more power, the more reality those stories have. Simon himself noted in an essay for the Wall Street Journal that a single baseball game has all the tension and twists of a classic literature. Baseball, more than any other sport, celebrates and embraces its past as living history, part of an ongoing conversation that stretches back a hundred and seventy years to Eylsian Fields, and My Cubs is Simon’s own conversation with the Cubs and their history, a history that intertwines with Simon’s own history yet also one that, like Mordecai Brown, pre-dates Simon’s lifetime yet still lives on and influences Simon’s life today.

Cubs fandom is a shared dream that lives on in the hearts over everyone who has loved the Chicago Cubs, felt hope on Opening Day, felt heartbreak at a crushing loss, felt sorrow when a loved one died without seeing their Cubs win it all, shed tears that November night when the Cubs finally did. Stretching back through time, all the way to Cap Anson and the Chicago White Stockings, there have been perhaps a hundred million Cubs fans and a hundred million different reasons for loving the Cubs. My Cubs: A Love Story tells the story of Scott Simon’s reason for loving the Cubs. Personal and intimate, funny and melancholic, Simon’s stories should strike a familiar chord in the heart of every Cubs fan, even those, like me, who are long-distance fans for whom a trip to Wrigley (as I took this year) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Simon paints a picture with his words and takes his readers on a journey into Chicago, into his life, into his love for the Cubs with that familiar voice and his lyrical prose, making his Cubs our Cubs, too. My Cubs is a book that only Scott Simon could write, and I savored every word.

Last Night in Stumptown

A clipping from the Stumptown Progressive…

The hometown crowd witnessed something they had never before seen — the umpires examining a baseball for scuff marks and paint — when the Lake Wobegon Whippets took on rival Stumptown at Olaf Field Friday night.

The drama came in the top of the seventh inning when Whippets second baseman Jonny Gilmore faced Stumptown pitcher Frank Bayliss.  Trailing by two runs, with a runner on first and no outs, Gilmore showed bunt, then ducked down in the batter’s box when Bayliss’ throw went awry.  The sound of the ball smacking against something was heard by the entire crowd of 346, and the home plate umpire promptly ruled Gilmore hit by pitch and awarded him first base.

Stumptown’s catcher tossed the ball back to the pitcher and, before play could resume, the home plate umpire summoned the first base umpire to the pitcher’s mound.  The two umpires asked for the baseball and proceeded to examine the ball.  Conferring for several minutes and finding no scuff marks from Gilmore’s helmet on the ball, the home plate umpire reversed his initial call and declared the pitch a foul ball having struck off of Gilmore’ bat rather than his helmet.  Art Ramsey returned to first base, Gilmore returned to the batter’s box, and both runners were erased when Gilmore hit a ground ball to short and Stumptown’s infielders turned a double play.

“In my sixty years of watching baseball,” said fan Jordan McKeever after this inning, “I’ve never seen umpires examine a baseball like that and make a decision based on that.”  This reporter would note that he has known McKeever since elementary school, and McKeever has only watched baseball for forty years, not being old enough to have watched it for sixty.

Stumptown took its 4-2 lead into the ninth inning, when Stumptown closer Erik Warner coughed up four runs, giving Lake Wobegon a 6-4 lead.  Stumptown went down in order in the bottom half of the inning, extending Stumptown’s losing streak to 8 games, leaving them 12 games under .500 and in last place in the Green Grass League’s Northern Division.

Stumptown manager Joe Shlabotnik , asked after the game why he stayed with his closer after Warner loaded the bases on two walks and a hit by pitch with no outs, said, “Warner made himself a mess, and I wanted to show faith in my player that he could get himself out of it, but he didn’t, and that’s the way baseball goes, and we’ll get ’em tomorrow.” Warner now has seven blown saves on the year, including three from a critical series against Hillsdale last week.

Stumptown’s series against the Lake Wobegon Whippets continues Saturday night at Olaf Field with the first pitch scheduled for 7:10.

Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Fortress Tower

Six weeks ago, when I went to the Mid-Maryland Celtic Festival in Mt. Airy, Maryland, I made a stop at Dollar General on my way home. I had bought a Celtic art print at the festival, I needed a frame for it, and Dollar General seemed like a good (and inexpensive) place to get a frame. I browsed the store a bit, picked up a bottle of V-8 Splash Strawberry Banana (which I can’t find anywhere else), and in the toy section I found some off-brand LEGO that I didn’t even know existed — Hasbro’s KRE-O Dungeons & Dragons: Fortress Tower.

When I say that I didn’t know it existed, I mean that I had no idea that there were KRE-O Dungeons & Dragons sets. I knew there were Transformers sets (I have several), Star Trek sets (I have several of these, too), Battleship sets (I have none), even some city and zombie sets. But Dungeons & Dragons? No idea whatsoever.

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Things I’ve Been Reading: James Bond: Service

Tragically, Ian Fleming only wrote 8 James Bond short stories. (Nine, if you count the short piece about making scrambled eggs. I do not.) I say “tragically,” as I consider “The Living Daylights” to be Fleming’s finest James Bond work. (The Timothy Dalton film The Living Daylights generally does justice to Fleming’s short story in its first act.) The short story may not seem like the ideal length for a James Bond story, but that’s only because our idea of what a James Bond story can and should be has been warped and molded by fifty years of increasingly convoluted and ever more spectacular films that lack the focused concision of a straightforward short story. There’s pleasure to be found in a singular story.

Which is why Service, the new James Bond one-shot from Kieron Gillen (Phonogram, Star Wars: Darth Vader) and Antonio Fuso, published by Dynamite Entertainment, is such a delight.

A new American administration, one extolling nationalism and American unilateralism, downplays the importance of the long-standing “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom on the eve of the Secretary of State’s visit to Britain for high level talks. Meanwhile, someone has anonymously sent MI-6 a coded message and a parcel that suggest an attempt will be made on the Secretary of State’s life. Due to the sensitive nature of both the target and the transatlantic political moment, M assigns Bond to investigate and, if necessary, neutralize the potential threat.

The result is something blissfully straightforward. Bond investigates. Bond locates his quarry. Bond is captured and beaten up. The villain reveals the plan. There is an escape and a firefight and a resolution and a harsh coda.

Service‘s story is grounded in the political now. Not only does Gillen draw on the new nationalism exhibited by the current presidential administration, he also draws upon the backlash to the EU that prompted the Brexit vote last summer. Gillen uses these elements as a backdrop to his story, informing the world James Bond operates in but not overwhelming it. Gillen’s answer to the age-old question, “Does James Bond work when divorced of his original Cold War setting?” would be, unequivocally, an emphatic yes.

Gillen uses one of his trademark touches — a conversation told symbolically — in one section of the story. By “symbolically,” I mean that, rather than spell out the dialogue’s conversation, Gillen collapses the actual words down to a few visual symbols. The reader gets the idea of what Bond and his conversation partners discussed without going through the actual dialogue, dialogue that would have taken more time and space. Fleming would have achieved the same narrative economy by summarizing the conversation in a sentence or two — something like “The woman at the door told Bond, after some careful questioning, the man he was looking for sported a phoenix tattoo on the back of his shaved skull.” Gillen and Fuso simply make use of the illustrated form of comics to achieve that same economy.

In my book, Service compares favorably with “The Living Daylights.” Both are straightforward stories, well told. If you like your Bond gritty and hard-edged, Service is the James Bond short story you want.

Baseball on a Summer’s Evening

Wednesday night, I found a baseball outside Carlo Crispino Stadium after the Baltimore Redbirds’ home opener. In a roundabout way, that led me to witness the strangest ending to a baseball game I’ve ever seen.

I found the baseball in the grass. I assumed it was a foul ball, hit in a late inning during the Redbirds game against the D.C. Grays. I put it in the Beetle, drove home, and then on Saturday morning put it on my dining room bookshelf.

Then I noticed that the marking on the baseball read “Maryland Collegiate Baseball League.”

That’s a puzzle, I thought, since the Redbirds play in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.

Perhaps, I thought, “Maryland Collegiate Baseball League” was a precursor name to the league, the baseballs were bought in bulk years ago, and they’re still being used today.

A quick Google search disproved that quickly. There’s a wholly separate summer wooden bat colleagiate baseball league in Maryland. And the night before the Redbirds’ home opener, there had been a game played at Calvert Hall High School’s Carlo Crispino Stadium. What seemed likely, then, is that this baseball had been out there, in the grass, for twenty-five, twenty-six hours before I found it.

Naturally, I had to investigate more. If there were more games played in the area around the office, say, a fifteen minutes’ drive, then perhaps I could catch a few more games in the summer evenings.

There was a game Monday night near the office, at St. Paul’s High School in Timonium, so I worked out an epic to-do list for work, powered through the sixteen items, and drove over after work for the game between the Baltimore Rays and the Putty Hill Panthers.

There was no PA system at Blenckenstone Field, no press box. There was a scoreboard but it wasn’t operation. No programs listing the players. Not even lights; this game would have be completed before the sun set.

The grandstand was an elevated aluminum platform of risers six rows deep. The crowd was tiny; at one point I counted twenty-three.

Without the distraction of announcing batters, the game progressed quickly. Batters came up, took their swings, went to base or back to the dugout, and the game moved quickly.

A older man in a University of Maryland t-shirt either directed people to chase after foul balls, or he went into the woods surrounding the field to retrieve them himself.

I saw a batter called out for batting out of turn. I saw a right fielder fluff two straight chances in a half-inning that had three errors.

I saw a jogger jogging in the deep outfield, in the field of play.

I had no rooting interest in the game. I never knew the score. Nor did I even know the inning until near the end of the game, or which was the home team and which was the away. (As it happened, the Putty Hill Panthers were the home team and the Baltimore Rays were the away.) I was fine with this.

It transpired that the game was tied in the ninth inning, and the Panthers were the home team. The Panthers had two men on base, there were two outs, and a batter, #18, came to the plate.

The Rays’ manager came out to protest. Apparently, the batter wasn’t on the line-up he had. The umpire pulled out his line-up book and consulted it. There was a discussion. It grew animated. The Panthers’ manager was called over. He protested, “He’s been playing in the field for two innings, and just now you’re catching it?”

The batter was out. The Panthers’ dugout exploded in anger and profanities, not just at the situation but at their own manager for cocking up the line-up with the umpire.

The game ended in a tie. The umpire also called the game due to lighting conditions. It was shortly after 8 o’clock and, though I suppose another inning could have been played safely, it was probably the right decision.

I walked back to my car, thinking about the strange way the game ended — a batter out of turn, a game called for lack of lights — and the experience itself. As the shadows crept across the field and the sun fell behind the trees in right, young men played baseball and, on a pleasant night such as this, that sufficed.

A Yard Sale Find

It’s Yard Sale Saturday in Dallastown. At least every other block, there’s a yard sale.

I stopped at most every one I passed, took a glance, said a few words of hello to the hosts, and moved on. You get glimpses into people’s lives — the Hello Kitty collection here, the Hilary Duff CD collection there; the cigar box collection here, the Glenn Beck library there.

At one, a boy was selling hot dogs. A dollar apiece. I told him I’d take two. I chatted with his family for several minutes. They were new-ish to Dallastown. They had a brown lab that I gave jitters.

Near the cemetery at the edge of town was a garage sale with books. I will always pick through books. Maybe I’ll find something unusual or rare.

I found the novelization for the Jack the Ripper miniseries starring Michael Caine. I didn’t even know this existed — and it has four endings! The condition isn’t what I like, but it was 3 for a dollar, so I picked up two other paperbacks that I’ll dispose of.

Found in the Grass

Wednesday night after work, I went to a baseball game. It was the week of publishing deadlines, Wednesday had been a long and often frustrating day, and the Baltimore Redbirds, a team in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, a summer wooden bat league for college students, was playing their home opener in Towson. It was something that I would have liked to go to, but the demands of work made that unlikely, only in mid-afternoon it looked like it might be possible with a little luck and a bit more pedal to the metal, so to speak, and I was able to leave the office at 6:30 instead of the more typical 7:30 or 8 during Hell Week.

I missed the first three innings, but that couldn’t be helped. I counted my fortunate that I only missed three innings.

The crowd was sparse — maybe fifty people attended? — but the baseball itself was pure.

After the game, walking back to my car, I found a foul ball in the grass. In the late innings, someone had smacked a ball up and over the grandstand, and there it was, just sitting there in the twilight. “This ball needs a home,” I said. It was the first foul ball I’d ever found . I had my hands on one at a Harrisburg Senators game in 2014, but I couldn’t grasp it; it bounced off my palms and darted away, leaving my fingers stinging for a day.

I put it on my dining room bookshelf, next to a Harrisburg Senators victory ball, which isn’t really a baseball, though it looks like one. (It’s a squishy ball the Senators players throw into section 207 after a victory. Another relic of 2014.)

For those who care about such things, the books on my dining room bookshelf that are visible, from left to right:

  • An adaptation of Beowulf illustrated by Alan Lee, an artist known for his Tolkien work.
  • A redaction of Beowulf by the actor Julian Glover (The Empire Strikes Back, Game of Thrones), which is the basis of his one-man show.
  • A book on the Lewis Chessmen.
  • Another book on the Lewis Chessmen.
  • Pierre de Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man.
  • D.T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.
  • Volumes 1-3 of Matt Wagner’s Grendel Omnibus. (And the fourth would be out of the picture.)

Exploring Cemeteries

Last weekend, after the Mid-Maryland Celtic Festival, I drove home by way of Eldersburg, mainly because it was easier to head north to Liberty Road instead of south to I-70. As I approached Eldersburg, I decided, entirely on a whim, to visit the church graveyard where my great-uncle and great-aunt are buried, coincidentally quite close to the anniversary of my great-uncle’s death.

I patted the headstone, like an adult patting a child’s head, put my hands on the ground where they were, sort of my way of saying “you’re remembered,” and continued on to home. And I decided that I would visit my grandfather’s grave in Baltimore the following Saturday, yesterday; the anniversary of his death was coming up, too.

I had the idea of making a day of it in Baltimore. I could do some other things I’d been meaning to do, and maybe I could go to the Orioles game and get the free Maryland flag jersey they were giving away. Well, going to the Orioles game didn’t happen; tickets for that game have been sold out for weeks, and though I checked Stubhub, Standing Room Only for 70 dollars-plus was flat out insane.

So, what were those “other things”?

I’ve wanted to visit Loudon Park Cemetery, where my grand-grandfather Allyn, after whom I’m named, obviously, is buried. I had been there, as best I can remember, once in my life, shortly after my grandfather’s funeral, a day or two later, when my mom and my grandmother took flowers from my grandfather’s funeral to my great-grandparents’ grave.

And I wanted to go to Peabody Heights Brewery, a craft brewer on the site of Oriole Park, the home of the International League Orioles, a minor league team who won seven consecutive pennants in the 1920s, a feat never repeated in professional baseball. They brew a line of beers called “Old Oriole Park.” Beer and baseball — how could I not?

Well, Saturday turned out to be the eighteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Not in the ballpark. The exact day. So I was doubly glad I went.

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