For the Love of the Game
In Cascade, Iowa, the semipro ballclub fits the town like a well-worn glove. This year’s edition was 64-1, but box scores don’t tell the real story.
By Terry McDermott
Times Staff Writer
September 18, 2004
CASCADE, Iowa — The road slips between soft hills striped by cornfields as neat as cemeteries and not much noisier, rolling 20 and 30 miles at a stretch into the deep green August quiet without a town in sight.
The government men in Des Moines, in what is regarded here as not-so-perfect wisdom, have decided commerce would be better served if the steady stream of long-haul Peterbilts and Kenworths didn’t have to downshift, much less stop, when they lumbered through here en route to bigger, more important places. U.S. 151, which used to ramble through a half-dozen small towns on its eastern Iowa stretch, has been rerouted to avoid them all so effectively that you can’t even tell the towns are there.
When the bypasses opened over the last year, even locals sometimes had a hard time finding their own towns. It’s as if they’d been not just bypassed but erased.
Maybe they were — or this one, anyway — because something happened in Cascade this summer that, had it happened in some better-known place — Keokuk, say, or Los Angeles — it would by now have been emblazoned across the heavens:
The local baseball team, the Cascade Reds, has just finished its season with a 64-1 record. The loss, which occurred in a tournament in July, was by the score of 1-0.
This is baseball, a sport in which the very best teams often lose four of every 10 games; a sport in which so much depends on luck, where the routine out, blessed by a pebble, becomes a bad-hop game-winning hit, where the umpire who had seen better nights could not see the play at third.
The Reds won 25 games before a loss, then the next 39 without another. They won wild slugfests, precise pitchers’ duels. They won with a dominating lineup and with banged-up substitutes.
They won despite the fact that some of these boys of summer haven’t been boys for a great many seasons of any temperature. The ace pitcher is 38. So’s the third baseman. The team’s spiritual leader, a slap-and-dash pinch-hitter, part-time first baseman and all-around in-your-face hard-case manager, is two decades past that age and in any event, this spring, in his first visit to a doctor in 35 years, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and missed the season.
There were other health issues beyond the usual sore arms and pulled hamstrings: the big slugger got hit by a car while riding a bicycle, not a very sluggerly choice of transport; the pitching ace caught a bat in the sternum before the season started, hit so hard he couldn’t talk for minutes, or even breathe for a while; and the team’s fastest base runner suffered some sort of mysterious, unnoticed injury to a knee, so serious that by the end of the season he was being pinch-run for by a man 15 years older. Asked by the bat boy what had happened, he could offer nothing more definitive than the sad explanation: “I’m not fast anymore.”
Add to this the normal human afflictions — broken bones and love affairs, the car battery inexplicably gone dead, a shift change at the lumber yard, a National Guard call-up — and, finally, factoring in the always present danger that what one player referred to as the post-game “beer medicine” might be over-prescribed, it’s a wonder how the Reds, who have a core of 12 players, even managed to field a team 65 nights much less win on 64 of them.
If you doubt the general seriousness of purpose of this type of baseball, ask anybody who has ever stood in to hit against the Reds’ longtime pitching ace, Yipe Weber, what a happy experience that was. Weber’s career-long habit of unsettling opposing batters with high fastballs somewhere in the region between their chins and their mortal souls has earned him respect from teammates and a reputation among opposing fans as a headhunter.
Ask Yipe himself and he’ll say he very seldom hits anyone above the neck. He has better control than that, he said, plus he’s not that fast anymore. He is nonetheless direct, he said.
“If I get a guy, 0-2, I’d rather throw a fastball up under his chin and see if he swings at that than throw the change-up to fool him.”
Yipe’s aggressive demeanor is not a late-career affectation. He has been a tough out since anyone can remember. Marty Sutherland, the Reds’ second baseman, grew up next door to Yipe, albeit a generation later. When Yipe would come home from college for the summer, Sutherland would bug him to come out and play a two-man pitching-hitting game popular in Cascade. Remember, this was a first-grader calling a 20-year-old. Yipe described the results:
“I was undefeated. I’d just go over there and beat the crap out of him. No way I was gonna lose to a 6-year-old.”
Was Marty any good at 6?
“I don’t know,” Yipe said, “but he sure had a temper.”
For most of its mile-long length, Cascade is just a couple of blocks wide. You can look down almost any side street and see cornfields and pastures. Businesses have started to relocate out by the four-lane interchange, leaving behind still more empty storefronts on 1st Avenue, the main street that winds through downtown, over the bridge on the north fork of the Maquoketa River, up Town Hill and east out toward Dubuque.
If the bypass was supposed to be a death knell, it’s but one in a long series. These little farm towns in the rolling hills of eastern Iowa have been busy dying for decades: The great 19th century rural-to-urban migrations, cyclical economic-driven brain drains, farm consolidation, the warm glow of the Sun Belt. These were all at one time or another supposed to kill off these little towns. Yet, they’re still here. More than that, some have inexplicably thrived.
Cascade has become a small manufacturing center. A local man built from nothing a company that now employs 150 people making precision machined parts for an impressive list of international clients. Several other smaller machine shops have opened. A third-generation local lumber yard has been reinvented as a maker of wooden and steel trusses that are shipped all over the region. This once modest business selling hammers, nails, 2-by-4s, sheets of plywood and paint now sprawls across both sides of the old highway and keeps three shifts of workers employed, including several Red players.
As a group, this year’s Reds are mostly clean-cut and fit the way athletes of the weight-room era usually are. Advances in fitness training have contributed to longer playing careers, giving the Reds a bigger talent pool to draw from, but as much as anything, the rise of a local, non-farm economy explains the building of the baseball team. Almost all the players have local jobs, many supporting families, which would not have been possible in the past. Many, if not all of them, would have left town to find work.
In an era when amateurism is defined by Olympic performers with seven-figure incomes, when top professional athletes routinely make more money in a year than everybody in this town will make in a decade, when fame and glory and infinite riches are not enough to satisfy the slightest ego on the worst team in the major leagues, the Reds have run through a season and over all opposition as if it meant something, when in fact it meant little to anybody but themselves.
The Reds play what is known nationally as semipro baseball, which means you are allowed to be paid to play and teams in the past have often hired expensive pitchers or a big-time hitter for important games. These Reds never pay anyone. In eastern Iowa, they don’t even refer to the game as semipro. They call it town-team baseball, the town being the essential demographic unit of the state.
Iowa is the most settled place of any size on Earth. There is not a single acre of wilderness in the entire state and a remarkable 89% of its land is under active cultivation; even given its modest size, in most years more land is harvested here than in any other state. It is almost literally a farm state.
That said, even a place with lots of farms does not necessarily have all that many farmers. Contemporary agriculture is so efficient that it doesn’t take many people to do it. Its ability to feed people has very much outstripped its ability to feed farmers.
As a result, Iowa, according to census data, has more people with master’s degrees than tractors and very few — about 6% — of its 2.9 million people actually live on farms. Neither do they live in cities. By coastal standards, there are no truly big cities — Des Moines, the capital, has less than a quarter-million people, and only one other city has even half that amount. But there are hundreds of little towns, spread more or less evenly, like frosting across a single-layer cake, covering the place end-to-end with not many swirls or dips.
Until the post-World War II dominion of electronic mass media, these little towns inhabited their own worlds and were as close to self-sufficient as you could get and still claim to belong to 20th century America. Some towns were little more than a church, a crossroads and a filling station. Most were more substantial, with local schools, newspapers, libraries, grocers and granaries. Cascade, with a dam on the Maquoketa River, had its own electric power plant, telephone company, even at one time its own opera house.
All the towns, no matter their size, had baseball teams. Many of these clubs started around the turn of the last century, often mowing pastures into playing fields. Some of the old fields are still in use. One, in the hamlet of Pleasant Grove, has a creek around the outfield instead of a fence, giving the baseball term “diving catch” an almost literal meaning. Other fields were so topographically challenged that when the catcher crouched behind home plate he’d lose sight of his outfielders.
High tide of the town-team era was just after WW II when returning veterans pumped up rosters of local powerhouses across the state. The Reds flourished in this era. The 1946 team won 28 games in a row, finally losing only when they challenged Davenport, a genuine professional team from the old Three I league.
The next year the ball club for the first time sponsored its own summer tournament. Other towns in the area did the same and these tournaments have become the focus of the contemporary teams.
There is a nowhere-in-the-whole-wide-world-you’d-rather-be quality to a steam-bath mid-summer’s night doubleheader late in the tournament.
What makes town-team ball unique is the blend of players. The Reds have often had a local high school player or two, and maybe a couple of college kids home for summer break, but their rosters have mainly consisted of local men, out of or never in college.
The younger players on this year’s team marvel at Yipe Weber’s conditioning and more at his extraordinary competitiveness. He is, several said, the kind of guy you would hate if he played against you. They’re right. Opposing fans react almost viscerally when he struts out on to the field, a sturdy man with thick, pitchers’ legs, chest stuck out, preening like a 4-H rooster.
Paul Sherman, an opposing manager, said it was this attitude as much as their skills that made the Reds special. “They bring intensity every night for nine innings,” he said.
Yipe credits the attitude to the erstwhile current Red manager, Loras Simon, who has missed managing this season because of the aforementioned tumor.
Simon comes from a family of six boys and five girls and at one time or another all the boys but one have managed the Reds. Simon has for the last five years, the best run in the team’s history.
He’ll turn 59 next month and until this year had not missed a season — and rarely a game — since Little League.
“I think I had one or two Ripken streaks in there,” Simon said, referring to Cal Ripken Jr., the major leaguer who played more consecutive games than anyone in baseball history. “I was never hurt. Never.”
Simon thinks this is the best semipro team he’s ever seen. That said, he also thinks they could get better. The core of the team’s best players is in its mid-20s and should improve. The foundation of the team’s success has been superb pitching and defense, the latter anchored by two of Simon’s nephews.
“We went 56-6 last year and I wasn’t happy,” he said. “People were talking about how well they’d done and I said, ‘No, folks, you should never lose six games.’ ”
Some opponents have taken to calling the Reds the Yankees of the Prairie League, but their dominance is newly found. Up until 1988, they had lost their own tournament 28 straight times. Just last season, when they won more than 50 games for the fourth straight year, the team from Farley beat them four of six times.
Simon missed the team’s lone loss this season, but has an opinion on it: “No doubt I would have complained. I would have. They should not have lost that game. We simply have more talent than anyone around us. We have the best team by a wide margin.”
The Reds this year played in eight tournaments, winning seven. They also played in two leagues — one for teams whose fields all had lights and another for teams who largely did not. They won both.
“The season starts May 1 and runs through mid- or early September,” said Simon. “That’s about 120 days. You’re playing basically half of them.”
It’s a long run that requires a level of commitment few could make.
The key, Simon said, is simple: “You’ve got to be careful of women.”
Or, as he also said, to have found the right one.
Legion Field, the Reds’ home park, is one of the best in the area, with a manicured diamond, sturdy bleachers, an electronic scoreboard, a concession stand for food and another for beer. The field is owned by the local American Legion post and the Legion has installed a World War I cannon off the right field line, next to the dance hall and a Vietnam-era howitzer out by the parking lot.
The most distinctive characteristic of the field is what locals call the Green Monster — an abandoned drive-in movie screen that has been set up beyond center field as a hitter’s backdrop and sun block. The screen solved a problem that had plagued the club since daylight savings time was adopted in the 1960s. The field is oriented east to west in such a way that the sun sets directly over the centerfield fence, blinding the hitters — not to mention the catcher, the umpire and a good portion of the crowd.
At first, to block the sun a row of quick-growing poplar trees was planted beyond the fence, but they didn’t grow fast or thick enough. The team next tried a huge tarp that would be unrolled and hoisted up on telephone polls, but the tarp wasn’t sturdy enough to withstand high winds and became a maintenance nightmare. The movie screen saved the day.
The field is at the northern edge of town on the farthest reach of the flood plain of the Maquoketa River. You can sit in the stands and before dark, look out over the outfield fences and see black-dirt bottom land roll away to the horizon.
For the longest time, you didn’t have to get out of your car to watch a game. There was no fence along the foul lines, just a row of sawed-off fence posts. Families would drive their cars nearly up onto the outfield and watch.
On the stillest nights of summer, you didn’t even need to come to the park. The public address announcer could be heard all the way across the river to the western side of town. You could swat fireflies, sip lemonade and track a game’s progress without ever leaving your lawn.
At the field now, the players are separated but not hidden from the fans by a tall cyclone fence. Friends and family toss ice-cold water bottles over the fence between innings. They also toss, sometimes less helpfully, advice.
During a Prairie League Championship playoff game against Farley, with the score 1-1 in the fourth inning, a Farley runner, out by a mile at second base, was inexplicably called safe by the umpire, eventually allowing a run to score. At the end of the inning, as the infielder, Adam McDermott, returned to the Red bench, someone in the grandstand, shouted: “Didn’t you tag him?”
Adam, who at 18 was the youngest player on this year’s team, was in the course of a splendid run of games in which he had become the main offensive spark; he also pitched and played a credible second base. He didn’t even have to look up to identify the critical inquisitor, his father, Tom.
For the most part, the communion between players and fans is supportive. Everybody knows everybody, often on both teams, and there is a constant interplay between fans and players.
Yipe Weber was pitching this game a mere two days after pitching a complete game. Even someone as relentlessly dogged as Yipe could be expected to fade over the course of that much pitching. Between innings, concerned fans asked him how he was holding up, if his arm was tiring, how long he could go.
“Long as I need to,” he said.
He admitted later he was breathing fumes for the last couple of innings, but his teammates had purchased him a longer lease on life by opening up a good lead, allowing him to coast home to the victory, by his estimate the 254th of his career.
Maybe we should pause here to explain the name Yipe, which is pronounced to rhyme with pipe and is so much in the long tradition of local nicknames that no one even bothers to ask where it came from. Yipe said, “It’s one of those Cascade names.”
He’s not wrong. The town for whatever reason — boredom? long winters? — has had a whole zoo full of Squirrels, Rabbits, Moose, Gophers and generations of Toads. Plus, there was this somewhat odd habit of calling guys with normal names by some other normal name, so that a Loras would become a George or a Kevin a Cletus.
There were Bubbas and Curlys and Barrells, a Squinkus and at least one Booger. There were three brothers named Ditter, Snatch and Walleye and another pair called Dirt and Scurvy.
Just in Yipe’s own family there were a Tuba and a Snottsy. Yipe himself was originally (well, originally he was called Pat, but who even remembers that?) called Hippie, which was intended ironically because he wore his hair short, and which became Yippie because that was so much cooler, which became Yip because, well, Yip was sort of a nickname for Yippie, but which in any event became Yipe because, well, who knows? It was, you know, one of the those Cascade nicknames.
Visitors to the Midwest often describe the region as one giant flat plain where the fields form checkerboards. This isn’t that.
The patchwork of fields here in eastern Iowa is a crazy quilt of rectangles, triangles, circles, oblongs, long swooping curves and blobs — almost every shape but a square, following the land’s soft swells, bound by limestone gravel roads, crooked rivers and stands of maples, hickories, black walnuts and oaks. It’s gorgeous country and I don’t get back as much as I should.
When I do, people ask:
“Which one are you?”
Mac’s boy, I say, the oldest.
“Umm. Yeah. Uh-huh.”
I left town in 1968 and Mac’s been gone for good since 1986 and still that’s all the information people need to file you in the proper drawer.
“And where are you now?” they ask, as if I had been a particularly hard one to track. They would ask what I was doing in Cascade.
“A story on the Reds,” I’d say.
“I’d heard that,” one man said. “Just wanted to get it from the horse’s mouth.”
This was in August. When I asked what people thought of the team’s phenomenal year, the conversation would proceed along these lines:
“What’s that record again?”
“Fifty-nine and one.”
“That’s something, isn’t it?”
Pause. Long pause
Which is to say, the Reds have not exactly burned up the town this summer.
Cascade is and has been a baseball town. Banners strung along Main Street sport a sort of informal city coat of arms. Beneath the banal motto, “A place we call home,” are depictions of three things — a bridge, a pair of cornstalks and a baseball.
But as in many small towns, the focus of local sports fans is the high school teams, which get prominent play at cafe counters and in the local newspaper, the Pioneer. The Reds are typically relegated to the inside sports pages and didn’t make an appearance on the first sports page until halfway through the season, and then it was in a story about the two-week-long, 16-team local tournament. When the tournament ended, the Red coverage went back inside. Most of the Reds played for the high school team at one time (many of them played for the Reds and the high school in the same season), so they understand the bias even if they don’t now appreciate it.
Even among themselves, they said, they didn’t talk all that much about the phenomenal success of the season as it unspooled. Appreciation or lack of it has very little to do with the reasons the men play.
“It’s not just us. Semipro baseball kinda slips under the radar,” said Sutherland, the regular second baseman.
“Hey, you get to play for free. They give you a shirt,” said Dave Swanson, an outfielder. “Let’s go play.”
The simple fact is the players get nothing out of this. There is no World Series down the road, no homecoming parades, not even much praise. To put it another way, they get everything there is to get out of every game. They play for the simple pleasure of playing.
Sutherland, the guy who as a 6-year-old used to bug Yipe Weber to come out and play, now has the pleasure of living next door to one of Yipe’s young nephews. Guess who’s always bugging Marty to come out and play?
US & Them — Baseball And The End Of Life As We Know It
Pacific Magazine Sunday, April 05, 1992
The summer after my younger daughter was born I spent Sunday afternoons at the ballpark. I sat in the left-field bleachers. My daughter, in a basket on the bench seat, slept beside me.
Phil Bradley, the Mariner left fielder, slept in front. Bradley stood, slumped up, if that’s possible, weight all on his left foot, gloved left hand on left hip, a stream of sunflower-seed shells spewing from his mouth to the torn, faded, plastic turf with which King County had defiled the baseball field, all in all a perfect picture of boredom and, had I realized it at the time, the decline of America.
Neither my daughter nor the ballplayer was unduly disturbed by the rare shout echoing through the great, empty space of the Kingdome. Some of the shouts were my own, mainly directed at Bradley, who was the Mariners’ best and simultaneously worst player.
Yer a bum, Bradley! I’d shout.
Sunflower seeds would fly.
Act like you care, I’d holler.
Last year, I sat in far better seats behind first base in beautiful downtown Hiroshima, where the homestanding Fighting Carp were already in trouble in the bottom of the first. The visiting Yomiuri Giants had runners at the corners with one out and the cleanup hitter coming to the plate. The crowd, which had barely had time to slurp a bowl of noodles, was being rallied by a rough-hewn, already drunken cheerleader who made it his personal mission to convince me that America had no monopoly on idiocy, when up to the plate slouched – Could it be? Could it not be? Who else ever walked with such studied disdain for his surroundings? – my ol’ buddy Bradley.
In Hiroshima? Could I travel 8,000 miles and still be faced with the spectacle of Phil Bradley slouching around a baseball field? What was my least favorite ballplayer, possibly of all time, doing here? What, for that matter, was I doing here?
At home in Seattle, the Mariners had awakened from their lifelong lethargy and, led by the wondrous deeds of young Ken Griffey Jr., in whom the baseball gods bubbled, were challenging for the league lead. I was in Japan listening to Japanese tell me they were fed up listening to Americans tell them how to behave. Complaining about American complaints had become so common – and this was months before President Bush vomited on the prime minister – a word, kenbei, meaning contempt for America, had been coined to describe it.
Bradley was not helping the American side of the argument any. He looked to be his same surly self. In the way these things have gone, I’m sure the Japanese thought him lazy.
He is not. He just acts that way. He is instead a bright, stubborn, fiercely independent man who resents authority and shows it in his every molecular twitch. He is, in other words, much like me and many other Americans. This is perhaps why I dislike him.
I want my illusions preserved, my diamond unblemished, my baseball perfect. I resent its imitations of life.
Bradley, you’re still a bum! I hollered.
Dick Williams wants you! I shouted, knowing the enmity between Bradley and this past, autocratic Mariner manager. My voice, flat, rude and foreign, cut through the Japanese night.
Bradley, at the plate, shuddered reflexively and spit seeds.
I interviewed an eminent economist the other day, and he wanted to know: “Is this going to be a serious article or just a Sunday entertainment?”
Well, it’s about baseball, so I guess it must be pretty serious, but we could lighten it up a little. Here’s Fritz Hollings for the entertainment.
Hollings, a U.S. senator from South Carolina who is generally regarded as a serious politician, toured a ball-bearing factory last month and afterward told the workers: “You should draw a mushroom cloud and put underneath it, `Made in America by lazy and illiterate Americans and tested in Japan.’ ”
Hollings said he intended the remark as a joke. Pretty funny, huh?
Bradley took a strike. Bradley always took a strike.
“C’mon, swing the bat,” I yelled.
Bradley spit seeds and took another strike. The Carps’ drunken cheerleader blew a whistle in my ear and boozy breath in my face. He shouted something incomprehensible and motioned at Bradley.
Bradley’s a bum, I said.
Bum? he asked.
Lazy, illiterate, lacks a work ethic, I said. No, I didn’t really say that. Yoshio Sakurauchi, the speaker of the lower house of the Japanese parliament, said it recently, and he was talking about American workers, not baseball players.
“Every so often a Japanese politician says something like this,” said James Nunn, director of Washington state’s office in Tokyo. “Up until now those things were said and not reported. It wouldn’t go outside the room, much less outside the country.”
Now these remarks are not only reported, but people take them seriously. They are amplified, sometimes beyond recognition. It was to this insult that Hollings was retaliating with his atomic-bomb joke.
The relationship between the U.S. and Japan is arguably the most important on the globe. Each is the other’s largest overseas trading partner. Together, the two countries account for a third of the world’s economic activity. Nominally, we’re allies.
So why would a Japanese politician say Americans are lazy? Why would an American politician joke about dropping atomic bombs? Why does Lee Iacocca complain about “the insidious Japanese economic and political power in the United States?” Why do Japanese farmers say U.S. efforts to export rice to Japan are a plot to poison the populace?
Why do we keep saying these things about each other? What’s going on here? What is it with us and them?
When Nintendo responded favorably to a request from local politicians to help buy the Seattle Mariners, why did Major League Baseball’s august leaders act as if they’d been sucker-punched with a 38-ounce Louisville Slugger?
Once upon a time, we Americans had the world to ourselves, or at least the top of it. Indolence, events, accident and the sheer anarchy of the American system, which economists insist on calling market discipline, conspired to bring us back down into the world.
“There’s an underlying attitude that the United States has a special role to play in the world,” says Richard Kirkendall, a professor of American history at the University of Washington.
“The United States is a nation that is a city on the hill. It should be an example to the rest of the world.
“There has been the persistent notion that the experiment is being threatened – by the Irish immigrants in the 1850s, the southern Europeans in the 1890s, the communists after World War I, even by the Masons.
“That element of fear appears over and over again. Here the special situation is that we feel in some ways we are slipping in the world. Some intellectuals think we’re experiencing major decline. The decline is mainly economic, and it is mainly expressed in our relationship with Japan.”
The baseball owners who questioned the Mariner sale to Nintendo, in this interpretation, fall in a long tradition going back to the nativist Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century. There’s a widespread fear now that the United States is descending in the world. The baseball owners are simply trying to save us from falling further.
“I think it is deeper than the recession,” Kirkendall says. “The recession is a motivating force and important one, but I think for some time there’s been a sense that things aren’t right.”
One of the top exports of Denmark is Lego blocks. Danes are good at Legos so you don’t have to make your own and are probably damned glad of it.
There aren’t a lot of trade wars over Legos. There might be over other things.
Think of nations as individuals. How much more productive can a person be because she is able to learn a particular skill, say, welding? What if the welder also had to be a plumber and a carpenter and a farmer?
“We trade because there are huge advantages to specialization,” says Phil Brock, a UW economist. “Nobody doubts that specialization should occur. The debates are over who should make what.”
In classical economic theory, nations specialize in that which they are good at, and they are good at things at which they have some natural advantage. Economists call this a country’s comparative advantage. Aluminum, for example, is made in the Pacific Northwest because electric power – provided by Columbia River dams – is cheap and plentiful. That power is the region’s chief comparative advantage.
Kozo Yamamura, chairman of the Japan studies program at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the UW, says comparative advantage traditionally has been thought of as the result of some physical endowment. A nation was good at making something because it possessed particular skills or resources.
This might have been true in the era of smokestack industries, but in the modern high-technology era, comparative advantage can be created, Yamamura says. Most countries try to do this to some degree.
Japan, notably, created advantages for itself by protecting fledgling industries from outside competition until they were able to compete. Having built those industries and succeeded as an export economy, Japan has now dismantled many of the barriers that protected them while they grew, and now can claim with some legitimacy to promote free trade.
No one is a stronger believer in free markets than those who dominate them. It was no accident that free-trade theory evolved in Great Britain in the 18th century, when Britain was strong, and no accident that it has been promoted most fervently by the United States after World War II, and no accident still that the Japanese now complain about growing protectionist sentiment.
Absolute free trade exists only as an increasingly vulnerable theoretical model, Yamamura says, but there are degrees of managed trade. As Japan manages less, pressure builds in the United States to manage more. Conflict results, and it centers on the U.S. trade deficit with Japan. The U.S. blames it on Japan. Japan blames it on the U.S.
How serious is that deficit? If the United States did not forbid by law the export of Alaskan oil, the logical market for it would be Japan. Sale of that oil to Japan would all by itself cut the deficit by more than a third. By doing nothing more than changing a single law to reflect market reality, we could eliminate a substantial portion of the deficit.
Would America’s economic standing in the world be any different? No. We would have to import from somewhere else the oil we would then be selling to Japan. Some West Coast refining jobs would move East, but the country’s economic strength or lack thereof would not be affected. For this reason, among others, most economists think the idea of fixating on trade balances between any two countries is distracting at best, intellectually debilitating at worst.
What does matter to many economists, politicians and others is the composition of trade and a country’s total balance of trade with all countries.
The total balance of trade matters over time because it measures the difference between how much we spend and how much we produce. If we buy more than we produce, as the United States has done for more than a decade, then we must borrow money to pay for it, which we have done in prodigious amounts.
Looked at this way, the trade deficit is more of a result than a cause, says Brock, the UW economist. Much of our borrowed money has come from Japan, which throughout the 1980s invested huge sums in the United States.
So what, some economists say. They love to save. We love to spend. It’s a match made in heaven. Or, at worst, purgatory.
The composition – what goods and services we buy and sell – matters because it is a reflection of what work we do, of what we are paid for that work, in sum, of how we live. It is the composition of trade people are bothered by when they complain “we don’t make anything anymore.”
U.S. manufacturing jobs have been declining almost since World War II. In 1950, 34 percent of the work force was in manufacturing. In 1990, 17 percent of the work force was in manufacturing. The job losses were caused in part by cheaper labor costs overseas, but also by increasing productivity here at home. While manufacturing jobs declined, manufacturing output increased.
Contrary to what is normally imagined, manufacturing occupies a slightly greater portion of the national economy now than it did 30 years ago. Whatever the statistics, the decline in the actual number of “real jobs” coincided with the relative decline of the U.S. in the world economy.
The Mariner ownership tangle marched headfirst into this mess. Bashing Japan is almost a free shot for politicians; could we really have expected the bunch of car dealers, beer salesmen and real-estate hucksters who own baseball teams to act any better? There is a peculiarity that many people acquire along with great wealth: the notion that since the business of America is business, by excelling at business they’ve excelled at being Americans. And as great Americans, they bear a sort of modern variety of the White Man’s Burden. They must preserve and protect the country.
The common reaction here in the Northwest to the desire of Major League Baseball to protect us from the Japanese was outrage. They just don’t get it, we said. Out here, we have a special relationship with Japan.
Are we more enlightened? I doubt it. More desperate? Certainly, but also more accustomed to importing and exporting all kinds of things, including ideas and money. We have made a civic virtue out of our financial necessity. We’ve always been able spenders of other people’s money. The Northwest has been a net importer of capital since European settlement. The money used to come from back East. Now it comes from the Far East. Like everything else in the Northwest, once it gets here it’s green and it spends just fine.
So what’s the problem?
“Foreign investments, wherever they’re from, are usually received well locally,” says Charles Morrison, a specialist in U.S.-Japan relations at the East-West Center in Honolulu. “But the same people who welcome such investment to their area worry about it when it occurs elsewhere. The farther away people are from the benefits, the more they object.
“That normal opposition is augmented by the particular industry – what could be more quintessentially American than a baseball team? – and the more general fear that there is something wrong with America, that we’re selling off our institutions.”
Should we be afraid that the Japanese will come to own us? That they are “buying up America?” I don’t know. We practically begged them to in the mid-’80s. The combination of a devalued dollar, superheated Japanese real estate and stock markets, and low Japanese interest rates practically turned Japan into a money machine. They had it. We needed it. They spent it.
Should we be surprised at that? People here flocked to Frederick & Nelson’s close-out sale to buy much of the same stuff they had been refusing to buy for years, thereby creating the need for the close-out sale in the first place. They thought they saw bargains. They bought. Imagine an entire country at 50 percent off, which is about what the United States was after the dollar lost more than half of its value against the yen in international exchanges.
And if you’re worried about the Japanese having too much money, baseball is a perfect business in which to lose a lot of it. Herbert Stein, chairman of the council of economic advisers under President Nixon, says we should feel empathy for the Japanese, not envy.
“People are worried that the Japanese are buying up America. That’s silly, if for no other reason than that a lot of the investments they have made have not been profitable. A lot of this stuff hasn’t worked out,” Stein says. “They’re the ones who got screwed.”
“There are no nations,” Ned Beatty told Peter Finch in the 1976 movie “Network.” “There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There is no Third World. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and intertwining, interacting multi-variant, multi-national dominion of dollars … There is no America. There is no democracy. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies.
“The world is a college of corporations inexorably determined by the inevitable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been ever since man crawled out of the slime.”
It seems sometimes that the Beatty character had it right.
The forces of commerce and popular culture are indeed bringing us if not together, then at least into a coincidence of desires that political scientist Benjamin Barber recently labeled “McWorld.” The argument is made that our economies and tastes are so intertwined that it is increasingly hard to tell us from them.
Examples of this cross-cultural ferment are everywhere. Across town later that night in Hiroshima, I went into a bar called the Shanghai Renaissance. No one in the place, named for a Chinese city and a European intellectual movement, sitting beside a river that not 50 years earlier boiled over its banks from the heat of an American atomic bomb, no one spoke English, but they played old American movies and new American jazz. “The Wizard of Oz” was playing, soundlessly, on a large-screen television. The bartender substituted a Wynton Marsalis CD for the Harold Arlen movie score, leaving Dorothy and Toto to run rootlessly across the landscape, the low, slow jazz giving a melancholy edge to their anxiety.
Oh, Toto, I thought, we surely aren’t in Kansas anymore. What kind of world is this slouching toward Hiroshima to be born? Like me and Phil Bradley, in this new world we are plagued with company, if not necessarily companionship.
We can’t get away from each other. That does not mean we are the same.
Akira Ishikawa, a Japanese lumberman, once told me Americans completely misunderstand Japan.
“It’s like hail out of a blue sky,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.” The same could be said of Japanese understanding of Americans.
In many respects the U.S. and Japan are reverse images of each other. The flaws of one are the merits of the other. Japan emphasizes the group, the U.S. the individual. Their strength is cohesion, ours liberty. They promote production. We promote consumption. Even when we do the same things, we do them differently.
For example, baseball in Japan is a peculiar station-to-station, hedgerow-to-hedgerow struggle, where the cleanup hitter, normally the most powerful batter on the team, is as apt to move runners along by bunting as he is to swing for the fences. It is a strategy that would provoke howls of protest from a typical American manager, who would rather let the hitter swing away in hopes that he might hit the big hit.
We score in bunches. The Japanese are satisfied to put lone runs up one at a time. It is possible – in fact, almost unavoidable – to make too much of this, but this is how Toyota would play baseball. In business terms, think of it as a willingness to sacrifice immediate profits for market share.
We want to rack up the big numbers right away. Toyota (or Nissan, Honda, Sony, Matsushita, ad infinitum) would be content to scratch out a run here and a run there until eventually it had amassed an unassailable lead.
Economics is ultimately depressing. That’s why we have philosophy, religion and baseball.
Bradley swung. He bounced a single up the middle, driving in the run. He rounded first and came back to the bag, peering into the stands. It’s nice in these troubled times to have something to cling to, I thought.
Yer a bum! I yelled.
Pacific Magazine, 1986
Let me explain about pigeons and the power of baseball.
Billy Kurt, Kenny Orr and I lay in heavy summer in the shade of the maples ringing the upper end of St. Martin’s playground. Down the street, a mob, a mean, evil, arbitrary group approached. I saw Stump Sauser and Boone Dolphin at the head, twirling clubs. Others tossed rocks. We saw them coming and fled.
I imagine in memory that we ran up and down those rolling hills outside of town for miles, hurdling four-strand barbed-wire fences in stride, my three-fingered fielder’s mitt strapped to my belt and slapping my thigh, fear forbidding even one brief backward glance. The fear was prompted by rumors about what this gang of older boys had done to one of its own number, Jimmy Dunigan. Stump and Boone and the boys had made Jimmy _ as part of an act of adolescent initiation _ trap a pigeon in the church bell tower, then eat it. Raw.
And Jimmy was a member of the gang. We could only imagine what they might do to outsiders like us. Imagine we did; briefly, before fleeing. When halfway to the next town we finally huffed to a halt, there was nothing behind us but the empty Iowa air and the acres of alfalfa through which we had run. The pigeon mob being nowhere in sight, we crept back toward town and the playground, where the gang was playing ball, the clubs having become bats, the rocks balls. We climbed trees on the edge of the field and watched.
Boone spotted and called to us to come down and play. They needed three more guys to even up the sides, he said. Otherwise trapped up our trees, we relented. The lure of baseball in the end overcame even our pigeon fear. We played, never mentioned birds and neither did they.
When the Mariners open at home Tuesday, I’ll be at the ballpark, although it is hard to think of the Kingdome as a park. I’ll be there and will return as often as I can through the season. I’ll be there in spite of the team, in spite of the lease, in spite of the artificial turf, in spite of the artificial cannon, in spite of the synthesized cheerleading, in spite of the designated hitter, in spite of that intrusive, electronic monstrosity they call a scoreboard, in spite of that intrusive, human monstrosity they call George Steinbrenner, in spite of the salaries, in spite of the legalese and the agents and arbitrators and the drugs.
I’ll be back because baseball abides. It goes on being baseball no matter what we try to do to it.
William Saroyan wrote that baseball, at heart, is about caring. That is, of course, what is wrong with the Mariners _ not enough people care. They eventually will come to care. Baseball does that. They will care even though the Mariners play imitation baseball in an imitation park. It is simply easier if you have a real park. I’m an expert on real parks. I grew up in one.
Cascade, Iowa, my hometown, had no library, no movie theater, and not until later a swimming pool, but we had a park called Legion Field, and we had baseball, and the lure of it overcame nearly everything in summertime in Cascade.
We had no choice but to care about baseball. For one thing, my father, a strict man, ordered it. Except for the odd occasions, like the time we shot out the living room window from inside the house, we were generally obedient children and we obeyed.
My father played baseball with us, his children, frequently as much for his entertainment as ours. He had been a catcher in his day and like most of those who wear the tools of ignorance, he fancied himself a helluva lot smarter than the dumb brutes who were throwing him the ball _ the pitchers. He used to make me take the catcher’s mitt, the pudd, as those things were called then, and try to catch the knuckleball he had spent 20 years developing.
I still bear scars that prove either my ineptness or his skill, probably both.
For 17 years, my father ran the town team, the Reds. Nearly all of his _ and consequently my _ spare time was devoted to the team, which like the teams from surrounding towns was made up largely of hometown players, supplemented on rare occasion by hired guns brought in for big games.
My father had played for the Reds during their glory years after World War II. One year, when the team was flush with returning veterans and led by a bruising pitcher whom the team had to pull out of the taverns on Saturday nights in order to sober him up to pitch on Sunday mornings, the Reds won 29 straight games, finally losing when they stepped way out of their own class to challenge Davenport of the Three-I League.
“We knew we had to lose sometime, so we figured it might as well be to somebody good,” my father said.
He managed the team after he quit playing, a job that consisted primarily of organizing the sometimes complex logistics required to put nine guys on the field, hauling players all over Eastern Iowa, sometimes having to drive 60 miles to pick up a player and deliver him back home after the game. He was also responsible for ensuring that Legion Field was in game condition.
At the Legion, in the late innings of late-night doubleheaders on wet-hot August nights inside our cocoon, when the Cascade Reds took on the Dyersville Hawks in yet another crucial Maquoketa Valley League encounter, the smoke from the old men’s cigars would mix with the steam rising from the old women’s cardboard coffee cups and float up the light poles where the bugs gathered by the billions. The smoke and the steam and the bugs would obscure the rest of the world, which was just as well.
The rest of the world would have had a hard time competing. We were proud of our field. Or at least my father was proud. There were times when I hated it.
I curse it now, but I would have killed for the Kingdome then. The Kingdome represents an ultimate in an area we only dabbled in. It conquers nature. We tried but forever failed.
My father waged Joblike battles with the elements, trying to prepare and preserve the condition of the field, especially during the playing of the Cascade 16-Team Semi-Pro Tournament, an annual event to which teams would come from as far away as Barnesville and Zwingle and along with their fans would frequently swell our little town to twice its normal contingent of 1,500.
On game days, Ade Kurt would faithfully put up the blue “Baseball Tonight” flag outside the Rexall Drug Store downtown and everyone knew immediately where they would be spending the evening and I knew where I would be spending the day _ working on the field.
During the tournament, townspeople would anxiously look to the flagpole to see if the games would be played that night in spite of the torrential rains that always seemed to fall at that time of year. As surely as the black earth around us would in the autumn produce abundance, that tournament would produce rain, which the farmers loved and we abhorred.
My father, though, was not a man afraid of a difficult solution.
We tried everything. We tried to bury the mud with sand and ended up with muddy sand. We poured gallons and gallons of gasoline on top of the field and set it afire, hoping to burn off the water, but we generally succeeded only in drawing up more water from beneath the surface. Once, when the gasoline and the sand had both failed, we tried to rent a helicopter to fly low over the field and blow it dry.
To my knowledge, helicopters had visited Cascade only twice before that _ once to bring Santa Claus, whose team of reindeer inexplicably could not fly that winter, and another time to bring Marshall Jay, a regional television cartoon-show host who in the process of putting on a sharp-shooting exhibition proceeded not so sharply to shoot himself in the foot, whereupon the helicopter hurried him back to Cedar Rapids.
Alas, we couldn’t find a helicopter and had to pick up the rakes, order up another gasoline truck and go back to work.
When it didn’t rain, it seemed to never rain, and the field would bake and turn to dust and blow away, leaving only concrete hardness. When this happened, Dad would hook to the back of our Chevy sedan a plank with spikes driven through it, then would place weights _ usually me and my brothers _ on the plank and he would whirl around the diamond, breaking up the sun-hardened dirt. He had a facility for turning useless human beings into useful tools. We often trimmed our hedge at home by lifting a power lawn mower atop it, and walking the length of it, my father on one side, me or my mother on the other.
The sun caused other problems. When daylight saving time came in, the sun would not go down fast enough to suit my father. It rose behind home plate and set beyond centerfield in a symmetric and symbolic definition of light, but in the process of setting, it obscured the vision of hitters. My father planted a row of trees beyond the fence to block the sun, but discouraged with the trees’ slow growth he set about building a giant tarp that could be raised 60 feet up into the air to block out the last dying, blinding rays.
Because of all this work, our home park compared favorably with some others in the area. The Reds played ball on some fields where when the catcher crouched down, the center fielder would disappear behind a hill.
The work did not end when the field was prepared. We would shower at the park in the basement of the dance hall, go home for supper and return to other jobs. There was a hierarchy here.
Everything and everyone had a place. Beer was sold at the beer stand, pop at the pop stand. Men volunteered behind the counters. The women of the Legion Auxiliary sold Maid-rite hamburgers in wax paper at the food stand.
As I got older, I graduated from job to job. My first job was collecting pop bottles. When you bought a bottle of Whistle or Coke or Hires at the pop stand at Legion Field, they didn’t give you a cup, they gave you the bottle, which they then had to find a way to retrieve, since the bottles were redeemable for 3 cents apiece.
They solved this by hiring kids to collect them. When we came into the park, we would march straight over to the pop stand, get an empty wooden case, then head out into the crowd searching for empties. They paid a dime for each case of empties returned.
Competition was tough. We couldn’t simply sit back and let business come to us. So in our park, instead of vendors hawking soft drinks, we marched through the crowd calling, “Pop bottles, pop bottles.”
On nights when there were more free-lance collectors than usual, this kind of mass marketing was insufficient. You couldn’t afford to wait for a bottle to be emptied.
“Can I have your bottle when you’re done with it?” we would ask of people who had barely begun to drink.
It wasn’t until I started going to other parks that I understood how unusual our world was. In major-league parks, nobody collected the empties. Even more astounding, nobody collected foul balls. The fans didn’t always return them at our place, either. Sometimes they had to be persuaded.
That was the next job up from bottle collector _ ball chaser. Every foul ball that escaped the playing field had to be retrieved. We ball chasers patrolled the park and took flight at every crack of the bat, alert for a foul coming our way. Out-of-town kids invariably tried to keep the balls if they got them, and this was not allowed. I chased kids halfway across town and fought when fights were inevitable. I was not much of a fighter _ wiry, but weak _ and my main tactic was speed. I ran and dived under the bleachers and under cars in the parking lot.
This paid 50 cents a night.
I spent one season as head ball boy. I gathered the balls from the other ball boys and retrieved all of the balls inside the fence. I rubbed corn meal on them to absorb the dew before ushering them back to Red Jennings, the umpire, and back into play. This paid better _ 75 cents _ and there were no fights.
After being head ball boy, I ran the scoreboard, the operation of which consisted primarily of ducking the water balloons, dirt clods and various other projectiles aimed at me throughout the course of beer-soaked doubleheaders.
The brand of ball that the Reds played in those days was closer to a 19th century author’s description of baseball as “a game played by 18 persons wearing shirts and drawers” than it is to the modern major leagues. The baseball was simple and the surroundings simpler.
I am too young to be so nostalgic, I know, but there is undeniably a greater distance between then and now than there ought to be. It is a distance that no one can measure precisely, but here is an indication.
The Seattle Mariners this year will use more than half as many baseballs in a single night as the Reds used in a season. The Mariners will go through a staggering 21,000 baseballs during the year, an average of 96 baseballs a night. The Reds used to buy a dozen dozen balls _ 144 of them _ at the start of the season and would plan to finish without buying more.
The Mariners have purchased 150 dozen bats. Each player has his own model and when they break them, they throw them away. The Reds would use about three dozen bats in a season, all of them, by the way, Louisville Sluggers. “When Adirondack came out with a bat, we bought a few. They just didn’t have the feel. They were more like a piece of wood,” my father said.
Players shaved bat handles with bits of glass to take the shine off of them and I spent hours with my barrel-handled Nellie Fox model, rubbing the length of it with a beef bone to harden the wood. When was the last time you saw anybody bone a bat? We rubbed pints of neat’s foot oil into our gloves to soften and blacken the leather.
We didn’t have batting gloves in Cascade until some college hotshot imported them along with pine tar, which is mixed with rosin to make bat handles sticky. We used spit and dirt. Even before pine tar, my father says he never used dirt. Never believed in it, he says. He liked a clean bat.
We had generations of nicknames like I.C. for Instant Crowd, Boomer and Squirrel and Moose and Screwy. We had chatter. Yeah, let’s hear a little chatter out there. Come on, talk it up. No hitter, no hitter. Hum babe. Rock and fire, wing that pea, shoot ’em down. You’re the man. Hum babe. Down the pipe, down the shoot. Two in the mud, make it three, make ’em be a hitter. Throw strikes now, big fella.
Little bingle here. Need a base runner. Walk’s as good as a hit. Hey, rubber arm, bring it to ’em. Ducks on the pond, bring ’em around.
Big league baseball does all of these things too easily now if it does them at all. The things that are free _ like chatter and nicknames _ have disappeared and the things that are expensive _ balls and bats, litigation and a roof to stop the rain and the wind _ are seemingly limitless. It somehow doesn’t seem right.
It is similar to what we Midwesterners always thought of Californians. Whenever the newspapers carried news of bad events out west, we thought, well, what can you expect from a place where it doesn’t freeze in winter or get so humid that the sidewalks sweat in summer? Something’s not right out there and God knows it. Something’s not right at the Kingdome and God knows that, too.
My father has never been to Seattle or the Kingdome, but he says he might come to visit next year and we’ll surely go to a game. I think I’ll ask him to bring the gas truck. There is work to do, but baseball will abide.
Thursday, September 21, 1995
The Summer I Fell In Love With Dave Niehaus
I first realized I was falling in love with Dave Niehaus sometime in the late summer of 1985. It was at night – these things always happen at night, don’t they? I was running up U.S. 97 out of Wapato. The moon was bright, the August air still as stone. I was alone.
It was my first year with the Mariners, already Niehaus’s ninth as the team’s radio broadcaster. It was late. The Mariners were losing and it suddenly occurred to me I didn’t care. I wasn’t listening to the game. I was listening to Niehaus.
“The right-hander sets, checks the runners,” Niehaus said. “He delivers the 1-2 pitch. Breaking ball.”
Then came the word that did it: “Looooooooowwwwwwwwww.”
That ball-two call stretched out through the Yakima Valley to the Cascades, impossibly deep and long and rich. It soothed. It hurt. It had in it the ache of cattle braying on the plains. It had the idle joy of Niehaus’s southern Indiana youth.
Harry Caray coming in out of St. Louis on KMOX. Watermelon cooling in a No. 10 washtub. Mama’s got the sun tea ready. Fireflies flashing. Run to get a Mason jar and jab holes in the lid with an ice pick. Squash the bugs and pull the lights off just to see how long they glow.
“That’s baseball. And that’s radio. The mud and the bugs and the smell of stale beer,” Niehaus said last night. “The theater of the mind.”
Niehaus has waited ever since for a summer when baseball would come that alive, when he could do what he is doing right now – calling a pennant race. Last night, for the first time in the club’s history, the Mariners moved into first place at a time in the season when it meant something to be there.
It’s never been work; now it’s a joy. He’s a fan and he’s rooting for the Mariners to win their division, the pennant, everything. But even if the team falters, he already has what he came to get. He has spurned jobs in bigger places for more money so that he can be here now.
Fans see in him somebody who likes what they like. They send him homemade pies and asparagus and Walla Walla onions. Jams and jellies. Boxes of them. Crates of them.
“I’m glad I stuck it out. This town has been incredibly patient. To see the fans so happy, to know what a pennant race is really like. Even if we don’t win it, they’ll know what it was like to be here.”
Like all great artists, Niehaus gives the impression he is artless, that you could do what he does. You could not.
He prepares but never practices. He almost never thinks about what he will say or has said. He asks; the words answer. He laughs, parts the air with hands and arms, enjoying the sound of the words as they come sailing out.
Early in a game he pours forth information and anecdotes, decanting the day. Last night’s game was all romp and celebration. Niehaus was effusive.
Okey-dokey, he said, starting the third. That’s a can of corn, he said, ending the fourth.
Later, California’s dauber was said to be completely down and Vince Coleman’s first two hits were “a brace of doubles. . . . The first one was a leg double. This one was just a little parachute job that took a kangaroo hop on the Astro-turf.”
By late night his voice eases. The bits of gravel in it get smaller as the night wears out and he gains some distance on the previous day’s smoke and drink. He is at his best then, when a tight game finds its rhythm. He adjusts to the gait and begins to measure what he says, rubbing words gently onto the action, adjusting pitch and cadence to the story as it builds, then erupting.
“My oh my,” he’ll shout, rearing back from his seat to watch a ball sail into the stands. “That will fly away.”
After a routinely spectacular catch at the left-centerfield wall by Ken Griffey Jr., Niehaus last night whispered, “Junior, you’re amazing.” Yet he is no idolator. It is not the players he praises. It is us.
Bart Giamatti, the late classicist who somehow ended up commissioner of baseball, once wrote that games were ways of remembering “our best hopes.” It’s to this sense of memory and fable that Niehaus genuflects.
Today’s an off day. The team and its fans will have at least another 24 hours to relish first place. For Niehaus, the joy has already been made myth. It will last forever.
Charles Barkley shoots from the lip and scores
You never know what Charles Barkley is going to say, and that makes TNT’s show on the NBA a fan favorite.
By Terry McDermott, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 21, 2008
ATLANTA — At 10 minutes to 6, Ernie Johnson walks on to the “Inside the NBA” set in Studio J, a Turner Network Television facility. The set’s focal point is a desk, where Johnson sits, with empty chairs on either side.The set is a dizzying, dazzling array of red and blue light. It includes a little living room, a full-height, half-court basketball playing area, enough pennants to outfit a Mardi Gras parade, and a mock night-time high-rise skyline. The set is gaudy and somewhat ridiculous for a venue where what mainly happens is three guys sit around and talk, mostly — but by no means exclusively — about basketball.At five minutes before 6, however, Johnson has no one to talk to. He’s alone at the desk.At three minutes before, he’s still alone.At two minutes, alone.At 90 seconds to air, Kenny “The Jet” Smith saunters on set and takes the chair immediately to Johnson’s left. He’s followed by Charles Barkley, conducting a loud and profane discussion with one of the show’s staff.As soon as he sits down, he starts loudly recounting another argument, this one with producer Tim Kiely, who, Barkley says, is censoring free speech and threatening the future of civilization by prohibiting Barkley from using a slang word for feces on the air.
“I’m bitter and angry tonight,” Barkley announces almost exactly at the moment Johnson looks up and, in the steady, comforting tones of the professional broadcaster, welcomes several million fans around the world to another edition of “Inside the NBA.”
The show, which originates in Los Angeles tonight for the Western Conference finals, is without much contest the world’s best show about basketball.
With the NBA playoffs in full flower, we’re reminded again that the most entertaining figure in professional basketball, maybe in all of sport, is not Kobe or LeBron or any other mere player. It is Barkley, just one-third, or sometimes one-fourth, of a talking-head panel — most of it bald — that introduces and analyzes the games.
In addition to these duties, Barkley, 45, is a declared 2014 candidate for governor of Alabama; a member of the basketball Hall of Fame; co-star of a mobile telephone advertising campaign wherein he, nearly a decade past his playing days, and not the current NBA star who shares billing with him, is clearly the main attraction; a compulsive gambler (on Tuesday he paid off a $400,000 debt to a Vegas casino); an erstwhile hero of the political right, from within which one blogger hailed him as a philosopher, poet, genius and the next president of the United States; inspiration for the chart-topping group Gnarls Barkley; and gracious butt of a thousand jokes.
Barkley, above all else, is someone who will say whatever occurs to him when it occurs to him, whether or not he’s on the air.
Talking during a game recently about a free throw missed at a crucial time by a high-percentage free-throw shooter, he said: “That 90% doesn’t mean nothing when you have a tight sphincter.”
Talking about a bad team: “The Nets are like the Democrats . . . they don’t win even though the rest of the division sucks.”
Talking about whether New York Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas’ job is safe: “He’s about as safe as me in a room full of cookies. If I’m in a room full of cookies, the cookies ain’t got no damn chance.”
Ernie Johnson recalls that the first time Barkley appeared on the show, in 2000, Barkley asked Smith during a break what he was going to talk about during the next segment. Johnson recalled, “Kenny said, ‘You’ll find out.’ ”
This was perfect, said Kiely the producer. Kiely’s notion was to have a show that was spontaneous, dynamic, like an overheard conversation. His ideal was closer to the PBS political shout-fest “The McLaughlin Group” than to conventional television sports post- and pregame analysis.
Barkley was more than accommodating. That first year, he accused the league of giving TNT all the bad games: “NBC gets all the good games. We get the Little Sisters of the Poor.” He said he could beat the Detroit Pistons with a team of studio technicians. He said All-Star Grant Hill’s ears were too big. He delivered these comments and many, many more in a voice that ranged between a bray and a sonic boom.
His weight became a recurring subject of conversation. By NBA standards, he is not tall; he’s slightly more than 6 feet 4 inches, yet he carries more than 300 pounds, much of it in a backside that his wife, Maureen, once said was “the size of New Jersey.”
To simply call Barkley fat, however, is to disregard the physical power at his command. As a player, he was the shortest man ever to lead the league in rebounding, a skill derived more from desire and ferocity than height.
“If you want to be a rebounder you have to approach it like, ‘Let’s just beat the hell out of each other all night.’ It’s all you’ve got,” Barkley said.
Barkley’s ferocity notwithstanding, the show treated him like a piñata. A computer graphics guy routinely placed Barkley’s big, round, shaven head on top of ridiculously mismatched bodies, which the show’s director then played on air almost endlessly.
A weekly feature the first year was Barkley getting on a scale to see how much weight he had — or had not — lost. He took it all with good grace and laughter.
Kenny Smith said when he began on the show in 1998 he imagined it was something he would do for a year, maybe two.
“The second year started being something different. Charles took it and exploded it. It just escalated,” he said. “Between Charles and I, there’s nothing that’s going to happen in a basketball game that we haven’t seen or experienced. Once we started to trust one another, there was no looking back. We’ve become part of the game.”
Players watch the show carefully. In interviews at halftimes of games, they complain about something said on “Inside” before the game started. You tell Charles and Kenny, they’ll say. Or, What Charles said ain’t right.
At the same time, the “Inside” cast has become guidance counselors, favored uncles, givers of grown-up advice. Their cellphones receive endless streams of text messages and calls from players around the league seeking advice, critiquing their critiques, angling for guest spots at the desk, complaining about playing time.
Johnson prepares for each show by studying clips and statistics and reading for five or six hours. He arrives at the studio by noon most days, a time at which Barkley is apt to be asleep. “I get up late. I’m in no hurry to get out of bed. I like having free time to do nothing,” he says.
After Johnson’s opening, Smith and Barkley and sometimes a fourth person, almost always a player or one not long retired, add a minute or two of commentary, then the game starts and they retreat to a viewing room equipped with a 20-foot tall wall of television monitors.
They go back on set to talk for a few minutes at halftime. On this night they get in an argument about proper punishment for players who aren’t in the game but rush to the assistance of other players involved in confrontations on the floor.
As often happens, Johnson and Smith have one opinion, Barkley another. The argument outlasts the halftime; they go off-air, the game resumes, but the three of them stay there on the set arguing.
They retreat again to the viewing room until the game is over, when they come back out for the meat of the show, 30 minutes of commentary, highlights and often some bit the crew has cooked up to make one or more of them look foolish.
While watching in the viewing room, Barkley spends a lot of time critiquing everything in sight — the game, the referees, the coaches, the food, the staff, Smith.
On this night they’re watching the surprising Atlanta Hawks taking on the heavily favored Celtics. One of the young Hawks, Josh Childress, has a throw-back Afro hairstyle that Barkley doesn’t like.
“Kenny, Kenny,” he calls out, “you and Josh Childress look a lot alike.”
Smith, who shaves his head and looks nothing like Childress, doesn’t respond.
“You do,” Barkley says. “You got something in common.”
Still no reply. “You’re both ugly,” Barkley says.
Smith finally rises to the bait, telling Barkley that he and Cleveland Cavalier Coach Mike Brown, who has just popped up on screen, look alike. “You both got Milk Dud heads,” he says.
Before Barkley can counter that insult, somebody misses a wide-open jump shot on the big screen at the center of the monitor wall. Smith, who was one of the best shooters in the league when he played, expresses dismay. You can’t miss wide-open jumpers, he says.
Barkley says why not? Nobody is going to make more than half of them.
Half? Are you nuts? “A good shooter will make 80 out of 100 of those,” Smith says.
“Eighty percent? Nobody makes 80%,” Barkley says. Smith, seeking reinforcement, telephones his brother, Vince, who coaches youth basketball and who confirms: 80%.
Barkley’s not convinced. The discussion goes on a while, then comes the inevitable offer of a bet. They’ll go to the gym tomorrow and Smith will shoot the 100 shots. Although retired for a decade, he has no doubt whatsoever he’ll make 80. Barkley says, “I’m going to go to the bank tomorrow and get all my money. I got a sucker bet here.” One wonders who the sucker is since Barkley has admitted losing millions in Vegas.
Smith decides he needs still more reinforcement. “Let’s call Reggie,” he says, referring to Reggie Miller, a colleague who sometimes sits in with the panel and on this night did the on-site commentary for the Cleveland-Washington game.
Miller is regarded as one of the best shooters in league history. Barkley will accept him as an expert witness only if he, Barkley, can frame the questions.
On the speaker phone, Barkley asks the question about the jump shot. Miller, who is at least as voluble and argumentative as Barkley and Smith, asks half a dozen questions about the situation. Good shooter, great shooter? How far? Unguarded? What gym? How much time? When he finally has all the information, he answers: “Seventy-five to 80.”
Smith preens. Barkley yells a sarcastic thanks. Smith tells Miller it’s too bad he’s stuck in Cleveland.
“Hey,” Miller says, “we got drunk girls pounding on the door asking if we’re coming back for the conference finals.”
What’s most notable about this small episode is that you could imagine it occurring on the air without the slightest change. It’s Kiely’s dream come true.
“People say, ‘Y’all make me laugh every night.’ That’s what’s important,” Barkley says. “This is basketball. We’re not going to save the world. When I go on the air, I want people to know I have fun. We got a great job. We get paid to watch sports.”
Barkley in his playing days seemed always to be in hot water for something he said or did. Most notably, he vigorously complained that it was worse than ridiculous — actually harmful — for black athletes to be proclaimed role models for black youth. It fostered a false sense of opportunity, he said, leading kids to think they could find prosperity on an athletic field, a high-risk strategy at best. That view is now widely shared, but Barkley was pilloried for it at the time.
He traveled by himself, hung out with ordinary people, drank at the bar and would talk to anyone who approached him. He paid a price for his openness. Sometimes arguments ensued. Some of these arguments escalated into physical fights, one of which concluded when Barkley threw a man through a bar-room window. He commented later his only regret was that it hadn’t been on a higher floor.
Barkley has a straightforward view of most things: Teams lose games because they miss shots, have bad players or just generally stink; African American kids get into trouble because they go to bad schools in bad neighborhoods and their families have been crushed by centuries of racism.
Barkley escaped similar circumstances and has given millions to schools in Alabama, where he was born, and Phoenix, where he played for years. He splits his time between homes in Phoenix and Philadelphia, but has purchased a house in Alabama to establish residency there (which takes seven years) in preparation for a gubernatorial campaign he says he’ll conduct as a Democrat.
It used to be written frequently that he was a conservative Republican. The misunderstanding occurred, he says, because once in conversation with his mother and a reporter, his mother said Republicans were only for the rich folks. To which Barkley replied: “Mom, we are rich folks.”
He says he’s never voted for a Republican in his life. Talking on CNN recently about conservative Republicans, Barkley remarked: “Every time I hear the word ‘conservative’ it makes me sick to my stomach, because they’re really just fake Christians, as I call them. That’s all they are.”
“I don’t know what a conservative or liberal is,” he says. “I’m pro-choice; government should create jobs for people, keep them safe. That’s all I want. Keep people safe, give them good schools, jobs.”
This, he says, referring to his TNT work, is just a warm-up. “There’s got to be more than this. I have a gift. I should use it,” he says.
Indeed, there probably is more to life than basketball, but for the time being Barkley has his hands full with just that.
On this night, for example, there is a line of acceptable NBA style that has been crossed by Philadelphia 76er center Samuel Dalembert, who has gotten what appears to be a playoff makeover, a modified Mohawk haircut with his initials in relief. It is clear that Dalembert, an otherwise handsome man, has transgressed. Somebody needs to do something.
“Sucky ‘do,’ ” Barkley says, then after a moment’s contemplation adds, “No grown-ass man should have a Mohawk.”
Barkley, as usual, is on the case.
Head Games — In Some Deeply Sensuous Way, The Game Inhabits The Player, No Matter Where Or How You Play It
I USED TO PLAY IN a twice-weekly pickup game that included two nationally syndicated cartoonists, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, a Starbucks founder, a software developer, a music-festival promoter and a bunch of other riffraff, mainly journalists.
The game was notable for its bad play and good humor and for the rapidly deteriorating bodies of its players, most of whom were of an age to put away childish expectations – like the idea that you would suddenly develop a jump shot or that Rick Anderson would ever hit the open man.
The game was played in small gyms with hard, close walls. You never had to run too far, or too fast, lest you run out of room and slam into a wall.
There was among the group an addiction to basketball that, when it began to reveal itself, astonished us all. We would admit with embarrassment the degree to which the games had become the focal point of our weeks, our lives.
Writers couldn’t write, lost in drop-step daydreams. Coffee roasters couldn’t roast, carried off on visions of sugar-plum fadeaways. Bound by recollection and anticipation, all else in life was measured by its distance from the previous game or the next one.
Oh, how we suffered for the dreams.
The variety of injuries inflicted by age and lack of skill was remarkable. More remarkable still was the persistence with which people played through them. In the pros, this would be known as playing with pain. For us, it was playing to avoid the pain of not playing.
“Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson – good middle-range jumper, sneaky enough on defense to be known as The Snake – had knees as brittle as dried flowers. They were beyond surgery. There’s only so much cartilage to remove.
Larson’s wife once told me a story of him coming home after a game. She happened to walk around the corner as he was climbing the stairs to shower. He was crawling.
Gary, she said, are you hurt?
This no doubt seemed a reasonable question. To Larson, it was absurd.
What do you mean? he said.
You’re on your hands and knees, she said.
I do this every Saturday, he said. This is how I get up the stairs after basketball.
Larson said later he had thought nothing of the fact that the pain forced him to crawl.
Doesn’t everybody do that? he asked.
I HAVEN’T played now for five years. I miss it terribly. I have dreams. In them sometimes I move with watery grace. One night some friends say, “You should come play.” The friends are in their 20s.
For a moment, forgetting the knees, the ankles, the shoulder, forgetting I’m 45 years old, I think, “Yes, I should.”
It’s the sheer physical motion that gets you, that stamps itself in memory.
In some deeply sensuous way, the game inhabits the player, no matter where or how you play it, whether it’s the high drama of the NBA playoffs or a rag-tag game at midnight on an outdoor court in Belltown.
As a kid, I’d practice with the high-school team from 3 until 6, run home, refuel, and run downtown to The Hall, a WPA remnant that included a two-cell jail, our city hall – a room with two desks, a file cabinet and a sleeping cop -and the best gym ever built, filled with soft, dust-filtered light, kind rims and a live floor.
At school, there were coaches. At The Hall, there were games.
You might find yourself playing with high-school stars, college studs home for the holidays and 30-year-old bartenders with cigarette packs in their shirt pockets, girlfriends drinking Falstaff out of long-neck bottles on the sidelines.
I remember one time guarding Dickie Fraser. He was a tough left-hander with a good jump shot, and spoiled by it the way that shooters often are. I was younger, smaller, blade-thin, but defensively I was a leech and made him work much harder than he wanted.
No shooter likes to work, at least not for long. Shooters just want to shoot, and when they can’t they grow irritable. It’s a class thing. A jump shooter is an aristocrat, landed gentry. He has certain expectations of an easy life. Rich kids have jump shots. The rest of us learn to drive to the basket because we can’t shoot. We bleed for our points.
What shooters do when they can’t get their shots is back up, until eventually they can get shots but can’t make them. When this happens, you’ve taken them out of their game. You’ve won.
After one stretch of this during which Fraser hardly touched the ball and couldn’t get a shot, he walked the ball up the court with me guarding him closely. As he dribbled with his left hand, he suddenly slapped me very hard across the face with his right.
Even as I tackled him and tried to break his head open on the bleachers, I was laughing. I had won.
Dickie Fraser would have hated Gary Payton.
I mean, if there had been players like Gary Payton where I grew up, I’m sure he would have hated them. There weren’t, then. There aren’t very many now.
I FIRST SAW Gary Payton play when he was a freshman at Oregon State University. He was so scrawny then his head was the thickest part of his body. He was a brash, mouthy city kid whose presence in the deep sticks of Corvallis seemed inexplicable. His coach was Ralph Miller, a craggy-faced old man whose teams played the same strict, patterned style Miller had been teaching for 40 years. Miller’s teams were Miller’s. They belonged to him, not the players.
Basketball is the most uncoachable of games, yet by ratio of coach to player the most coached. NBA teams now have at least three coaches. Some have four, one for every three players.
All basketball coaches, to one degree or another, are lunatic.
My brother is a college coach. He is a mild-mannered, responsible adult, except during games. He once became so incensed with the officiating during a game and so lost in his anger that he accidentally turned a complete backflip while trying to pull himself away from confronting a referee.
He nailed it, too. Nadia Comaneci would have been proud.
At time-outs, coaches sputter and foam at the mouth. They turn colors. No one listens to them. Or if they do, not carefully.
This is not insubordination, but wisdom. Have you ever heard what a coach says during crucial time-outs of big games? It’s gibberish, brought on I suppose by the impossibility of the task, of reducing it to words.
Personally, I hated every coach I ever played for. The thing I hated most was that they were there at all, the simple ineradicable fact of their existence.
They all saw their job as controlling. I saw mine as breaking free.
Miller was exactly the kind of coach I hated most. I thought he and Payton would kill one another. They thrived. And did so because Miller yielded control to Payton. I’ve loved Payton ever since.
AN NBA ARENA IS shot through with manufactured joy and noise, a Disney ride for the adrenaline addict.
The room goes dark, mammoth speakers thunder and moan; the crowd buzzes; spotlights seek and find their targets and the PA rumbles out their names.
This is all before the game starts. It’s packaging, and to the player irrelevant. What matters most to many players is not the game, but their individual games.
What players invariably say when they are displeased with their situation on a team is they are somehow being prevented from “playing my game.”
This can mean a thousand different things, and does. There are as many individual games in the league as there are players. What an individual’s game comes down to is not usually very complicated. It means getting the ball as frequently as he would like at that particular position on the court where the player thinks he is most effective, and where he can make his favorite move.
Payton’s “game” begins not at a spot on the floor, but in his head. His game is attitude.
Payton is not a classic point guard. To play guard in the NBA you must normally be one of two things – a passer or a shooter. Payton is neither.
By professional standards, he’s a poor shooter, which means he should be a passer. But by point guard standards, he is only an average passer. There are arguably two better passers on his own team.
Shooters shoot. Scorers score. Gary Payton works.
He creates the best part of his offense – running the open court – by fighting a war on the defensive end.
At times during games, surrounded by all the flash and hum, Payton seems oblivious, as if he’s back at the corner of Foothill and High in East Oakland, head lolling to the left, a look somewhere between boredom and bewilderment on his thin brown face, flat-footed, weight to one side, arms slack.
He walks around the court with a visual jangle, as if the pieces didn’t all come from the same kit. It’s more of a shuffle, really, with just enough momentum to sustain motion. Bony knees barely bend. Hips lock and unlock with each step. Feet scarcely lose contact with the ground.
Heading nowhere, just hanging.
Then, wham! In an instant he snaps intensely to, febrile, every fiber a live wire tightly wound. He crouches low, hands inches from the wooden floor, cupped, gaze fixed on the eyes of the man with the ball.
Payton is alley-cat quick and strong enough he can at times completely dictate where that man goes, barring him from the spots he desires. He’ll turn him, stop his forward motion, sometimes make him turn his back completely to protect the ball. When this happens, the man is doomed. The double team arrives, a flick of one of those live wires punches the ball free, and a scramble is on.
On the nights when it’s all working, no one beats Payton to these balls. He’s there and gone.
In the open court, the current runs hottest. Shawn Kemp, all legs and leonine grace, fills an outside lane and just past half court, Payton at full speed, without pause or the least sideways glance, lifts the ball off the dribble, a lob thrown one-handed from the hip to open air above the rim and suddenly, from off the screen, there is Kemp, closing, reaching, a catch and a flush.
CONSIDER THE nature of our three national games.
Baseball is an aesthetic, slow and old. All actions occur serially. The pitcher throws. The batter bats. The fielder catches. Baseball players are like pages in a storybook, each waiting its time to be turned.
Football is war. The generals are in charge. All actions occur simultaneously but without spontaneity. Players are gears in a coaching machine.
Basketball, a friend says, is sex. It is personal, one-on-one, tantalizing, full of tension and confrontation and release. Players move simultaneously as in football, but the motions follow at most outlines, not diagrams. Action is unscripted. Players are like tops. The coach winds them up, but once the game starts, he can only start them running and hope they don’t spin out of control.
Payton carries this threat with him at all times, that he’ll explode, lose all discipline. Yet in an important way he is the most disciplined of players, confined by his love of the game. Like pick-up players, he plays to avoid the pain of not playing, too. He has missed only one Sonic game in four years.
The game he missed was last month. He was suspended for a run-in with Orlando’s Joe Wolf. The referees were grim. They looked like escapees from an Irish wake, thick, pale men, breathless and sweating. They sent GP packing, then stood and wiped the sweat from their foreheads with single fingers, as if to deny it was there in any abundance.
Gary Payton doesn’t sweat. He talks. He’s a voluble guy. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: “Gary talks a lot, but he has a lot to talk about.” He jaws with the opponent’s bench. He musses an opposing coach’s tidy hairdo.
I saw the whole Wolf incident. Payton did not head-butt Wolf. Definitely did not. He might ever so slightly have inclined his head in the direction of Wolf’s chin. He was talking. Voluble guys when they talk tend to come a little unstuck. When Payton talks, his head moves.
It’s what he talks with.
Much is made of this habit; trash talk, it’s usually called, when someone doesn’t like it. It is said to be a recent phenomenon, a sign of the decline of civil society.
Al McGuire, who describes himself as the worst player ever to last three seasons in the NBA, did it 40 years ago with his mouth. A coach said, “Al should be sent to Vietnam. He’d talk the Viet Cong into a trance within two weeks.”
He was Gary Payton before Payton was born.
The cliché is that it’s a city game and the talk and attitude and style come from basketball’s city playgrounds. Maybe, but some of the best to ever play came from places like Rocky Mount, Cabin Creek and French Lick.
That’s the point exactly. Basketball has in it the tensions of urban and rural, of elegance and strength, of beauty and beast.
It is a collision of these differences, out of which emerges a display of essential selves. Basketball is transcendent. It is a judgment. It is you.
It is April and I am enthralled. The NBA playoffs start this week. The Sonics are one of the best professional sports teams in the city’s history. Payton is here and loose and free.