I grew up just outside of New York City.  I was a Yankees fan, a Knicks fan, a Rangers fan, a Giants fan.  And, as a loyal New Yorker, I have spent much of my life rooting against teams from Boston — the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Bruins (the Patriots too, but they haven’t really been the Boston Patriots since I was a little kid).

On the other hand, I lived for several years in Providence and all of my siblings lived for at least some time in the Boston area.  So, while I grew up hating Boston’s teams, I have always loved the city of Boston.  When it came time to set my Thieftaker books in a Colonial era city, Boston seemed the logical choice.

The terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon venue left me stunned and grieving, not only for the victims most affected by the bombings, but for the entire city.  I still recall my sense of outrage, of violation when my beloved New York was attacked in 2001.  I know what the people of Boston are feeling.

Thieftaker120And so, it is with deepest sympathy and love and solidarity that transcends lifelong sporting rivalries that I embark on a fundraiser and giveaway to do my small part in helping Boston get back on its feet.  Through a website called First Giving, I am hosting a fundraising event the goal of which is to raise $5,000.00 by July 2 (the release date for THIEVES’ QUARRY, and for the paperback reprint of THIEFTAKER) for the Boston Foundation and the One Fund of Boston.  If you will help me raise the funds, I’ll make it interesting for you.  Here’s how it works:

For each fundraising milestone we reach, I will be giving away prizes to lucky donors.

– When we reach $1000 raised, I will give away one signed uncorrected manuscript of THIEFTAKER. This is a collector’s item — a copy of the manuscript that was sent out to other authors who were asked to blurb the book before its release in 2012.
ThieftakerT-Shirt600When we reach $2000, I will give away one Boston Thieftaker’s Guild t-shirt in whatever size the winner wants. The t-shirt can be signed if the winner would like it to be.
– When we reach $3000, I will give away one signed paperback edition of THIEFTAKER. (This book comes out on July 2, so the giveaway will happen then.)
– When we reach $4000, I will give away one signed hardcover edition of THIEVES’ QUARRY. (This book will also be available on July 2 and will be given away then.)
Quarry120– When we reach $5000, I will give away a second signed paperback of THIEFTAKER and a second signed hardcover of THIEVES’ QUARRY to one lucky donor. (Also to be given away on July 2.)

The donation site can be found here:  http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/DBJacksonThieftaker/thieftakergiveaway

I hope you will join me in reaching out to the people of Boston, and doing our part to speed the healing process.  And I hope that you’re one of the luck winners.

Thank you.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were arguably the biggest stars in Major League Baseball in the 1990s.  Bonds was the best position player, Clemens the most dominant pitcher.  Their careers followed eerily similar paths, culminating today with what I expect will be the failure of both of them to garner enough votes from the Baseball  Writers of America to enter the Hall of Fame.  A dozen years ago their fate in this regard would have been unthinkable.

In 1985, Clemens debuted as a twenty-two year old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.  The following season, Bonds became the starting center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He moved to left field in 1987.  Clemens established himself as a star during that 1986 season, winning both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards with historically impressive statistics.  He won his second Cy Young Award in 1987, and a third in 1991.  Bonds took longer to find himself as a player, winning his first Most Valuable Player Award in 1990, but he won two more in 1992 and 1993, the latter with the San Francisco Giants.

By the late 1990s, both men were considered the best in the business, superstars who were destined for the Hall of Fame.  Clemens had added two more Cy Young Awards in 1997 and ‘98 to give him a total of five, more than any pitcher in history.  He had his MVP award and was also a seven time All-Star.  He was on pace to reach the milestones that defined excellence at his position — three hundred career victories and three thousand strikeouts.  Bonds had won his three MVP awards, had been an All-Star eight times, a Gold Glove winner eight times, and Silver Slugger winner seven times.  He was on pace to reach five hundred home runs in his career — at that time a near-automatic qualification for the Hall — and was also on pace to wind up among baseball’s all-time leaders in runs scored and walks.

But at that point both men started down the path that would be their undoing.  Clemens, then in his late thirties, started to wear down, as aging pitchers do.  Bonds was still going strong, but his ego could not take the attention lavished on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, during their historic (and, as it turned out, steroid-induced) assault on Roger Maris’s single-season home run record.  By most accounts, it seems that both men turned to steroids in order to enhance their performances and prolong their careers.  And they did so with spectacular results.  Clemens, seeming to defy the passage of the years, won two more Cy Young Awards and finished his career with over 350 wins and over 4,600 strikeouts.  His seven Cy Young Awards is still a Major League record.

Bonds’s performance in the early 2000s is even more astonishing.  He broke the single-season and career home run records, amassing statistics that exceeded even those of Babe Ruth in his prime.  He won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, giving him seven for his career, more than any other player.  He finished his career as the Major League leader in home runs and walks, and among the career leaders in runs scored, runs batted in, extra base hits, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

And yet, the accomplishments of both men were so tainted by their rumored use of steroids that even these glittering credentials will not get them into the Hall of Fame.  Not this year, certainly, and perhaps not ever.

Clemens and Bonds were two sides of the same tarnished coin.  One white, the other black; one a pitcher, the other a position player; one (mostly) an American League player, the other solely a National Leaguer — they seemed to have so little in common.  But they reached the Major Leagues within a year of each other, and both retired at the end of the 2007 season, Clemens with his seven Cy Youngs, Bonds with his seven MVPs.  They were both prickly personalities who were not terribly popular with their teammates or the media.  And when baseball’s reputation was damaged by revelations of steroid use, they were the two men at the center of the controversy.  Both have been in court in recent years, arguing desperately for their innocence, both seeming to understand that baseball’s greatest honor, election to the Hall of Fame, would be denied to them if they could not clear their names.  And both will be disappointed today when the Hall of Fame voting for this year is made public.

At a time when our nation — indeed, our planet — faces issues of near-existential proportion, when people are struggling to feed and clothe their families, when tragedies seem an everyday occurrence, it is hard to muster much sympathy for these men.  There are more like them — men who might have thought they would make the Hall, only to discover that in violating the rules and the law in pursuit of gaudy numbers and gaudier contracts they had made themselves anathema to the writers who would decide their fates.  Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa, Sheffield, Ramirez, perhaps Rodriguez in another few years.  The names are familiar, the stories now border on cliché.  All of them made millions playing a game.  As I say, it’s hard to feel sorry for them, or to see their fall into ignominy as any sort of calamity.

Theirs were sins of hubris, of greed, of vanity; the same foibles that have thwarted the ambitions of so many, in countless fields of endeavor, over the course of human history.  But what separates Clemens and Bonds from the other baseball players who used performance enhancing drugs — an occurrence so common that the very category of substances now has its own acronym:  PEDs — is that they didn’t need to do it.  Palmeiro and McGwire and Sosa were good players who made themselves great, hoping to find immortality.  But Clemens and Bonds were already great when they started to cheat.  They were destined to be in the Hall of Fame.  They would have been remembered as truly outstanding players.  And that wasn’t enough for them.

Maybe this disgusts you, or angers you, or leaves you shaking your head at their foolishness.  It leaves me sad, and nostalgic for the perhaps-imagined simplicity of my youth, when stars like Aaron and Mays, Bench and Morgan, Schmidt and Brett played the game by the rules, with respect for the traditions of which they were part.  Maybe that’s naïve.  After all, those guys were paid pretty well in their day.  But just as Paul Simon once wondered where Joe Dimaggio had gone, I wonder what has happened to the kind of stars I remember from my childhood.

Today’s post at the Magical Words blogsite is about writing, and the creative lessons to be learned from the success of an aging baseball pitcher.  The post is called “Writing to Our Strengths, or What I Learned From Barry Zito.”  I hope you enjoy it.

Last night, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamiliton hit four home runs in a single game, tying a Major League record and becoming only the 16th player in the history of the game to accomplish the feat.  This actually marked the second accomplishment of such magnitude of this young baseball season.  Only two and half weeks ago, on April 21, Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox pitched the twenty-first perfect game in Major League Baseball history.

Baseball has three in-game individual achievements that rank as the rarest feats in the game — in all of sports, really — one for hitting, one for pitching, and one for fielding:  The four-homer game, the perfect game, and the unassisted triple play (where a single fielder manages to record all three outs for an inning in a single play).  This last, like the four homer game, has happened sixteen times in MLB history.  Think about that for a moment:  There have been a couple of hundred thousand games played in the history of baseball — regular season and postseason — with eighteen batters in the combined line-ups, and eighteen half-innings needing to be completed.  And from that we get a TOTAL of sixteen four-homer games and sixteen unassisted triple plays.  By that reckoning, pitching a perfect game is a relatively common occurrence.  Not only have there been more of them (twenty-one) but there are fewer opportunities per game.  As I say, with the homers and fielding play, there are eighteen opportunities in each regulation game.  Only two guys — the two starting pitchers — have an opportunity to pitch a perfect game.  And still, perfect games are incredibly rare.

You might think that feats so rare would only be achieved by superstars.  But no:  The history of the game is littered with unheralded players catching lightning in a bottle for a moment or a few glorious hours.  The list of pitchers who have thrown perfect games includes Hall of Fame inductees Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, and Jim Hunter, as well as future Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Roy Halliday.  On the other hand, it also includes pitchers like Charlie Robertson, whose 1922 perfect game for the Chicago White Sox was one of the few bright spots in a career that ended with a won-lost record of 49 and 80, and Len Barker, who did manage a couple of decent seasons, including 1981, the year he pitched his gem for the Cleveland Indians, but who also ended his career with a losing record.  Don Larson, whose perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in game 5 of the 1956 World Series remains the single most heralded individual game achievement in baseball history, was for the rest of his career a pitcher of middling achievements.  He never won more than eleven games in a single season (though one year he did lose twenty-one), nor did he ever lead the league in any positive statistical category (his 21 losses led the league in 1954).

The history of four-home-run games is much the same.  Yes, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt, Chuck Klein, and Ed Delahanty all hit four homers in a game during the course of Hall of Fame careers.  And several others who had four-homer games went on to have excellent careers. Gil Hodges, Rocky Colavito, Shawn Green, and Carlos Delgado were quality players, perennial all-stars.  And Hamilton himself is certainly an excellent player who may someday find his way to Cooperstown. But what about Mark Whiten, whose four home runs on September 7, 1993 represent nearly four percent of his career total?  Or Pat Seerey, a part-time outfielder for the Cleveland Indians and (at the time of his big game) the Chicago White Sox, who hit a total of 86 career home runs and never managed to hit over .237 in his brief and undistinguished career?  How do we explain his presence on the four-homer list?  Babe Ruth never did it.  Neither did Hank Aaron or Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams.  During all those years when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were filling themselves with Human Growth Hormone and hitting home runs at historic (with an asterisk) rates, none of them ever did it.  But Pat Seerey did?  Really?

Unassisted triple plays are certainly the most democratic of the three major achievements.  Of the sixteen players who have turned the trick, none — NONE — is in the Hall of Fame (although current Major Leaguer Troy Tulowitzki — April 29th, 2007, seventh inning, against the Atlanta Braves — might well be on his way).  Thus, the list of players who have recorded unassisted triple plays includes such giants of the game as Bill Wambsganss, Ernie Padgett, Glenn Wright, Jimmy Cooney, Mickey Morandini, and Randy Velarde.  I’m a devoted baseball fan, a student of the game, and I had to look up four of those six guys in the Baseball Encyclopedia. The triple play is the ultimate instance of being in the right place at the right time.  Unassisted triple plays happen in the blink of an eye, always with at least two men on base and (historically speaking) always on a line drive hit directly at a middle infielder (thirteen of the sixteen have been turned by shortstops or second basemen).  The infielder must catch the ball, tag a base and then tag a runner (or tag a runner and then tag a base).  It is an act reflex, of instinct, and, yes, of good fortune.

Why have I spent so much time on these baseball accomplishments?  Because to me they point out one of the great things about baseball.  In most major American team sports — football and basketball come to mind immediately — the big individual accomplishments belong almost entirely to the biggest stars.  The running backs who rush for more than two hundred yards in a game, the quarterbacks who throw for six touchdowns, the forwards or guards who score fifty or sixty points — these are the guys who start every game, who have the ball in their hands most often and who are expected to do big things.  Baseball is different.  Every starting player on a team gets his turn at-bat, every pitcher in the rotation has his turn to take a shot at glory, every fielder on the team might be in position to make the big play.  Even in the playoffs and World Series, any player can emerge as a hero.  This is why in the annals of baseball history, names like Mays and Mantle, Ruth and Koufax, can be found alongside names like Larson and Dent and Lemke.  Yes, today’s game is filled with overpaid, spoiled athletes (not to mention overpaid, spoiled owners).  But every afternoon, every night, players take the field to play a game that might carry any one of them to baseball immortality.  Every player is just four at-bats away from being the next Pat Seerey, every pitcher is just nine innings away from being the next Charley Robertson, every fielder is only one line drive away from being the next Mickey Morandini.

And if that’s not worth playing for, I don’t know what is.

 

Parenting and Pitching

February 29, 2012

Getting this in before the storms arrive and knock out my internet for the evening….

I’m thinking about parenting today, about the different things it throws at us from day to day.  And that’s the right analogy for this time of year, when baseball training camps are opening in Florida and Arizona:

Parenting is one kick-ass pitcher.  It throws blazing fastballs, confounding curveballs, and unhittable sliders.  It lulls us into comfortable oblivion and then rocks us back on our heels with high heat.  And just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, it shows us something new, a pitch we never even imagined it could throw.  Every now and then, we get it right — a solid single to left, a double up the gap.  On really special days we manage to hit one out of the park.  But mistakes come more frequently than successes, and once in a while we get drilled right in the ribs.

My kids are doing fine right now.  Really.  I don’t think I’m behind in the count, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m ahead, either.  And the thing about this pitcher is that he never lets you get comfortable.  He always finds a way to keep you just a bit off balance, as any formidable pitcher will.

The truth is, I love being a parent.  Totally, without qualification.  But it is hard.  I often talk about how hard it is to write, but writing is easy next to parenting.  And every day Nancy and I face issues we hadn’t anticipated.  That’s okay, though.  It’s part of the game.

I step in again, set my feet, pinwheel the bat, my grip relaxed but firm.  I’ve been handcuffed before, but I’ve taken this guy deep, too.  I can do this.  Just wait for the pitch…

Today’s post can be found at http://www.sfnovelists.com, the group blog on speculative fiction that I maintain along with a group of over one hundred published authors of fantasy and science fiction. The post is called “The Fundamentals.” I hope you enjoy it.

Today’s post can be found at http://www.sfnovelists.com, the group blog on speculative fiction that I maintain along with a group of over one hundred published authors of fantasy and science fiction. The post is called “What sports Can Tell Us About Writing, and What they Can’t.” I hope you enjoy it.

We watched John Sayles’ movie Eight Men Out last night.  Netflix, of course.  It’s an old movie.  It came out in 1988, right around the same time as Field of Dreams, when  hollywood seemed to be in the midst of a mini-obsession with the Shoeless Joe Jackson story.  Hollywood does this — remember when Tombstone and Wyatt Earp came out within months of each other, after we’d gone years without seeing a movie about Earp?  But I digress….

For those of you who don’t know, Eight Men Out tells the story of the Black Sox scandal of 1919.  Seven players on the American League champion Chicago White Sox — including pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, position players Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullen, and Jackson, who was one of the game’s greatest stars —  conspired with a group of gamblers to throw the series to the Cincinnati Reds.  The Sox were the overwhelming favorites going into the series, and the conspirators believed that they could make a killing by betting on the Reds and letting them win.  Some of the players were more enthusiastic participants than others.  Jackson always claimed that he went along for the money but did nothing to help the Reds win any games.  Sayles film portrays him as naive, uneducated, and very much a victim of his manipulative, smarter teammates.  An eighth player, Buck Weaver, knew of the conspiracy but took no money and played to win throughout the series.  Sayles portrays him as a victim of his teammates’ malfeasance as well.  All eight players were charged and put on trial, and all of them were eventually acquitted.

By this time, however, baseball’s owners had hired the sport’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who vowed to clean up major league baseball.  Landis chose to make an example of the eight Black Sox players and banned all of them from the game for the rest of their lives.  The ban was the only thing that kept Jackson from being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

It was a good movie — not great, but good.  And I’ve been thinking about it all morning.  I’m a huge baseball fan.  Or at least I used to be.  The recent revelations about widespread steroid use among some of the games biggest stars have shaken my faith in the game.  Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez — all have admitted using steroids or have been implicated so convincingly that their continued denials have become meaningless.  Other players are known to have used performance enhancing drugs, and several of them have been suspended temporarily.

And yet, over the past 50 years, only one player in Major League Baseball has faced a lifetime ban from the game like the one given to the eight Black Sox conspirators.  That one is Pete Rose, who didn’t use steroids, but did, it seems, bet on baseball games in clear violation of the league’s rules on gambling.  Rose’s ban was handed down by then-commissioner Bart Giamatti, but it was almost as if the ghost of Mountain Landis was hovering over the game.  Baseball has a thing about gambling that can be traced directly back to 1919, and Rose’s ban reflected that.  Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not defending Pete Rose.  I’m not even suggesting that Rose’s ban should be lifted (although I think that a case could be made for this).  The truth is, never liked Pete Rose.  I always thought that if baseball hadn’t existed he would have spent his life as a small-time thug.

But just as the men who ran baseball in 1919 turned a blind eye toward the corruptive influence of gambling on the game until Landis forced them to face the problem and deal with it, today’s owners and the media outlets that account for much of their revenue, have ignored the steroid problem.  In 1998, when McGwire and Sosa staged their epic joint assault on Roger Maris’s single season home run record, baseball was still reeling from the 1994 strike that nearly destroyed the sport.  Never mind that McGwire’s arms looked like something out of a Popeye cartoon.  Never mind that Sosa had transformed himself from a skinny little kid who could run fast into the most consistently prolific home run hitter the sport had ever seen.  It was all good!  The balls were flying out of the park and the sport was popular again.

I was always a small kid, and I’m a small grown-up.  One of the things I loved about baseball was that there was a place in the game for guys like me.  Unlike football or basketball, which demanded that its stars be huge, baseball could be played and won by smaller players.  Sure, everyone loved Babe Ruth.  But if a guy could bunt and steal a base and slap a key hit to the opposite field, he could win ball games for his team.  The game that I see on TV today isn’t like that, at least not the way it used to be.  Everyone is expected to hit home runs.  And everyone does.  Which means that everyone is suspect.  Look at a major league roster these days and you’ll see guys with Popeye forearms playing every position.  Are all of them juicing?  I want to say no, of course not.  But in all honesty, I don’t know.  When the penalty for using steroids is a fifty game suspension that still leaves intact two-thirds of a multi-million dollar annual contract, it’s hard to see why players wouldn’t juice.  The downside risk is minimal; the upside earning potential is staggering.

But a lifetime ban would balance that equation.  Alex Rodriguez is a great player.  So was Barry Bonds.  Their accomplishments on the field, however, have been forever compromised by the fact that they cheated.  Playing baseball at the major league level is not a right, it’s a privilege.  If placing a bet on a baseball game is cause to strip a player of that privilege, isn’t using steroids?  If Joe Jackson and his fellow conspirators are considered cheaters because they influenced the outcome of games by not trying hard enough, shouldn’t Manny Ramirez be considered a cheater for influencing the outcome of games by making himself into a juiced-up physical freak?  Isn’t it possible that baseball needs to be saved again, even if it means barring from the game some of its greatest stars?

I used to love baseball, but the game lost me when it decided to tolerate lies for the sake of television revenue.  If baseball can lose me, it can lose any and every fan.  I loved it that much.  The only way to get me back is for its leaders to say, “Enough!  If you cheat, you leave, never to return.”  The fact that this hasn’t happened yet tells me that the steroid problem is so big, baseball’s owners and commissioner can’t afford to take such a stand.  There’d be no one left.

I’ve mentioned Edmund Schubert in this space many times before.  Ed is the editor of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.  He also edits a couple of magaizines outside our genre.  He’s written many short stories, and as of this month he is a published novelist.  He’s a dad, a Mets fan, and the owner of several very loud shirts that he insists on wearing to conventions.  In addition to all of this, he’s incredibly bright, outrageously funny, and as nice a person as you could every hope to meet.  He and I give each other a hard time whenever we’re together, but the fact is he’s one of my favorite people in the world.  With his first novel, Dreaming Creek, now in print and available from your favorite book dealers, I thought this was a good time to post an interview.  (I’m pretty clever that way.)  Enjoy

 

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Most of the major organizations that give out awards — the Academy of Motion  Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives the Oscars; the Baseball Writers Association of America, which gives the Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year Awards to name a few — don’t like to recognize the same person twice in a row.  Generally it takes a performance in the second year that is so overwhelming that it simply can’t be ignored.  For instance, Tom Hanks won the Oscar in 1993 for his terrific performance in Philadelphia.  But the following year his work in Forrest Gump was so outstanding that the Academy had to give him the award again.  Same with Mickey Mantle’s back-to-back MVP awards in 1956 and 1957 — he was the best player in the league both years.  How could the baseball writers deny him the award?

 

Well, gentle readers, I find myself in the same position with this week’s BOW (Buffoon Of the Week) Award.  Last week’s deserving winner was Republican Presidential candidate John McCain, whose statements and actions in the wake of the Russian military’s incursion into Georgia were shameful and reckless.  How could I have known that McCain would outdo himself this week?  How could I have guessed that in a week relatively short on buffoonery, McCain would come up with such a remarkable gaffe?  Actually, I suppose if I’d been watching the previous six months of his campaign more closely, I would have been prepared for this. . . .

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