Tuesday, May 30, 2017

R.I.P. Frank Deford

Where have all of the great sports journalists gone?

The death of Frank Deford is yet one more indicator that the era of great sports journalism practiced by the likes of Deford, Dan Jenkins, Curry Kirkpatrick, Roy Blount, Jr., Roger Angell, Dave Anderson and others has long since gone.

The loss of Deford hits close to home as his writing and presence in Sports Illustrated was why Thursday was always a great day - that's the day the magazine would show up in my mailbox each week. When he started The National, a daily sports tabloid newspaper, in 1990 I made sure that I went out of my way to find that publication.

What set Deford apart is that he was a storyteller - he had the uncanny ability to find "the story" and give it to us, his readers, in a way that held our attention through every word.

Deford was concerned about the loss of storytelling and had this to say in a 2008 interview: "I think there are more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before. But I also believe that the one thing that's largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory - the characters, the tales, the humor, the pain, what Hollywood calls 'the arc.' That is: stories. We have, all by ourselves, ceded that one neat thing about sport that we owned."

In 2013, Deford won the National Citation from the William Allen White Foundation at the University of Kansas School of Journalism & Mass Communications, the only sportswriter to win this prestigious award. At the acceptance ceremony, Deford said, "The wonderful thing about sports writing is that it's a great subject to write about. Sports is drama, sports is glamour, interesting characters. It gives you so much as a writer."

R.I.P Mr. Deford - we will miss you.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"The bonds of baseball..."

I've had a strange relationship with the sport of baseball. As a youngster, I probably spent more time on or around a baseball diamond than I did any other place than my home. As an adult, I evolved from fanatic follower of the 1970's and 1980's Kansas City Royals to apathetic, disenfranchised fan of a sport that seemed to delight in punishing my small market hometown team. (And, of course, those post-Ewing Kauffman years were pretty dark for my Royals until the wonder years of 2014 and 2015.)

Baseball, more than any other endeavor in my life, was the consistent thing that linked me to my father. I played other youth sports back in the day when one went from season-to-season during the year and back again. And, in all cases, my father was there blowing the whistle, holding the clipboard, and diplomatically dealing with parents whether it be for my football team, basketball team or baseball team.

It was baseball, though, that connected us more deeply than the other sports. If we weren't playing a game or practicing, chances were that my Dad would be hitting me ground balls at the local diamond. Or, we might have a game of catch in the backyard. When we weren't actually playing the game, we were listening to the game. My memories of summer included Sunday afternoons sitting on a lawn chair, likely by Dad's small orchard or garden, watching him weed or pick while we listened to the transistor tuned to the St. Louis Cardinals. (My father's favorite player was Stan Musial.) You can imagine how the tears flowed the first time I heard Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) ask his father, "Hey Dad...wanna have a catch?" in the ending scene of Field of Dreams. 

That backdrop of emotion came flooding back when I read Lee Siegel's column, "The Bonds of Baseball, From My Dad to My Son," which recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Siegel elegantly wrote, "Any sport that has accompanied you through life acquires a certain metaphorical power. When I stand behind my son to teach him to bat, draping myself over his small body and holding the bat along with him, I feel that I'm embracing my past and my future, even as we practice together how to handle whatever the present wants to pitch at us...One function of sports is to organize familiar rituals of play that also pass - with their own stories and feats - from one generation to the next."

I cried when I read those words. I cried because I remember my father holding his hands over mine, showing me how to hit. I remember his hands on a baseball, showing me how to throw. And, I remember that September afternoon in 1964 when he and I stayed in the car while Mom went into the grocery store. You see, he and I couldn't miss the call of Harry Caray that day as our Cardinals blanked the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5-0. The Cardinals were in the midst of their improbable National League title run when they overtook Philadelphia, who led the league by 6.5 games with 12 left to play in the season. The Cardinals went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series that fall. And, yes, I smuggled a transistor radio into grade school to listen to my then favorite team - it was my favorite because it was my Dad's favorite.

Like fathers before me and after, I taught my son the game as well. As Seigel wrote, that's part of this bond that baseball seems to have on fathers and sons. "Watching my own son play baseball, or playing with him, gives me the necessary illusion that he will do the same with his child, and that his child will continue with his or her own child, and on and on, the bonds between father and child becoming even stronger, into the same changeless dusk."

My father left us in June 2015. And, I miss him every day. I think of him most frequently now that it's baseball season. I know that if he were still here and I'd call to check in, his first question would be "What are we going to do with our Royals!?"