Jan 19

What do you have to be unhappy about?

I spent the fall quarter of my junior year of college in Tours, France, which was every bit as wonderful a privilege as I would think it sounds to most of you. Living in the wine country, traveling around Europe for a month before school and nearly every weekend during … it’s a time I’ve never forgotten.

There was a close-knit group of us that ended up hanging out together, all terrific people, although there was one who was prone to fits of crankiness or depression. And I can remember wondering to myself about her, “What do you have to be unhappy about? Just look around you.”

Of course, this was immature of me, assuming that there couldn’t be emotional challenges amid the glory of one’s surroundings.

Since then, I’ve had several of bouts of depression and anger with myself — some of them debilitating. Even today, in a time that I figure might well be the best years of my life — the generation before me and after me in my family all hale and hearty — I’m struggling to appreciate what I have and not get bogged down in the challenges I face, the frustrations I feel. I have lived an extremely fortunate life, but I am not a man completely at peace.

The thing with one’s emotional state is that so often there’s no sense of proportion. Perspective is a bronco you’re trying to wrestle down. And just when you think you might have it, that bronco jumps up and flips you over. And it hurts.

We — me, Milton Bradley, whoever — all responsible for our actions, responsible for their consequences. But people, by and large, do not choose to do bad things, do not choose to be miserable, do not choose to be angry for the sake of being so. There are all kinds of things going on. We should all do what we can to be better people. Some might not get there, and maybe they didn’t try hard enough. But others, maybe they did try and they just couldn’t make it.

Villains are villains, and let the hammer fall on them where it should, but there’s a reason that the most interesting villains are the complex ones. Because that’s reality.

Jan 15

Dusk Dodgers in the 21st Century

The sun is shining bright through our home office window as I begin typing this. There’s a short but powerful time period in our house when, on a cloudless morning, the sun enters like a bullet through the half-circle opening above the drapes, and I almost have to duck for cover as I write. In those moments, the sun owns the room.

It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not a sun worshiper. I like what the sun can do, how the sun can augment a scene. On a cold day that cries for warmth, I’ll turn my face to it. Magic light near the end of any day brings my soul to its knees, no matter how many times I experience it. I pulled my phone out on the Arroyo Seco Parkway last night, recklessly risking life and limb of myself and everyone around me, just to snap the shot you see above of how the sun had transformed the sky.

But I’m comfortable in the clouds. Comforted by them. The clouds understand me. Clouds are the weather of modest expectations. Of empathy. The sun will insistently try to cheer you up, whether you want to be cheered or not. At the risk of allowing you to wallow, clouds tell you that you’re not alone.

For the same reason, I prefer winter to summer, earlier sunsets to later ones. Long days carry great expectations. Short days accept you for who you are.

The new year is two weeks old, and already I’ve felt like I need all the short, cloudy days I can get. My holidays were really enjoyable and relaxing, and returning to the demands and fears and frustrations and critical self-examinations of everyday life, along with a new set of challenges – a valued colleague gave notice while I was on vacation, my wife broke her foot the night before my first day back at work – has been a jolt. It’s been the sun blasting through the window that I want to run away from but can’t. I’m not feeling the dawn of a new day, but rather the intimidation of a tired one.

My To Do list should invigorate me, but it makes me sad.  It’s no time for the sun to be out.

So here’s the funny thing …

The 2011 Dodgers … a team for a cloudy day, right? The starting rotation is competitive, and Clayton Kershaw is his own shining light. There’s talent on this team. But the holes are unmistakable, and the work that needs to be done to make things right is prodigious. If Kershaw is a star, the McCourts are their own rainstorm. It’s easy to feel that this isn’t a team meant to be exposed to long, cloudless summer days.

Nevertheless, I find myself strangely eager to see what will happen this season. I feel confident that some of the disappointments from 2010 will bounce back, and I’m tantalized by the thought of it. As many misgivings as I have about them, on some days, I feel better thinking about them than thinking about myself.

I feel the 2011 Dodgers might surprise. I’m not saying they won’t fall to our lowered expectations – I unmistakably wish they inspired more confidence – but I’m intrigued by them, darkness and all. If they can bring some magic light to the universe, maybe I can too.

Dec 28

Seven pages of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Warning: Non-baseball content ahead

Frustrated with my kids for chronic insubordination, I turned to desperate measures. I started reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” to them.

That’s no statement against the book – anything but. Harper Lee’s novel is iconic to me. I mean, it’s the Atticus Finch of novels, the Gregory Peck of publications.  What more do you need to say about it? It is righteous in the best possible way, and I was resorting to it in the hopes that just by wielding it, its energy would turn things around.

But the book is arguably too mature for my 8-year-old daughter and definitely so for my 6-year-old son. (My 2-year-old boy listened with cheerful indifference for a few minutes.) Even the title was off-putting, my daughter going out of her way to make it clear that she didn’t want to read about any dead birds. I would have turned straight to the movie, but my kids have a much greater willingness to listen to words they don’t entirely understand than a willingness to watch anything in black-and-white, a bias that I have been unable to conquer with anything except Lucy Ricardo selling Vitameatavegamin.

The first paragraph of “Mockingbird” is promising: In those opening lines alone, we get football and a broken, misshapen arm.  But immediately, the book then takes a dangerous turn into ancestral backgrounds that are more in keeping with “War and Peace.” My kids’ had limited sympathy for Scout having no ancestors who fought in the Battle of Hastings. As soon as the second page, I found myself having to skip ahead, past the history of Simon Finch’s persecution at the hands of the Methodists, onto the relative excitement of Atticus passing the bar.

The vocabulary challenges also escalated: If I wasn’t having to explain what an apothecary was, I suddenly was finding myself having exposed my kids to “jackass” and “son-of-a-bitch” on page 3, all in the context of an early Atticus case defending two, well, murderers.  Live by the sword, die by the sword. That’s your grade-school bedtime reading for the night.

On the fourth page, before you even find out that your narrator Scout is a girl, you find out about Scout’s mother dying young. I was in a death spiral of my own.

Hope came in the next few pages, with the funny introduction of Dill, whose braggadocio about his reading ability got a laugh from my son. Shortly, on the seventh page, the specter of Boo Radley received its full, curdling introduction: Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom.

The clock having passed 9 p.m., half an hour past the kids’ bedtime, I stopped reading there at the end of that page. I had, to say the least, equipped them with supreme nightmare material, but at least I had worn them down.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know if I keep reading to them (seven pages down, 270 to go). Don’t know all three of us have the energy to keep going.  Maybe I quit while I’m behind. Maybe I’ve done just enough to get them to give the movie a try.

And yes, I’m aware that the material only grows more fraught with peril. I should stop, even if they start listening.

I want to keep going, though. I feel like there’s a moment here. And even though part of me knows that I’m rushing into it, part of me doesn’t want to wait.

Dec 27

Reminiscing about baseball in the pre-Internet age

Something that never fails to make me laugh is when people get ticked off because a live Dodger game broadcast isn’t available on television or the Internet.

I understand the sense of entitlement — many of us have been conditioned to expect to be able to watch upwards of 162 Dodger games a year, not the least because many of us pay something for the privilege. So on the rare occasions when rights issues prevent access to a live broadcast, it can be a shock.

Nonetheless, I’m always taken back to a time in my younger days when it felt like a true privilege to see the Dodgers on TV.

As I recall, when I began watching baseball in the mid-1970s, you still had limited visual exposure to the Dodgers, especially in their home whites. Games from Dodger Stadium were never on, except in the postseason or maybe if there were a key game down the stretch in September. Even if the Dodgers made a rare appearance on NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week, I think hometown viewers were hampered by blackout rules at least some of the time. Part of the excitement of the Dodgers making the playoffs actually involved just getting to see them play at Dodger Stadium live on TV.

Road broadcasts were more prevalent, but even then they were largely limited to weekends, especially when the team traveled beyond San Francisco or San Diego. From Monday through Friday, the Dodgers were largely a radio event. Then it was the morning paper the next day, and then you might catch some highlights nearly 24 hours later in the short sports segment on the local news. And that was it. Coverage ended then.

Toward the late 1970s, we got ON TV, which was a pay TV service that came over-the-air at night on what was normally Channel 56, I believe. You had a set-top descrambler that would allow you to receive the ON TV feed. They had a deal to broadcast a bunch of Dodger games (team historians will recall that pay broadcasts of the Dodgers were discussed from the team’s earliest days in Los Angeles). That was kind of a transforming moment for me as a fan, the idea that a garden-variety Dodger home game could be seen in our own living room.

My dad also gave me a subscription to the Sporting News around this time. This was not only before the advent of the Internet, of course, it was before the arrival of something like USA Today. This was basically the only detailed print coverage you could get of teams besides the Dodgers during the year. There were weekly reports on each ballclub, national columns and a reprint of every boxscore. Next to listening to Vin Scully, Jerry Doggett and Ross Porter, it was the Sporting News that taught me about the rest of the contemporary baseball world.

The Sporting News also gave you the best baseball stats at the time. In the Times each Sunday, they would run batting averages, runs, hits, homers and RBI for hitters (with a minimum number of plate appearances) and equivalent basic stats for pitchers, but in and only in the Sporting News would you get much more detailed stats, and get them for every single player.

I owed my dad yet another thanks at that time, by the way — when I began going to sleepaway summer camp for five weeks at a time each summer, he would send me the Times sports section to help me keep tabs on the team. Otherwise, I’d have hardly had a clue. I do remember one postcard my Dad sent me talking about Dave Parker’s throwing arm on display at the All-Star game.

That’s the way it was. Barely more than a generation ago, following the Dodgers took effort. It took, dare I say, a little moxie. Some of the means to an end are really products of their time. In the 1980s, there was a phone number — I want to say (900) 976-1313, even though it’s been about 30 years — that you would pay 50 cents to call just to get scores, and I remember us using it when we were on vacation. Otherwise, it could have been days before we’d know the result of the game.

ESPN rose during the 1980s, but I didn’t have it until about 1989. When I went away to college in ’85, I still mostly relied on the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle or San Jose Mercury News and their two-sentence recaps in the league roundups to get Dodger results, although I did come to have the option of going into the Stanford Daily offices once I started working there and accessing wire service recaps of games directly.

By the time I graduated, began working in newspapers and paying for cable myself, I could pretty much stay abreast of everything. Or at least, I thought I could. None of it was like what the Internet offers today. As late as 1992-93, when I was in grad school in Washington, D.C., if there was a late West Coast game, I could only follow the action with the ESPN ticker scoreline on the bottom of the screen. I think I received my first e-mail and browsed my first Web page in 1994, only eight years before the birth of Dodger Thoughts. And portability — getting live updates on demand, on the go — came even later.  There was a little pocket-sized gadget on the market that I had that would give you score updates, and then I got my first cellphone shortly after 9/11, in 2001. Not even a decade ago.

Today, I’m a slave to the onslaught. Sneaking looks at my cellphone for game updates, browsing tiny Web type like an addict, voraciously reading every posting about the Dodgers that I can find online. It’s a ridiculous bounty. And yes, I can get frustrated when I have to wait painful extra seconds for the latest pitch. But in the end, I just have to laugh. We have it good — a little too good, maybe.

Dec 09

The possible dream


My 6-year-old son got a small air hockey game for Hanukkah.  Before bedtime tonight, he was playing with his 8-year-old sister. It started off uneventfully, but then things got more heated.

At one point, the puck went into a corner and my son moved it with his hand.

Daughter: “You can’t do that.”

Son: “I had to.”

Daughter: “It’s not allowed!”

Son: “I had to! It was impossible.”

Daughter: “Nothing’s impossible.”

Son: “Some things are impossible.”

Daughter: “Like what?”

Son: “Like … seeing God.”

Daughter: “Seeing God’s possible.”

To be clear, anything’s possible when there’s a game on the line.

Nov 17

Pride, teamwork and the Tooth Fairy

“Daddy, I have a surprise for you.”

My 8-year-old daughter has been tooth-loss challenged her whole life.  She was the last kid in her class to lose a tooth, watching with agony as the Tooth Fairy visited every one of her friends’ bedrooms but never her own. Finally, she had a breakthrough this year, but still, it’s been slow going.  Her remaining front tooth had been hanging on like a monkey on a vine, hanging on with the tenacity of Alex Cora at the plate against Matt Clement.

Finally, as I greeted her after work Monday night, just before dinner, she opened her mouth and showed the double-sized gap. Victory!

Not to be outdone in his desire to reap a ruthless, toothless reward is my 6-year-old son. Tooth loss comes more naturally to him, and conveniently, he had a wiggler front and center on his bottom row. Merging greed with courage, he asked his mom if she might be able to pull it out.  It was close enough to make it possible … annnnnd … victory!

Ladies and gentlemen, we had a doubleheader.

My wife makes the Tooth Fairy arrangements in our household. But as she went into my daughter’s bedroom late at night, the boy, who chooses to sleep on her floor in a sleeping bag most nights, sat straight up. My wife had to withdraw discreetly. She then declared herself too tired to stay up any later, and so, for the first time ever, Tooth Fairy logistics fell to me.

This was something like replacing Clayton Kershaw with Ramon Ortiz.

I mean, sure, if I could just groove a fastball past these kids, there’d be no problem. But their heads were just hammered to their pillows. It was going to take some sort of clever curve to strike this exchange of cash for choppers. Plus, their floor creaks like Independence Day fireworks.  Conditions were against me.

My first time in, there was just no chance.  My son stirred again, sitting up.  I asked if he was okay, as if I just happened to be hanging out in the neighborhood, kissed him and left the room.

Well past midnight, I gave it another go.  This time, my son stayed asleep. But I couldn’t reach either tooth, not without using a forklift to boost their noggins from their pillows.  How does the Tooth Fairy do this?

A little after 4 a.m., I woke myself up for a third attempt.  Time was running short.  I went in, and finally had some luck. They had shifted positions. I could reach my daughter’s tooth, safe in its little Tooth Fairy pouch. I extracted it and replaced it with her reward ($3, upped from $2 thanks to the ever-increasing peer pressure of classmates who have been getting $5 – no lie!).

However, though my son was now near the edge of his pillow, I could not find that tooth.  He had to be lying right on top of it or something.  I was beside myself.  I tried and tried to get my hand to it, but I just couldn’t.  Worried that the jig would soon be up, I stuffed the money underneath and just hoped that somehow, there would be a chance to get the tooth before he woke up.

When I came back into our bedroom, my wife had awakened, wondering what I was doing.  I cursed the Tooth Fairy nightmare I was enduring. She didn’t hesitate. Coming out of the bullpen like Orel Hershiser in the ’88 NLCS, she went in for the save.

And here’s the evanascent point of this post.

Teamwork dictated that I would root for her to succeed. Pride dictated that I wanted her to have as much trouble as I did.  I was torn.  Her success would shine a light on my failing. Her failure would threaten to bring down the entire carefully constructed Tooth Fairy enterprise.

“Be mature,” I finally said to myself. “You want her to get that tooth.”

But as the moments passed, leading to her empty-handed return, I can’t say that I didn’t still feel a dash of peace.

Later, I would realize that the end of the story should have been predictable all along. My son woke up, saw the money and didn’t even notice that his tooth hadn’t been taken. As it turned out, it had somehow escaped his pillow entirely and had taken residence underneath where his midsection had been. The jig wasn’t up — it was rigged against me!

So, did I pass the Teamwork Test, or did I fail? I’m not sure. I just know that I don’t belong in this league. As far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to go back to the sidelines. The Tooth Fairy will have her job back.

Nov 15

Falling in (and out) of love


Ken Levine/Getty ImagesHome plate umpire Charlie Reliford approves as Dodger rookie Eric Karros slides home safely past catcher Mike LaValliere of the Pirates on May 24, 1992, one day after becoming a hero.

On the night of May 23, 1992, Dodger rookie Eric Karros came up to bat as a pinch-hitter. The situation: two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, Dodgers trailing Pittsburgh by two runs, sitting in last place at 15-22, and me unemployed and preparing to move away from my Los Angeles hometown while still nursing a breakup with my girlfriend. Could he bring some hope to my broken heart?

As baseball player and baseball fan, Karros and I were made for each other. We were born three weeks and two days apart. He was a product of the farm system, and I had long been partial to products of the farm system. A last-minute addition to the Opening Day roster, it was nice just to have Karros on the team, but he was still only getting partial playing time at first base while the Dodgers tried to mine some remaining value out of Kal Daniels and Todd Benzinger.

He was part of the future of a struggling Dodger team whose future was much in doubt. He was also the batter who could give me relief from the deep funk I had descended into. I desperately wanted him to succeed.

Karros extended Pirates reliever Stan Belinda to a full count, and then launched one to deep left-center … deep … back … gone! The fourth home run of his young career, giving the Dodgers a comeback victory. I jumped out of my head in joy. I was so happy, I wrote what I believe is the only piece of fan mail to an athlete. At age 24, I was thanking Karros for his home run and telling him how deeply important it was to me.

A more sober head prevailed in the morning, and I never sent the letter. But I was firmly in the Karros camp – he was one of my guys.

Given that Karros ended up hitting 266 more home runs for Los Angeles to become the Dodgers’ all-time leading home run hitter since moving west, you might have expected it was an eternal romance between Karros and me. But it didn’t work out that way.

As the decade progressed, he was an up and down player. In my memory, many of Karros’ homers came when the game wasn’t on the line. His power numbers hid a poor on-base percentage. He would start slow and then tell the fans they shouldn’t be bothered. Irrational or not, he wasn’t the player I wanted him to be.

The final straw for me was an incident in 1997 when he called out Ismael Valdes in the Dodger locker room and the two fought. The press (which I wasn’t a part of at the time) took Karros’ side, something I suspected was because the press couldn’t be bothered to get quotes from anyone who didn’t speak English as a first language. It motivated me to write another letter, this time to the Times, and this one I sent. I’m not sure who I was madder at, the press or Karros – I was just mad. Maybe Valdes was at fault, but no one was even trying to tell the whole story.

The residual damage to my feelings toward Karros was serious. Five years after I had fallen in love with him, I had fallen out.  The romance was over, and nothing he did, not even a relatively awesome 1999 season (.362 on-base percentage, .550 slugging) could change it.  A running joke in my family was that Grandma Sue always liked Eric Karros, and whenever she went to a game with us, I would say how lousy he was – and then he would go 4 for 4 with a homer. I actually owe Karros some thanks for giving Grandma such pleasure and the two of us such fond memories.

But still, we fell out of love. It happens.

It actually hasn’t happened for me for the current group of homegrown Dodgers. Maybe I’m different, or maybe the circumstances are.  I still have fond thoughts of Russell Martin, though he hasn’t been much of anything for a couple of years and who will likely be wearing a different uniform next season. Chad Billingsley struggled in 2009, and I stuck by him, just as I’m sticking by Jonathan Broxton. James Loney is producing worse numbers as a first baseman than Karros, but I’m hanging in there even if it means going down with the ship (a ship that might be traded within the next year). Even the mysterious Matt Kemp is, for me, a case of “Stand by your man.”

For that matter – not to give the impression that I’m nothing more than a softie – I don’t seem to have too many hard feelings about Karros anymore.  I remember the good times …

Fans have their own breaking points, though, and for many, they have already been breached. That’s part of what makes this offseason tense: tight relationships in a tenuous state. It’s always sad when love goes south, especially when you’re a hopeless romantic and it’s the ballplayer next door.

Oct 14

Hustle and flow: The mental game, John Wooden, Matt Kemp and me


One Friday in the summer of 1977, I won an award named after the legend who was born 100 years ago today. The John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award was given to one member of each of the camp’s basketball teams who best exemplified the values of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.


Future non-star.

I was 9 1/2 years old, heading into fifth grade, and had been dribbling a basketball (originally with two hands but more recently with one) for five years or more. But I had not made a lot of progress as far as putting the ball in the basket. I was almost unconscionably short, I’m guessing about 4-foot 4 or so, and that 10-foot hoop was still miles high in the sky. As far as playing the game, I was still trying to figure so many things out. And so that week on the campus of Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, I was quite possibly the least talented basketball player in that entire camp, or at least among them.

I think we played about five games in our little camp league that week, and our team’s coach, whom I actually don’t have any bad memories of, decided at about Game 2 that I should play safety. Yes, safety, and by that I mean, he came to the conclusion that offense was such a pointless endeavor for me that I was better off just being on defense. So he designated that I shouldn’t cross the halfcourt line when our team had the ball. He played four-on-five, while I waited for the other team to bring the ball back my way. The game looked pretty interesting from the backcourt …

And then, one time, an opposing player stole the ball. How I remember it, that kid racing (as much as 9-year-olds raced) down the left side of the outdoor court, parallel to some Cal Lutheran dormitories, with only me between him and the basket. I sped up to match him stride for stride. He drove in for his layup, and I leaped up next to him – we’re talking four, five, six inches in the air at least – and tipped the ball away. Clean, pure, perfect. My first extraordinary moment on a basketball court.

Foul!

The referee, some guy whom I’d guess was about 16, whistled me for a shooting foul. I was in utter disbelief. I cried out in protest, and was immediately warned not to argue. You didn’t argue a call at John Wooden Basketball Camp.  I shut my mouth, bitterly, crestfallen that my moment – my moment – had been taken away from me. I looked around, and I’m not sure anyone really believed that I had been robbed, because I’m not sure anyone believed I was capable of having a moment to rob.

My milli-spark of rebellion was an aberration, and it did not prevent me from receiving the Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award, the award praising me for my industriousness, cooperation, ambition and so forth. True, I wasn’t showing much confidence or competitive greatness, but I meant well. I won it, and I accepted it, took a little pride in it, put it on a wall in my bedroom at home and kept it in a box through my adulthood.

There was no mistaking, then or now, that this award was a consolation prize. Practically a booby prize. It’s not that it didn’t mean something. It was a reward for not giving up. But why would I have given up? The implicit answer was that I as a basketball player, I was that bad.

There wasn’t a person who received the John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award who wouldn’t have traded it on sight for just being a little better naturally at actually playing basketball.

* * *

Ed Andrieski/APMatt Kemp slaps his bat after one of his 170 strikeouts in 2010.

The Dodgers’ 2010 season was defined by two kinds of players: Jamey Carroll and Matt Kemp. Carroll, the overachiever who hustled. Kemp, the underachiever who … well, we really don’t know exactly what he was doing. And that’s the reason for this story.

I am someone who has always had, almost without exception, what adults would call a good attitude toward work. Rarely in my life has my effort been questioned. This is true despite the fact that even before I became aware of it, it has been my goal to do more with less. I’m not a show-my-work guy. I just want it to be easy.

I’m practically a lifelong skier, for example, having taken my first lesson 35 years ago, when I was 7. To this day, I challenge myself, seeking out the hardest possible runs I can, but I don’t do it for the sake of the work. I do it for the sake of the accomplishment. I want to glide, always glide. I want to be a natural.

But I was not a natural, never. Skiing is my best sport, but it has taken me all 35 years to get to the level of ability I’m at today. In my 20s, trying to impress myself and more importantly, trying to impress girls, I was OK, but I wasn’t impressing anyone. I had to grind and grind away at it.

There’s a widespread assumption that Kemp has had things too easy in his athletic life, and that this year he paid a price for it. I think that’s probably both truth and fallacy there. Kemp has made athletics a daily part of his life for probably 20 years or more now, ultimately at a level of intensity that most of us can’t relate to. The idea that Kemp hasn’t worked to get to where he is today couldn’t be more ignorant.

But Kemp undoubtedly, more than anyone sitting at a computer reading this piece, is a natural at sports – even at the game of baseball at which he can sometimes seem clunky. He was a basketball star in high school. He reached the professional level in his No. 2 sport at age 21. He got Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards as presents for his 25th birthday. Generally, Kemp has probably found throughout his life that if he worked a certain amount, he would get better, and that any setbacks were temporary. You grow accustomed to that pace.

Relatively speaking, Kemp is a natural, and it’s completely understandable that he would take pride in that. I know I would. Making it look easy? Come on. How could you not feel good about that? Of course you’d find self-worth in that.

Hustle is great, but not needing to hustle, not needing to make that extra, tear-yourself-up effort, not needing to be told what to do, that can be pretty spectacular. That is a rush and a half. Who wouldn’t become addicted to it? And addictions are not something you easily shed overnight.

* * *

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesHappy birthday, Mr. Wooden

OK, there have been times I have actually felt like a natural. Just a few. First-grade spelling: They didn’t call me Speedy Gonzales because I could run fast. Math was never a problem in elementary school. And I could rock a Mattel Electronic Football game pretty hard. It was effortless, and it felt good.

Starting in seventh grade, it started to get incrementally harder. I still had my strengths, but nothing was automatic. And as I went into high school, a philosophy evolved. It took as much effort for me to get from an F (i.e., doing nothing) to a B+ or A- in an average class, as it did for me to get from an A- to an A. In other words, the cherry on top was half the effort. The A, though it seemed so close, was like the last 1,000 “Into Thin Air” feet of the climb to the top of Everest. That was the part where you could die trying.

And so sometimes, going for the A often seemed not worth the trouble. Other times, it wasn’t by choice. I took to science like Kemp has taken to the tailing slider. After sailing along in math my whole life, calculus brought me to my knees.  I made mistakes that I couldn’t fathom, and I made mistakes that were just plain stupid.

I graduated from high school with a 3.5 or 3.6 grade-point average. I probably ranked about 40th out of 130 or so kids in the rather intense environment that was my senior class, better than some, worse than others. I had a lower GPA than my older brother or sister had (though who knows what my grade-point average on balls in play was).

I did have excellent SAT scores, but as the applications were going out, I was warned by our college counselor that I had the wrong combination of strengths. If your SAT scores were in a lower percentile than your GPA, that meant you made the extra effort to place above your station. You were a worker. You had character. High SATs and a lower GPA, however, meant you were lazy. Which, in my case, was not wholly true but partially so.

What did that make me? Did it make me a bad person, to be good but not great? That as hard as I tried, I consciously risked falling short of my goals because I couldn’t or wouldn’t make myself try harder?  Should I be booed? Should I have my ethic questioned?

Ah, but it’s different, right? There’s no comparison between high school classes and major-league baseball. I wasn’t getting paid, first thousands and then millions like Kemp (though I was getting paid, in a sense, by my parents’ investment in my future). I was just a boy. Kemp is a man. I was in school; Kemp is a professional.

I’m going to argue that it’s not so different. As much as your circumstances change, there is a core part of you that remains young and in the midst of development. I am 42 years old, but that’s a chronological age. Or to put it another way, it’s an average of all the ages I feel. Sure, there’s some 42-year-old in me, but part of me still feels 9, and part of me feels about 75.

I approach life a certain way. I want to be better, and I’ll grind at it, but there’s a limit to what I’ll do. I work very hard, I feel, but I can’t emphasize that limit enough. And that limit can change on a weekly, daily, hourly basis. There always has and always will be a part of me that wants to do nothing more than smell the roses, whether those roses are Saturday morning cartoons as a kid or a nice long walk in the twilight as a grown-up. I like the work I do, but I don’t like to work. I accept the process and can even enjoy the journey, but the result is a big part of my reward. I always want my life to be easier; I always want things to go right the first time.

And so that limit of how hard I’m willing to work is a moving target. I suspect that’s true for many of us.

Knowing what to do is not the same as being able or willing to do it. It’s a hard lesson to learn that the effort that you’re comfortable with is not always enough. It’s a lesson that might make you rebel. Matt Kemp and I can’t be the only ones who wrestle with that. Being paid a lot of money might alter the personal battlefield, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

* * *

While on his postseason vacation in Europe with Rihanna, a short break before his offseason workouts begin, Kemp’s baseball mind is probably is at one of two places. He’s thinking that he has overcome hurdles before, and so there’s no reason to think he won’t overcome them again. Or he’s thinking that okay, that philosophy has worked in the past, but this time he really has to find another gear. He is going to have grind even harder than before, and that’s what he’s gonna show us next year.

Or he’s thinking both of the above. He will have to grind, but he will succeed. Because he believes.

I don’t know if it’s one, the other or both. However, I don’t imagine Kemp not caring about improving. There’s too much for him to gain – more money, more glory, more victory – not to care.

But let’s consider the alternative.

There is conflicting scuttlebutt about Kemp. You hear that he does work, very hard. You also hear that he’s not a good listener, that when it comes to instruction or coaching, he’s a mixed bag. People wonder where his head is at a given moment.

Alex Gallardo/AP
Mr. Inspiration, Jamey Carroll, is listed at 170 pounds, the lightest weight on the 2010 Dodger roster.

These are not contradictory reports. Far from it. The beef with Kemp is with his mental game, but that grievance contains an implicit assumption that only a fool, or worse, a scumbag, would operate at less than full mental capacity. That oversimplifies things to a remarkable degree, practically the equivalent of hammering Jamey Carroll because he isn’t bigger and stronger.

The mental game can be hard. For some, it can be unconquerable. The mental game is not a free throw. Carroll is better at it than Kemp, but Carroll is more than 10 years older than Kemp. Carroll didn’t even break into the big leagues until he was two years older than Kemp (who has played in 626 games) is now. Carroll had to hustle more than most, had to think more than most, or he’d simply never have made it in the show, much less stuck around.

Kemp now has to step up his mental game to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season. Anyone, including Kemp, can see this. But people think it’s a matter of flipping a switch, and that’s simply not true. You don’t power the mental game by flipping a switch. You power it by being the hamster that grinds on the wheel all day long, all so that you might get one extra drop of water.

Everyone is asking the same thing of Kemp – to work twice as hard in order to become, instead of better than 99.9998 percent of the people in the world at his sport, better than 99.9999 percent.

Maybe that’s disingenuous; maybe it’s only fair to look at Kemp in the context of his peers, among whom he ranked poorly in 2010, at least by Fangraphs’ estimation. The point is, everyone is expecting Kemp to be humble about a career that, until a few months ago, he has had every reason to take pride in. That might require more than an overnight adjustment. It might require trying harder, and then thinking you’ve got it, and then realizing you don’t, and then having to search – sincerely search – for new levels within yourself that aren’t immediately apparent.

Kemp, who has averaged more than 20 homers a year with a .285 batting average, who has had Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors, two playoff appearances, a past income of more than $5 million and a guaranteed 2011 income of nearly $7 million, who came back and improved after disappointing finishes to his 2006 and 2008 seasons, is being told that’s not enough, not nearly. He’s being told that if he doesn’t improve in 2011, he will be a great disappointment, and if there’s any question about his effort, it will be nothing less than shameful.

And here I sit, having worked hard to get where I am but with plenty farther I could go, having consciously and constantly holding myself back. Kemp is considered a mental misfit even though he’s a grown man under constant instruction, while no one questions my dedication to writing even though all I’m subjected to is the occasional edit, and I haven’t taken a writing class in 15 years. Kemp is sliced and diced for his Rihanna romance, even if the sincerity of it – no matter what the future holds – should no longer be in doubt, while I refuse any job that would require travel or night work that would take me away from my wife and kids, even if it would bring in more money, more glory, more victory.

If Kemp were to say to himself – and I personally don’t think for a moment he is saying this to himself – “I have money, I have love, I have a good job and I have my health, and I have this all just by being who I already am, and even though I’m no longer the best, that’s all I need,” no one would think for a moment that this was a legitimate perspective, even though outside the world of competitive sports, it most certainly is. In sports, there’s no greater sin than unrealized potential. And yet in life, in real life, letting some of your potential go at a certain point can actually be a gift to yourself and your loved ones.

* * *

But let’s say you accept your flaws. You’re humbled. You’re trying to get better. You aren’t getting there.

You don’t necessarily decide when it’s going to click.

In ninth-grade history, I had a teacher I was really struggling with. He had a very strong, upper-crust personality and was not afraid to mock you. I simply did not get him, and I felt that whatever I was learning — and I was learning something — I was learning despite him.

Tests in the class typically consisted of a short-answer portion (60 points) and then an essay (40 points). One time, mid-essay, I found myself in deep trouble. I had started with a thesis paragraph that I couldn’t really support. I can’t really recall what it was or why I went with it, although I guess it was basically the argument I thought the teacher would have made or what he wanted to see. But I just couldn’t see it through.

I crossed out the paragraph and started over, arguing the opposite. (Hello, George Costanza.)  I was running out of time but I whipped through it. It wasn’t effortless – I had to think about what I was writing – but the thoughts did follow, one after another. Nevertheless, I didn’t turn in the exam with any confidence.

When I got it back, my teacher had given me 45 points for the 40-point essay portion, and written the following words: “Weisman, I have challenged you, and you have come alive!”

Sounds hokey for sure, but you don’t forget something like that. And not to go all “Dead Poets Society” on you, but I came to realize that the teacher – all 23 years old of him – had come to this class at the start of the school year and found many of us in a stupor before it had even started, and he was trying to shake us out of it. He wasn’t trying to impose himself on us. He was trying to draw something out of us. That’s not something that you necessarily can understand right away. Arguably, it could be even harder to realize when you’re older. I know, despite my best intentions, I don’t love criticism, however constructive.

This moment in ninth grade was a turning point for my life as a writer, as a thinker and as a doer, but there was no straight path to it. I needed to get somewhere, and I got to it, but it couldn’t have been more roundabout. It involved a clash and reconciliation of determined instruction with determined independence. It involved a personal evolution on its own timetable that no one could control.  Though it was largely a mental issue, it wasn’t an issue of effort or desire or choice. Not by themselves, anyway.

And all this leads to is the next challenge, and the next. For a decade in my 20s and 30s, I would pursue the goal of writing for primetime shows and fall short. Today, I have several different paths I pursue, but I’m honestly not sure where I should channel all my energies. Sometimes, I think I’m doing my best; other times I’m not so sure. There is still doubt. Which one of me is right?

* * *

I imagine two types of reactions to this piece. (Maybe more, but these two will be among them.)

1) Yeah, you make some good (if long-winded) points.
2) What kind of pathetic apology for mediocrity is this?

Let me reiterate that I don’t believe that Kemp is actively choosing mediocrity. Nor am I trying to suggest that mediocrity is a worthy end, in and of itself.

Barry Gutierrez/AP
Kemp smiles after teammate Casey Blake’s solo homer in the ninth inning September 28.

I am asking people to understand that stepping up one’s effort is a process, and it’s not an easy process. There really is no such thing as an overnight success. Asking more of yourself than you’re used to giving is — in and of itself — a challenge. More than a challenge, it’s a mystery.

There’s always a limit. There’s always something that holds us back, some level of relaxation we preserve for ourselves, whether it’s money, pleasure, sleep, blissful ignorance or what have you. And the questions, for Kemp or anyone else, are twofold: Where do you want to be on that scale, and how much control you have over that desire?

In the coming year, we’ll see what Kemp is made of at age 26. We’ll see how much he steps up his mental game. It’s silly to assume that he won’t develop at all, but if he doesn’t develop as much as people like me hope, there are all kinds of reasons why. They’re not excuses. They’re reasons.

None of us know how Kemp will respond to the challenge. I’m not sure Kemp even knows. Plus, his performance in 2011 won’t necessarily be an accurate reflection of his work ethic. He could coast, and improve based on just natural development. He could bust his butt, and slide farther back. People will cheer if he does well, boo if he does poorly, draw conclusions based on whatever they see fit.

As I approach the 4,000-word mark on this essay, I guess all I’m really trying to say about turning on hustle and smarts is this: Living up to the standard that John Wooden set … it’s just not that simple.

Oct 03

Farewell, 2010


Courtesy Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles DodgersBrad Ausmus

Farewells and me do not agree. They bring a lingering pain. I begin taking a long look back before I’ve even left.

I’ve been looking to the end of these grueling final weeks of the Dodger season as something of a relief, but this weekend reminded me of all the things I love about the game (minus the postseason triumph, of course). Today, when the Dodgers had the opportunity to send me off with a “Good riddance” affair, they pulled me back in, just as we were saying goodbye.

There was yet another fine pitching performance, this time from Ted Lilly. There was yet another blast from Matt Kemp, off a Rodrigo Lopez meatball, giving Kemp home runs in his final five games of the year and birthing the possibility of his redemption. There was a Dodger victory the way we hoped more of them would come. There was beautiful weather, a beautiful ballpark and beautiful family all around me.

There was Joe Torre’s farewell from uniform, perhaps forever, after the heartiest of careers. There was John Lindsey’s farewell from uniform, perhaps forever, after the briefest of careers.

Most of all the events on the field, what reached me was Brad Ausmus. I had been the sourpuss who disapproved of signing Ausmus each of the past two seasons, figuring that what he would be able to contribute wasn’t worth what he would pay. But today, watching his final moments on the field steeped the emotions already brewing within me. I felt privileged to be able to cheer him on, right up to his 1,579th career hit in his final at-bat.

And so when Hong-Chih Kuo got the season’s final out, and it was all over, I felt I had to just short of literally tear myself away from my favorite seat in all of the world.

These emotions will be hard for many to understand, coming at the end of a misbegotten season. They even surprised me some.  But there they were. We’ll all move forward, myself included, but I left something behind this year. I can’t explain it any better than that.

Though the commenting declined at Dodger Thoughts this season (and the main reasons for that aren’t lost on me), I still do appreciate any and all of you stopping by to say hi and share your thoughts. Of course, there will be plenty going on here in the offseason, but in any case, here’s to all the best for all of you going forward.

* * *

The Watch List

3) Kemp finished the year with a career-high 28 home runs to lead the team by five.

4) Kemp passed Loney at the finish, lapping up his 88th and 89th RBI to Loney’s 88.

6) Rafael Furcal used up his one free at-bat, finishing the year with a batting average at .3002.

7) There was one drive off Ted Lilly that looked like it might have some distance, but in the end he gave up no home runs while walking two, and finishes his Dodger season with 13 walks and 12 homers allowed.

8) Jamey Carroll got four plate appearances, but he kept his 2010 homer ledger clean.

Two more notes: Kuo finished with the lowest ERA in Dodger history for a pitcher with at least 50 innings in a season. His 1.200 mark just barely bested Eric Gagne’s 1.202 from 2003. Also, Kenley Jansen’s 0.67 ERA is the fourth-lowest in major-league history for a rookie with at least 25 innings.

Sep 07

The cup of coffee, if not the entire meal

If the happiest baseball player on the planet right now is John Lindsey, the happiest reporter might be Ramona Shelburne.

The ESPNLosAngeles columnist has been on the Lindsey beat for only a few weeks, but in a Dodger season that has become so dreary – a 4-2 loss Monday to San Diego finally dropping the team back at .500 at 69-69 – Lindsey represents one of the few things worth writing about right now – and even more so nearly the only happy thing.

Shelburne has yet another story about Lindsey’s callup – on the surface, this might start to seem like overkill, because the Dodgers went through something similar with Mitch Jones a year ago – but then you start reading and realize that this is one story we can hardly get enough of. It’s the anti-2010-dote. (In contrast, my condolences to Tony Jackson, who gets to cover everything else.)

It might be imprecise to call Lindsey’s story an entirely happy one, as uplifting as this chapter is. In the dimly lit hours early this morning, I thought about the years I spent trying to break into primetime television. I got an early cup of coffee, getting some lines in someone else’s script while I was a writers’ assistant for this show that none of you will remember, then spent years in TV’s minor leagues, drawing interest and coming agonizingly close to success but never quite making it. The fact is that if I had gotten that one script – but only one – it’s not like there wouldn’t be some disappointment. As hard as Lindsey has worked, there’s no way he’ll be entirely satisfied by a cup of coffee or two. Life is like Lay’s potato chips.

But in the moment, the next opportunity is all you can ask for. And Lindsey, who has been asking for such a long time, will finally get his. Right now, there aren’t many reasons to watch the Dodgers more compelling than seeing that opportunity come, and hopefully the Dodgers won’t draw out the wait much longer. I eagerly await the story on Lindsey’s first major-league at-bat.

Jul 18

Defeated

One of the constant refrains I hear this year, whether it’s tied in with the McCourt debacle or the 22 years since the last World Series title or whatever, is that Dodger fans deserve better. And I get that, I totally do.

I just come at things from a different place. I don’t feel like I deserve better with the Dodgers. Big media market, big tradition, big talent base – I don’t care. That doesn’t matter to me.

As someone who was never anything but a Dodger fan, I was born on third base, as they say – but I don’t think I hit a triple. I think I got lucky. I was born into Jackie Robinson’s franchise. I was born with Vin Scully as my broadcaster. The Yankees, the Red Sox – I don’t care. I can’t imagine a better team to root for than Jackie and Vin’s team.

A game like today’s, and I don’t feel cheated. I feel, that makes sense. The McCourts, the bullpen collapses – they’re plot points in a drama that otherwise would be very nice but very sterile. Very tidy. Life isn’t tidy. That’s why it makes sense.

I’m not saying that’s right. I totally get why other people feel differently.

And it doesn’t mean I don’t feel disappointment. God, do I.

I just really don’t feel I’m owed anything. And it could be another 50 years without a World Series title (it really well could be), and I don’t think that will change. Some of you feel you’re owed, and that’s fine. I don’t feel it. I feel we’ve been given gifts, and expecting, demanding more is nonsensical.

I won’t stop being disappointed if there’s nothing under the tree this year, but I don’t blame Santa for passing us by.

And then there’s this.

I’m not going to defend Jonathan Broxton today. From what I saw, he should have pitched better.

But this. People look at what he does and then they say he doesn’t have a killer instinct or a heart or a brain or whatever other option “The Wizard of Oz” offers. They say it about Chad Billingsley, or Matt Kemp. They’ve said it about guys long gone, and they’ll say it about guys yet to come. And maybe they’re right. I don’t think they’re right – this ultimate judgment that boils down to “all winners have heart, all losers lack heart” – but maybe they’re right.

I think part of the reason I get so bothered is that when they say those things, I feel they might as well be saying it about me. Because I am no different than Broxton, Billingsley or Kemp. I have my good points and my bad points. And in particular, in my life, I have been lacking in grace under pressure. Rising to the occasion is not so easy for me.

It’s my hope that my family, friends and colleagues see the good that I do alongside my failings. Because if I’m judged only on my failings, I’m done for.

I think people are spoiled. But I’m spoiled, too. Just in different ways. So who am I to criticize?

In fact, I don’t even like this ending, but I don’t have the heart or the backbone to change it. So there you go.

Jul 13

Andre Ethier and the proving ground


Kirby Lee/US PresswireAndre Ethier has earned the right to smile.

I think Andre Ethier has some of me in him.

I have high expectations of myself. I have a sense of pride in my abilities, but at the same time, frustration when I am not equal to the task before me. I get angry when I fail, and then the questioning of my self-worth revives.

I want people to know that I know that my failings are unacceptable, and sometimes there isn’t a graceful way to do that. If I know that I’m making my best effort, if I know I’m capable of better, and if the people around me know these things, then this shouldn’t be a problem.

But sometimes, I just feel like I have to keep proving myself — to myself and to others. And that’s when the frustration comes out for everyone to see.

I’m glad that Ethier is having his moment in the sun today — and surely hope that it isn’t clouded by playing out of position in center field. I hope that he can revel in this honor, because the next proving ground is just around the corner.

Congratulations, Andre.

* * *

National League at American League, 5:00 p.m.

Jun 09

Cardboard Gods comes to town: Interview with Josh Wilker

Readers of this site will know of my evangelism for Josh Wilker’s website, Cardboard Gods. That appreciation redoubled when I read his book, Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, which I couldn’t recommend more highly to you all. It is at once entertaining and deeply affecting – kind of magical, really.

Wilker’s book tour reaches Southern California on Thursday with his 7 p.m. appearance at the South Pasadena Library, co-hosted by the Baseball Reliquary. (This takes place in conjunction with the Reliquary’s exhibit, “Son of Cardboard Fetish.”) This seemed like a perfect time to talk with Wilker about a few of the many things that make his writing so compelling:

A big part of Cardboard Gods that migrated from the site to the book is the importance of what you think a player’s pose or expression on the card is telling you. Obviously, these are guesses on your part, but do you think the photos on the cards are nevertheless windows to the gods’ souls – a veritable truth you wouldn’t necessarily get any other way? Or are they more just windows to our own souls?


Lookin’ sharp, Steve

I don’t know if they get me to any truths, but they definitely have always been able to get me to start wondering. The moments captured in my cards from the ’70s would seem to most people to be flat and trivial, the kind of thing that no one, not the player, not the photographer, not the great majority of people who would ever look at the card, could ever care much about. But because I cared about them as a kid, the stiff poses and enigmatic expressions continue to have a hold on me now, especially because many of them seem to include the same element of aimlessness and absurdity that has threaded through my post-childhood years. So they exist in two worlds for me, the adult world and the child world, and so it’s no wonder I’m drawn to them, since I’m an adult who has been kind of perpetually haunted and fascinated by his own childhood.

Aimlessness is an important theme in the book, especially after your brother put up boundaries between the two of you as he got older. But one thing about your family is that it seemed passionate about intellectual pursuits – your dad, your mom, Tom, even Ian with all the reading he seemingly did. And even in your aimless days, you were thoughtful and imaginative to say the least. How come that didn’t translate for you into more interest or dedication to schoolwork as a kid? Was life just too painful to allow you to focus on school, to allow that to be an outlet?
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