Out of the Park

For the first time in too long, Colorado Rockies fans can stand proud. And once more, Todd Helton is the reason.

For fans of a team that just endured a franchise-record 103 losses, Helton’s election brought sunshine in winter. Suddenly, memories of better times could come back to life. Granted, we’ve never had the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees (or even the 1987 Twins) but there’s still been plenty to light up a mental scoreboard. The early days watching Andres “The Big Cat” Galarraga. Larry Walker’s pursuit of a .400 batting average. And of course, the miracle of Rocktober before it wilted in the glare of a Fenway Park evening.

And in the midst of so much of it stood The Toddfather. The face of the Rockies for 17 years. Feared at the bat, cheered in the lineup, jeered for being the beneficiary of Coors Field.

Oh, wait. That last bit came from the commentators. For way too long. The same ones who’ve gotten very quiet all of a sudden.

If Helton’s election does nothing else, it’ll hopefully shatter the myth that Rockies hitters are Fake News. And not just because Mister Rockie had road warrior stats that were right up there with George Brett, Ricky Henderson and Tony Gwynn.

Rather, he did what every star does in any field. He took what he was given and he ran with it.

Yes, Coors Field is a batter’s paradise. I said it. I’d be foolish to deny it. Even in the Humidor Era with baseballs specially treated to handle the thin air, hitters come to the plate eagerly and often leave satisfied. The overall effect has sometimes been exaggerated (the way some sportscasters describe it, you’d think the Rockies played on the Moon) but it’s real.

But still – so what?

I’ll say it again for those in the back row. So what?

Baseball is not played under sterile laboratory conditions.  Far from it. Every player faces a unique environment, whether it’s the quirks of the local ballpark or the latest brainstorm rules-change from the commissioner’s office.  And yet, somehow, we still cheer excellence.

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale didn’t have to apologize for the pitcher-friendly confines of Dodger Stadium. Ted Williams and Wade Boggs didn’t have to give back their Hall of Fame status for playing half their games in the bandbox of Fenway. And any hitter that benefits from a “live” ball, a lower pitcher’s mound or even something as simple as batting gloves has an edge on those who came before.

So what’s the big deal about a Rocky Mountain High?

It’s a truth that goes beyond the ballpark. Everyone’s starting from different points, working with different gifts, facing different journeys and challenges. But if we let our preconceptions discount a real accomplishment, then we’ve sold someone short. Maybe even ourselves.

I’m not saying that differences never make a difference. When someone outright rigs the game, on the field or off, attention needs to be paid. When someone’s “excellence” comes at another’s expense, the harm shouldn’t be ignored.

 But there’s a difference between that and using what you have, where you are. And when that effort produces something worthy, by all means, celebrate it.

There have been many Colorado Rockies ballplayers. There has been one Todd Helton. And the Hall has shown that it can finally look past Coors and give him the honor he deserves.  

Never mind the losses for now. Today, we’re all feeling a mile high.

RIP, PDQ

With apologies to the Terminator, Peter Schickele won’t be Bach. Not anymore, anyway.

The name might not ring a bell – but it should at least play a kazoo or two. You see, Schickele was better known to the world as P.D.Q. Bach, a “forgotten” final son of Bach whose existence was mostly an excuse to turn classical music into uproarious comedy.

If you’ve not discovered Bach the Extremely Lesser yet, you have an interesting musical journey ahead of you. This was, after all, the man whose classical pieces included parts for the bagpipe, the slide whistle and  the “tromboon” (trombone with a bassoon reed). In a given performance, you might catch dozens of musical references, ranging from The William Tell Overture to Shave and a Haircut. Trying to perform pieces like “Oedipus Tex” or “The Seasonings” with a straight face is difficult in the extreme; hearing them without cracking up is downright impossible.

And the best part? It’s a laughter that opens doors instead of drawing weapons.

Perhaps I should explain.

A lot of comedy calls for a victim – a deserving target who has earned absurd retribution. And the more deserving, the better. When John Cleese co-created “Fawlty Towers,” he made hotel manager Basil Fawlty utterly despicable … because if he were at all sympathetic, Cleese said, the series would become a tragedy.

At times, that can be priceless. Well-crafted humor can deflate the pompous, expose the cruel, or even depose the tyrannical. The concept is an ancient one; Thomas Moore once wrote that “the devil … cannot endure to be mocked.”

But too often, people shoot lower.

When that happens,  it makes comedy about the pain instead of the target. Someone gets hurt and it’s funny because it’s not happening to you. Any empathy involved is on the level of “Oooh, I felt that!” but mostly we just laugh at how the universe has it in for someone. (“America’s Funniest Home Videos,” anyone?)

And as we laugh at someone else’s pain, it coarsens us a little.

And that’s where I think PDQ was a downright genius.

His main target was the reverential aura that often surrounds classical music and makes it seem unapproachable. By injecting a heavy dose of silliness, Schickele not only made it approachable but fun. Anyone could laugh and enjoy … and better yet, if you had any experience with classical music, you’d laugh even harder from all the inside jokes he smuggled in. The more you knew, the funnier it got.

In short, he welcomed everyone. Entertained them. And maybe even educated them a little.

How much better can you get?

Schickele has left the stage now, gone at the age of 88. But the laughs live on. And whenever someone replays one of his off-kilter arias or ridiculous concert pieces, the doors will reopen and the wonderful insanity will resume.

That’s a heck of a legacy. And a great example to follow. Not just to laugh, but to laugh well in a way that brings us together.

All you have to do is sit Bach and enjoy.

Finding Balance, Fixing Blame

Missy sat on her pillow, only to find most of it had no mattress underneath.

WHUMP.

Startled but unhurt, our disabled ward looked up from the carpet. And then, with a growl worthy of Yosemite Sam, she pointed fiercely at the nearby nightstand.

“No!” she bellowed, with offended justice ringing in her voice.

I glanced at the object of her ire and then helped her up.

“Missy,” I said gently, “the lamp did not trip you.”

Another scowl resulted. Guilty or not, that nightstand lamp would not be forgiven any time soon.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to act as a defense attorney for an innocent object or creature. When Missy’s coordination issues produce an occasional fall, she’s good at slowing herself down into a soft landing. She’s also good at fixing the blame on anything nearby. In the days when we still had Big Blake, our lovably massive English Lab, the Missy Finger of Judgment would quickly indicate her furry friend … even if he happened to be across the room at the time.

“Missy …”

Other times, the accusation has been leveled at our birds. (A real accomplishment, that.) Or an empty chair. Or maybe a passing poltergeist out for a stroll. Anyone and anything except herself.

But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, many of us do exactly the same thing.

I’ve said before that we’re story-centered beings. We want a cause or an explanation for everything, the simpler the better. But we also don’t want that cause to be us or something we admire. And so, we look for a convenient target.

In sports, we lash out at the ref for making That One Call. (Never mind the 300 bad plays before it that made the call important.) Or we decide that everything’s the fault of one coach or one player – like an ancient king, sacrificing them will prosperity to the land again.

In the larger world, it gets even uglier. I don’t need to recount how many Others we’ve found to blame for the problems of a troubled society or a broken world. Usually we choose a people who are safely powerless and already despised, convenient scapegoats that make us feel good about our prejudice or contempt.

Too often, we don’t look inward. Too often, we don’t dare.

Some of it is simple pride. Many times, we’ve committed ourselves deeply to an action, a cause, a person, a belief. And when someone gives that commitment badly – if the belief is ill-founded or the hero is anything but – turning back means admitting “I was wrong.” Maybe even looking foolish.

That’s hard. Far easier to double down instead, to deny the uncomfortable truth and press on ahead.

The times when we’ve been able to break through those clouds and start to choose a different road are some of the proudest in our history. But they never come without struggle. And the struggle always starts on the inside.

We will find that clear vision again. But how long it takes and how hard it will be depends on us. And when we stumble along the way, I hope we can find our balance in each other and rise again.

Even if it means forgiving that darned lamp.

Using Your Head

I’ve been a baseball fan for years. But somehow, I had never seen the Canseco Bounce. 

If you just said “Huh?”, you owe it to yourself to start the New Year right. Go to YouTube. Look up the words Canseco, Ball and Head. And don’t drink anything while you’re watching. 

What you’ll see is a 1993 clip of outfielder Jose Canseco going back for a fly ball in deep right field … a fly ball that hits him on top of the head and bounces OVER the wall for a home run.

“Look at this!” the announcer laughs as it gets replayed over and over and over again. “Boink!! And it’s out of here!” 

I made the belated discovery through a book I got for Christmas on 50 memorable baseball moments. (Thanks, Mom!) And while many of the other entries had more significance, drama or heart, this one keeps coming back and making me chuckle. 

First, because Canseco clearly isn’t hurt. (Lasting injury is never funny.) In fact, he’s even smiling. 

Second, because the moment is just so Looney Tunes. You could put it in the middle of a Rowan Atkinson or Jim Carrey movie without alteration – especially since the ball only clears the wall *because* of the head bounce. Way to go, Mr. Bean! 

Third and most of all, because I suspect we’ve all been there. You know what I mean: those moments where you’re trying to do the right thing and somehow manage to make matters hilariously worse. 

Having spent a fair chunk of my life in newspapers and amateur theatre – two highly public arenas – I’ve had my share of misplaced fly balls. Like writing a headline about the discovery of a “Viking horde” in Britain instead of a “Viking hoard.” (No, England did not get invaded.) Or walking on stage with a ringing cell phone in my pocket. Or for that matter, walking *off* stage and into the orchestra pit in the middle of a solo. 

But it doesn’t have to be in front of a mass audience or on the JumboTron to have an impact. Most of us are quite capable of replaying those moments endlessly, right behind our own eyeballs.

And so, besides starting the New Year with a harmless laugh, I hope this also starts us with a few reminders.

First: give yourself grace.

We’re not going to win all the time – even if we judge the fly ball perfectly. One of my favorite Star Trek quotes (geek alert!) says simply that “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” And we will commit mistakes. Holding yourself to a standard of perfection is a good way to break yourself; forgiving yourself for falling short helps you forgive others, too.

Next, learn from what happened. Laugh if you can. Tell it on yourself afterward if you like. After all, you’re going to remember it anyway – if you can make it a story, you can take out a lot of the sting and maybe even create a rueful smile. “I’m never going to do THAT again …”

And most importantly, get back in the game. There are a lot of innings left to play. Mark the moment, but don’t stay stuck in it. That’s sometimes easier said than done, I know, especially with bigger goofs that take a while to deal with. (As I said, lasting injury is never funny.)  Take the time you need. Reach out to someone if you can. And then, when you’re ready, play ball.

That kind of focus and mindfulness is a great way to keep your head in the game.

One way or another.