Clocking Out

Once again, it’s time for the timeless. At least for this season.

Yes, baseball has finally returned with all its glorious rituals. The crack of the bat. The sounds of the organ. Even that slight bit of hope beating in the hearts of all Colorado Rockies fans … and destined to last all of three innings.

But it’s not about winning, right? (At least, not if you live in the Denver area.) Like any good show, it’s about stepping outside of normal life for a while. You leave behind a hurried world and enter a reality that works to its own rhythm, where outs matter more than hours. It’s a place where time doesn’t run out, only chances.

But that may change in 2023.

Next year, for the first time, Major League Baseball may add a pitch clock.

“It is something that remains high on the priority list of ownership,” commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN. “We have a great game, but historically, I think the game was a little crisper the way it moved along.”  

One could argue that maybe less off-the-field drama and fewer lockouts would do more to bring fans back to the game. But hey, that would be petty.

It’s not an unambiguous argument. Pitch clocks have been part of the minor leagues for a few years now (typically giving the pitcher 20 seconds to make his delivery) and when first introduced, they did shave about 11 minutes off the game. But as Baseball America notes, that didn’t last. Even with the attempt to push the pace, the time crept back up again … in fact, Double-A and Triple-A games are now 12 minutes longer than they were before the pitch clock was introduced.

Pretty crisp, huh?

Mind you, I’m not a total curmudgeon. Baseball has been tinkering with itself since the very start. It’s altered the pitch count, the strike zone, the lineups, the gear. Most of the changes have become second nature by now. Some remain controversial, like the now-universal designated hitter or instant replay. (Everyone who believed replay would cause less arguing about an umpire’s calls has never watched an NFL game.)

But the object should always be to make a better game. Not just a faster one.

No, baseball doesn’t have the relentless march of a rigorously timed (and just as long) NFL football game. It’s a different game with a different lesson. Football is about seizing the moment before it slips away from you, making use of your time … and possibly staring in despair when you realize there’s some situations you just can’t come back from.

Baseball teaches hope.

Any at-bat may be the one that turns it around. Any pitch may be the one that snuffs a rally. No matter the deficit, if there’s even one out left, there’s a chance – a forlorn chance, maybe, but a chance. And every fan, at some point, has seen that chance fulfilled.

It’s a more patient view of life. One where things take as long as they take. Where you can always look for another opportunity and strive to make up for past mistakes.

That sort of forgiving outlook doesn’t have to stay between the white lines. It’s a kinder way to live with each other. And with ourselves, too.

Baseball, like life, happens best when it’s not pushed. Let the story tell itself again, with all its quirks and curiosities. On the field and off, leave room for hope to happen.

And with that, I’ll wind up.

I might even do it in less than 20 seconds.  

Looking From The Edge

It started with the rope.

Maybe you remember what I’m talking about, if you took grade-school PE in the 1970s and 1980s. The long floor-to-ceiling rope in the gymnasium, suspended over a safety mat. The one that students were expected to climb like Tarzan at some point in their elementary school careers.

Correction. The one that most students were expected to climb. I was given an exemption because, well, childhood epilepsy and dangling from a line like Spider-Man don’t mix really well.

Danger anticipated. Danger avoided.

Now fast-forward several years to junior high school. Specifically, to the various track-and-field games in gym. Unlike ropes, long jumps were perfectly safe for an epileptic and I tried over and over again with all the enthusiasm that a nerdy and awkward adolescent could manage.

Maybe a little too much enthusiasm. The sore feet I had after class didn’t go away. It turned out that between that, and maybe some after-school martial arts classes, I had managed to break the growth plates in both my feet.

Danger not even considered.

So what’s the point of all this rambling, besides setting the stage for the Totally-Not-Plagiarized-Diaries-of-a-Sorta-Wimpy-And-In-No-Way-Copyright-Infringing Kid? Well, to start with, it never hurts to remember the limits of our expectations – how, as the adage goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. For all that we plan and foresee and calculate, some things simply aren’t on the radar because we didn’t know to put them there.

But oh, do we try. Especially at the New Year.
The fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett had characters who were drawn to “edge places,”  points where two states of being come together, like doors, or masks, or mirrors, or even theatres. Similarly, something about the boundary between an old year and a new one draws us.  It’s a time when we look back and look forward, when writers everywhere compile their “10 best” and “10 worst” lists, when we try to anticipate what’s next – aside from freezing weather and drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads, of course.

I don’t want to make this sound too idealistic. Many years, the look back is on the level of “Thank heaven THAT’s over” and the look ahead is more like “Well, it can’t be as bad as what we just went through.” But we still like to think we have some sort of control over the outcome. That’s why we make resolutions, right?

We like to think that. Until we get sore feet.

As some of you know, this last year for me has gone beyond unpredictable. It’s had some amazing joys and some crushing blows, and my regular readers have experienced many of them with me. And one of the most challenging lessons I’ve had to take from all of it is that there is only so much I can do.

That’s not the same as saying “There’s nothing I can do.” That’s a trap. Saying “I can’t do everything” isn’t the same as saying “I can’t do anything.” Hope demands effort, otherwise it’s nothing more than an optimistic dream.

But we do have to accept that we’re not the ones in the driver’s seat.

And that’s hard.

We can prepare. We can anticipate. We can make the most of our chances. We can set ourselves up really, really well. But some things will always be out of our control.

In an odd way, though, that can be kind of hopeful.

It means that we don’t have to blame ourselves for every catastrophe in life. Not as much as we want to.

It means that totally unexpected blessings can find us in life. However undeserving of them we may feel personally.

It means we can let ourselves heal. And wonder. And grow.

And that we can reach out to each other as we do so.

Keep reaching. Keep growing. Take the pains and the wonders of this new year as they come. And where you can act, do it with hope.

After all, it never hurts to know the ropes.

Taking the Cake

“BLAAAAKE!”

I followed my wife’s voice to the scene of the carnage. Heather stood there aghast, with an over-muscled Labrador mix on one side, and a half-empty cake pan on the other.

Big Blake, it seemed, had discovered my belated birthday cake.

At two weeks late, it had been meant as a bit of a surprise. It succeeded. Instead of getting frosted by Heather and Missy, it had gotten a two-minute sampling by our canine connoisseur of all things semi-edible.

Surprise!

At first, I was horrified. Then, a little worried for the big guy (needlessly, as it turned out). And then, finally, amused.

After all this time, my cake karma seemed to have finally come full circle.

It’s an old family story, told by me as often as by anyone. My youngest sister Carey had had a birthday and knew exactly where she wanted it to be: Chuck E. Cheese. (I’ll pause for a parental shudder.) As the joke goes, it was our early childhood lesson in junk food and gambling, and we plunged with abandon into both, gladly running from pizza to video games to Skee-Ball and back again.

Since this was a birthday, naturally there was a cake. Since we were a family of five, naturally we didn’t finish it in one sitting. As the big brother (all of 10 years old or so), I volunteered to carry it out to the car when we left, holding it proudly as we entered the parking lot.

A little too proudly, perhaps. With a timing worthy of Mr. Bean, the cake left my hands.

And with one simple plunge, Abstract Art Piece No. 7, a study in frosting and pavement, had been born.

Surprise!

It’s been 30 years since then. My sister has long since started talking to me again. But the funny thing is, I can remember that incident more quickly and clearly than my college graduation. In terms of sheer vividness, it competes with the opening-night play at the Longmont Theatre Company where I took one downstage step too many, descending into the orchestra pit.

Some things, it seems, your brain hangs on to. With relish.

(No, the cake didn’t have relish. Chuck E. Cheese wasn’t that bizarre.)

Oddly enough, that’s been a subject of major research over the last few years: why our mind clings so hard to mortifying memories. The hope is to be able to better treat post-traumatic stress disorder. And the studies seem to suggest that it’s a combination of a particular brain chemical – norepinephrine, released in times of strong emotion – and an understandable need to obsessively examine a situation and figure out “Why did I do that?”

“It’s our need to control,” scientist Angela Londoño-McConnell told msnbc. com in 2009. “person might have thrown up simply because they were getting sick. It just happened. But it’s very difficult to tell the brain, ‘It just happened.’ So we go over it, trying to figure it out, trying to make sure we won’t be embarrassed again.”

That can actually be a valuable way to learn. But it can also mean you beat yourself up for a long period of time and blow a small event into a huge one.

Gee, that sounds familiar.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “but in rising up each time we fail.” Anyone can screw up – heck, Thomas Edison once burned down the family barn as a child. The question is what you do next.

I’ve had a lot of “nexts.” So have most of us, I suspect. More than enough to let a few cringes go, however vivid.

I know, it’s not often easy. But now that the years have worn this one from embarrassment to amusement, letting go shouldn’t be too hard.

You could call it a piece of cake.

But don’t tell Blake if you do.