Pandemic Chronicles #15: Let’s get through this bleak midwinter
Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic continues at a brutal pace, as we await larger distributions of vaccines that will help us wrestle down this virus. In the meantime, our first full week of 2021 was marked by a mob attack on our nation’s Capitol building, fueled by a perverse rage over the 2020 Presidential election results.
Memo to self: It takes more than the turn of a calendar to truly change things. Memo to 2021: So far, you’re sucking badly.
But I have genuine hope that things will get better this year. We may even return to some semblance of normal living. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to travel for enjoyment without fearing what we could catch, or spread, along the way.
First, though, we have to get through what may be a very bleak winter. I confess that I have no one-size-fits-all advice on how to do this, because each person’s situation is different.
Obviously, for our own sake and that of others, we need to practice safe health habits. For me that means wearing a quality mask whenever I’m out, washing my hands when I return home, and practicing social distancing. This has been the public health mantra since March, and I’m not going to debate it.
My work is going to be pretty much the same. I’ll be teaching my courses remotely, via Zoom. I’ve got some speaking appearances lined up, also online. Of course, I’ve got a variety of writing and advocacy projects going, and most of that work will be done from behind a keyboard as well.
I’m devoting a lot of time to lifelong learning activities. My most significant one is enrolling in an adult education program at the University of Chicago called the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, a four-year sequence of courses devoted to the study of Great Books of Western Civilization. I’ll be writing more about this experience in a new blog that I’m planning on lifelong learning and adult education, to go along with this blog and my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
In terms of hobbies, I’m playing favorite sports simulation board and computer games (I’ve written about that here and here), participating in online karaoke through the Boston Karaoke Meetup group, and reviving a boyhood pastime of collecting stamps. As I wrote on my professional blog some four years ago, it’s especially important to have healthy and engaging hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times.
Okay folks, I know it’s obvious that I am a major nerd. But hopefully that nerd status will help to enrich my life during an otherwise challenging time. If we can grow and enjoy various pastimes while remaining safe and healthy, I call it a win.
May you find good things to occupy your time as we find our way to a better and healthier springtime.
Pandemic Chronicles #5: Sports-inspired nostalgia
I know I’m hardly alone in spending more time watching television during this public health crisis. As I wrote a couple of a weeks ago, I’ve sharply reduced my watching of TV news, and that decision has held. Instead, I’ve been spending time with assorted series, especially highly-regarded police procedurals and historical dramas. Last night, however, I checked out the first episode of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part ESPN documentary series about the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, centering around the final championship season (1997-98) of its iconic, superstar guard, Michael Jordan.
The series is being televised in weekly installments, rather than being released in its entirety. That said, I already understand why “The Last Dance” is drawing accolades from sports writers and fans desperate to feed the beast while professional and college leagues are shut down due to the pandemic. (As further evidence, the just-completed National Football League annual draft of collegiate standouts earned its highest-ever ratings.) It’s a basketball junkie’s delight. If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you followed the great 1990s Bulls teams, then you’re in for a treat.
For me, “The Last Dance” is prompting a major nostalgia trip. The Jordan-era Bulls teams overlapped with important events and transitions in my life. Jordan first joined the Bulls for the 1984-85 season, which happened to cover my final year of law school at New York University. Even in New York, the sometimes snobby sports intelligentsia knew that this guy in Chicago was something special. Jordan immediately became one of the league’s best players. I began closely following his career and the fortunes of the Bulls from afar.
Alas, Jordan had joined a team in a deep state of mediocrity. The Bulls of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a pretty sad bunch. It would take several years of key player acquisitions and coaching changes — most notably star swingman Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson — before the team became a serious playoff contender. In fact, not until 1991 would the Bulls win their first NBA championship, the first of six during the halcyon 90s.
By then, I had been practicing law for six years in New York City, first as a Legal Aid lawyer, then as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State. But in 1991, my career was about to shift. I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level instructor in NYU’s Lawyering Program, an innovative legal skills curriculum for first-year law students, starting that fall. I was tremendously excited to be returning to my legal alma mater,as a faculty member, no less! I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of an academic career.
I would decamp from New York to Boston in 1994 to accept a tenure-track position at Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve remained since. My devotion to the Bulls followed me, and watching the team’s successes provided welcomed breaks from the demanding workload of a new assistant professor.
The academic calendar would provide greater flexibility in my own schedule, with added opportunities for travel. My fond memories of that team include visits to home in Indiana. My mom, of all folks, had become an ardent Bulls as well. We would watch games together in the TV room, cheering on what would become one of the sport’s legendary dynasties.
As a lifelong Chicago sports fan who puts those great Bulls teams on a pedestal, I look forward to watching the rest of “The Last Dance.” I’m sure it will continue to inspire nostalgic episodes as well. It’s all good, as we comb the memories of our lives during this challenging time.
Pats win! (And other notes about sports fandom in Boston)
Although I’ve been living in Boston since 1994, this city is not my first love when it comes to pro sports devotion. I grew up in northwest Indiana, a short drive away from Chicago. The Chicago Bears (football), Cubs (baseball), and Bulls (basketball) have been and always will remain my favorite teams.
Nevertheless, the past two decades have been a remarkable period for Boston’s professional sports teams. The once-cursed Red Sox have won four World Series baseball titles, most recently last fall. The Celtics (basketball) and Bruins (hockey) have each won their league titles during this stretch. And the most successful franchise of all has been the New England Patriots of the National Football League, who on Sunday won their sixth Super Bowl championship during the current century.
The Pats faced a lot of challenges this season, and even fervent fans wondered if they could mount a serious threat in the playoffs. But they pulled it together at just the right time and prevailed over three playoff opponents, including Sunday night’s prey, the Los Angeles Rams.
Watching the local post-game television coverage of the Pats win was an interesting experience. It was festive, like dropping in on a bunch of parties celebrating the win — whether it was the players and coaches talking about the game and how it felt to win, or the sports analysts breaking down the individual and team performances, or the fans sharing their total exuberance over this latest, very hard-won championship.
Today, the city will host a championship parade for the Pats, and so the celebration will continue. The “rolling rally,” as it is called, will pass by the building in which I work and teach(see photo above). The expected crowd size is such that university administrators canceled classes that overlap with the parade and its aftermath, figuring (correctly, I believe) that it may be nearly impossible for students, faculty, and staff to get to classes and meetings amid thousands of fans lined up on the sidewalks that connect our downtown campus buildings.
Impact on the city
All of this sporting success has had a salutary effect on the city’s self-image. Boston has long been a town with a chip on its shoulder and an inferiority complex. Mounting numbers of bad seasons mixed with some heartbreaking near misses for its beloved pro sports teams contributed to that dynamic — especially when they involved losses to teams from hated New York City. During the 21st century, however, the numbers alone establish Boston as the nation’s most winning sports town.
We can and should debate whether so much civic pride should be invested in professional sports franchises. In the case of Boston, sports should not alone define the culture of a city that also can be rightly proud of its importance in American history and its many contributions to the arts, education, high technology, medicine, and the sciences. And frankly, some of that diehard fandom here can get loud and obnoxious — especially when stoked by too many beers.
That said, given a choice between bad teams and losing seasons vs. winning teams and championships, I’ll take the latter, thank you. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the wins will continue, but for now it’s great fun to be a sports fan here.
My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
A view from the Garden
This 1940s wartime era photo prompts a nostalgic moment for me, even if I wasn’t around back then and my soggy sentiments have nothing to do with the picture itself. This is the old Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the marquee features coming sporting attractions, including basketball games featuring Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater) and New York University (my law school alma mater).
Valparaiso posted the pic to its Facebook page in connection with the appearance of the current men’s basketball team in the semifinal round of the National Invitation Tournament, which will be played in the modern Madison Square Garden next week. This year’s squad has set a school record for wins, including three in the NIT. A victory against Brigham Young University on Tuesday will put them in the tourney championship game, to be played later in the week.
The vintage photo shows VU players arriving for their game at the Garden. VU’s war-era team was one of the nation’s best, thanks to its successful recruiting of talented players who were too tall to enter military service. The team traveled all the way from the Hoosier State to play Long Island University, no small journey in the days before jet airliners.
The second marquee game featured NYU hosting Colgate University. NYU was a major college sports presence during the first half of the last century, and its basketball team played in many of the prominent arenas along the east coast. Today NYU is a non-scholarship Division 3 school, with men’s and women’s basketball teams playing very competitively at that level.
We all have our personal narratives, and part of mine involves growing up and going to college in northwest Indiana, discovering something of the world during a final collegiate semester abroad, and then heading off to law school in New York City. To see both Valparaiso and NYU on that marquee, located on the wondrous island of Manhattan, symbolically brings together two educational institutions that have played important roles in my life.
As for Madison Square Garden, when I lived in New York I watched my share of basketball there, mostly Knicks NBA games. It was still possible back then to get cheap tickets (four dollars, then eight dollars) to sit up in the nosebleed seats. But when the Knicks were on top of their game and the Garden was rocking, well, it didn’t matter where you sat, it was quite an event.
After VU’s home court victory over St. Mary’s of California that punched the team’s ticket for the trip east, the public address system played Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” That was my song, too. I hope their Manhattan sojourn turns out as well for them as it did for me.
Fighting Irish schmaltz: “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American”
When it comes to college football fandom, I’m not naturally rooted. My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, has a terrific mid-major basketball program, but for decades its football team has mostly struggled. My law school alma mater, New York University, doesn’t even have a football team, though it once was quite prominent in the sport during the 1920s and 1930s.
And so on Saturdays during the fall, I often fall back on my northwest Indiana origins, when I became a Notre Dame football fan. I may have no educational or faith connection to Notre Dame, but I can’t help it, I am drawn to its football team. (I fully understand that hating on the Fighting Irish is a time-honored football tradition in itself. Those who cannot bear to read this rest of this post are hereby given permission to click to something else.)
Two movies, “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American,” capture the mystique and mythology of Notre Dame football, augmented by forms of dramatic license inherent in most sports flicks. The Urban Dictionary defines “schmaltz” as “a work of art that is excessively sentimental, sappy or cheesy.” Both films qualify for in that category. But that’s okay, I enjoy both of them, perhaps because of — not in spite of — their soggy stories.
“Rudy” (1993) is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a scrappy, undersized blue-collar kid who dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, set in the late 60s through mid-70s. The movie portrays his dogged determination in chasing that dream, fueled by numerous references to the storied traditions of the University and its football team. As befits your basic sports story, there are struggles to overcome along the way.
It is often quipped that “Rudy” is one of those sports movies that makes it okay for guys to cry. Personally, it doesn’t unleash the tear ducts for me, but it’s a heartwarming story nonetheless. Sean Astin makes for a likable, convincing Rudy, and the football scenes are decent. One might quarrel with some of the story twists inserted for cheap effect — the Notre Dame head coach at the time, Dan Devine, certainly has reason to be miffed at how he’s portrayed — but let’s remember that this is a Hollywood movie, not an art house film.
The movie also blows a kiss to Notre Dame and its Catholic traditions. A feature accompanying the DVD tells us that this was the first movie filmed on campus since (see below!) “Knute Rockne, All American.”
“Knute Rockne All American” (1940) is a paean to Notre Dame head coach and player Knute Rockne, the most revered figure in Fighting Irish football history. Rockne entered Notre Dame as a student at the age of 22, wanting to play football. As a member of the 1913 Irish squad, he teamed up with quarterback Gus Dorais to form the first potent forward passing combination in the history of the game.
After graduation, Rockne stayed on as a chemistry instructor and assistant football coach, eventually giving up a promising science career to become the school’s head coach. During the late 1910s and through the 1920s, he built America’s most successful college football program, leading the Irish to multiple national championships and becoming a national figure along the way.
If “Rudy” regards its main subject sentimentally, then “Knute Rockne All American” is an all out love letter to its protagonist, the University, and the sport of football. War clouds were hovering over America when the movie was filmed and released, and it appears to be no accident that it ties together football, faith, manhood, and patriotism as a thematic passage.
The movie stars Pat O’Brien as Rockne and a young Ronald Reagan as legendary Notre Dame football player George Gipp.
Fall, fantasy football, and a song or two
Thursday night kicked off the NFL season, which for several million fans also meant the beginning of fantasy football. Somehow I find myself in three fantasy leagues this fall, which means that I’ll be managing the fortunes of three fake football teams: The JP (Jamaica Plain) Storm, the JP Blizzard, and the JP Nor’easters.
Fantasy football offers an added element of fandom. In addition to following your favorite pro team(s) (in my case, primarily the Chicago Bears, and secondarily the New England Patriots), you follow the individual statistical performances of players you’ve drafted for your fake teams.
Sometimes the scoring systems are simple, such as that in the league I organized, where points are awarded almost exclusively on actual scoring. This means that when one of your players scores a touchdown, that six points goes to your team. Easy peasy! Other scoring systems are much more complex, using a longer list of statistical measures.
For me, the start of the NFL season also signifies the “real” start of fall, even if the official seasonal change doesn’t occur until later this month. And here in the Boston area, it just so happened that an early September heat wave cooled off markedly for Thursday’s first Patriots home game in nearby Foxborough.
But there are healthy limits to this fandom. On Wednesday evening, for example, I missed the real-time player draft for one of my fantasy football leagues in order to sing at an open mic cabaret night at a club here in Boston. (The Yahoo! fantasy football platform made my picks for me, based on a player ranking list I compiled.)
I wrote previously that I’ve been taking a weekly singing class for many years, and more recently I’ve been joining friends from that class at open mic nights. Over the weekend I had practiced a duet number with one of my friends, “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. We performed it on Wednesday night and did a fine job! (Actually, she did great with it, but I felt a little shaky in parts.)
Singing is very therapeutic for me, a form of mindfulness that allows me to be in the moment in a very good way. Performing favorite songs and listening to others do the same is a genuine treat. Following my fake football teams online is fun, but live singing with good company is much, much better.
Throwback Thursday: High school football benchwarmer
Some forty Augusts ago, I was sweating it out on a blazing hot northwest Indiana practice field, along with 60 or so other guys who wanted to play football. Yes folks, despite my lack of physical prowess and athletic talent, I was on my high school football team for several years.
The caption of the team photo above is a bit misleading. Any sophomore, junior, or senior who tried out for football and survived the grueling two-a-day August practice sessions was on the “varsity.” However, my role was to be practice fodder — a member of what today is called the “scout team” — helping to prepare the starting players and top reserves for the Friday night games. I would get to play in the Saturday morning junior varsity games, and occasionally at the tail end of varsity games when the result was quite settled.
Given that I wasn’t very big, you’d think that my “natural” position was running back and/or defensive back. However, my blinding lack of speed and quickness made that problematic, so the coaches put me on the line. Yup, I was a 150 lb. center, guard, and nose tackle. This was largely for practice purposes only, because unless the phalanx of guys ahead of me on the depth chart all suddenly got sick, hurt, suspended, or quit the team, no one needed to be concerned that I’d be in the lineup during key moments of a game.
At some point I smartened up and realized that this was not the most best use of my extracurricular time. I would get involved in activities such as student government, which proved to be a better match for me.
But looking back, I know the experience of high school football toughened me up in valuable ways. Lining up in practice every day against bigger, stronger, faster players, and getting up when you’re knocked down, may not be fun, but you learn that you can get up and be ready to go again. Plus, I liked being on the team. It planted the seeds for being a lifetime football fan.
Fortunately, my eventual absence from the team was not felt acutely. As one of my former teammates told me, “Dave, we missed you in football this year but managed to suck without you.”
Throwback Thursday: Boyhood summers spent managing big league baseball teams
Late in my grade school years, I discovered a world of baseball board games that simulated the National Pastime through sophisticated play charts and statistical ratings of real-life major league baseball players. Dice or spinners typically served as activators for game play.
Most tabletop board games could be played solitaire or head-to-head. Devoted gamers could replay an entire season of a favorite team, or even a full-blown league. You could also play short schedules of your favorite teams, or draft players to stock your own teams and play a league schedule that way.
Every spring, pre-season baseball magazines such as Street & Smith‘s were chock full of tantalizing ads for these games, such as those pictured below. The sales pitch was simple and effective: It would appeal to a sports fan’s fantasies of managing a big league baseball team and of imagining themselves up at the plate or on the mound as their favorite players.
Some of these (mostly small) companies sold their games directly by mail. Others offered a “free” player performance card and brochure that described the game in greater detail, with ordering information included.
During the late 1960s and through the early 1980s, a lot of kids and young men discovered these games and drooled over the ads in the baseball magazines. We’d either order the games directly or send away for the descriptive brochures, and then we would wait in great anticipation for the mail delivery.
Even though, as these photos show, the games themselves were full of numbers, charts, and symbols, we weren’t disappointed. We were not expecting the equivalent of today’s video sports games, where players and their movements are rendered so realistically on the digital playing field. The charts, cards, and dice activated our mind’s eyes, so that we could recreate player performances on the tabletop and imagine the action on the field. More than a few of us would narrate the games like sports announcers, either in our heads or out loud.
Gil Hodges’ Pennant Fever, sold by Research Games, Inc., in New Jersey, was my first exposure to a serious baseball board game. Its statistical game engine wasn’t as sophisticated or as precise as some of the other baseball simulations on the market at the time, but its play descriptions fueled our imaginations.
For example, if you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see on the right a pitching card that says “Throw him blazing FAST BALLS.” Use of that card was specially limited to strikeout pitchers such as Juan Marichal and Sam McDowell. You’ll also see a pink CONNECTS chart, which was used when a dice roll resulted in the possibility of an extra base hit, especially a home run.
Pennant Fever had the added bonus of being among the less expensive offerings, and — unlike most of these games — it could be purchased at retail store outlets.
I also sent away for a neat little game, Extra Innings, that had an attractive price tag ($9.95), the novelty of a game contained in a three-ring binder, and an extensive basic package that included player performance ratings for the most recent season as well as all-time great teams and Hall of Famers.
The designer of the game, Jack Kavanaugh, was a retired ad man and a thinking man’s game designer. His Extra Innings Newsletter, a copy of which is pictured above, contained some of the most thoughtful commentary about the challenges of statistically reproducing baseball in a tabletop simulation game that I’ve ever read. Kavanaugh is no longer with us, but his game still has a devoted following today.
I played a lot of Negamco’s Major League Baseball. This game, as you can see below, was activated by a spinner, which would create a few extra seconds of suspense for each play sequence. It wasn’t the most realistic game around, but it was easy to play and had a somewhat addictive quality to it. I recall summer nights when I’d stay up late to play just one more game.
If you want to read a great boyhood remembrance about playing Negamco baseball, check out Mayer Schiller’s “Killer Goryl” in the Elysian Fields Quarterly. And in 2011, Michael Weinreb wrote a similarly evocative long form piece for Grantland about playing another popular offering, Statis-Pro baseball, as an adolescent: “Statis-Pro Baseball: An Instruction Manual”
When it came to baseball board games, however, the big kids on the block were Strat-O-Matic (SOM) and APBA. Both games had been around for some time: APBA debuted in the early 1950s (and it was based on an earlier game that appeared in the 1930s!), and SOM appeared in the early 1960s. As the ads below indicate, you sent away for a brochure and game samples first, then made the decision to buy.
The brochures were incredibly descriptive, and for a young baseball fan conjured up images of managing a favorite team and players to the World Series, replete with box scores and statistical sheets marking the season’s progress. If you want a sense of how the marketing and advertising for these games captured our imaginations, go to the APBA Baseball Archives and click around.
APBA and SOM were also among the most expensive offerings — somewhere in the $15-20 range for full editions if memory serves me right. Their game parts were first rate, and each player was represented by his own performance card. (Most of the less expensive games featured team roster sheets with the relevant player data rather than individual cards.)
Here are cards from a reissue of APBA’s 1968 season:
And here are cards from a commemorative reprint of SOM’s very first edition:
These are the Good Old Days
APBA and SOM were both beyond my meager allowance back in the day, but as you can see from the photos, I’ve become a collector and occasional player of both games today. And as I collect vintage seasons, I keep telling myself that when I retire in X number of years, I’ll play them all the time!
Which brings up another point: Bouts of nostalgia aside, for anyone who wishes to play some type of baseball simulation game, these are the good old days, because diverse and fun options abound.
There’s still a steady interest in and demand for tabletop baseball simulations, stoked primarily by guys 40 and older. To capture the flavor of current offerings and interests, check out the Delphi Table Top Sports forum.
Another great site is Tabletop-sports.com, which hosts an active forum and links Downey Games, a popular sports game company offering well over a dozen game titles. The One For Five blog and magazine also provide lots of support for the hobby.
The APBA and Strat-O-Matic game companies are still offering their famous baseball games, now in charts & dice, computer, and online versions. Previous seasons are readily available from the companies and via a rich resale market through online forums such as the Delphi site and e-Bay.
They are joined by many other small companies offering a multitude of tabletop and computer baseball simulations. Replay, History Maker, and Ball Park (once favored by famed baseball statistician Bill James) are among the popular offerings.
I recently supported a Kickstarter campaign for Pine Tar Baseball, a new offering that appears to be carving a niche by recreating 19th century baseball seasons.
Computer baseball simulations are often remarkably deep and sophisticated in their game play. The Out of the Park computer baseball game, and its boiled down tablet/smartphone version, for example, allow players not only to replay past seasons and create fictitious leagues, but also to play the role of owner and general manager. (I’m partial to OOTP because it’s one of the few baseball sims available for the Mac as well as for Windows.)
Of course, the major video game platforms offer baseball sims that put a premium on hand-eye coordination, with some stunning graphics and features to boot.
And if you’re like me, you’ll also want to manage a fantasy baseball team or two.
The Draw of Baseball on a Tabletop
Especially for guys who grew up rooting for their favorite teams and players and who tracked baseball stats in the daily paper, these baseball simulations retain a special draw. They provide us with a connection to a beloved boyhood sport in a way that allows us to participate and play in a league of our own, and to relive the exploits of diamond heroes of days past.
As I’ve mentioned before here, my friend Ken Heard, a professional journalist, writes a marvelous blog — Love, Life and APBA Baseball — detailing his devotion to the APBA baseball game and how replaying past historic seasons has been a form of entertainment, engagement, and sometimes refuge over the years. Two summers ago I wrote an extended piece about Ken’s blog for my own professional blog.
Last year, I wrote a post about writer Jack Kerouac’s homebrewed tabletop baseball game, replete with fictitious players and news accounts of their on the field exploits. Kerouac kept up his fictional baseball league for years.
And Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) is considered a minor classic and one of the best books about the dramatic pull of baseball. It’s a novel about a man who invents his own cards & dice baseball game and becomes lost in the life of his fictitious baseball league.
So yes, there is something about baseball and the imagination that keeps us attracted to these simulations of the National Pastime. Even if they become obsessions, we could do a lot worse.
On being a college sports fan: A waif’s journey
Although I’m a moderately serious sports fan, and I’ve been associated with a good number of colleges and universities over the years, I’ve never attended a school with a big-time sports program. On the pro side, I’ve maintained my strong affinity for Chicago teams (Cubs, Bears, and Bulls, oh my!), and been a fair-weather fan of the New York Mets (mid-80s), New York Knicks (80s-early 90s), and New England Patriots (Brady-Belichick era). However, when it comes to college basketball and football, I’ve been something of a waif.
I’ve been writing a lot about my college and law school experiences lately, so let’s take them from a sporting angle.
Starstruck and Bobcats
I received a very good classroom education at Valparaiso University, but its intercollegiate sports teams during the late 70s and early 80s were lackluster and not a big focus of campus life. VU had just made the jump to Division 1 basketball, and those early teams struggled for respectability. I went to only one game, against then-No. 1 ranked DePaul University, led by All American forward (and future NBA All Star) Mark Aguirre. When DePaul walked onto the court for warm-ups, the VU fans stood up — not to applaud or to jeer, but rather because we were starstruck that a top-ranked team was in our midst. The game itself played out as one might expect.
My next educational port of call was New York University for law school. During the early to mid 20th century, NYU enjoyed national success in both basketball and football circles, but by the time I arrived in 1982, intercollegiate sports had been de-emphasized to the point of irrelevance. It would relaunch its men’s basketball program at the Division 3 level during the mid-80s. They quickly assembled some good teams, even reaching the national championship game in the early 90s, and have remained competitive since then.
Each year I lived in New York, I would go to a few NYU hoops games, usually alone. D3 hoops games aren’t a big draw with the rest of Manhattan at your fingertips. Or maybe it was hard to get excited about a college team whose mascot is named after the library’s card catalog (Bobst Library Card Catalog, or Bobcat for short).
As for NYU’s football team, it remained undefeated throughout my years in the city, holding steady at 0-0. (Ba dum.)
Over the years, I’ve kept my affinity for Notre Dame football — a product of having grown up in Northwest Indiana. Fandom can be irrational; I’m neither Catholic nor a Notre Dame alum!
Because a dear friend is an Annapolis graduate (Class of 1953), I root for the Navy Midshipmen as well. Had some weird twist of fate ever led me to the Academy, I would’ve lasted about a week before getting booted out for continually questioning orders, so go figure.
During the 2000s, the University of Hawaii had a string of successful, fun-to-watch, pass happy teams, and I enjoyed pulling for them. The highlight of that run was an undefeated regular season in 2007, culminating in a Sugar Bowl appearance.
For reasons I can’t explain, I also follow from afar (usually by checking the box scores) the powerhouse Division 3 football team at the University of Mount Union in Ohio. Although they’ve been stymied in the national championship game in recent years by nemesis Wisconsin-Whitewater, they have compiled some of the most remarkably dominant seasons in the history of collegiate football.
Back to Valpo
As for college basketball, well, I’m now rooting for Valparaiso(!), which has become a very competitive mid-major D1 team since my days there. The foundation was set seventeen years ago, when the Crusaders enjoyed a storybook season, topped off by a trip to the 1998 NCAA tournament and a Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen. Its star player was guard Bryce Drew, the coach’s son, who hit a legendary, buzzer beating 3-point shot to upset powerhouse Ole Miss in the first round:
Drew followed his collegiate glory with a solid stint in the NBA. He is now the Valparaiso head coach, and when VU makes an appearance on one of the ESPN stations, I’ll often watch or record the game. They made the NCAA tournament this year, losing in the opening round to Maryland in a close game.
This month, SB Nation ran an excellent long form piece by Justin Pahl, son of a former VU faculty member, who wrote about growing up with the emerging, underdog VU basketball program during the 1990s. It’s a very good story about life and sports in a small, Midwestern university town. I took a screen shot and pasted it in above.