The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
I have the hardest time finding good fiction. One working theory to explain that is that I usually don’t try very hard to find good fiction. I’ll own up to it. But sometimes my laziness (i.e., willingness to let trusted internet sources filter culture for me) works to perfection. This one got recommended by Austin Kleon, Maris Kreiszman, and Ben Casnocha, so I thought I’d better pick it up.

Ignore for a moment the fact that they mentioned it about a year ago and I read it this summer and I didn’t write about it until now. It’s a novel of baseball and college and friendship and family, and it is delightful to read at all times, from the off-hand asides…

This was a real college, an enlightened place–you could get in trouble for hating people here.

…to the self-aware observations:

Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

And there’s the realist/critical eye toward modern business life:

Management consulting terms like *industry ante* and *decision factor* were the glue of their relationship–Affenlight tried to learn as many of them as possible, and to intuit or invent the ones he hadn’t learned.

Another good example, observing baseball scouts:

Smooth-featured and polite, business-casual in dress, with slender laptops in their laps and BlackBerries laid beside them on the bleachers, they looked like oversize consultants or CIA agents playing a very reserved sort of hooky.

Austin already pulled one of the best excerpts in there:

He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.

I also loved this section on the ontology of sport:

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed *sometimes*, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.

And one character’s thoughts on self-definition:

Don’t be dour about it. Straight gay black white young old–it’s not going to kill you or let you live.

This line reminded me of John Cage:

That was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed.

Lastly, on men:

Men were such odd creatures. They didn’t duel anymore, even fistfights had come to seem barbaric, the old casual violence all channeled through institutions now, but they still loved to uphold their ancient codes. And what they loved even more was to forgive each other.

SweetH2O 50K 2011 Race Report, or How to Run an Ultramarathon with Only Three Weeks’ Training*

New favorite t-shirt
I had talked about doing the SweetH2O 50K for the previous 4 years, pretty much since it first started. I’d put it on the That Would Be Cool to Do list every year, and when springtime rolled around I’d forget about it/chicken out/go traveling/kick myself for not registering. After a nice wake-up conversation with a friend, I decided it was time to put up or shut up. This would be my first ultra… and my first marathon**, technically.

“Training”
Emphasis on the air quotes. I’d been out for a long (~30M) hike/trailrun about a month before the race, but that’s somewhat typical for me a long day in the mountains. I took my time, took lots of breaks, and didn’t really think of it as a training. I didn’t even remember the 50K was coming up until about a week later. I registered on March 23. The race was set for April 16. Between those two dates I did a grand total of 26.5 miles of running, which I now find funny/brilliant/lucky but at the time had me a bit panicky. I figured I was pretty much screwed overall fitness-wise, so I focused on hill-climbing runs, keeping the core muscles in tune (situps, pushups, planks, various leg raises, etc. etc.), and lots of stretching. I’m lucky I’m young and resilient. Next time, it would be wise to plan ahead and take it a bit more seriously.

Highlights from the Race

  • Being so nervous at the starting line that I had to leave the pack and face the opposite direction before the gun fired. And then I was fine.
  • Settling in at the very back of the pack, where I knew I belonged, for the for few miles with a couple other guys also running their first ultras.
  • Ridiculously beautiful morning weather! Perfect.
  • A giddy, loopy, ridiculously fun runner’s high/ Transcendental Experience of the Union of All Things from ~8-12M.
  • Tripping and falling into a creek at the ~16-mile mark. Soaked from neck down.
  • Passing people. I’m human.
  • Drinking a nice cold Mama’s Little Yella Pils at ~22M. Aid stations rule.
  • Metabolic crash into my own personal hell at ~24-27M. This was a dark place, a highlight only in hindsight.
  • Finishing in 7:47 (#141/250) and not feeling all that bad.
  • My awesome new shirt and hat.

Philosophical Observation
One part of the race route (a giant loop, run twice) is an out-and-back spur to an aid station. This is a maybe 2-mile round trip where you have runners going both directions. The brilliance of the course layout is this spur comes after a nasty section of just brutal hills, and the second time you run the spur is right around the marathon mark, i.e. when it’s hot and you’re crashing. But this is also the only time you cross paths with your fellow runners. And the thing is, everybody is cheering everyone else when they pass by. “Good job. Keep it up. Stay strong. Not much further. Looking good. You’ve got this. Doing great.” I don’t want to get too hippie-dippie about it, but it is amazing how much these platitudes can lift you up, and how quickly I fell into saying them, too. And when you remember that they’re coming from people who are every bit as tired, sore, thirsty as you are and just as likely to be in their own hellish mental state… there’s something special there. You feel grateful to be out there, struggling, but supported and somehow maybe saying something another person needs to hear. Life lesson.

In Conclusion
Now that I finally gave myself a chance, I think I’m hooked. Next stop, 50M.


*Misleading title. Please don’t follow my advice.
**I have little to no interest in road marathons, unless I hear about a really amazing course somewhere.

The Book of Basketball (review: 5/5)

The Book of Basketball
It’s a great book, let’s get that out of the way before we proceed. Just know that Bill Simmons is a carefree, garrulous writer and it is obsessively focused on basketball. It might not be your thing. One of the best practices when I was reading this one was to keep the iPad nearby so I could do a little backgrounder on legendary players I’d never heard of, and, more importantly, keeping YouTube handy to look up amazing dunks, passes, etc. If you haven’t followed basketball, there is a learning curve. On the upside, like I told Justin, reading this book after the recent playoffs, finals, The Decision, etc. has me more interested in basketball than I’ve ever been.

The biggest parts of the book cover Larry Bird, Russell vs. Wilt, The Secret (e.g. TEAMWORK), ranking the best players ever, and ranking the best teams ever. All in obsessive detail. You can open a page anywhere in the book, and in short order stumble on a really good argument about something. In a 3-page section on Elvin Hayes, Simmons lists 5 reasons that Hayes stands out. In item #5, there’s a little mini-essay on the fall-away/turnaround shot:

My theory on the fall-away: it’s a passive-aggressive shot that says more about a player than you think. For instance, Jordan, McHale and Hakeem all had tremendous fall-aways—in fact, MJ developed the shot to save his body from undue punishment driving to the basket—but it was one piece of their offensive arsenal, a weapon used to complement the other weapons already in place. Well, five basketball stars in the past sixty years have been famous for either failing miserably in the clutch or lacking the ability to rise to the occasion: Wilt, Hayes, Malone, Ewing and Garnett. All five were famous for their fall-away/turnaround jumpers and took heat because their fall-aways pulled them out of rebounding position. If it missed, almost always it was a one-shot possession. On top of that, it never leads to free throws—either the shot falls or the other team gets it. Could you make the case that the fall-away, fundamentally, is a loser’s shot? For a big man, it’s the dumbest shot you can take—only one good thing can happen and that’s it—as well as a symbol of a larger problem, namely, that a team’s best big man would rather move away from the basket than toward it. […] So here’s my take: the fall-away says, “I’d rather stay out here.” It says, “I’m afraid to fail.” It says, “I want to win this game, but only on my terms.”

Woah, right? Coming up organically in a discussion about a specific player we get a really interesting observation on the game itself, couched in a super-fan/nerd’s historical mastery, with some speculative psychology delivered in the kind of friendly/authoritative tone you’d hear at a bar. A later section on Kobe Bryant looks at his career through the lens of Teen Wolf, vacillating between the team-player (Michael J. Fox) and the devastating ball hog/alpha dog (Wolf). Maybe the better movie analogy is thinking of Tim Duncan like Harrison Ford:

If you keep banging out first-class seasons with none standing out more than any other, who’s going to notice after a while? There’s a precedent: once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for fifteen solid years before everyone suddenly noticed, “Wait a second—Harrison Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!” From 1977 to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness, Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games, but it wasn’t until he carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was consistently more bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger and every other peer. As with Duncan, we knew little about Ford outside of his work. As with Duncan, there wasn’t anything inherently compelling about him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually appreciated him for it. Will the same happen for Duncan one day?

If there is a weakness, it’s that the occasional jokey celeb-bashing comes up really lame and unnecessary. But that’s a small price to pay for 700+ quality pages and a comparable number of entertaining footnotes. Worth a read!

Baseball is poetic. It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” [via fjm]

My awesome run the other night

I have a small area map that I keep handy for plotting new running routes. My ongoing arbitrary goal is to run every road on the map, interstate excepted. So I was out in some new neighborhoods the other night (I run almost exclusively after dark), and some areas were a little sketchy. Graffiti, trash, railroad tracks, a few abandoned buildings, etc. All of this spookiness abetted by the late hour and the old guy I passed early on, who says to me, “Watch out, man. Watch out. Ha!”

The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed (review: 3.5/5)

I enjoyed reading Moneyball last month, so I got the notion to explore some other baseball books. The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed is pretty good, and a surprisingly quick read. The author/ economist JC Bradbury runs Sabernomics, a baseball nerd blog that’s well worth your time.
As you might expect, Bradbury applies some statistical tools and good old-fashioned open-minded economic reasoning to various aspects of baseball. Topics for discussion range from why batters get hit by pitches in the AL more than the NL, the best ways to measure hitting and pitching, manager ejection theory, salary negotiations, whether MLB is a monopoly, etc. I have to say Bradbury does a pretty darn good job of breaking down the statistics and economics jargon he introduces. Marginal revenue product and regression analysis exist happily along with LOOGYs and the cup of coffee. The thought process behind the studies he’s developed is fascinating in its own right—sometimes it’s just cool to read how someone thought through an intricate project, accounting for variables and dealing with potential bias. I also give Bradbury bonus points for quoting from one of my favorite thinkers, Frederic Bastiat.

One last thing that amuses and delights me to no end: almost a full third of the book is dedicated to the most extensive back matter I’ve ever seen outside of purely academic texts. There’s an epilogue, acknowledgements, one two three four appendices, an endnotes section, a bibliography, and an index.