Posted by: Bob Stocking | June 14, 2014

Happy 100th, Dziadziu!

Today would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday. Amongst the many nice things my Dziadziu did for me was to take me to my first Red Sox game, during the 1971 season. I was eight. My dad and I drove from our house in New Hampshire to his house in Lawrence, MA. We went to Fenway with a group on a bus.

I still have some vivid memories of that night. I remember walking up the ramp to see the field for the first time. I had never seen grass so green in my life. And no matter how many games you watch on TV, there’s nothing like seeing the Green Monster in person. In those days there were no seats above it, only a screen to keep balls from landing on Lansdowne Street. I remember Dziadziu buying me a Red Sox yearbook for $1. And I had never used a trough urinal before.

My memories of the game are a bit fuzzier. I remember that it was summer time, and a weeknight, and the Orioles were the opponent. I thought it went extra innings, and I thought the Sox won on a walk-off home run hit over the Monster, and I thought Mike Nagy hit it. To get some clarity, I went to the wonderful site Baseball Reference. They have box scores back to 1876. Looking at the Red Sox boxes for 1971, the only extra inning home win against Baltimore was on a Saturday in June, and it was the first game of a double-header, so that wasn’t it. [Worth noting: the Sox played 13 double-headers that season.] But they did have a ninth-inning walk-off win later that summer, at night. It did not end on a home run, but on a hit to left. And although pitchers were hitting in the AL in 1971, it would have been unlikely that Mike Nagy would have hit a home run, because he was a pitcher and he never hit a dinger in the majors.

This means this is the box score to my first major league baseball game. The Sox won 4-3, and the game-winning hit came from my childhood hero, Carl Yastrzemski. He hit it off another future Hall of Famer, Jim Palmer. The Mike I remembered may have been Mike Fiore, who pinch-hit for Luis Tiant leading off the ninth, drew a walk, and scored on Yaz’s hit.

Since that night I have watched games in 22 MLB stadiums, but none is finer than Fenway. And I have watched with friends and family, and gone by myself, too. But no one can match my company on that August night in 43 years ago: my dad, and my Dziadziu. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. And happy 100th, Red Solak.

Posted by: Bob Stocking | June 7, 2014

LeBron James and the Mythology behind White Male Privilege

Just days before cramps induced by the tropical conditions inside the AT&T Center forced him to leave Game 1 of the NBA Finals, an ESPN poll pointed out that LeBron James has very low popularity among white NBA fans. While most of the animosity gets blamed on a poorly-worded statement and a hyperbolic promise, I think James’ decision to leave the┬áCavs for the Heat┬áthreatens the myth of white male privilege. James left Cleveland for lots of reasons, but the heart of it was that he wanted to win championships, and that was not going to happen in Cleveland, at least as long as Dan Gilbert owned the team. Despite the fact that James not only honored the seven-year commitment negotiated between the NBA’s owners and players but also gave the Cavs their greatest period of success as a franchise, we heard complaints from fans and former players that he somehow had become ungrateful/selfish/disrespectful of the league and especially the Cavs. All LeBron did was exercise his (also negotiated) right to free agency, and he used it to find a team where he had a greater chance to win titles. And he did just that. So why has his popularity not returned to even its pre-Decision level?

A central component of white male mythology is the self-made man. I know it because I’ve felt it. We believe that we’ve earned all we have, starting from a level playing field, and that we’ve done it mainly on our own merits. We take our lot in life, make the best of it, and if we succeed we feel it’s only because of our hard work. And if we don’t succeed, it’s not because the playing field is tilted against us, it’s because it unfairly gives advantage to others (who are not white and/or not male). If LeBron could not win until he sought out better teammates, he too is cheating. He has gamed the system.

I know LeBron is polarizing. If you don’t like him, then he should have “gutted out” the cramps and kept going. If you like LeBron as I do, you see a guy whose body quit under unacceptable circumstances. If you think you are a lone agent at work, making it on your own, then you see a man who admitted failure and couldn’t succeed by himself. I see myself at work as an important component of a great team. I can’t succeed without the hard work and cooperation of some amazingly talented and dedicated people. We share the credit for our successes, making them taste the sweeter.

Posted by: Bob Stocking | November 13, 2013

Why does an NBA game require a soundtrack?

Because I spend so much time traveling, I am often sitting in a hotel room at night with the TV on. With baseball season over, I find myself watching some basketball. I’ve done this before–I became a Celtics fan as a kid in the 70s, watched them win two more titles in the 80s, and for the last two decades I’ve lived in Chapel Hill, married to a Duke grad–hanging out at the epicenter of college hoops. But with an NHL team in the area and raising two kids who aren’t big hoops fans, my NCAA and NBA watching has been mostly limited to the Final Four and the Finals.

Tonight I’m watching the Knicks and Hawks in Atlanta, and as the game moves on I am increasingly distracted by the non-stop synth “organ” and mechanical “drumming” in the background. As the Knicks shot clock winds down, the pace of the clap-clap increases. Really–the Hawks have to artificially induce tension in hopes of pressuring the visitors into rushing a shot? The game is now tied with 6:30 to go, and the crowd is getting noisier, but they are hard to hear over the incessant fake music. Why bother chanting “Dee-fense” when the noise machine does it for you? And if you tried, you have to yell over it?

After years of watching the Hurricanes in Raleigh, where pop and rock music fills every moment when the puck is not in play, it was so refreshing to see a recent Duke-UNC game in Cameron because the crowd needed absolutely no prompting from the PA to be contstantly loud, cheer for great defending, or go nuts after a three. A common complaint about the NBA is that the game is meaningless until the last two minutes, and the season itself holds very little drama until the playoffs. As I watch this game tonight–a two-possession game with four minutes left–I find myself asking: Is the typical NBA game so boring that every single possession requires pseudo-musical accompaniment? The NBA appears to be saying … yes.

Posted by: Bob Stocking | November 11, 2013

Reacting to proactivity

I’m watching the Miami Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross, give a press conference about the Jonathan Martin incident. He has twice indicated that the Dolphins are going to be “proactive” about this issue. One way they’re being proactive is to establish a code of conduct for the team. If he was being proactive, do you supposed he’d need a press conference, that ESPN is covering live, two hours before his team plays a Monday night game, to announce creation of such a code? Would he need a committee of 5, 7, or 9 people (no ties allowed when setting codes of conduct–someone must win or lose!)? If we were being proactive, would a player have walked out on his team a week ago? I’m not disagreeing with his actions–it sounds like NFL locker rooms could benefit from adults telling them how to behave–but to call it proactive at this point feels pretty reactive.

Posted by: Bob Stocking | January 21, 2013

Hey, athletes, God doesn’t pick sides in sports

I know he was caught up in the emotion of the moment, and I cast no aspersions on his faithfulness, but does Ray Lewis really think that God somehow favored his effort and sacrifice over those of his opponents? Did God pick the Ravens straight up, or did He take the points? Sorry, Ray (and every other jock who claims God “will give you what your heart desires … if it aligns with His will”), but there is no way that God was weighing the relative efforts of the Ravens and Patriots tonight. It’s fine to give your effort because you think it glorifies the God you worship, but a football game isn’t a cosmic morality play. It’s a game.

Posted by: Bob Stocking | September 9, 2010

Ten Minutes on the Lure of Football

When I was a kid I loved watching football. Why not? Everyone did. I watched my high school and college teams play, and it never occurred to me that I would not watch. I’ve been in a fantasy league since 1985, when we had to fax each other our picks–there was no Internet. But sometime around parenthood football stopped being fun to watch. For the last several years the only game I’ve watched start-to-finish is the Super Bowl, and usually I do not watch any regular season football.

But over the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to more sports talk than usual, and you can’t do that without hearing a lot about football. I did my usual last-minute fantasy draft preparations. And by last weekend I found myself checking in on the UNC/LSU game and the Boise St/Va Tech game. Each had an exciting finish. So I started asking myself, what is football’s appeal? Why is it fun to watch?

I’ve been a soccer fanatic for about four years now, and I think it’s funny to hear fans of American sports say soccer is boring, because it’s low scoring. But soccer has continuous action, and a team can score a goal ten seconds after barely avoiding conceding one. By contrast, baseball has a lot of waiting for action. And the ball doesn’t move a lot in football either–lots of time runs down as teams regroup after a play, huddle up for the next one, then wait at the line to start again. It’s boring for me. So why did I watch?

Two reasons come to mind right away. First is the NASCAR reason–I watch to see if someone’s going to get hurt. Once you step out of the football cone and wonder why it’s so popular, it’s stunning to see that violence is at the game’s core. I love hockey, and I love the hits in hockey (if not the fights), but hockey’s core is speed. Football’s is violence. Hitting is required on every single play, and most of the time a hit is required to end a play. We are drawn to that.

The second reason, at least for me last weekend, was that there is the possibility of a long score.The possibility that a team can score from any point on the field gives each play some drama. We love the image of the running back breaking into the secondary, or the receiver racing down the sideline. We may not admit to our love of violence, but all Americans love to speak about freedom, and football gives us all the chance to imagine ourselves free of the obstacles of our daily lives, sprinting into open space.

Why do you like football?

Posted by: Bob Stocking | July 9, 2010

Ten Minutes on LeBron and the Backlash

At I just read this article, containing this paragraph:

Sports as a business survives because it’s more than a business. For the jerseys to fly off shelves, people need to feel as though they’re part of an almost religious experience. When LeBron James exits his hometown amid a manipulative, crass display of pageantry, sports feels more like a cult of self-hatred than a standard business.

I have two reactions. First, I think there is something to the idea of sport being a civic religion in America, and in many other countries too. More on that later. But my second response is, who does this author think he is? Why is he focusing on the abandoned fans of Cleveland and not on the rapturous fans of Miami? I don’t blame any Cleveland fan for being hugely upset and feeling betrayed, but to say LeBron was obligated to stay in Cleveland because (a) he’s from there, and (b) the Cavs had the good fortune of being able to draft him in 2003, is nuts. He did an amazing job for that franchise, got them to their first NBA Finals, and filled the arena every night, even though the rules of his sport do not allow him to choose where to play at first. For him to use his free agency rights to play somewhere else is logically expected, if emotionally wrenching. I was expecting him to say “Cleveland” until he didn’t, but I see why he chose to go. The message is clear–to be considered one of the best, you’ve got to win some rings, and he went where he had the best chance to.

If you doubt that intention, realize that he turned down about $30 million to stay–the NBA wisely gives superstars incentives to stick around–and that he, Bosh, and Wade will all take salary hits in order to play together and have some other good players around them. Sure, they’re all millionaires anyway, and no one’s going hungry over these sacrifices, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not about money now, because there’s tons of that. It’s about greatness. You can’t deny LeBron his ability to make that choice. It’s not cynical, it’s not about inducing crassness or self-hatred. I want to be the best I can be in my work. Everyone should get that chance.

Posted by: Bob Stocking | July 9, 2010

Ten Minutes on ESPN and LeBron

ESPN has taken a lot of flak for agreeing to host “The Decision” last night. “The death of sports journalism,” according to Dan LeBatard, a frequent ESPN talking head based in Miami. Are you kidding? I thought ESPN’s role as objective sports reporters went out the window when they created, promoted, then “covered” the X Games. I don’t think any other news outlet “covered” the X Games. They created, promote, then “cover” their own awards show.

ESPN had few options when LeBron’s people approached them about hosting his announcement. If they said no, then someone else would have said yes (maybe Larry King on CNN). If they said that it wasn’t worth an hour of airtime, then LeBron goes somewhere else. And ESPN did not limit their coverage to that hour. They’d been talking about it for most of the week. They talked about it all night after the hour was over.

As we lament the coziness of Joe Biden having the White House press corps over for water games, ESPN is an even more egregious example of the overlap between reporter and object of reporting. As our 24/7 news culture moves faster and faster, ESPN personalities are celebrities like the athletes they cover. The ESPY’s is the ultimate symbol of this–athletes, entertainers, and sports personalities all hanging out together for a night.

I enjoy ESPN. When I’m traveling I will often have Mike & Mike on in the morning, and Pardon the Interruption is a fantastic show. I recently became an Insider on their web site–they were giving away FIFA 2010 for the Xbox (great for Bobby and me) and Vicki’s a fan of ESPN The Magazine. But two things really bug me about them. One is the non-stop, year-round NFL coverage (I’m just not a football fan, and I think it’s overkill to be ranking pass defenses–and discussing those rankings–in June. And the other is this tail-wagging-the-dog, in-bed-with-the-jocks stuff, like giving LeBron an hour to say the one sentence everyone wanted to hear.