Fixing Baseball– the remedies

In my previous post I laid out the symptomatic details of how baseball has devolved into a game that is, increasingly, periods of boredom and tedium– only occasionally containing action sequences that are reminiscent of the game that it once was, and, I might add, can be again.

The first thing that you have to do, if you want to fix baseball, is to give up the cherished idea that the statistics of the game have a high degree of era comparability. Hand wringing purists like to agonize over the fact that if you change the game too much, then we won’t be able to compare the performances of players from one era to another– that it will be like comparing apples to oranges. They state with fervor that all fans know what it means to get 3000 hits, or 20 wins, or hit .300 or hit 40 Home Runs.

To these folks I would succinctly say, “Hogwash!” It’s never been true that you could, with any high degree of accuracy, compare players from one era to another. The only thing that has ever been true is that you could have fun trying! Historically, eras have been affected by a number of factors that make the effort challenging at best, and at worst, impossible. You can start w/ racial diversity, but other factors such as travel, ratio of day to night games (for decades only daylight baseball was played), size of parks, how tightly the baseballs were wound, how clean they were (often, prior to the 1920’s, no more than 4 or 5 baseballs a game were used– now it frequently is 50 or more), and what kind of surface was played on, have all contributed to variations in the way the game was played and the average statistical results. Plus, the players are now stronger than ever, more well-conditioned, and in some cases have had their statistics fattened by P.E.D.’s.

Comparing players to each other, WITHIN the era they played, has some validity, but even then you have skewing factors that any student of the game is well aware of. How many Homers would Ted Williams have had if he’d played in Lefty Friendly Yankee Stadium. Or for that matter, how many would Joe DiMaggio have had if he’d been able to play in Fenway Park, with the wall only a scant 300 or so feet away? What players have benefited from playing in Colorado’s Mile High ball park in modern times?

There is no way to know the answer, but it’s fun to try to guess. Differentiation of circumstances doesn’t ruin baseball statistics– it gives them additional flavors, and allows many a hot stove league participant a chance to ruminate over whether this player, or that player is more valuable to his team.

The reason that I am making the case for letting go of cherished notions that the game shouldn’t be changed for vague reasons of “tradition and era comparability” is that what I am going to suggest is that, at least at some level, it’s going to be necessary to “blow the game up” with some wholesale changes. Not all of what I will suggest need be implemented, at least at the same time, but radical changes are needed, and if we really want to preserve the essence of the game, then, even though it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way to preserve it is to swallow hard and do more than put band-aids on the patient. Waiving batters to first on an intentional walk, and limiting the number of mount visits is not going to save the game. Baseball requires more major surgery than that.

Before I lay out the options I have in mind, let’s remember that changes have been made in other sports, and it has hardly resulted in their death. Football and Basketball, as they are played in the current century, hardly resemble the games that were played in the Middle of the last century, and yet, curiously, there are no traditionalists who are wringing their hands over that fact. No one agonizes over the fact that goaltending is no longer allowed in basketball or that there isn’t a center jump after each basket. No one loses sleep over the addition of the shot clock in all levels of basketball (Roundball’s solution to its own “tedium issue”). And Football has had so many changes in rules, penalties, allowable formations, equipment, location of the goal posts, etc, etc. that you’d need a good size volume to catalog them all. That both sports are enjoying unparalleled popularity would belie the notion that radical changes will ruin a game.

Lest anyone get too inclined to say that Baseball has NEVER had any major changes, let me point out that at a time when baseball had already been played professionally in the U.S. for many years, that the following rules or conditions were in effect:

1. Pitchers were required to throw underhand (or at least submarine)

2. Batters were allowed to call for a high pitch, or a low pitch.

3. A fly ball caught on one bounce was an out. (And a Fly Ball that bounced over the fence was a Home Run!)

4. A base on balls was 9 balls (then eventually 8, 7, etc.)

5. A ball that was bunted foul on the 3rd strike was NOT an out. (Skillful batsmen could bunt foul over and over, ad nauseum, until they either drew a walk or got a pitch they could drive (or bunt) for a single.

6. And maybe most significantly, for more than a half a century after baseball took root in America, the distance from the mound to the plate was 50 feet– 10 1/2 feet closer than it’s been ever since the momentous rule change of 1893 when it was changed to it’s current distance of 60 ft. 6 inches.

So, with that foundation of past history and comparisons to other sports, let’s roll up our sleeves and come up with some real changes that could make the game of baseball more watchable, better paced, and more tenable for its future survival. I will argue that this can be done, while still maintaining the flavor and feel of baseball, and reminding us of how good and compelling a game it can be.

First, we will premise what I think is the most pressing problem that baseball has. And that is, simply put: Significant actions don’t happen with enough frequency to hold a person’s interest. The leisurely pace of baseball has mutated into lethargy. As a student of the game for many years, I can tell you with certainty, both anecdotally, and statistically, that the length of the game has not been a result of more excitement, but rather, spreading that excitement over a longer and longer period of time.

The most exciting baseball plays are ones where the ball is put into play. The fact that strikeouts and Home Runs are exciting is only because they are rather infrequent exceptions to that. Double plays, relays and cutoffs, great defensive plays, triples, and even infield hits need to happen often enough, to give the game the richness that it has enjoyed in the past.

So the changes we propose will serve a dual purpose: They will increase the frequency of events and they will increase the the likelihood that those events will be exciting and watchable. As a by-product of these changes, games will be shorter, better paced, and there is also the promise that the players who play the game will benefit too, in the long run.

The first change I will propose is quite radical and will disturb many a baseball purists, but it addresses so many issues with one change that it is at least worth considering. The change would be to the number of balls for a walk and the number of strikes for a strike-out. Lest anyone think this is an original idea, I’ll admit that it’s not: even in the 60’s and 70’s there were leagues at various youth leagues up thru high school that experimented with 3 balls to a walk and 2 strikes to a strikeout. My device for implementation would be to set the scoreboard clock to 1 ball and 1 strike when the hitter steps in. I know that there is much handwringing about this, centered around the idea that the dance of the hitter-pitcher encounter, needs length in order for strategy of “working the hitter” and “working the count” to be fully utilized. I would maintain that 3 balls and 2 strikes is enough to do that, and would say that if you checked, you would find that many batter pitcher confrontations start off with a 1-1 count anyway. So what is the value of those first 2 pitches, other than that the batter and pitcher are just feeling each other out?

If the batter stepped up to the plate with the count already 1 and 1, here’s what it would mean: The hitter and pitcher would have to get down to it! There is more than enough pussy-footing around in batter-pitcher match-ups and it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to make the combatants get down to business a little sooner! As anyone knows, with the count 1-1, there is still plenty of time for further developments, but the batter knows right away, that if he gets a first pitch strike, he’s going to be down to 1, and the pitcher knows if he throws a first pitch ball, that the batter is going to be able to be a lot more picky.

Some might argue that starting w/ the count 1 & 1 might be too big an advantage to the pitcher, and I can understand that– a ratio of 2 to 3 is substantially different than a ratio of 3 to 4. But doesn’t it seem likely that, with this change, it would result in more batters changing their approach and looking more to make “good contact” and less in trying to hit the ball over the wall? A hitter who wouldn’t abandon his old approach might deteriorate from a .210 hitter with 35 bombs to a .170 hitter with 27, whereas if he altered his approach he might end up a .240 hitter with 20 Dingers. Who do you think a manager would be more likely to want in his line-up? I realize this is highly speculative, but my point is that players would adapt and it might well be that the game would end up benefiting as a result.

And there is one specific way that the game would benefit, which many of you have already guessed: Pitch counts would drop drastically, which would shorten the games, increase the frequency of balls put in to play, and last, but not least, it would allow starting pitchers to work deeper into a game. A starting pitcher who is on a 100 pitch limit, can likely work 7 or 8 innings, or even occasionally 9, if 3 balls and 2 strikes becomes the norm. There would likely be less mound visits and less pitching changes, which would further contribute to a better paced game with fewer interruptions.

If this change produced too big of a drop off in offense, that could be addressed by combining it with another change, such as moving the mound back slightly, or various other tweaks, which I’ll be discussing at further length later on.

This idea is worth considering because it cuts to the heart of baseball’s problem. Anticipation dragged out too long, results in tedium and boredom and eventually indifference. If the moguls of baseball continue to turn a blind eye to the problem, they may end up with a game that no one cares about. At first it may be that people won’t care during the regular season, when one game means a minimal amount, so at least, it should be watchable. But eventually, a sport ignored during the regular season becomes a game that is difficult to care about even when the stakes are higher.

Even if this idea is rejected (or provisionally accepted) there are many other ways to achieve some of the desired effects either as stand-a-lone solutions or in combination with changing the Ball-Strike format or with other alterations. I will refer to these ideas as “Major tweaks” or MT’s.

MT1: 3 Foul Balls on the 3rd strike and the batter is out.

This one actually is one that my wife has repeatedly suggested and it has so much merit that I believe it deserves serious consideration. Part of the charm of baseball is the way that, in the short run, random reinforcement plays a big part in the success of a swing. For example: If you hit the ball fairly well, it may be a fly out, pop out, or ground out. If you hit the ball poorly, it may be chopped in front of the plate and roll out of anyone’s quick reach for an infield hit. Or if you hardly hit it all, it may be a foul ball, which (often) will be out of play. For the first 2 strikes (for this illustration we are back to conventional 4 ball, 3 strike paradigm), the foul ball is weighted the same as a regular strike, which seems logical, but for some reason (lost to antiquity) it was long ago deemed that a batter could hit as many foul balls as he wanted with 2 strikes, and still remain at the plate. It’s hard to think why that makes sense, altho, I suppose at some level it was felt that, gosh, a 3rd strike should be “more pure”– a called strike, or a swinging strike.

At this point, it should be remembered that baseball had the analog of this problem before. Skillful bunters could bunt one pitch after another foul. As a result, late in the 19th century, a rule was passed stating that a foul ball on the 3rd strike, resulted in a strikeout. Obviously, hitting a foul ball deliberately on a normal swing is more difficult. But it’s not impossible, and in fact, many hitters are skillful enough to realize they will not be able to square a pitch up but can adjust enough to get the bat on the ball and foul it off. It seems total elimination of the value of that skill should not be the goal. But diminishing it’s value should. If a foul ball on for the first 2 strikes is a full strike, it doesn’t seem too extreme to say that a foul ball on the 3rd strike should be worth, let’s say 1/3 of a strike. This is a rule similar in structure to the let rule in Tennis, where if you have one fault, you’re allowed a let, but if you have a second let serve, then you’ve double faulted.

Some people might object to this saying, that there is no skill involved in deliberately serving a let so that you get another chance– it’s simply luck. But that actually makes my point– if hitters are skillful enough to deliberately hit foul balls, then the game faces the same issue that it had w/ bunting. That is– how many “good pitches” is it fair to allow a batter to spoil? Maybe it’s disproportionate to say if a hitter fouls off 8, or 7, or 6 pitches, that he still has the right to win the battle? or 5 or 4 even, I think 3 is about right. Obviously the number of fouls could be argued, but I think it’s reasonable (especially if you decide you wish to preserve 4 balls & 3 strikes as the format) that at some point the pitcher has established his advantage over the hitter for a plate appearance. I would add that, if a by-product of this rule would be that more hitters would shorten their swings and try for hitting line drives or hard hit ground balls once in a while, then that would be another way in which the game would be enhanced. While the pitch saving aspect might not be as great as it would be by changing to 3 ball, 2 strike format, it nevertheless would reduce pitch counts to some degree, and certainly give pitchers another way to try to get outs and force hitters to, not to wear the phrase out, but to “get on with it”.

Again, there could be the concern that this would give too much of an advantage to pitchers. As with the change to the ball and strike format, we might need a tweak to preserve the balance of offense and pitching. Which brings us to:

MT2: Moving the mound back to 63 feet 6 inches.

This is an arbitrary distance and it might be that it would require some testing (perhaps in exhibition season), but the object of the change is simple enough. By moving the mound back 3 feet, it would change not only the final velocity of the ball when it reaches the plate, but it would also give hitters a split second longer to determine what pitch is being thrown and where he needs to swing his bat. Pitchers would have to be craftier, and batters would be able to take advantage of the improved swing conditions that would allow a contact hitter to move to the fore. If combined with either the proposed ball-strike count alteration, or the foul ball limit rule, it might help to decrease the all or nothing approaches to pitching and hitting both, and help increase the frequency of exciting baseball plays created by a ball being put into play.

MT3: Limit the number of time-outs that a player can take.

Imagine how silly it would be, if right before a player shoots a free throw, an opposition player could call out “time”, step away from the free throw lane and the referee would grant it, almost every time. In baseball, a pitcher can be ready to pitch, and out of the blue, the batter can signal for time and it is almost always granted. Why is this practice permitted? It is, because it didn’t use to be so excessive, and, as a courtesy, typically umpires would allow it. But what if we were to say, to a batter, and a pitcher, you’re allowed one time out per at bat? Would that help speed the game up? Maybe not very much, but it would aid in the philosophy that we are developing of “moving the game along”. I don’t think there is any good argument why more than one is needed, and probably you could make a case for saying that they don’t need that many. But if you go less than one, it becomes problematic. However, if you combine this rule with a pitch clock, it may be that players would seldom even use the time-out they had. Let’s take a look at that further:

MT4: Put in affect a 25 second pitch clock.

Both the time of the pitch clock and the way in which the rule is enacted are open to revision, but here is one way in which this rule could be effected:

At the point in time that the Catcher receives the ball, either from the umpire, or from the pitcher, the pitch clock is turned on, and the battery (pitcher & catcher) has 25 seconds to get the ball back to the pitcher, and RELEASE another pitch. Instant replay would not be used to determine if a pitch was released in time; that responsibility could be assigned to either the 1st or 3rd base umpires, and like balls and strikes, that decision would be final. If the pitcher failed to release the pitch in that time span, it would register as a ball, and the clock would immediately be reset to 20 seconds. If either batter or pitcher called their one alloted time-out, the pitch clock would be stopped, and reset to 5 seconds earlier, but not exceeding 25 seconds, and not exceeding 20 seconds, if there has already been a pitch clock violation resulting in a “ball”. Defenders of baseball tradition are horrified by this idea but it is a natural outgrowth of the game being delayed by batters and pitchers that are trying to win the battle thru gamesmanship, rather than a demonstration of skill. A certain amount of gamesmanship is part of any sport, but again, we are talking about proportion here, and a pitch clock with the above conditions would likely keep that gamesmanship to an acceptable level.

MT5: Deaden the baseball.

All of the previous suggested changes may accomplish a lot, but they may not sufficiently discourage the all or nothing approaches that have become so common for many Major League hitters. There is no way to ignore the fact that with modern strength training, and with pitchers throwing harder than ever, that many hitters see no down side to trying to hit it over the fence every time they are up. While there have always been tape measure home runs, in any era, the % of home runs that clear the fence by 40 or 50 feet or more has never been so high. The stark truth is, in many way, it takes more skill to hit a line drive single than to hit a home run, since you don’t even need to get completely squared up on the ball to leave the yard. You can blame this on steroids, stronger players, or more tightly wound baseballs, but whatever you blame it on, it comes down to one thing. Today’s ball parks, with the conditions that the game is currently played, have become too small to hold HR’s down to reasonable levels. When everyone in the line-up is a HR threat, pitchers never get any reasonable opportunity to pace themselves, and so burn-out in either a particular game, or a season, or a career, becomes more likely.

Since making the ballparks larger is not feasible (not to mention affordable), the solution has to be to make the game “play smaller”. Making the ball just a little deader would enhance the game in so many ways, that one scarcely knows where to begin. First of all, let’s dispense with the idea that this wouldn’t be feasible. Hopefully no one is naive enough to suggest that the powers that be don’t know how tightly wound the ball is. Rather, it’s more likely to say that they know EXACTLY how live the ball is, and have recorded statistics that provide that data, even if it isn’t always made public.

If you very slightly deaden the ball, and again, I would stress that they could deaden it exactly as much as they want, it could be done in such a way as to take, say— 10 feet off of a 400 foot drive. That may not seem like much, but it would force many hitters to adjust their approach. Many balls that would previously be home runs, would be caught on the warning track. At least with the bases empty, a great number of batters would find that trying to crank it wouldn’t give them enough bang for their buck. Having hitters opt for trying for singles, or doubles, would make the game more balanced and provide managers with other strategic options besides “try to draw some walks and hit 3-run homers”. Pitchers would once again be able to occasionally take the tack of “letting the batter hit it”, knowing that he may get a long out from a well placed pitch, depending on the hitter and the hitter’s philosophy.

So these are a few ideas for saving the game, and to me, baseball is very much a game worth saving. A whole generation is growing up in a world of short takes and sound bites, and I fear that the laborious pace that baseball is currently played will not allow many who are sampling the game for the first time to be bitten by the baseball bug. If you care about it’s survival, I think you have to at least want to restore the pace that the game is played to something approaching the way it was played for the majority of the 20th century, when it balanced leisure with anticipation in a magical, captivating fashion.

Fixing Baseball

As I thought about this topic, it occurred to me that no 2 people will exactly agree on what a game should be. We might agree to play by the rules, and to accept the way it currently is played, with reservations, but consensus about what the game should be like or how it should play out is always going to be difficult, and may wander over time.

Having said that, I’ve been a baseball fan all my life, and I feel compelled to say, with some conviction, that it’s not the game it used to be, and by that I don’t mean just that it’s changed, but that it’s diminished, it doesn’t exude the charm that it once did. Allowing for the eventual disillusionment that comes with age, I think a strong case can be made that the powers that be have let the game devolve into something that is neither romantic in perception or captivating in scope and that with out maybe intending to, have allowed baseball to become a caricature of what it once was, and a dreary caricature at that.

Baseball, at it’s best has had the intrigue that comes from different styles of play— Pitching heavy teams like the White Sox Or Dodgers of the 60’s, or Slugging teams like the Yankees of the 20’s and 30’s, or the Big Red Machine from the 70’s. Teams that used speed as a weapon offensively while hitting few home runs, and teams that played for the long ball like many of Earl Weaver’s Baltimore teams in the 70’s. Teams would craft their style of play to fit their roster and even their park, and rosters were dotted with all manner of players: Maury Wills, Rickey Henderson, and Lou Brock were stars along side of sluggers like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Willie McCovey. Because baseball had not yet evolved into a Home Run hitting contest, players such as Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn, and Wade Boggs were big stars without hitting home runs with any great frequency. Because Singles and doubles played a big role in a team’s offense, strategies to string together baserunners to produce a single run or more were a significant part of a manager’s arsenal. Because fewer hitters were aiming for the fences literally every at bat, the games had a balanced rhythm that the current game lacks.

If you’ve noticed I’ve packed the last paragraph with players from a bygone age, I would say with no apology, that I’m trying to make a point, and the point is that the game is now dominated by one dimensional players– oh sure there are players that for a season or 2, have a multi-arsenal game, such as Mookie Betts last year, or Jose Altuve the year before. Or Mike Trout most every year. But the league is deluged with players who are satisfied to strike out 30% of the time, for a chance to hit 30 or 40 home runs over the course of the year. If you think that I’m exaggerating- consider Joey Gallo of the Rangers in 2018. In 577 plate appearances for the season, he hit 40 home runs, walked 74 times, and struck out a whopping 207 times. If you add in his 3 hit by pitches, the numbers crunch this way: 56% of the time he was up, there was no ball in play! I’m not even arguing that he wasn’t valuable in some way– obviously the Rangers thought he was– he played in 148 out of 162 games. What I am arguing is, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Baseball was supposed to be a game with strategy and moments of anticipation, punctuated by flurries of activity. It WASN’T supposed to put us to sleep!

And then there is the effect that all this has had on Pitchers– in order to combat the all or nothing approach–hurlers now look to strike out as many hitters as possible, for fear that many batters are strong enough to hit home runs even when they don’t get perfect contact with the ball.

And hitters– to maximize their home run totals, work counts to excessive extremes– many hitters having developed a knack for hitting a foul ball when they don’t get a pitch on which they can square up their bat. The result is that more at bats are ending in either a strikeout, a walk or a home run. Even prized players like Bryce Harper, are often hitting for a low average, with high walks and strike outs, but with enough Home Runs to justify their continued approach (patience bordering on tedium). Long stretches of the game will sometimes pass without a playable fair ball being hit. In fact the average interval between fair balls in play has never been so great. With pitch counts higher than ever and the feeling by many pitchers that they dare not let up on any hitter, complete games are rarer than ever, and rosters that used to get by with 9 or 10 pitchers now frequently number 12 or 13. The number of pitchers necessary to get a team thru the 1458 innings that are your average season is now frequently 20 or more. Because pitchers often are removed after 5 innings or even less, and relief pitchers are frequently limited to a single inning or less (so that they’ll be available again for the next game!), the parade of pitchers per game seems almost interminable.

The situation with pitching has degenerated to the degree that some teams have even experimented with using a pitcher as “an opener”, letting a pitcher who would classically be a relief pitcher now “start” the game, with the main purpose of getting thru 1 or 2 innnings, and then turning the ball over to the pitcher who would have been the starter, but now is asked to get the game to the latter stages (throwing 4 or 5 innings) before turning the game over to the back end of the bullpen. This is such a distortion of the history of the game, that you would think that the so called “baseball purists” would be alarmed by it. Instead, they spend their time myopically focusing on bandaid solutions to shorten the game, without understanding that the way the game is played is the reason the games are so long.

No one would state move vocally than me that the games are too long, but if you focus only on that, you’re missing the point. The main problem with the game is: The rate at which events take place is tragically slow. Even those who love the battle between batter and pitcher would have to admit that it has escalated to the point of ad nauseum. There was a player for the Cleveland Indians back in the 80’s who used to have lengthy at bats, partly because he stepped out and adjusted all of his equipment between each pitch, and because he would work pitchers deep into the count. His name was Toby Harrah, but his nickname was “The Human Rain Delay” and sadly he foreshadowed the game in the decades to come, as now it seems like every line-up has 3, 4 or more “human rain delays” in it. Add to that disturbing trend the fact that umpires, for reasons known only to them, seem reluctant to ever tell a player “no” when he asks for time. You’d think there would be a limit, but Chris Webber would never have had a “time-out tragedy” if he’d played major league baseball, as there is, seemingly, no limit to the number of times you can call time during a baseball game.

So, lots of pitching changes, lots of batters and pitchers calling time, or stepping off the rubber, or throwing over to first base, or having consultation w/ managers, coaches, infielders, long counts, lots of foul balls, and lots of strikeouts- these type of circumstances now permeate the game.

I just would like to know who thinks the game is better than ever, because if you think the above litany is exciting, you must enjoy watching grass grow, or paint dry.

The shameful thing about it is, with enough pace, baseball seems to be the perfect blend of action and anticipation– the right sport of summer days– taking up just enough time to feel like a great diversion without feeling like a time waste or interminable torment.

Well I didn’t know I’d go on to this length– sometimes, when you write you scarcely know what will come out, but that is enough for today. I titled this blog post “Fixing Baseball” and I have some ideas for that, and I’ll lay those out on my next post.

Milestones

At the beginning of any blog post, after you have titled it, there is a message that appears at the top of the text area which says, almost intimidatingly, “Write your story”. I thought about this a little and what I realized is, we’re all writing our story. People write their stories in the way they live their lives, in the people they touch, the activities they undertake, and the ways that they seek to live well, treat others well, and make the world, in any way, a better place. So not everyone is a writer, or an artist, but we all have our stories, and with a little effort, sometimes you can see the story that’s been written in someone’s life.

Turning 65 this week made me wonder where the time has gone, and wonder what I will do with the time I have left, but it also triggered memories of my parents and thoughts of how they lived their lives and the stories that they wrote with their lives. An obituary seems like such a poor substitute for something that took decades to write– as if we could sum up a persons life in a couple of paragraphs. To some degree, one might say the length of a person’s obituary was a measure of how successful they were in life– sort of the late life equivalent of your mentions or listing of clubs you were members of in your high school yearbook.

But that seems cold, or at least dry, doesn’t it? Because we all have a “back story” and it might be that the facts behind the headlines, so to speak, are the best parts of the telling of a person’s life, what Paul Harvey would call “The Rest of the Story”.

My mom & dad were both active, engaged citizens, who made friends, enjoyed the fruits of their labors and gave back to the communities they lived in. But I remember little things about them that made them human, that illuminated the ways that they were fragile, and the ways that they could strive to do the right thing, perform a simple kindness, whether or not it would be noticed, or even knowing whether it would work out or not.

I saw my mother when she was grief-stricken with the knowledge that her own mother had contracted cancer and had little time left to live. I saw my father laying in a hospital bed looking bewildered and depressed when he had a heart incident in his 40’s. At those times, even from the perspective of one who hadn’t lived thru many of life’s travails, I saw them differently than a child sees his parents….I saw them as, well, fellow travelers in this journey we call life, and it was eye-opening; it gave me a sympathy for them that surprised me. One grows up expecting sympathy from parents, and to recognize the reciprocity that is inherent in any relationship is the beginning of adulthood, and to a certain extent, the end of innocence.

Because, with this knowledge, comes the realization that one has responsibilities that are not easily cast aside. “The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep”. Surely, Robert Frost was commenting on adult virtues as much as anything when he wrote his poem “Stopping by The Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

Late in her life, when drugs and age had robbed her of much of her short term memory and when her mobility and strength limited what she could do, my mother remained, for me, a reminder of this virtue with the way that she still was game to engage, and quick to smile and reminisce as best she could, and to assure you of her love. She continued to try to dress well each day, and to wash the dishes when she could no longer cook, and to set the table when she could no longer wash dishes. It was a pleasure to us all that she was able to see great grand children and a great consolation to her as life grew more difficult for her.

In the end, up to the last time I saw her, she still shown a light of love in her eyes, and then thankfully, was finally granted that which she came to hope for in her last days. That she would lay down beside my father, and pass in her sleep.

As for my father, he did all he could, understanding that his responsibilities to her trumped other interests and concerns, and showing for me, to my awe, that love could transform a trying circumstance into a triumph of the human spirit. To the very last he did all that he could to make her comfortable and needed and to find activities for her that could keep her occupied and distracted from her fears. Tho he mourned for her already, as he could no longer commune with her at more complex levels, he was steadfast in being her loyal companion.

When she died, he showed once again his determination to live a vital life. His kindness and advice to the staff at “The Brook”– the senior assisted living facility he spent his last years at–were admirable examples of one who believed that kindness to others was the way to validate one’s own life.

Altho no longer possessing the energy of his youth, he set out to see and do as much as possible in what proved to be the last full year of his life. I’m grateful for the time that my wife and I got to spend with him that final year, and for the closure that my brother attained in helping him with his affairs and finances (for which I am so grateful, but that is another story), and swapping stories with him.

He formed a close relationship with a woman in the area, which would have met with my mother’s approval, and when he was diagnosed with cancer in early 2018, he bore the news with sadness but with grace.

So, you see, this is just a part of my parent’s lives, which can’t be summed up in a few words, but is a rich tapestry, a great story, that touches many lives, and if we can’t all view the entire tale, that is nevertheless what it is.

“Write your Story”? We can hardly do otherwise– but with grace, and heart, we can hope to write it well, in such a way that helps others write theirs, too.

The Shame of Lotteries

Many years ago, Shirley Jackson penned a simple classic horror story titled “The Lottery”. It’s fictional setting was a town that annually conducted a ritual lottery that all the citizens had to participate in, and the upshot was that the “chosen” from this lottery was stoned to death. There was only a vague explanation for the rationale of the occurrence, but the horror was that someone could be selected for death in such an arbitrary fashion.

As we are too civilized, reputedly, for anything this “random” as a way of picking someone, regardless of merit, to die, we have gone another direction. Our states and municipalities use lotteries, ostensibly, as a source of revenue to fund public education or other institutions that few could are argue require such funding. Never mind that governments routinely, allot less money in their budgets for areas that are funded by lotteries, or other nefarious sources of revenue, like sin taxes or gambling casinos. We blandly accept these as acceptable rationale, along with the assurance that if we didn’t provide these outlets, then they would be provided by criminal elements, and at least this way, we can use the monies for “good”.

Maybe you’re convinced that the lottery is a fairly harmless form of entertainment or that at the very least it provides an outlet for people’s “natural” desire to take a chance now and then. Here are a few things you should consider before your dismiss this as a trivial concern.

  1. If fairness to citizenry is something that you value then you might wonder how it’s fair to market “lottery winnings” to the poor and frequently uneducated, when really what you are doing is taxing them for being that way. If there is a more regressive tax than the lottery, what would it be?
  2. If you would admit that gambling is a vice, why would you want to make it easier to indulge in? You might argue that before lottery and other forms of gambling were made “legitimate” that a person would have to break the law to engage in them. But doesn’t that beg the question: If many people would not break a law, why would we want to take away that disincentive, allowing a weakness to hold sway. This is the same kind of argument that is made to justify the legalization of marijuana, ignoring the fact that many would not break the law and now granting them indulgence with impunity. There is something scary about a society deciding that anything that people might do anyway ought to be legal. That’s a slippery slope and completely ignores why laws were enacted in the first place!
  3. If it’s wrong to randomly consign someone to death, why is it okay to randomly grant them riches? We love to rail about what people make from their jobs, making ourselves judges as to what is a “fair compensation” for their labors. If a CEO, or a movie star, or a sports star has a huge salary, we become arbitrators and decry that “no one is worth that much”, ignoring the fact that, in fact, someone was willing to pay them. YET….. and yet, we are fine with someone “winning” a huge windfall from a lottery game, or a slot machine or some other activity that in fact “rewards” them on a totally random basis. We may express envy, wishing we could be in their place, but few seem to consider that there’s a terrible side to randomly assigning people financial security. That doing so, when they have done “nothing to merit” it, is actually destructive. It sends the message that, in life, we should really just hope that we “get lucky” and anyone who works and strives for anything is actually just doing so because they couldn’t hit the jackpot. Not even to mention the fact that it causes upheaval in the life of the person who does hit the jackpot, who is left to wonder how to determine who his friends are anymore, and has to know at some nagging level, that he did not deserve to have what his friends and relatives do not.

In the end, it’s hard to view state run lotteries, or similar gambling operations, as much more than a money grab. There is no real benefit to society, and it legitimatizes something that people used to understand was a temptation that needed to be controlled.

Life is….

When I was much younger, I worked in a hardware store, and one of my bosses — I had 3— and I would sometimes fill the time between customers (which was considerable) discussing the esoteric and philosophical. One of the concepts that he trotted out for me was his theory that “Life is a Game”. Actually, I should quickly add, he never claimed it was his invention. But he would cheerfully make a case for it, and for some reason, at the time, the idea rubbed me the wrong way.

Pat would explain that, if you think about it, you’re presented with certain conditions, and you have certain abilities, and it’s up to you to try to make the best of it— essentially to “play the game” and try to optimize your result.

When I look back on it, I think it wasn’t a very offensive idea, really, but at the time I found it sort of dehumanizing– making it sound almost like we’re rats in a maze, that life was nothing more than a complex riddle, or set of riddles. Life has to be more noble than that, I thought, or perhaps wished.

Over the years I’ve thought from time to time about what he said and I’ve realized that the theory works pretty well much of the time. Transactional Analysis, really, at it’s heart, derives from game theory. And we certainly are all working day-to-day to make the best of our situation, whatever we perceive it to be, to try to accomplish whatever we’ve decided we deem worth our efforts, using the skills we have.

It’s hard to find fault with that, on the surface, but it’s sort of a cold, clinical description of life, isn’t it? Not very inspiring, and in the end not very satisfying as a complete definition.

As I was contemplating this recently, at Christmas Time, I had a bit of an epiphany. Likening life to a game, I decided, was good as far as it goes, but lacked the dimension to be a complete definition, and that there were actually 3 other important aspects to living, that, coincidentally all begin with the letter G.

If life is a game, we want to play it as well as we can, but without consideration of the other 3 G’s, any victory that we may achieve is going to seem hollow, either in the moment of triumph, or in memory of it.

The 3 other G’s

If you open your eyes, you’ll see the most obvious one: Life is, first and foremost, a Gift. With every waking moment (and sometimes dreaming moments) we are reminded of how amazing the world is, and what a blessing it is to be a part of it. That there are occasions when we feel otherwise, or that there are those who scarcely feel that at all, doesn’t lessen this conclusion. When we do feel this way, we KNOW it is a gift, and when we think about others that seldom do, it humbles us and rouses in us a desire to help those who are less fortunate.

So do you see then what the other 2 G’s are? They spring naturally from the conclusion that life is a gift. We feel Gratitude, which is a great motivator. Happiness, pleasure, joy– whatever you care to name it is an enabler. It enables us to act with Generosity.

This is where the true meaning of life can shine through. One of my other bosses, these many years ago, was my brother. Ken has told me more than once, “The purpose of life is to have friends”. Think how well that ties together the 4 G’s: Play the game so that you can have friends, that you can share the gift of life with, showing generosity to them and with them. If that is your life, then the gratitude that you feel to whatever you conceive God to be, and to your family and friends will be abundant.

College Football Playoff

Originally this was going to be a sports blog. At least when I thought about doing it a year or 2 back, it was what I thought it would primarily be. Maybe there will still be a fair amount–I have many ideas, suggestions, and opinions regarding sports and have followed them my whole life, at times feverishly; in recent years, not as much. Yet still enough that I never completely lose track of what is going on in any of the major sports and usually will know at least enough to converse about some of the more minor ones (that would be the ones with lower revenues).

So, today, in my first Sports subject blog, I will make a case why the Div. I College Playoffs will increase to 6 or 8 teams, and probably in the next few years. Notice, I did not say “should” increase, but “will”.

There are 4 major reasons:

  1. It’s happened before. Any student of Sports history knows that Pro Baseball used to have 2 teams in the post-season. Then it went to 4, and to 8 and now it’s up to 10. Pro Football went from 8, to 10 to 12 in fairly recent memory. You might say those are pro sports, driven by money….as if there is no money in College Football..?! Besides, those of us who remember the 20th century, recall that NCAA Basketball used to be 16 teams, then went to 32, then 64, 65, and now it’s 68.
  2. There are a five major conferences right now in Top Tier College football: ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC, plus Major Independents such as Notre Dame, and BYU. This year Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame were the teams that were selected to the 4 team playoff. Clemson, Notre Dame and Alabama went undefeated, so they would look to be automatics. That leaves one spot, and it went to Oklahoma who had 1 loss. That means the Big 10 and Pac-12 had no representative in the “Final 4” for the 2nd year in a row. Does anyone seriously think that those 2 conferences have no sway? If you doubt that there are powers that be in those conferences that are steaming over the fact that all year long, their teams beat each other up for their Conference Championship, and then are advised “You don’t qualify for the national tournament”, you can’t have been paying very close attention.
  3. If you add teams to your Playoff scheme, the whining becomes less significant. If you have a team left off a 4 team tournament, you can certainly wonder whether they might have run the table if they’d been in a post season tournament. But if you select 6 or 8 teams, the complaints by teams left off become more about “we deserved to be in the tournament” as opposed to “we would have won it all”. You’ll never completely eliminate the whining– heck– teams still carp about being left out of the 68 team NCAA basketball tournament. But the feeling that a true champion will emerge from a 6 or 8 team field is going to be stronger that it is with only 4.
  4. Finally, the big bowls are not going to suffer! The 2 semifinal bowls and the Championship Bowl game have been the most eagerly watched games in a generation. Each major bowl covets those spots. But there are only 3 games to divvy up. With 6 teams , you’d have 5 hugely attractive games, and with 8 teams, you’d have have 7 games. Don’t you think that the Big Bowls are only going to end up favoring a Playoff scheme that guarantees a big game for them every single year?

So in summary, there are too many forces working toward changing the playoff system to include more teams to escape the conclusion that it is inevitable. The weak opposing argument that these are student-athletes and we can’t ask them to play yet another game each year is laughable! They already play 4 rounds (involving 14 teams) in the NCAA Div. II Playoffs– Ferris State ended up playing 15 games during the season all told. I don’t recall anyone wringing their hands over this abuse of Division II student-athletes!

If you want to argue that college football is hard on the body and we should limit the number of games (or snaps?) that a college athlete is exposed to, that’s a different subject altogether, for another blog, on another day.

The importance of courage

As a new blogger, I have some vague idea of how often I want to write something, and I suppose I imagined it to be a few times a week. I skipped Christmas and Boxing Day (much of it aboard a train) and so this will be my 3rd entry in 5 days. So far, so good….but we’ll see if I can keep it up.

I have a small problem with writing extemporaneously and it’s this: I can lose my focus quickly; so– to try to prevent that, at the risk of some loss of spontaneity, I am going to try to do one topic per entry. At least for a while– until I have a better idea of what I would like this blog to be.

So….today’s topic is courage, and I’ve had a few thoughts about it lately, and thought I’d trot it out for consideration. Maybe it will seem sophomoric, but as I mentioned in my fist blog, I’m not going to worry about that too much and anyway, what has anyone got against sophomores anyway?

One of the things I’ve been ruminating about lately is Free Will. Yes, this is the Free Will in all caps, to highlight it as the issue that philosophers, and, more recently, scientists have wrestled with. Maybe you think I’m off topic already, but bear with me– I’ll get to it.

Free Will is one of those concepts that if you try to come up with a definition, it’s really difficult. You end up with some sort of vague reference to having the ability to discern choices, and to “choose” one as an exercise of your free will. If you think about it, it always seems to end up as circular reasoning, which by the way, does not in any way persuade me that there is no such thing.

Maybe Free Will deserves it’s own post, or more than one. But let me tell you what I’ve considered may be it’s relationship to courage.

I would propose that courage, at it’s core, is the manifestation of free will. And, it’s linguistic counterpart– cowardice- is the abdication of it.

Let’s look at choice in isolation. In isolation it could be, do I wear Red or Blue? Which in a neutral way would be “What am I in the mood for today?”

It would be hard to attribute much Free will to that decision, or even if we granted that it was “free”, who would argue that was freedom expressing itself in any significant fashion?

But now, let’s take a choice out of isolation. What if a person’s choice is to step forward and halt a fight between 2 people he doesn’t know? Maybe, there is personal harm that he risks, why should he do it? And what will allow him to accept those risks, and do what seems right? That would be courage, I think.

But acting in a courageous way feels very much like a personal decision doesn’t it? It’s not like you can just hit the courage button, and poof, you do the right thing. While I admit this is a subjective feeling– the feeling is very much– that you have to “will” yourself to be brave. And when you do nothing, or perhaps “decide” to do nothing– in one sense you’re not really deciding anything.

If someone wants to quibble that sometimes you don’t have time to decide and then the opportunity passes, I accept that: life is full of random situations. There’s no way to fit them all into a neat “argument box”, so to speak. But in your heart of hearts, don’t you feel like their are moments in your life where you know that what the issue or crisis needs is your courage? And when we summon up that courage, doesn’t that feel very much like the soul of free will?

Upon examination, I think one could make a case that courage is the only real attribute that underlies all of the other so-called “virtues”. Is it easy to be kind? Yes & No; it’s easy when it costs us nothing. What if the kindness to another exposes one to ridicule or persecution? Think no farther than Nazi Germany to know that even kindness can make you vulnerable to ruin, torture, and death. What about honesty? Is it always easy to be honest? Not if you are giving an honest reading of an opinion to someone you know to hold an opposite point of view. What if that endangers a friendship? Would you withhold your honesty?

Maybe you would if it wasn’t important– deciding what movie to see, or what restaurant to eat at– that might be something where you would value honesty less than comfortable companionship. But what if it was a life value you hold dear? Wouldn’t free will need to express itself as “courage”?

I won’t try to pass myself off as a Christian– those that know me know better. But what if what the biblical teachings regarding “Free will” contain a kernel of truth? Ergo, that “Free Will” is the gift of empowering us to make choices for the best reasons, even if that is hard to do, and even if we have to overcome fear to do it.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument, that one does not want the responsibility that “free will” implies. Then it would be somewhat convenient to argue against it’s existence, wouldn’t it? But If free will does exist, it seems likely that there would nevertheless be those claims that “I had no choice”…..”It wasn’t my fault”. And there would be plenty of times that no one could really argue with that. But it’s quite a leap to go from that to saying that we never have choices and that we are never responsible, nothing is actually are fault, and there is no accomplishment that we can take credit for.

Maybe this argument has holes in it, but it feels like there is some connection between “being brave” and the exercise of free will. We are, after all, restricted to what our senses tell us, but we listen to them, nevertheless, as they are the means that we have available to us, to know what is real. Maybe we shouldn’t ignore our sense of what is right and wrong, and the “sense” that some situations are presenting us with the opportunity to manifest our free will and to act courageously, or to abdicate that free will and take the “easy way” out.

Who would suggest that we could be courageous in the face of every decision? But it’s on-going, isn’t it? It defines our life, really, this struggle, to be brave enough to (at least try to) do the right things.

Christmas observed

I’m new to blogging and as I prepared to start this entry, I noticed that–right after I put in my title- a small script appeared that said “Write your story”. That actually seemed a bit daunting– for what is my story? Do I even have a story? Fortunately, Christmas is the story of many. While it can’t mean the same for all people, Christmas is certainly an occasion that connects many of us. Buyers connected w/ sellers, churches connected w/ their congregations, families and friends reconnected to a great degree. If we observe Christmas at all, and that is not a given, then we have to make note that it’s a time when many of us agree to make those connections. We may feel obligated to do so, and we may even feel stressed by our attempts, but it would seem that we often end up gratified that those connections occur.

It’s notable that any occasion that brings us together with the significant people in our lives can’t help but feel worthwhile. In recent years, I’ve become aware that I “enjoy” (slightly embarrassed by this) going to funerals, for the opportunity to see people I don’t often see. And…I get some pleasure in seeing pictures and hearing remembrances about the person who has died– ironically, frequently helping me to know them in a way I never did while they were alive.

So when we observe Christmas, perhaps what we are grateful most for, is the chance to observe each other, and self-observe ourselves with them, in the hope that our relationships and commitments might be strengthened or at least we would be reminded of them.

My dad passed away in the spring of 2018, and my mom late in 2016, and while I don’t feel I never knew them, I wished I’d known them a little better and know that opportunity is gone. So seizing the moment, and trying to know the ones we love, and their loved ones, is a better choice than waiting til we look at their pictures at the funeral.

While I respect the long tradition of Christmas, based at least initially on the Christian faith, and the priority of reminding us of the meaning of the day, I think there is no great contradiction in avowing a great purpose of Christmas is in the reverence that we show for life, and for the connections we have with each other. This message cuts across many faiths and philosophies and, of course, is hardly restricted to Christmas. Any of a number of occasions, milestones, celebrations, and observances might perform the same function. That they do, doesn’t diminish Christmas, though.

Most good-hearted Christians, and those of good will from any persuasion would tell you that we need all the reminders we can get. With the passage of years, I’ve recognized, finally, that the distilled message of Christmas is that the meaning of our lives is tied to the love of our family, friends and finally, all peoples that we share the world with.

Merry Christmas, Blog!

Well it was sort of like having a baby I suppose, well- okay, how would I know? That’s fair, but it seemed like it was painstaking anyway, and kind of like giving birth to something, right? Consider the baby: it has all these thoughts and feelings, not yet expressed but there it is, tabula rasa, ready to edit, educate & develop with the passage of time.

So ,and only with the able assistance of my tech savvy daughter (Is there anyone at my age who has children that doesn’t have one that is tech savvy?), I was able to set up a blog, which I’ll admit, is something I’ve coveted for a while. Why, would be a natural question, and the answer is: I’m not quite sure, given that I am only able to say what a blog is in sketchy terms.

My father passed away in 2018, and in my tribute to him at my parent’s joint memorial, I promised him (well, really myself) that I would finally write. There are many ways, obviously, that I could work to fulfill that promise, but I think the appeal of a blog is that maybe someone might read it and maybe I would get some feedback, or at least, I would strive for some kind of clarity.

I’ve struggled w/ the idea that I might not have anything to say, or that much of it might seem sophomoric. But….then again, maybe I might, and maybe I might surprise myself. Anyhow, being sophomoric in one’s 60’s is after all, a bit of an ironic accomplishment.

I hope I’ll have interesting things to say. I hope someone will read what I write. And I hope I’ll find that I can get better at it. Those are enough goals for my blog for now.

As Tiny Tim once observed, Blog Bless us every one!