June 2010


Now that professional hockey is finally over with, just into summer, the World Cup is upon us. Personally, if I were American Dictator, I would order hockey to sign off by the first day of spring. I’ve never liked hockey, I admit. Surely, it need not bother us when the weather turns warm, indoor rinks and rabid fans notwithstanding.

The World Cup is convened every four years like the Summer Olympics—this year, for the first time in an African nation, South Africa. Sports bars in New York are going gaga over soccer. Bar patrons are cheering for players and teams they had not heard about until a week ago. The local dailies devote pages and pages of coverage. Team USA is given a shot at winning the Cup, which can be easily held in one hand, like an Oscar statue–nothing like the Stanley Cup, which takes a strong man two hands to hoist overhead. I suppose all those soccer moms finally raised a winning team.

Back in my day, we played soccer in gym class a year or two. No one thought much of it; none of us was any good at it. Times have changed, it seems. Also, I think, increasing numbers of immigrants from soccer-playing countries have had a hand in this newfangled soccer mania. Some form of soccer was played in ancient China, but the sport was formalized and the rules set in 19th century England. From there, it traveled through the empire.

All this faux interest in soccer will evaporate in four weeks when the World Cup is over and the infernal buzzing of the African vuvuzela horns has ceased, just like interest in women’s soccer mostly ended after the U.S. women’s team defeated China 2-1 for the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, the first Olympics to have women’s soccer. Have you watched a women’s soccer league game lately? And that’s another thing about soccer. It’s too noisy and riotous. You could say that international soccer is war by other means. American football can be quite brutal, but the stands don’t erupt in fury.

American’s will never cotton to soccer because it’s fundamentally un-American. Americans like to think of themselves as whole, competent people. Sports stars are able-bodied men and women. They stand tall, like Joe DiMaggio swinging bats in the on deck circle at a Yankees game. This tolerance of wheel chair athletes with huge biceps racing at breakneck speed is all good and well in our all-inclusive society. But basically, we like our athletes to come with two good arms and legs.

The arms, dear reader, are for throwing. Americans are great throwers. Baseball is the greatest of all throwing games, with the pitcher taking on the entire opposing team. A perfect game is unequaled in all of sports. Catchers fire out runners attempting to steal a base; shortstops snare grounders, wheel and throw out runners at first base; and outfielders with great arms throw out runners at home plate.

The sheer size of a soccer field reduces the players to ant-like stature, who run back and forth like a ping pong game in slow motion. When someone finally scores, the announcer wakes up and yells “scorrrrrrrrrrrrre.” And goes back to sleep.

Soccer is for middle weights. When Queen Elizabeth watched an American football game, she said to an American friend, “Where do you get so many huge men?” Well, Your Majesty, we like to grow ‘em big. American team sports push the extremes of strength and speed. Soccer can be played anywhere, unofficially on a vacant lot. All the players need is a ball, and excellent lungs and wiry legs, so that they can run and run and run. I’ll take a bat, a ball and a glove, anytime.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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Do not forsake, O England,
The words that spelled you to the world,
Beneath the abbey where poets lie,
Interred or honored on their stones;
Footfalls bringing names to lips,
And names the realms they bore.

More than other lands, your
Soil produced a tongue, giving birth
To hammered lines of fire and steel,
And defter accents, minstrel lays,
Lyric and ayre, ranks of iambs
Marching across the globe.

You conquered by bow and broadside,
Yes, but ruled by law and language.
You built our world, brick and mortar;
Your brook became our brook,
Your names and places stuck in our
Minds as the very signet for worth.

These are your heritage, these are
Your national treasure: lessons
Learned from nursery rhymes,
To sterner stuff, the nub of things,
In schoolroom, onstage, wherever
A book was opened and a story told.

And these you must keep, deep
Where heroes and poets abide,
Deep in the hoard of imagination.
In these testing times, in the
Things that matter, O England,
May you steer your own true course.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Most people in the sports world, and beyond, know by now about the Blown Call. On Wednesday, June 2, 2010, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galaraga was one out away from a perfect game, in Comerica Park. Jason Donald of the Cleveland Indians hit a slow ground ball in the hole between first and second base, drawing the first baseman off the bag. Galaraga dashed to first base and took the throw. Veteran umpire Jim Joyce was in an excellent position to see the play and called the batter safe. The fans groaned; the world groaned. Instant replay showed that the runner was out by a step. It would have been the first no hitter or perfect game in Detroit’s long history.

Umpire Joyce soon reversed himself, admitted he was wrong, cried, and apologized. “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the shit out of it,” Joyce said. “I cost that kid a perfect game.” Armando Galaraga remained poised. “I feel sad,” he said. “I just watched the replay 20 times and there’s no way you can call him safe.” He got the last out of the game and the Tigers won 3 – 0.

Under the present rules of baseball, baseball replays can only be used for questionable home runs. There is no appealing a judgment call, either by replay or protest. Well, actually there is.

Allan “Bud” Selig, age 75, is the Commissioner of Baseball, the Chief Executive Officer, the Man with the Power. He is not a do-nothing commissioner. He has instituted a number of changes into the sport, including interleague play and the wild card, and instant replay itself. He is popular with team owners. On June 3rd he announced that he would not use his office to officially reverse the call.

Supporters of Selig have pointed to a Pandora’s Box of other close calls that could now be served up for review. Baseball, already not the fastest of team sports inasmuch as it is not governed by the clock, which I love, allowing for titanic battles long into the night, would be overwhelmed by review requests.

I say, nonsense.

First, there’s nothing like a no-hitter, much less a perfect game, in any other sport. Holding the opposing team to zero yards and score in football, is not the same thing, for example. Baseball is one man against the opposing team, with backup from his own fielders, of course, but still has that one-man-standing-against-many quality to it.

I know, I pitched a no-hitter for the Talleyville Hawks of Wilmington, Delaware when I was 11. I was mobbed after the game by my teammates, but in the confusion I was not given the game ball. So my win was official but not complete, a small hurt that has remained with me.

Second, the prime directive in any sport is to get it right, to match the effort on the field with the score. So use what you have and worry about unintended or unwanted consequences of expanding the use of instant replay later. Show some courage.

Third, most directly, this is about two men’s lives, pitcher and ump. Mr. Galaraga may never get close to a perfect game the rest of his career, or the City of Detroit. It doesn’t matter that the city gave him a blazing red Corvette. Umpire Joyce will surely carry this burden for the rest of his life; his family has been threatened. The umpire’s call is not an act of God, or nature, or of hubris, the fall from grace of a man by his foul deeds, as in Greek tragedy. Baseball is a man made construct and can be changed like any other game.

It’s not just about being popular, although popularity cannot be lightly discarded in fan sports. It’s about getting things right, if not the first time, then upon review. Now Commissioner Selig himself has a new burden to carry, his failure to act, to get out of the board room and seize the moment and render a thumbs up. Oh, wait. It’s still not too late to act. This episode doesn’t need to be an American tragedy. Governors and presidents sign reprieves. Military honors are awarded years after the battle. Don’t leave that blown call still burning on the baseball field. The first words of your speech. Mr. Commissioner, will begin like this: “Upon further review…”

You know that old saying, better late than never.

By Hudson Owen. All rights reserved.