Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Joy of Opening Day

Part of the tragedy of getting older is that places, events, and activities lose their luster. The magic of Christmas morning slowly fades. A Saturday night spent watching late-night movies, eating delivery pizza, and drinking soda by the liter, once the highlight of the kid week, starts to seem dull. Playgrounds start to look smaller and smaller until you don't notice them at all. And digging up worms starts to sound gross like a gross way to spend a summer day.

Those rare things that retain the luster through the years, then, become that much more special. Exhibit A: The start of baseball season.

Every year, without fail, Spring Fever sets in while March tries to make up its mind whether it wants to be a winter month or a spring month. The sun peaks its way through the gray skies, the last remnants of snow melt into muddy streets, buds start to appear on the once barren tree branches, and soon enough, you can smell the aroma of freshly cut grass and hear the sound of a baseball plopping into a glove. Baseball season is around the corner.

Opening Day offers hope for new beginnings each year after a long cold winter. Monotonous months spent hibernating indoors take a toll on the pysche. The outlook from your window is not the only thing clouded in bleak shades of blue, as your own outlook gets cloudy once your mind starts to ponder an endless winter routine. With Opening Day everything immediately seems more colorful and more cheerful.

Whether you actually are blessed with the opportunity to get out to the ballpark or just watch at home is irrelevant. Because even from the couch at home, you can sense the buzz coming from the fans on the television, you can see the pep in the players' step, you can see how grand the American flag looks waving above the perfectly cut grass, you can almost smell the sizzling hot dogs, and you can almost feel the peanut shells crackling beneath your feet. Whether you're enjoying a beer at the game or from your couch, that first glorious sip tastes like the first beer you've had in months, even though you've been averaging a case a weekend all winter, solely because of the glory of Opening Day. Everything seems to have a meaning for the first time in a couple of months.

Sure, I will always miss the days when I was younger and had the opportunity to get out and play myself. In fact, my picture of heaven would probably be the sandlot where my friends and I would go to play ball almost every summer day, eating hot dogs and sipping coca-cola's in between games as the sun beat down on us.

But the magic of baseball season never fades. Last summer, I remember sitting out on the deck in Petoskey with a few beers as I prepared for a rather uneventful night by myself. A couple hours later, a relatively unknown pitcher for the Detroit Tigers threw a should-have-been perfect game; what would have been a quiet night turned into a night I will remember forever, a night I will tell my grandkids about, because of the magic of baseball.

More importantly, though, even the games where nothing happens are special. It's enough for me to sit down with a couple of beers and listen to the calm story-telling tone of the announcers, to the crack of the bat, the thump of the ball in the catcher's mitt, the roar of the crowd. It's enough for me to watch the relaxed pace of the player's leisurely chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds. Baseball's deliberate pace provides a pleasant counter to the fast-paced world of everyday life; it provides a sense of peaceful satisfaction that's pretty rare once you're grown up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Imported from Detroit

One could say I am a son of the Motor City. As a Michigan native, the automobile industry affected every aspect of my life during my youth. I grew up in Westland, Michigan, a suburb of "The Motor City". My father spent nearly his entire life working at Daimler-Chrysler, one of "the big three" of the industry. My father's father spent nearly his entire life laboring at the plants of the Ford Motor Company. I decorated my bedroom with winged wheels. And some of my fondest childhood memories stem from summer days spent alongside the banks of the Rouge River, a river infamous for being contaminated with pollutants from automobile companies.

It seemed logical, then, that I, like so many other Detroit suburbanites of my generation, felt an overwhelming sense of pride when the Chrysler commercial featuring Eminem aired during the Super Bowl. The commercial spoke for Southeastern Michigan's previously unspoken for automotive culture, a culture entirely unique to the greater Detroit area, and I felt proud to be a part of that culture. Yet things weren't always this way for me. In fact, I felt quite the opposite of pride for my hometown during one point of my life, particularly when it seemed the automobile culture was ripping at the seams.

During the autumn of my senior year of high school, I frequently went for walks alongside the Rouge River and bemoaned what that river symbolized -- the failing automobile culture I was born into. Sometimes I would drink whiskey by that river and wallow in self-loathing for being born into the stale world of the Midwest, or commiserate over being trapped in a world of middle-class mediocrity. I felt like my hometown, and the Midwest in general, catered only to simple-minded folk. Moreover, having recently discovered Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" album in my parents' music collection, I pretentiously clung to the notion that small town's like mine throughout the Midwest created death-traps for young people like myself; in Bruce's own words, I felt I had to "get out while [I was] young".

Five years removed from the day I first left my hometown, I realize that those conjectures were the product of a very young and very naive mind. Looking back nowadays, it's a little difficult to recognize that kid who walked along that river; I have done a complete 180 in terms of the perspective I maintain as to my hometown and to the Midwest. Where I once saw the men in the automobile factories as Simple Simons, I now see hard-working fathers who have a firm grip on reality and who put their families ahead of themselves. Where I once saw the Midwest as a dead-end road, I now see it as a region where traditional family values survive. And while I once thought I couldn't spend another day in my hometown, I now cannot imagine starting a career or a family in any place unlike it.

Time has a funny sense of irony. I'm now aspiring to be what I thought I despised as a high-schooler: a simple man in a simple town. Perhaps it's not unlike what Lynyrd Skynyrd said, "You can take a boy out of old Dixie Land/ But you'll never take old Dixie from a boy". You can take a boy out of the Motor City suburbs, but you'll never take the Motor City from a boy. Cheesy? Absolutely. But I've found it to be true, at least in my own personal experience.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hockey Night in Canada, Eh?


Near the top of my sports bucket list is watching a hockey game from any of the Canadian hockey stadiums. Heck, I'd even accept watching a game in a bar in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, or Vancouver amidst some passionate Canadians hopped up on Molson and Labatt's. There's just a certain mystique about Canadians and their hockey in middle of the Northern winter that's intrigued me since I was young. That song (see above) almost eerily adds to that mystique, but in a captivating way.

Perhaps that mystique stems from hazy images of my basement I have stowed away in my memory from when I was little. I remember creeping down my wooden basement steps, peering into the makeshift living room that had been set up in my then unfinished basement, where my dad and his buddies created a scene similar to a hole-in-the-wall Canadian bar. Smoke sifted through the air, beer flowed from Red Dog and Budweiser cans, darts flew through the air at a Cheers dart board, and laughter echoed off the concrete walls. Most distinctively, though, I remember that Hockey Night in Canada song resounding from a staticky old television set. To this day, that image remains the portrait of an ideal Saturday night in my mind.

Although many years have since passed from those nights, the mystique and the intrigue still remains. I still get excited to sit down with a beer and turn on CBC to hear that song and listen to those announcers; it's even one of the little things I miss most in Chicago.

This is probably because through the years essentially nothing has changed about Hockey Night in Canada. Although they did recently change the song (in one of the worst executive decisions in sports history), the production value remains the same, it seems. I don't think there will ever be a clear picture of the puck from CBC, and I love it that way. And Don Cherry still does "Coaches Corner" during the second intermission. Though he's lost a couple of his marbles since the early 90's, he and the other announcers show more passion than any other announcers in sports, because as Canadians they have a mysterious attachment to the game. It's a show that can take me back to the glory days of the 1990's unlike anything else.

Whenever the Wings bow out early or are playing another team, I always root for the Canadian teams in the playoffs. Because there's simply nothing quite like sitting in a comfortable chair on a Saturday night, cracking open a bottle of Labatt's, and hearing that song come on.

(FYI: March 26th is Maple Leafs @ Red Wings, 7:00, which I'll be home for.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Why You Watch the Game

I've had people ask me why I put myself through what I put myself through over one sports team. And over the past couple of years, I've asked myself that after some particularly devastating moments.

This Friday afternoon, my roommate and I paced up and down our apartment for over a half an hour as we watched Illinois essentially manhandle the Michigan basketball squad for 30 minutes. I threw my hat at the wall about a half-dozen times. I shouted obscenities that might keep me out of heaven. I put whatever tobacco I could find around the apartment into my mouth in a futile attempt to calm my nerves. I thought about punching my door, which already has three holes in it from football season (literally). I sat watching the game, wondering if this team, a team that had worked so hard to rejuvenate itself, could honestly end up missing the tournament. I wondered how such a hard-working team could end up doing all that work for naught. I wondered if I had, once again, invested so much heart into yet another lost cause.

And then the comeback.

After the clock struck zero and Michigan had won, securing their bid to the NCAA tournament, I immediately thought, 'justice'. I thought justice had finally been delivered after Michigan lost in the Big Ten Tournament on a buzzer-beater last year. I screamed out the window overlooking Chicago's skyline for what seemed to be more than a minute, letting out at least a couple years worth of frustration.

When the calm finally set in, my roommate and I both instinctively went to the fridge and grabbed a celebratory beer.

Silence ensued. No words needed to be said. We both held our beers up and clanged them together in a cheers, smiles on our faces. That moment, drinking that first sip of a celebratory beverage with your buddy you've spent all season going through the ups and down with: that is why you watch the game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hemingway Knew the Score

" 'Ah,' Anselmo took the cup, put his head back and let [the whiskey] run down his throat. He looked at Maria standing holding the bottle and winked at her, tears coming down from both eyes. 'That,' he said. 'That.' Then he licked his lips. 'That is what kills the worm that haunts us.'"

- Ernest Hemingway, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

(emphasis added by me). I could go ahead and analyze that quote, but I don't think any more words are necessary in defense of a man who drinks. Hemingway nailed it.