Summer reading, 2011. Although I didn’t know it at the time summer reading for me began this year in a blazing hot parking lot outside California Princeton Fulfillment Services at 1445 Lower Ferry Road in Ewing. I was reading the directions for the U.S. 1 delivery list that covers this part of the world and I was utterly lost, and certainly nowhere close to California or Princeton.
From Lower Ferry I needed to go to Upper Ferry, then to Scotch, Sullivan, Parkside, and then, yes, back to Scotch. Along the way I had to stop in at Silvia Street (but not Sylvia Street, a block away) and then back over to Ludlow Avenue and Whitehead Road Extension (but not Whitehead Road). But I had no idea how to get to the next stop on the list.
A bad scene, but like so many bad scenes in life, a perfect set-up for the second item on my summer reading list: “The Optimization Edge” by Steve Sashihara, founder of Princeton Consultants at 2 Research Road. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.
Eventually I did find my way to Scotch Road, Parkside, et al, and back to the office, where I packed up some reading for a four-day weekend far away from the blistering blacktops of central New Jersey. Along with Sashihara’s book I packed some faded faxes retrieved from a folder about to be thrown away after an office cleaning binge. They were query letters submitted back in 1998 by our freelance contributor David McDonough. The faxes caught my eye because they were both about baseball.
Quite frankly, while “The Optimization Edge” and its subtitle, “Reinventing Decision Making to Maximize All Your Company’s Assets,” beckon, this was summer reading. And out on the dock on Wrighter Lake in northeastern Pennsylvania, about 1,800 feet higher and eight degrees cooler than that parking lot in Ewing, baseball should come first.
A word about baseball. If playing is best, watching it is a close second. And for those who can’t play the game, watching it is best and reading about it is second.
But, as McDonough pointed out in a 1996 piece for an airline magazine, in a piece that reads just as well today, writing about the game is almost as good as playing it:
“Around age 13, the average American male begins to realize that he is never going to become a professional baseball player. As puberty comes in the door, dreams go out the window. He begins to comprehend that the broad shoulders, the quick wrists, and the 90-mph arm are just not going to happen. Well, yes, they are going to happen — but not to him.”
But, as McDonough wrote, “if you are very lucky somewhere in your adult years, baseball touches your life once more.” In McDonough’s case (and mine) the luck came in the form of sports writing assignments that landed you in the press box above a professional baseball diamond.
McDonough’s chance came at the Trenton Thunder, as a freelance writer producing occasional pieces about the team, at the time part of the Boston Red Sox farm system. That experience led him to write many more essays on the boys of summer, including another one that was stuck in that manila folder headed for the recycling heap.
This story’s title: “Do Unspoiled Athletes Still Exist?” A few still do, McDonough wrote in this 1998 piece, but mostly at the minor league level. The minor leagues, McDonough noted, “is a great leveler. For the first time in your life you are thrown in with persons whose talent is as great as your own, and success is neither automatic nor assured. Many great high school athletes never progress beyond the first level of pro baseball and those who do are frequently humbled by the competition.
“The problem is if you’re good enough you hit the big time,” McDonough continued. “You don’t carry your own bags, make your own plane or hotel reservations, or pay for most of your meals. You never pick up so much as a towel, but a lot of women pick you up. Writers gather ’round you, educated people who have been on the job for years and who make a tenth of what you make and who treat your every utterance like a pearl of wisdom.”
The conditions are a breeding ground for “boorish behavior” and McDonough cited a few 1990s era poster boys to make his case. But I wonder if they aren’t the exception to prove my rule: that competition for major league positions is so great that — all else being equal — jerks get discarded at every opportunity. Certain guys get known as the dreaded “cancer in the clubhouse.” They don’t last.
In my brief opportunities to cover major league baseball players, I saw one decent guy after another: Reggie Jackson trying to accommodate a reporter and photographer; Thurman Munson, after being called out on strikes by umpire Ron Luciano, sending a set of autographed baseballs to Luciano after the game with a simple note — “I give up.” Luciano, in turn, feeling guilty after Munson’s largess, saying, “I made a bad call.”
More recently, the modern Yankees spending a week each summer saluting and supporting special needs people in their community.
What’s most impressive is that the Yankees not only treat the honorees to the grandeur of the Stadium, they also leave the cocoon of privilege that McDonough described to visit the honorees at their homes, ride the subway with them to the game, and visit them at their up-from-poverty job at Wendy’s.
My summer reading turned into a summer column, much of which comes from McDonough. In his airline magazine piece, McDonough wrote that he longed, “occasionally, to talk baseball with someone who actually remembers when Yaz patrolled left field at Fenway.” I can’t do that, but I could tell McDonough about the time I saw Jim Rice argue an umpire’s call in the first inning at Fenway, and then get called out on strikes in three consecutive at-bats by the vindictive umpire before winning the game with a late inning home run.
But that’s for the winter — the hot stove league. Before that I had some more delivery lists to optimize and that other piece of summer reading to finish, “The Optimization Edge.”