Remember when we loved the Washington Nationals because we liked them? Back when they were appealing not appalling? They were quirky and funny- they were close, they had each other’s backs and they were winners.
I prefer the photo of Bryce Harper hitting a towering home run into the upper deck in right field to the picture of Jonathan Paplebon strangling his young teammate in the dugout. That horrific and iconic image is part of baseball lore now- for all of time. Nice touch too that this historic bit of notoriousness happened on Fan Appreciation Day.
The Nationals do understand that much of the adoration for Bryce Harper comes from kids, right? Little 8, 9, 10 year-olds? We would know these people as children, traditionally a key ingredient to the quintessential family experience that is a day at the ballpark. Well, those kids were horrified and shaken by that blatant act of violence. Hell, I know ADULTS who had trouble sleeping Sunday night after seeing replays of what would surely be considered felony assault in a court of law. Imagine a Little Leaguer seeing never-ending spools of GIF’s of their hero being attacked by that wide-eyed, psychotic creep.
That Mike Rizzo, based on his news conference today, is even considering keeping Paplebon next year is an insult to the fan base and a display of hubris that is difficult to describe for its breathless arrogance.
Rizzo seems hell-bent on keeping Matt Williams too, excusing the underperforming season on all the injuries the team incurred. A fine rationalization, I suppose, except that 95% of the lineup was back in place when the Nats were swept home and away by the NL East Division Champion, New York Mets. That wasn’t injuries. That was a heaping pile of bullpen that in the closing stretch would also cost the club two games to the Cardinals and two games to the Orioles.
But there is much more here that’s nagging at people’s hearts these days about the Nationals than managerial calls, poorly executed bullpen development and deployment or ill-advised desperation late-inning bunt attempts.
It’s about character. Character really does matter. It is an intangible. But we know it when we see it. And right now, in the despicable public act Paplebon committed- in the continuing arrogance and inability to admit error displayed now by both Williams and Rizzo- what we see is a disturbing picture, deeply offensive to children of all ages.
After damn near two decades of day care, pre-school, private middle school, public high school and then busting his butt at the university level, real life beckons my son, Charlie Garcia, as the child I brought home wrapped in a blanket one cold January day 22 years ago, graduates with an Audio Engineering degree from Middle Tennessee State University this Saturday.
I know the economy still kind of sucks, Charlie. You’d be forgiven if you feel a little trepidation about entering the great American work force. But here’s why I know you’ll be alright, son.
I think you were 15 when it hit you; when music became not just a fascination but a passion. When it became a direction in life. And like the good, practical Capricorn you are, you dissected every element of what it would take to live your life dedicated to a creative craft. And you have stuck with it with dogged determination. You can count on one hand, my friend, the number of human beings who get a notion of what they want do with their life at that young an age.
That was about the time we met Alex, a real-life audio engineer working in Manhattan, who agreed to meet with us in Greenwich Village one Spring afternoon and who laid out the not-so-glamorous realities of life in the music business. Wrapping up a recording session at 4am and setting up for the next session at 7am. Making good money mixing rap, even if it was classical quartets that were the true love of his creative life. Ah- compromises.
I remember the portable, digital, recording “studio” I had in my apartment that you used to cut your very first mixing teeth, playing a blue telecaster you would later fix up and own as one of your main performance instruments.
I remember the song you wrote called City Lights, inspired by the twinkling beauty of New York City as seen from the 18th floor of a West Side apartment, a song that appropriately enough, was simply about the joy and angst of writing music.
I remember the young man who in his heart of hearts, wanted to be a record producer but fully understood that to get there, you have to know every aspect of music. You need to write and perform. You need to understand music theory and sound waves and acoustic properties. You need to engineer. You need to edit. You need to mix. You need to manage artists. You need people skills and you need the artistic vision to take your projects from inception to fruition.
And then there is the matter of fear- like that you feel none. Who else meets one of the top music producers in the business at a festival, gets his business card and just a few months later, happens to be in Athens, Georgia, rings him up and ends up sharing lunch with the dude who first recorded R.E.M.. Same with the way you are on stage and performing- no fear. Just tenaciousness…and joy.
This is why, in the long term, you will succeed, Charlie. Because the whole time I’ve known you, if you didn’t have the natural skill, then you worked your butt off to get where you needed to go. Whether it was intense physical training so you could be a goalie on your varsity high school soccer team. Or relentlessly practicing guitar, or piano, or drums or banjo or whatever instrument had most recently made its way into your soul.
And if you needed a little extra cash, you never had any qualms doing honest, physical labor, like tearing down walls and floors for a contractor. Success is not something that has ever been handed you. You have achieved it through sweat and effort. You have never lacked in the area of striving and desire.
I suppose there’s some aspect of genetics that plays a role in creating a young man with such character. But that doesn’t do justice to the effort you put into life every day. I know your incredible mom, Laurie Spencer, who raised you largely by herself while I recovered from one journalistic layoff or another, gets the lion’s share of the credit for the kind of man you’ve become- but even that doesn’t do justice to the fact it’s you who have learned life’s sometimes hard lessons and emerged as a strong, gentle, loving, balanced human being.
I suppose I should get some credit for supporting you emotionally and financially, and, yes, it gives me a measure of pride that you graduate with zero debt to your name. But it has been you who got through the drudgery and the glory of four years of college- growing, challenging yourself, discovering; open to all things professional, spiritual, personal.
So let me let you in on a little secret. Your future is unlimited. Your potential is enormous. But success? You have already earned it. You are already a successful man. And in achieving that, my friend, you have ultimately made me a success as well.
Congratulations, Charlie Garcia.
The bearded man was not clean. He did not smell of cologne. His long, unkempt hair fell to his shoulders. He wore simple, nondescript clothing, streaked with the dirt of the city. Pedestrians walked past him, clutching their pocketbooks and their wallets just a little tighter. But he asked for nothing- nothing material. He was not begging. He stood on the street corner talking about love.
He asked anyone who might listen or accidently listen, to consider the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. He talked about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the lonely and disaffected. In the end, he said, these miserable, poverty-stricken street urchins; these pitiful, sad and needy people that no one seems to care about- these are the people who would inherit the earth, not the mighty titans of Wall Street or the politically powerful or connected. Because the world- the real world- was populated more by the urchins than these Masters of the Universe who would eventually lose everything through their own undisciplined greed.
He did not yell. He spoke in a controlled, soft voice. There was sadness but also a tenderness in his eyes. The men in well-pressed suits walked around him. And the fashionable women paid no heed. And a teenager nearly ran into him as she texted furiously on her smart phone, startled as she caught a whiff of him.
It did not make any Cable News program. There were no breathless, “Breaking News” crawls along the bottom of the TV screen. No one tweeted it. Social media missed it.
It is possible many of those who walked past him attended church the next Sunday. But it turned out that not one of them picked up on the resemblance between the crazy bum on the street corner and the tortured porcelain figure that loomed right in front of them, nailed to a cross. He had come back because the world had never needed him more.
And no one noticed.
Without getting into a lot of rather gory detail, it’s been a tough week. Almost died. Recovered. Came home. Now I’m typing these words.
In a nutshell- last Wednesday, an undiscovered ulcer went suddenly and completely awry at the same time, coincidentally, a little case of pneumonia set in. You haven’t lived until you‘ve tried to breath with pneumonia in your lungs and a bunch of staples in your abdominal muscles. There were machines doing stuff I never imagined possible in strangely, seemingly disconnected places like nasal cavities and stomachs.
Who says antibiotics don’t work? I’d like to thank three specific kinds of antibiotics very, very much. You know who you are.
Spent seven days at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. I am not the most gracious hospital guest in the universe. My immediate goal on these sorts of occasions, is to get out and fast, which was not possible this time. But they put up with me, saved me, fixed me, put me back together again. Every single one of them has a heart of gold, as far as I’m concerned.
So, a week later, I walked into the faintly crisp, cool autumn air and took what seemed impossible a few days ago- a deep breath. And I felt newly alive and grateful for it. What an amazing gift; to be given a new life right in the middle of my favorite season- which just happens to completely represent what is now the autumn of my life.
See, that was the part in the old Sinatra song where I started getting bummed out about those damned seasons of our lives. But, no damn it! It is a beautiful season. It’s pumpkins, and fresh, cold mornings. It’s scary ghosts and little kids in ridiculous little costumes. It’s apple cider and scare crows and romance and straw and the Wizard of Oz. It’s not the harbinger of a fast on-rushing winter. It’s the precursor to snow and Christmas and laughter and hot chocolate and fire places and the stinging feel of fresh cold air against the tiny little patches of skin you’ve accidently left exposed.
So thank you Commander of Fate; Oh Great, Holy Handler of the Cosmic Tumblers. Whoever puts together these strange combinations of challenges seemingly designed to break us- but don’t. Thank you for the joy and the utter gift of a second shot this late in life.
Thanks also to painkillers. Winkin’ at ya.
I think it’s a fairly universal experience and it’s a memory that lasts a lifetime. Mine came 43 years ago when I watched my first major league baseball game at RFK; the Yankees in town to take on the Washington Senators.
Now 2012 instead of 1969, I relived it all this week as I took my girlfriend’s grandson to his first ballgame. He had 48 hours of anticipation since I’d showed him the tickets and he was primed. Adrian is only 8 years old and he has a sketchy awareness of the rules and subtleties of the game but, already, he is drawn to baseballs like a moth to flame. For him, it’s still about a game of catch with a tiny little Franklin glove. But now it’s a much bigger thing- as if a treasure chest was suddenly opened.
It was Throw Back Night at Nationals stadium. The Nats and the visiting Giants wore uniforms from 1924, the last and only time Washington would claim a World Series. The grounds crew was decked out in straw hats, suspenders and bow ties. In front of us, the players got their last warm-up throws in prior to the start of the game.
“There’s #34, Adrian,” as I pointed to 19-year-old Bryce Harper. “Remember him, kid. He’s like Mickey Mantle before he was Mickey Mantle.” Adrian lives in New York City so I think he actually understood. After all, he had announced earlier in the day that he was going to be a Yankee some day.
Several innings into the game, it was Adrian who pointed out to me that #34 was taking his place in the batter’s box. Up to that point, the Giants had had their way with the Nats, leading for awhile by 5-1. Adrian was a little confused about who to root for. After all, the unmistakable symbol of New York was up on the scoreboard. No, no, I explained. This is a throw-back game, and back in 1924, the San Francisco Giants were actually the New York Giants, so that’s why they have that “NY” on their uniforms.
“I want to see some home runs,” he said, gesturing with his arms to imitate the parabolic flight of the ball into the outfield seats. I am convinced now that God has a special ear for the wishes of children. Washington’s all-star shortstop, Ian Desmond, apparently does too. He launched a shot into the right field bullpen against Matt Cain who had thrown a perfect game earlier in the season. He had been previously unhittable in this game. Until Desmond. Ok…now 5-2, the stadium erupted and Adrian suddenly figured out whom to root for. After Desmond rounded the bases, it was now Washington 2nd baseman Danny Espinosa at the plate. Boom. There you go, Adrian, back-to-back home runs. The stadium got even louder. High-fives were being exchanged by perfect strangers all around us. It was now 5 to 3. Cain had been replaced. A couple of batters later- here was Harper. He did not disappoint. Solid RBI double- now 5-4.
Throughout the game, Adrian had watched foul balls reach into the stands. He wanted one in the worst way and it did get real close. I mean, real close. As I made my way back to the seats holding two tiny little batting helmets filled with ice cream, a sudden commotion hit our section. Sure enough, a foul ball was heading directly toward us. Hands full, I watched as the ball came down on top of us. It hit the left shoulder of the guy sitting right below us. I handed Adrian the ice cream and scrambled. The ball hit the ground and was finally recovered by another guy sitting two seats to our left.
Ok…so now the kid has asked for home runs and gotten two of them, back-to-back. He asked for a foul ball and practically got beaned by one. He gets to see National’s reliever Henry Rodriquez strike out a batter with a fastball that registers 101 mph on the scoreboard. Now what?
The ninth inning, that’s what.
Three rookies up to bat, all in a row. Pinch-hitter, Tyler Moore, on the verge of striking out opens the frame with a solid double to the gap in center. Steve Lombardozzi bunts and the pitcher botches it and now it’s first and third with nobody out. The stadium is going nuts. Bryce Harper comes to the plate again. As a deafening, spontaneous chant of “Let’s go Harper” reaches it’s boisterous crescendo, Harper is steeped in the moment and raps a base hit- game tied 5-5. I do high-fives with Adrian and an 80-year old, white-haired lady behind me.
Ryan Zimmerman is intentionally walked to load the bases and still no outs. The anticipation is as thick as the humid Washington air. Michael Morse is up. Adrian likes the fact the guy’s nickname is “The Beast.” But he hits a grounder and the Giants get a force at home. One out, game still tied. Adam LaRoche comes to the plate and hits a double-play grounder. They get the out at second but the shortstop sends a low throw to the Giant’s 1st baseman. It glances off his glove and wouldn’t you know it- Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old and the representative of all that is young about baseball, dashes in for the winning run.
There is delirium in the stadium. The Nats players stream out in the field. In a hilarious ritual that had been pre-planned by National’s starting pitcher Gio Gonzales in the eventuality of an Adam LaRoche walk-off, several Nats players put their hands over their heads doing imitations of antlers and run around LaRoche while he takes an imaginary bow and arrow and shoots at the “deer.” After the game, he would tell reporters he thinks he got one before he was tackled.
We lingered in the park, drinking in the last of a miracle night. I took Adrian right up to the field and we watched Ian Desmond do a TV interview. The stadium lights were turned down and now the field was bathed in a soft brown light. I bought him a baseball from the stadium store as we made our way to the subway station.
Welcome to baseball, kid. You want to be a Yankee? Go for it, my little friend, go for it. That’s why they call it the field of dreams.
Having had a small spat with a co-worker the other day, I decided to extend an olive branch. That got me thinking. Why is the olive branch a peace offering? Can you plant them and they become olive trees? What if the person to whom you’re giving the branch, doesn’t like olives? Where does one find an olive branch?
You can google “olive branches” all day long and never really find out the exact origins of the connection between peace and this ancient agricultural product. But the connection is real and widespread.
Governments, Bibles and Greek Mythology
Got a dollar handy? Look at the back of the bill at the Great Seal of the United States. That’s our mighty eagle there, clutching a batch of arrows in one talon and a branch in the other with thirteen olives and leaves. The symbolism is inescapable. We are a gentle, peaceful people who can crush you.
There are a lot of olive branches in the Bible. Noah, of Ark fame, was given great hope by a dove he had sent out on a scouting mission to check out if there was any dry land out there. First time, the dove came back empty-beaked. Not a good sign. Flood waters still everywhere. The second time, the dove comes back with a little something in its mouth; why it’s an olive leaf; signs of life and great hope for Noah and all the critters on the crowded ark. Third time, the dove does not return, indicating things were dry enough now that the little bird had found a place to live. But it was the olive leaf that heralded the promise of an end to the great flood.
Zeus liked olives too. The Greek God wanted to give his new city named Athens to the one of his junior Gods who gave him the best gift. You would think Poseidon would have been the front-runner having cast down a lightening bolt and brought forth a spring. Water—hello? But no. Athena comes along (and frankly with that name you’d think she might have been disqualified from the contest) and creates the olive tree. Not just one measly olive branch, mind you. This is a tree full of them. Guess who got Athens?
The Long-lived Olive Tree
As for growing olive trees (which is still the best way of finding actual olive branches), my investigation has revealed the following. You cannot grow an olive tree from the seeds of store-bought olives. The brine the olives are sitting in has killed the little seeds.
But you can buy tiny little olive trees from nurseries and even grown them on your balcony. If you want actual olives, you will have to wait about five years before the tree produces any.
It’s at this point, that I think I discovered what the big deal is about olive branches. In Mediterranean climates, olive trees can live a thousand years. A thousand years! Ten centuries producing fruit and looking pretty. Now that is one useful plant. Is there absolutely anything else you can give someone that lasts that long?
Well, actually there is. You could give them a container of uranium which depending on whether its uranium 238 or uranium 235 has a half-life of 4.5 billion and 704 million years, respectively. But giving someone a radioactive present is neither sensible nor appreciated.
In review, we now know olive trees can live a thousand years. We know a dove brought back an olive branch to Noah which tipped him off that the great flood was abating. We know Athena actually invented the olive tree and got herself an entire city for her efforts. We know the American eagle can either wipe us out with a slew of arrows or offer 13 olives and branches and nestle peacefully at our side.
But here is the true power of the olive branch. My little office spat was, frankly, not big enough to merit the actual purchase of an olive tree and the attendant branches. But it should be noted that my mere mention of wishing to offer an olive branch was enough to wipe away all tensions and start us off on a path toward a new era of goodwill and understanding.
Olives are good in salads too.
Spent an interesting weekend in Inwood, at the very northern tip of Manhattan, immersed between two wildly different but compatible cultures; Dominicans and their busy, colorful, music-pounding, flea-market sprinkled streets right next to gentrified urban white neighborhoods dotted with Art Deco buildings circa 1920.
It’s truly the best thing about New York- the mixing. Here are some of the sights in a mere three-block walk:
First off, the weather was great so everybody and their hermano were out on the streets. The thumping rhythms of Latin music emanate from cars and boom boxes. On weekends, the Dominican part of Inwood, like Washington Heights, is somewhat like being transported to another country.
In front of the pawn shops, bodegas, hardware stores, tattoo parlors and Latin restaurants are dozens of flea market stands selling the strangest stuff ever. There are normal goods like cheap clothes, purses, boot-leg movies, 1989 Topps baseball cards- but also a highly unique collection of electronics. Pretty much everything you throw out when you move- like battered extension cords and old remotes.
Then there’s like a buffer block right where the A train stops at the 207th street subway station. Here, the transition begins. The first Art Deco apartment building looms on the left as you head north. It’s a very hilly area and the building sits atop some very steep and intimidating-looking stone stairs.
About 500 more feet and you officially enter yet another world; quiet and residential with a mix of housing including 7 and 8 story pre-WWII buildings, detached homes, and those great deco apartments- but still packing plenty of character. Like the two old, presumably Dominican men, who open their apartment window along Seamen Street performing old-time Latin karaoke as the urban white crowd strolls by below, every one of them, seemingly, with a dog on a leash.
Saturdays, there’s a small but diverse weekly farmer’s market that operates year-round with all kinds of great goodies from breads and fruits and veggies to cheeses and wine. And across the street is Inwood Park with tons of woods and paths, softball fields and dog-runs, leading east toward the Harlem River. That’s where Columbia University has its crew team. The school has painted a gigantic blue “C” on a cliff overlooking the river and word is the locals think it’s tacky and an eyesore. The University has it regularly repainted but no one’s figured out where they got the authority to take over that particular cliff. Supposedly there’s a lawsuit coming.
And the park is where the cultures meld. The dog-walking white urbanites populate the paths. Everybody shares the meadows. The Dominicans own the baseball diamonds.
Baseball and Softball rule in Inwood. The Dominican Republic, after all, stocks the Major Leagues with some of the best players the game has ever seen; Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, the Alou brothers, Felipe, Jesus and Matty. It’s in the DNA.
Having attended many a Little League game in the white-bread Atlanta suburbs when my son was growing up it was kind of refreshing to take in a bit of an Inwood Little League contest. Not a single Anglo name in the lineups but plenty of Bautista’s and even one Valenzuela. The fast-pitch softball fields are where the big boys play. And they’re good- really, really good. Some of the slickest fielding and power hitting I’ve ever seen on a softball diamond.
It’s Manhattan. From Wall Street and the Chrysler building to Madison Avenue; from Central Park and Lincoln Center to the parks, softball fields, markets and bodegas of Inwood; it is, truly, one of the neatest and unique islands in the world.