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coach

Non-sports fans might be asking themselves why the flag at City Hall in San Francisco is flying at half-mast today, why the mayor felt it necessary to immediately announce today as Bill Walsh Day in the City. As someone who has lived 53 of his 54 years in the greater Bay Area, I think I can speak to what Walsh meant to San Francisco beyond his ability to analyze the "Xs and Os."

In this country, the major professional sports are baseball, basketball, and football. At the top level, it was football that came first to San Francisco, in the form of the 49ers. Before that, San Francisco was a "minor-league city" in sports terms. The 49ers in those early years had some great players and some fine seasons, but they never won a championship. Meanwhile, a team in Oakland was created as part of a new pro league … that league eventually merged with the NFL, leading to the monster that is today's pro football. Oakland played in the second Super Bowl ever, and later won Super Bowls XI and XV. This made Raider fans very happy, of course, but one thing non-fans need to understand is that Oakland and San Francisco sports franchises are not generally seen to represent the same constituencies. A Raider Super Bowl win, or an Oakland A's World Series title, is not considered a championship to be celebrated in San Francisco.

The Giants came here in 1958, led by Willie Mays, one of the handful of greatest players ever. The Giants have had their fair share of great players over the years, but they have been in the City for 50 seasons without ever winning the World Series. Oakland got a team in 1968, and by 1972 they were already World Champs … as they were in 1973, and in 1974.

The Warriors of the NBA came to the Bay Area in 1962. Like the Giants, they came with one of the all-time greats, Wilt Chamberlain. Like the Giants, the Warriors didn't win championships. Until 1975, by which time they were no longer the San Francisco Warriors but were instead the Golden State Warriors, playing out of Oakland. (Ironically, when the Warriors won their title, their chances were seen as so slim the Oakland Coliseum had already been given out to others, so the Warriors played their championship series games at the Cow Palace in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City.) As there is only one NBA franchise in the Bay Area, the Warriors are "everyone's" team in a way that isn't true in baseball or football … nonetheless, when they won, it had been years since they represented San Francisco.

San Francisco sports fans had something of an inferiority complex. It wasn't that big of a deal, really … each year, as the Giants and 49ers fell once again, locals could say "yes, but San Francisco is the greatest city in the world," no small compensation. San Francisco, though, was also the city seen by many in other parts of the country as the home of oddballs, from the Beats to the hippies to gays. We had pride, but it was a local pride, which is to say, our representatives in the sports world did not carry that pride to championships. In sports, this actually means something, silly as it surely is … if your sports teams are associated in the general mind with commies, homos, and drug addicts, and those teams are losers on the field of play, that signifies an apparently appropriate "loser" status on those commies, homos and addicts. Every community's sports fans enjoy backing a winner, not just for the joy of the win, but, to be honest, for the equally satisfying joy of sticking your winner status in the faces of the fans of other communities.

The 49ers got really bad in the late-1970s. It's not like they'd won any championships before that, but in 1978, they hit rock-bottom, losing 14 of their 16 games and finishing in last place. It was at this point that they hired Bill Walsh to coach the team.

The next year, they once again lost 14 of 16, although there was something resembling hope in the manner in which they lost compared to the previous season. The next year, they managed to win 6 games … no one noticed, because Oakland was winning another Super Bowl that season, giving them the continued right to torment 49ers fans.

And then, in 1981, they won 13 of 16 games, finished atop their division, and went to the post-season. In the conference championship game, with the winner earning a trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers faced the Dallas Cowboys, who had often broken 49er fans' hearts in the past. On January 10, 1982, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, with less than a minute to play in the game and the Cowboys ahead by six points, Joe Montana threw a pass to Dwight Clark. Clark's play is forever known as "The Catch." The 49ers won the game.

Two weeks later, they won the Super Bowl.

Sports fans know this story … the above recounting wasn't necessary for them. But, to return at last to my original point, what the 49ers did when they finally won that championship was more than just beating another football team. For the first time in the 30+ years that major professional sports had been played in San Francisco, the San Francisco team had won. For the first time, sports fans across the nation had to look to San Francisco to see the champs. The city, no, The City, so arrogant we capitalize the C as if we were the only city in the world, The City of commies and homos and junkies was on top of the American sports world.

So, if you happen to see a flag at half-mast in San Francisco today, you can give a silent thought to Bill Walsh. But also give a thought to all the commies and homos and junkies … because one time, Bill Walsh gave the world something larger than a championship. He won one for us, the commies and homos and junkies.


they come in threes ... fours ... you can stop anytime, god

And now Antonioni is dead.

Bergman was, for me as for many Americans of a certain age, an introduction to the world of "art" cinema. I'd guess The Seventh Seal was the starting point for most, although in my case, Through a Glass, Darkly was the first art film I can remember seeing and being impressed by. Bergman made so many great films ... besides the two mentioned above, I'd surely add Smiles of a Summer Night ... it's almost too easy to call him a great director (or more ... some of the obits have him as the greatest artist, period, of his day). I found him too severe at times ... as much as I loved Through a Glass, Darkly, I found the rest of that trilogy dull at best, and in fact felt hostile towards those films at their/my worst.

Antonioni was more difficult than Bergman, to my eyes anyway ... for one thing, he was a bit of an anti-Booty Call, his movies seemed at times to go on forever, and since many of those movies weren't "about" anything, forever could be quite a long time. Like most wannabee-hippie types, I was intrigued by Blow-Up, but over time, it was L'Avventura that became my favorite of his movies, even, I might confess in an honest moment, the only one that really mattered to me (call it the Paulette in me). Let's just say it's the one I can rewatch with ... oh, I wouldn't call it pleasure, that's not the way to describe watching L'Avventura, but it sticks with one, and the way he placed humans in those vast landscapes ... well, it's not every movie that you can picture so precisely in your mind.

And, in what I suppose is an irony, given my recent LinkedIn activities, back in the day before personal computers and "The Internet," I knew someone who called Antonioni "Michelangelo" (he had Monica Vitti in his personal phone book, as well). I guess if I'd known that person 30 years later, I'd be "almost connected" to Antonioni.

What's funny-not-ha-ha-but-funny-commentary-on-society, the effect all of these deaths have on me personally is related more to an imagined closeness than to anything these folks accomplished. Tom Snyder came into my house via the television, so he feels like a friend who has passed away, while I wouldn't for a second mistake Bergman or Antonioni for friends (not sure where Bill Walsh fits into this "theory"). The truth is, I'm probably more affected by the recent deaths of fictional characters I've come to "know" than I am by the deaths of these very real human beings.


keep in touch

I just joined LinkedIn. No real reason … I was looking up course descriptions for English classes at Berkeley, seeing what folks were teaching, and whenever I do that I see the names of some of my old buddies from grad school. Wondering what they're up to, I start Googling, and this particular time I was led to LinkedIn.

LinkedIn makes concrete what already exists without our necessarily thinking about it: once you extend yourself from the people you know to the people who the people you know know, you're connected to a lot of people. Take my grad school years and subsequent academic semi-career. From that, I have a couple of close friends who also happen to be academics, I have old friends, colleagues and acquaintances that I could contact out of the blue without seeming too weird, I have a handful of students who have been successful in various fields. Not to mention the people who have gone into various forms of journalism … I've got most of the world of popular (and not-so-popular) music covered that way, along with most of the world of technology. Heck, when it comes to journalism, I even have a few experiences of my own that make me a useful person to have as a connection … just to mention interviews I've done, I could drop an email to a few sportswriters at the Chronicle, there are a couple of indie-rock "stars" that I "know."

I've only got a few LinkedIn connections so far, and some of them are family … I guess I already knew that I knew them. Most of those connections only have a few connections of their own, but one, a writer at the Chronicle (at least for a few more days … he's taken a buyout and is switching to freelancing) has 183 connections. Through him, I am part of a fairly impressive network. Ironically, one person on his list of connections works for an indie label … as I told him, I'm now thisclose to Arcade Fire.

Then there's the part where connections start connecting. For instance, a friend with whom I attended grad school (we taught together, partied together, wrote together, worked together on various projects) is now a pretty important figure in the techie world (she's one of only a few people I know with her own Wikipedia entry). The ex-Chron writer did a tech column for a few years. At one point, he interviewed my old grad school friend. Or there's the time some years ago when my old grad school friend was working for the Bay Guardian and got me a job writing a story about the new women's soccer league. I showed up at a practice, and after all, who the hell am I? But it turned out one of the players was an ex-student of mine, she vouched for me, and the next thing you know I'm talking to Brandi Chastain.

All of this makes it seem like I have an awful lot of friends. And in fact I do consider many of the people mentioned above friends … not Brandi Chastain, but certainly the ex-Chron writer, who happens to sit next to me at Giants games on occasion. Or even people I rarely see but think fondly of, like the current pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times. But the truth is, I have regular interactions with only a couple of people, my list of … what to call them, close friends? … my list of close friends is very small. I can, with little effort, connect with fairly important people in the larger music community, and some academics as well (in academia, I've found it's a bit easier to just jump in and introduce myself … I can't just write Neva Chonin a mashnote email out of the blue, but I can email a fellow academic and just mention a thing or two I've written to get the conversation started). But when the weekend rolls around and it's time to get together with friends, the pool of choices is tiny … they're great choices, but there aren't many of them.

Perhaps this is one reason why it is so nice to reconnect with friends from as far back as high school. It's been fun taking part in a Yahoo group devoted to such friends, and it was a delight having Mary Beth Libbey in town for a week or so … we only see each every six or seven years, but it's always the proverbial "we just picked up where we left off" deal.

There's also a somewhat artificial group of "friends" congregating around this blog. TypePad isn't particularly conducive to community building … it's not like a LiveJournal, where the community is at least as important as what is written, or the social network sites like FaceBook, where what is written barely matters at all. No, TypePad offers a venue for me to blather, to pretend I'm like Neva Chonin or Ann Powers or Annalee Newitz. I pontificate, people comment, and most of the people who comment are friends (since I'm not famous enough to have many regular readers outside of my friends). The point is, between this blog, and my name showing up in Google, and my "vast" set of connections, it sure does seem like I've got a big Steven Community out there.

Yet I spend most of my time sitting alone, thinking about myself. If I were being honest, I'd admit that the real Steven Community has a population of 1.

I could make an argument that our virtual friends ARE our "real" friends in this day and age. I certainly consider all of you out there my friends. But I also know that for many (most?) people, the daily conversations I have with my next-door neighbor are always going to be more "real" than the "conversation" you and I are having right here, right now.


now what

Back in 2000, my seats at China Basin were very popular. I don't think they were empty the entire season. Beautiful new ballpark, playoff-bound team … it was the year of "Who Let the Dogs Out," fer chrissake!

There wasn't much dropoff in 2001, the year Barry hit 73 homers. And 2002 was the World Series year.

But eventually, more and more of my seats went unused. People who wanted a couple of tickets for a single game were usually ready to pay top dollar for the best seats, and my seats are good but nowhere near the best, so I lost most of that outlet. The people who would buy a bunch of tickets from me before the season started wanted fewer tickets than before … indeed, fewer of them wanted any tickets at all. The people who would go with me to a couple of games per homestand were satisfied with one game, people who went several times a year were satisfied with a couple of times a year, and I wasn't making any new friends, so I didn't have anyone to add to my list of "let's go to the game" people. I'd give the occasional game tickets to my friend Zoe's charity, and it's a good cause, but too often I don't know until the last minute whether or not I'm going, so I don't end up doing that as often as I should.

At this point, I'm seriously questioning the value of having season tickets. If I divide the cost of the tickets (minus whatever I get for the ones I sell) by the number of games I personally attend … in other words, if I factor in the "eating unused tickets" … my $18 a game per seat tickets cost me more like $50 a game per seat. There are lots of advantages to having season tickets, but those advantages are more cost effective when you go to 40 games and sell off tix to 40 more games than when you go to 30 games and sell off tix to 20 games.

But like I say, there are advantages. I got to go to the All-Star Game … for a pretty penny, to be sure, but I got to go. Whenever the Giants make the post-season, I'm there, too.

And, this season, I get to watch Barry Bonds set the all-time home run record. If he does it at home, of course … I can't control the road-game factor.

Because of Barry and the record, I have held on to the tickets for the games since I returned from vacation. People want to know if I have a couple to sell, and I say "not until Barry breaks the record, because I want to be there when that happens and we don't know when that will be, so I need to keep all the tickets, just in case."

Tonight, Barry hit #754. His next homer will tie the record, the one after that will break the record. And he plays two more games at home before the team hits the road, so if he's gonna do it in San Francisco, it's going to have to happen this weekend, it would seem.

And now, let me take you back to March 7. There is a woman, a lawyer, who buys several games from me every year. Nice lady, I'm always glad to send some tix her way, and these days, you can't be turning down offers because there might not be more down the road. She wanted half a dozen or so for 2007, and I explained to her that I didn't want to give up anything the last couple of months of the season (the Barry Factor), but I had plenty when I was in Europe. She got one game in April, two in May, and two in June, but I turned her down for two games in August.

Oh yeah … I also sold her my tickets for Saturday, July 28. The game starts at 6:05, you see, and I don't like those oddball starting times, so I figured I'd be going to the day game on Sunday of that weekend (which I am), and why not sell the Saturday game I wasn't going to attend anyway.

And so here we are. Tomorrow, that woman will be sitting in my seats, watching Barry Bonds, when every at-bat of Barry's could result in his tying Hank Aaron's record, with the slight possibility that he might even break the record tomorrow. She'll be there, and I'll be watching at home.

Whattya gonna do?


deliver us from evil

Deliver Us from Evil was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar last year, which meant it had no chance of winning (the competition included An Inconvenient Truth). Deliver Us from Evil is a much more angry film than was the Oscar winner. The victims in Al Gore's movie were all of us, or the environment, or life itself … heady stuff to be sure, but somewhat impersonal. The victims in Deliver Us from Evil are men and women who were molested as children by Catholic priests, and we get to learn much about a few of those people and their families. There is nothing impersonal about the spoken testimony of an abuse victim, nothing impersonal about the anger of a father who screams in tears, "he's not a pedophile, he's a rapist!" And, since director Amy Berg convinced one of the rapist priests to be interviewed, there is nothing impersonal about him, either … he comes across as a kindly Irishman, which over the course of the film makes him clueless at best and evil at worst.

The enemy in Berg's film isn't the priest, nor is it religious belief. The enemy is the institution of the Catholic Church, which is presented as covering up the destruction of children's lives while making a case that in Catholic theology as interpreted by the Church, pedophilia by priests is "just another sin" to be confessed away (behind closed doors, of course). The hold that the church has on its members is made clear by the conflicted nature of the victims' responses to their religious feelings as an adult … since, for instance, when the priest gives communion he's representing the great power above, clergy pedophilia is like being raped by God. There is a desire to maintain a connection, however small, to the meaning religion must have held at one point in these people's lives. When one victim's father angrily admits that after all that has happened, he no longer believes in God, the victim herself bursts into tears, as if this was the final straw in a long life of back-breaking.

An Inconvenient Truth is a fine movie, and I know it's a stretch to call it a "feel-good" movie when the tale of environmental destruction is so bleak. But you come away from that film thinking that if we just changed our priorities, we could still turn a corner on that destruction. Deliver Us from Evil offers no such hope … religion has always been with us, institutionalized religion has been around for a long time as well, and it's hard to imagine a change in priorities so great that the global populace could finally break free of religion's chains.


iron man

Here's a little story about a baseball game played on September 15, 1997.

It was late in the season, and the home team had a comfortable 6 ½ game lead in their division, with a 9-game lead for the wild card if it should come down to that. Due to quirks in the schedule, they were to play two consecutive doubleheaders … four games in two days. One of their players was an aging fan favorite, 36 years old in fact, on the downhill slide of an excellent career, not having the best of seasons. He'd been doing well, but over his past 15 games he had hit only .167, seeing his batting average drop 12 points in the process. Then he went 0-for-4 in the first game of the DH. In the nightcap, the opposing pitcher was someone against whom the aging star had struggled in the past … as in 3 hits in 30 at bats struggled.

OK … your team is comfortably in first place, it's late in the season, you've got a 36-year-old player who is clearly fatigued, you're going to need him at his best come the post-season, you're playing two doubleheaders in two days, and he can't hit the opposing pitcher to save his life. So of course, he got that second game off, recharged his batteries, and everything worked out for the best. Right?

Wrong. Because that player was Cal Ripken. And that game was the 2,464th consecutive game in which he'd played.

So he played. His first time up, he flied out to short right field. His second time up, he grounded out with a runner in scoring position. His last two at-bats, he struck out. The Orioles lost the game, 4-1.

Cal Ripken, who will enter the baseball Hall of Fame this weekend, was one of the greatest players ever, fully deserving of the honor of Hall induction. But …

For his career, Ripken hit .276, with a .340 OBP and .447 SLG. For his career in August, though, his numbers were slightly lower (.275/.333/.433) and for September/October, lower still (.262/.320/.428). Whatever explanation we might come up with, there is no denying that Cal Ripken's performance (like those of many others) tended to fade as the season progressed.

Like all of us, Cal Ripken got older. And like other baseball players, after a certain age, his production decreased. Nothing unusual here … not even the greatest players of all time can forever defeat Father Time. Yet after his MVP season of 1991, which was his peak, he played in every game until late in 1998, when he finally ended his famous, inspiring consecutive games played streak at 2,632.

Teachers today are familiar with a certain kind of student, one who works hard to produce material of a certain level, whereby their efforts are perhaps greater than the final results. If you give such a student a grade reflecting those results, say a B, oftentimes the student will press to have their grade raised because "I worked so hard on this paper." They want to be rewarded for their work ethic rather than for their work.

I would argue that this describes how Cal Ripken is perceived. Yes, there have been many great baseball players, but Cal Ripken is special even amongst the great ones because of his work ethic. He always came to work, he always played, and we should value that ethic.

But what if the actual work Ripken did was less valuable than his strong work ethic would imply?

Cal Ripken tended to produce at a lower level late in the season … couldn't it be possible that the Iron Man got tired after months of coast-to-coast flights and day games after night games and all of the other aspects of modern baseball that increase the fatigue a player experiences? If so, wouldn't he have benefitted from an occasional day off, to help keep him as fresh as possible over the course of the entire season? Might his annual production been higher, might he have done more in the latter parts of the season, if he'd rested more often in the earlier months? And if this is true, couldn't you argue that his insistence on taking the field for every game, every season, in diminishing his overall contributions, in fact HURT his team rather than helped it?

How about those years from 1992-1998, when Ripken continued to play every game of every season. Is it really the case that for eight years, the Baltimore Orioles never, not once, had someone who might do a better job on the day than Ripken?

Cal Ripken was one of the greatest players of all time. But he might have been an even greater player if he'd taken an occasional day off. Ah, but then we wouldn't have the myth, would we?

Here's what Tim Marchman wrote yesterday:

Here was a man who stood for old-fashioned American values. Born and raised in Maryland, the son of a humble baseball journeyman, he played for his hometown team and made his name not with the obscene physical talent of a [Rickey] Henderson, but because of his hard work and dedication, best symbolized, of course, by his signature trait -- his overwhelming need to just show up for work. No pampered, spoiled athlete he; this was someone with whom any factory worker or policeman or smalltown mortgage broker could identify, someone who just punched the clock every day and tried his hardest, quietly and with pride.

This was, of course, the most ridiculous nonsense it's possible to imagine. Cal Ripken was 6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds., built like a god, and blessed with enough athleticism that he probably would have been a truly great basketball player. He wasn't the best possible version of David Eckstein or Joe McEwing, but the most physically gifted player in the sport. What made him unique was the overwhelming effect of his personal dedication and discipline on his unparalleled natural gifts; by all accounts, no one worked harder. But the myth of Ripken located his greatness in his will, as if will were sufficient to command the greatest heights of achievement. It isn't.

I greatly admire Cal Ripken, but despise this myth. It grounded his appeal in resentment of supposedly lazy and greedy (and often black) modern players who didn't appreciate the gifts with which they were born and the rewards to which those gifts entitled them. That all the boogeymen and preening villains to whom Ripken was contrasted throughout his career, from the joyous Henderson to the odious Bonds, all worked just as hard as he did, and enjoyed the rightful fruits of their labor no more than he did, never really seemed to register. This weekend, we can honor him without pandering to this myth and thus implicitly denigrating players who were never held out as representative of values that existed in a mythic, hazily remembered past. The man was an incredible baseball player with an iron will, and he remains an icon of simple decency. That's more than enough, and more than worth honoring in its own right.