Posts Tagged ‘Lon Simmons’

Play Ball

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

 play ball

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“When they start the game, they don’t yell, ‘Work ball.’ They say, ‘Play ball.’” Willie Stargell

The day before Opening Day of Baseball Season 2015, Lon Simmons died at the age of ninety-one. Lon and his broadcasting partner Russ Hodges were the San Francisco Giants radio announcers when I was a boy and a teenager, and Lon’s voice and laconic style are etched in my memory as deeply as the voice of any close relative.

Opening Day 2015 was five days ago as I write this, and in the first game of the new season the Giants eked out a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in our usual nail-biting fashion. Our super hero starter Madison Bumgarner pitched seven dominant innings and left the game with a four-run lead courtesy of our boys hitting singles and doubles in bunches. Our bullpen promptly gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth and we went to the bottom of the ninth clinging to a one-run lead.

Then our closer, Santiago Casilla, struck out slugger Paul Goldschmidt to end the game and we were undefeated in 2015. Until the next night when Bruce Bochy revealed his biggest flaw as a manager—leaving pitchers in games when those pitchers clearly have nothing left in the tank.

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Yogi Berra

From 1979 until 1996, with a two-year break from 87-89, Hank Greenwald was the incomparable radio play-by-play guy for the Giants. He was laid back and funny and a wonderful storyteller, and when his long stint as the Voice of the Giants ended, I seriously doubted there would ever be anyone good enough to fill Hank’s shoes.

But a year later the magnificent Jon Miller took the radio reins along with former Giants infielder Duane Kuiper, and five years after Jon took over, David B. Flemming, a young upstart, now approaching middle age, joined the team. Excellent game-callers all, Miller is the top bard and comedian of the bunch and a brilliant imitator of other famous baseball announcers. When the Giants play the hated Dodgers, Jon always does an ear-perfect Vin Scully and makes me glad we have Jon and Duane and Dave announcing our games and not the venerable and uninteresting Scully. That’s a Giants fan talking. In Los Angeles, Vin is God.

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” Leo Durocher

I listen to games on a little silver Sony transistor radio. I take it to the garden, set it on the counter while I’m doing dishes, stand it in the cup holder in our ancient pickup, and frequently take the little thing to bed when games run past my bedtime.

To celebrate the season opener, I empowered my trusty radio with two new batteries and listened to the game under the influence of a miserable cold. As bad as I felt, I was happy listening to the game, and even happier when we won.

With the world going up in flames, the state suffering from catastrophic drought, lunatics and criminals running our government, and over-population synergizing with global warming to spawn more and bigger disasters, why do I care if a man on the radio describes how one team of baseball players prevails over another team of baseball players? I care because I am hard-wired to care, and I did the wiring myself.

I was nine when the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958. Having teethed on Seals games, I was a rabid Giants fan from Day One. I memorized batting averages and earned run averages and home run numbers, and I listened to every single game. Indeed, the ongoing challenge of my childhood was how to listen to night games broadcast after my bedtime.

Transistor radios were not widely available until the 1960’s, and the radio I listened to in the 1950’s was the size of a shoebox, made of steel, and full of tubes that got so hot when activated by electricity that the radio was too hot to touch. Many a night I fell asleep listening to Lon Simmons preaching on that hot box hidden under my covers, the volume so low it was only audible to my ear resting an inch from the hot metal, and therefore inaudible to my mother and father who believed sports were stupid and bad and would keep me out of medical school should I live so long. And on a few occasions, as I drifted off to dreamland, my ear would touch the hot metal and I’d wake with a start, yelping in pain.

“Now there’s three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win or you can lose or it can rain.” Casey Stengel

The Giants, as you probably know, have won the World Series three times in the last five years after not winning a World Series since the Pleistocene. Now that we have won again and again and again, my fellow tribe members and I expect to go to the World Series and win the trophy every year. How could we so quickly forget more than half a century of losing? Must be genetic.

I listen to Jon and Dave and Duane describing nine men playing a game against nine other men and I see the game vividly in my mind’s eye. In fact, the game I imagine while listening to Jon Miller paint word pictures is far more complicated and beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than games I see on television.

Marcia and I don’t have a television. If we had one, I would watch baseball, football, basketball, tennis, volleyball, golf, bowling, and documentaries about tree sloths, though not hockey or car racing. I wired myself to listen to baseball games on the radio, but humans are born wired to watch television. Having figured this out a long time ago, I realized if I wanted to do anything with my life other than watch television, it would behoove me not to have one in my house. Fortunately, Marcia is of the same mind, and she digs listening to baseball games on the radio, too.

Sport

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2010)

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.” Thich Nhat Hanh

My maternal grandfather, Myron “Casey” Weinstein, went to the University of Michigan in 1918 on an athletic scholarship to wrestle and play baseball. Casey was the backup catcher behind the great Ernie Vick, and proudly recited this historic tidbit even after Alzheimer’s had robbed him of virtually every other memory. My paternal great grandfather, Charles Walton, was a world champion roller skater in the days when skates had steel wheels. His world’s records for sprints and long distances stood for decades after steel skates were things of the distant past.

Even so, my parents were horrified to discover they had given birth to a son, yours truly, who shortly after learning to walk wanted to do little else but play ball. My father was a non-athlete and openly contemptuous of men who played or followed sports. My mother was fond of saying that only boys who weren’t smart enough to do anything else became athletes. I knew this was nonsense because I was one of the smartest guys in my class (judging by the number of silver stars after my name on the class chart) and I adored sports. In fact, the smartest guys I knew, the best guys, were crazy about sports. Kickball, dodge ball, four-square, tetherball, baseball, football, basketball. If a ball was involved, sign me up. I liked bows and arrows and spears, too, but I was most enamored of balls. In an earlier epoch, I would have been a warrior and a hunter. In these modern times I was a ball player. I liked to read and sing and dance, too, but given a choice, put me in centerfield, throw me a long pass, and let me shoot my fall-away.

“I know without our fans and the devotion of our fans we wouldn’t be here.” Roger Daltrey of The Who

Perhaps even more galling to my folks than my constant playing of ball games was my profound love for the San Francisco Seals, particularly the diminutive slugger Albie Pearson, which love was transferred to the Giants and Willie Mays upon their arrival in the city by the bay in 1957 when I was eight. I think I must have been inoculated with some sort of fan virus when I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco in 1949, because shortly after learning to read (circa 1954) I was sounding out articles in the Sports section of the Chronicle and begging for my first baseball glove and bat.

And I listened to the Seals’ and Giants’ games on the radio, which made my parents furious because if I was listening to Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges announcing games then I must not be studying, which meant I wasn’t preparing to become a doctor, which was the very least they expected of me. But what they didn’t understand, and what no one who isn’t a die-hard fan can possibly understand, was that I was not listening to the game; I was living the game. I was a Giant. The team could not exist without me. Adios Pelota! Viva los Gigantes! Long live Willie Mays!

“The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there.” Paulo Coelho

From my late teens until I was thirty-five, a strange and wonderful mixture of basketball, delusion, passion, arrogance, ambition, and ignorance took me to places I otherwise would never have gone, and arriving in these places, I interacted physically, emotionally, and intellectually with people I otherwise would never have known.

By sixteen, I had settled on basketball as my main game, though I was a much better baseball player, and my real forte was tennis. Love, however, is irrational, and I loved basketball with a crazy passion. I traveled to parks in dangerous neighborhoods and boldly entered unfriendly gymnasiums in my quest to play with, and against, great players. Looking back on my career as a competitive basketball player, I am amazed by my boldness, for though I was a decent outside shot, I was at best a pesky defender, a mediocre passer, and a wimp of a rebounder.

Still, when I think of the marvelous and strange and intimidating and hilarious and ferocious and brilliant and daring people I met along my basketball way, and of the many fabulous games I played, the friends I made, the stories I heard, the dramas I beheld, the language I absorbed, the elation, the humbling, the millions of calories burned and thousands of gallons of sweat expelled that might otherwise have gone stale inside me and done me harm, I am eternally grateful to my fierce and irrational desire to play with the best players I could find.

Quite recently, after a two-decade hiatus, I took up shooting hoops again, a genteel once or twice a week alone at the grammar school, my sinews and synapses (after the initial shock of soreness) rejoicing to be reunited with the long-missed love of my body’s life—a sweet dance with a big ball on a court with backboard and hoop, a mystic improvisation of trying again and again to shoot the ball through the sacred ring into the fountain of youth.

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

So. At last, for only the fourth time since the Giants moved to San Francisco from New York fifty-three seasons ago, we made it into the World Series. When we beat San Diego the last game of the regular season to clinch the National League Western Division, I cried for five minutes. When we beat the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, I cried for three. When we overcame the mighty Philadelphia Phillies to win the National League pennant, I wandered around in a daze sobbing, “We did it, Willie. We did it.” And on October 26, my mother’s birthday (she would have been eighty-eight) I watched a thirty-second highlight on my computer of the Giants’ team bus arriving at Willie Mays’ Park where a crowd of fans chanted “U-Ribe, U-Ribe!” and I burst into tears.

Then last night, November 1, 2010, for the first time in the history of the San Francisco Giants, which means for the first time in my life, and in defiance of virtually every Sports pundit in America, the Giants won the World Series, otherwise known as the whole enchilada, taking the final game of the 2010 World Series in stunning fashion to finish off the Texas Rangers four games to one. And I cried and laughed and danced and cheered and cried some more, and Marcia cried and danced and sang and cheered with me.

I thought of my mother and father and how they never got to experience this kind of ecstatic tearful joy because they never had a clue that sports could connect us to each other in such glorious ways, connect us to an ancient collective desire to transcend the eternal struggle to survive, if only for a moment, so we might bask in the glory of having conquered the beast—our tribe triumphant.

“It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.” Yogi Berra

And when I finally calmed down enough to fall asleep, I dreamt I stood atop the pitcher’s mound at Willie Mays’ Park and sang for the multitudes before the final game of the World Series. I was flanked by Jonathan Sanchez and Juan Uribe. Dozens of huge ravens strutted around the infield. My guitar was black and shiny with orange strings. I was wearing a neon orange T-shirt and black slacks and orange socks and black tennis shoes. My hair was Lincecum long and streaked with orange paint. The enormous crowd was hushed. An eloquent breeze blew in from McCovey Cove, humming in the key of G, of course. I strummed my guitar and began to sing, and Jonathan and Juan sang with me, and we sounded a little like The Grateful Dead and a little like Los Lobos, but mostly we sounded like the Giants.

Last night I had a precious dream,

I dreamt I woke into the dawn,

walked out of my little cottage and

found a newspaper on the lawn.

When I picked up that morning tribune,

it opened to the very front page,

and the headlines oh they told me

it was the dawning of a brand new age

Yeah, the rich folks had all decided

to share their money with the poor,

and the leaders had disbanded all the armies,

not another dollar spent on war.

And they’d stopped building prisons,

put that money in our schools and neighborhoods

and instead of making bombs and guns and things we do not need

we were all of us working for the greater good.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com