Posts Tagged ‘Willie Mays’

Tribe Of Giants

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Tribe of Giants

Giants Jacket photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2014)

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” Roger Hornsby

For my birthday last October my brother gave me the coolest warmest San Francisco Giants jacket, a stylish melding of orange and black fabric with a smallish team insignia on the chest directly over my heart, and a grandiose insignia on the back, centered under the word GIANTS writ in large white capital letters outlined in orange. Little did I suspect that this jacket would prove to be a magical loosener of the tongues of countless men and women who had previously looked upon me with suspicion or indifference.

I have never owned or worn anything that so many people, strangers and friends, have praised me for, as if I had designed and sewed the marvelous thing myself. Men, women, boy, girls, homeless people, rich people, old people, teenagers, black, brown, and white people, Russians and Pakistanis and Germans and French and Jews and Muslims and atheists and Americans see my Giants jacket and exclaim, “Great coat! Great jacket! Nice jacket, man. Love your jacket! Go Giants! Right on, Brother!” And when I smile in thanks for their approval of my coat of three colors, they gaze at me with admiration and understanding and, dare I say it, love?

True, the occasional Oakland Athletics fan will glare at my Giants jacket and snort, but even these misguided folk seem disarmed by my cloak because, well, it’s magical.

 “One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something.” Nolan Ryan

I have been a devout San Francisco Giants fan since the team came to San Francisco in 1958. And as an avid baseball player from age six until my late teens, my choice to play in the outfield, and preferably center field, was entirely attributable to my adoration of the ultimate Giant, Willie Mays, the greatest center fielder in the history of the game, which also explained my penchant for attempting basket catches, a Willie Mays trademark, much to the dismay of my coaches along the way.

When I attended La Entrada junior high school in Menlo Park in the mid 1960’s, I played centerfield on the school softball team and my best friend Colin Vogel, another diehard Giants fan, played left field. We were good players, Colin and I, both of us quick to react to the ball off the bat and both of us decent hitters, though we lacked the power of our star shortstop Don Bunce, who would one day quarterback the Stanford University football team to a Rose Bowl victory. Gene Dark, son of the Giants manager Alvin Dark, pitched for our junior high team, and though Gene was an average player at best, we considered him a minor god because of his association with our major gods.

Fast-forward fifty-three years, Colin now a psychotherapist living in Los Angeles, I a Mendocino scribbler and piano player. And because we have never ceased to be diehard Giants fans, Colin and I are still in touch—Colin braving the slings and arrows of publicly rooting for the Giants in the very lair of the hated Dodgers. Several times a season we exchange emails sharing our hopes and fears for our team, and if our boys make the playoffs, we talk on the phone. When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, Colin called, and we hooted and shouted and wept together.

“Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world.” Babe Ruth

Today, walking through the village wearing my magical Giants jacket, I passed in front of a truck piled high with firewood, the grizzled guy in the driver’s seat wearing a faded orange Giants cap with white insignia. He glared at me, so I looked away, but then he said, “Vogelsang goes tonight.”

Vogelsang is one of our starting pitchers, and so despite the grizzled guy’s glare, I looked at him and said, “Yeah, he’s been iffy this year, but…”

“They’ve all been iffy,” he said, launching into a diatribe that identified him as a serious student of the game and a bona fide member of my tribe, and therefore worthy of my attention.

“Lincecum was better last night, but he only gave us five. All his mistakes this year have been up and it only takes a couple jacks to put us in a hole. Cain, too. They’re both still trying to transition from power pitchers to finesse and only time will tell if they can master the shift. Fortunately our middle relievers have been stellar, but we’ve got to get more innings from the starters or the pen will be in shreds by mid-season.”

“Hudson…” I ventured to say, before the grizzled guy cut me off.

“So far. Hasn’t walked anybody in twenty-three innings. Amazing. Keeps the ball down. Still has some gas when he needs it. You can hope the young guns learn from him, but they’re stubborn, which is part of what makes them great so…” He looked at his watch. “Gotta go.”

 “It’s fun—baseball’s fun.” Yogi Berra

Weighing a package for me in the village post office, the admirable Robin, wearing orange and black Giants earrings, waxes euphoric about our new left fielder Michael Morse who has hit two home runs so far this year, each a monster shot. “He’s a man,” says Robin, nodding appreciatively. “A real man.”

“Baseball is 90 per cent mental and the other half is physical.” Yogi Berra

And speaking of baseball and the tribe of Giants, here is a pertinent excerpt from my novel Under The Table Books in which ten-year-old Derek learns a valuable lesson about tribalism.

Derek and Lord Bellmaster are sitting twelve rows behind first base at Willy Mays Park watching the Giants clobber the Dodgers. This is the first professional baseball game Derek has ever attended and he is so deeply thrilled by the experience, he keeps forgetting to breathe. Their highly prized tickets were acquired in exchange for a battered first edition (1938) of Larousse Gastronomique. Jenny made the trade, but finding baseball baffling and boring she gave the tickets to Lord. He, in turn, offered them to Carl Klein who actually played outfield in the Giants minor league system for three years in the 1950’s and would almost certainly have made it to the majors but for his tendency to strike out and misjudge line drives. Carl stared at the tickets for a long time—untold memories flooding the forefront of his consciousness—and finally declared, “Take the kid. He’s never seen the real thing.”

Derek had heard of Willy Mays, but until Lord gave him a brief history of baseball on the train ride to the ballpark, he had no idea that Willy Mays was a baseball player. Now, having memorized Lord’s every word about the game, Derek knows that Willy Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time, and “anyone who says otherwise is an idiot.”

Everything about the day has been a thrill for Derek: the train ride, the majestic ballpark on the shores of San Francisco Bay, the brilliant green field beneath a cerulean sky, the bold and graceful players, the fabulous electricity of the gathering crowd, and best of all—getting to spend a whole day with Lord, just the two of them.

In the fifth inning, the Giants leading nine to nothing, the Dodger shortstop dives to snag the hurtling orb, leaps to his feet from full sprawl, and throws out the hustling Giant by a hair. Derek is so moved by the sheer beauty of the play, he leaps to his feet and shouts, “Wow!”

In response to Derek’s enthusiasm, a grizzled man sitting in front of them turns around and says, “You should be ashamed to wear those hats.” He is referring to the Giants caps Lord and Derek are sporting—vintage black and orange ones from the 1950’s loaned to them by Carl Klein for the day, one of the caps autographed by Willy McCovey, the other by Felipe Alou.

Derek feels the man’s rebuke as a physical blow—tears of hurt and confusion springing to his eyes.

Lord puts his arm around Derek and whispers in his ear, “It was a marvelous play. Very possibly one of the most astonishing plays I’ve ever seen. The impossible made plausible. Physical genius of the highest order. Blue-collar ballet. But see, kiddo, most die-hard Giants fans, I among them, hate the Dodgers with such a burning irrational cave man stupidity we are incapable of appreciating them even when they do something transcendent of mere rivalry. So don’t take it personally, okay?”

Derek sniffles back his tears and says to the man in front of them, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m only just now for the first time in my life learning about this game. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to cheer the other guys when they did something incredible.”

The man turns around again, his scowl changing to a smile. “It was an excellent grab, I must admit. Reminds me of what Omar Vizquel used to do routinely three or four times a game way back when. Hey, where’d you get those cool old hats?”

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.

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

Magical Thinking

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.” Tom Robbins

Big game tonight, our Giants scrapping for first place in the National League West, a dozen games left in the regular season, our first shot at making the playoffs since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds. So this morning I hand-washed my black Giants sweatshirt and smudged it with white sage to amplify the winning mojo therein. Do I really believe wearing this particular sweatshirt will make a difference in the outcome of a distant baseball game? Was Yogi Berra a catcher? If reputable physicists seriously aver that butterflies flapping their wings in China impact the weather in Brazil, why wouldn’t my choice of sweatshirts influence a baseball game a couple hundred miles away?

Maybe you don’t believe butterflies contribute to the creation of weather? Do you believe that devoutly imagining something can make that something happen? As in envisioning Juan Uribe hitting a home run, and then he does? Hit a home run? Coincidence, you say? Then how about this: you’re stuck on the sofa, too tired to get up, or you’ve got a cat on your lap so you can’t get up, but you fervently wish someone would bring you a beer or a cup of tea, and suddenly here comes somebody with exactly what you wanted. That’s never happened to you? God, I’m sorry.

“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” William Burroughs

In 1962 the Giants went to the World Series. I was in the eighth grade at La Entrada Junior High in Menlo Park California. This was before the passage of Jarvis Gann Proposition Thirteen that annihilated the common good, so California still had the best system of public education in America. Indeed, the system was so good, the powers that were wheeled a television into our classroom so we could watch the World Series. Talk about having your priorities right.

So the bell rang at the end of class, lunchtime upon us, just as Willie Mays was coming to bat, at which moment Nancy Woolf, the girl of my dreams (though I was too shy to tell her so), approached that television, kissed her right index finger, and with that lucky finger touched the tiny projected image of Willie Mays on the screen. And on the very next pitch, Willie hit a towering home run. I saw this happen with my very own eyes, in real time. Everything was live in those days, no tape delay as I witnessed the power of love and divine pulchritude precipitating a mighty swing. Coincidence, you say? Magic, say I.

“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.” Thomas Szasz

My father, a medical doctor and a Freudian psychoanalyst, was a religious atheist. He felt it his un-God-given duty to debunk and demean anything and anyone tainted with even the slightest whiff of what he called magical thinking, which included believing in God, astrology, reincarnation, and Santa Claus. Near the end of his life, my father proselytized zealously about his latest and greatest theory explaining everything that had ever happened in human history. To wit: most people are genetically incapable of not thinking magically, and are therefore easily controlled by vastly more intelligent people who don’t believe in magical thinking. Shamans and priests and gurus and messiahs and emperors and popes and politicians throughout history were those born free of the magical thinking gene, but they pretended to believe in magical thinking in order to rule the roost. For thousands of years, anyone who didn’t believe in magical thinking and was naïve enough to say so publicly was branded a heretic or a lunatic, until finally science overcame religion and reason prevailed over superstition. But magical thinking, according to my father, still must be ruthlessly opposed or the charlatans will make use of this dominant genetic propensity to seize control once more and plunge the world back into ignorance and organized religion.

My father insisted that spirituality was synonymous with magical thinking, and he declared all spiritual experiences to be fake or delusional. On those rare occasions when I used the words spiritual or mystical in my father’s presence, his reactive rhetoric rivaled the fieriest of fire and brimstone preachers. This was before he developed his ultimate theory of the genetic inevitability of magical thinking, which allowed him to express pity for the inferior masses rather than hatred and contempt.

“Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.” Theodor Adorno

My mother was not a magical thinker, nor were my siblings, but I have always been so. This means, according to my father’s theory, that I was born with the gene for magical thinking and my siblings were not, which may explain why they are atheists and I have never felt that the geological, chemical, and biological workings of nature in any way preclude the existence of an intelligent universe. Indeed, my recent reading of a rigorously scientific text on hummingbirds confirms my view that the universe is a fully conscious artist.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

I have recently heard the expression magical thinking used to castigate those who believed Obama’s campaign promises, to ridicule those who think solar energy can effectively replace fossil fuels, and to pour salt into the wounds of those who lost their shirts and pants and everything else in the ongoing economic meltdown; and I realize from these vitriolic usages that the expression magical thinking is used primarily as a synonym for stupid and/or ignorant, which conforms with my father’s theory of cultural history.

So let us deconstruct the expression and see what we find. On the surface we almost have an oxymoron. Magical—Thinking. In my experience, magic only fully manifests when the linear logical mind is quieted or turned off, and disbelief (preconception) is thereby suspended. That is, if our brains are on red alert to not believe in anything contrary to our current notions of reality, our brains are highly unlikely to be open to magical occurrences.

I think this brings us to the root of the inquiry as well as to the root of magical, which is magic, a seriously loaded word. There was magic in the air when he saw her. Witchcraft. Voodoo. Love. Angels. Pleasure. Luck. Fate. Sunsets. Kittens. Simultaneous orgasms!

As with most loaded words, magic behooves us to find a less loaded equivalent to make our point. I nominate the word extraordinary, which means beyond the ordinary, something unexpected, perhaps even unprecedented. We’re down one to nothing in the bottom of the ninth, Posey on second, two outs. Juan Uribe steps to the plate. I am suddenly overcome by an extraordinary thought, one might even call it a vision, of Juan connecting with a fastball and hitting the ball out of the park. And he does, Juan does. He hits the ball out of the park. Fair. Not foul. Gone. Outta here! Adios pelota! Extraordinary! Did my wanting him to hit that home run make the home run happen? Or was my vision merely prophetic? Whoa. I don’t know. For if I knew, then my thoughts would be what? Scientific?

“Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.” Margot Fonteyn

There is a marvelous passage (marvelous to magical thinkers) in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in which Merton tells of his extraordinary experience in a cathedral in Mexico City. As Merton prayed fervently to God that He exert His extraordinary power so that Merton’s first book would be accepted for publication, Merton was filled with an extraordinary energy (a magical thinker might call such energy the light of God) and Merton was shaken to his core. And though his book was not published, Merton came to understand that God had not forsaken him, but had given him exactly what he most needed, not what he most wanted.

So tonight when I don my black sweatshirt and perform on our extraordinary piano an extraordinary blues progression in lieu of the national anthem, and Marcia (yes, I’ve converted my extraordinary wife to the cause of los Gigantes) and I take a moment to visualize our starting pitcher throwing extraordinarily well and our hitters making loud and extraordinary contact with the ball, we will trust the unseen powers, otherwise known as the baseball gods, to grok from our vibes that we don’t just want to win, but that our need is extraordinary.

(Todd worships los Gigantes in Mendocino and blesses KMFB for broadcasting the games locally. This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010.)

Money Ball (Love)

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Something marvelously strange is going on with my San Francisco Giants. For the first time since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds, the dead wood has been greatly minimized, money is being spent to retain talent, and it appears management may actually try to win the whole enchilada. The odds are greatly against such a grandiose finale to a season yet to be played, but this is the first time since 2003, the year after we last went to the World Series, that there have been any odds at all. These last six seasons have been less about rebuilding and more of a sports version of Waiting For Godot, as in waiting for the second coming of Willie Mays as we plumb the depths of the existential conundrum: is baseball metaphoric of an intrinsically meaningless or meaningful life?

But enough about Samuel Beckett, our fat cat owners are actually paying Tim Lincecum twenty-three million dollars to start sixty-five games or so over the next two years. That’s approximately three hundred and fifty thousand dollars per game or about three grand per pitch. Tim is twenty-five years old. Can you imagine what you would have done with twenty-three million dollars when you were twenty-five? Or with three million? Or even with three hundred thousand? I hope I would have been smart enough to buy a farm, but something tells me I would have blown it making a movie. If someone offered me twenty-three million today (or three million or three hundred thousand) I know just what I’d do with it, as soon as I find my reading glasses and that list I made.

Why this sudden loosening of the Giants’ corporate purse strings? My theory, somewhat convoluted, is as follows. Despite our losing ways, our wonderful new ballpark by the glittering bay has been such a fabulous cash cow and tourist attraction that our owners felt no pressing need to field a particularly upscale team. This is a variant on the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If making money is their primary goal (and it obviously is) the owners were winning even when the team lost. But last year, for the first time since the new park opened, the cow began producing noticeably less cash. For several years now good pitching alone has kept us from abysmal failure in the weakest division in baseball, but last year (never mind Lincecum’s second Cy Young Award) the crowds began to dwindle. The team couldn’t hit or run and management wouldn’t spend a fat dime to buy us a couple bats; and then the economy tanked and the specter of a half-empty ballpark loomed for the coming season.

Combine this specter with a resurgence of the other teams in our division, and the money boys decided it was time to spend some cash to field a winner, because winners fill seats and pitching alone won’t hack it anymore. And since it is a sure bet our owners gained greatly from the recent economic hijinks that have hurt so many Giants fans below them on the slopes of the pyramid, our owners have plenty of cash to spend.

That’s my theory: a confluence of economic factors necessitating infrastructure upgrade combined with the unfathomable workings of a mysterious universe. Now I’m not saying I think we’re going to win it all this season. Indeed, my linear logical brain doubts very much we’ll even win the division. But we have a chance, and a chance is an exciting thing for a fan weary of starring in Waiting For Willie.

And the other thing I want to say about the upcoming season is this. I know a woman of ninety-six who told me that had the Giants won it all in 2002 she would have allowed herself to die. She was ready to go. Her bags were packed, so to speak. We were three outs away from winning the World Series for the first time since 1954. And then we lost. And in that painful moment this woman knew she would have to stay alive. This is a gal who listens to every game, including every game of spring training. She refers to the players and the announcers and the coaches by their first names. They are, as far as she’s concerned, her family. She is blind, so she can only listen to the games. When the Giants win, she is cheerful. When they lose, she is cranky for an hour or so, then she stows her disappointment and gets ready for tomorrow.

She was not a fan of baseball until she married in her late twenties. She and her husband attended many games at Candlestick and watched or listened to every game together for forty years. Her husband died thirty years ago, but she says he is with her still for every game. When I last saw her, she said she thought this might be our year.

“The boys are entering their prime,” she said, nodding confidently. “You can hear the maturity in Matt’s voice, Tim so confident now. I’m glad Juan came back. He comes through more times than not. And Pablo is starting to show some patience at the plate. John sounds more upbeat about the team than I’ve heard him sound in a long time. I don’t think they’re going to settle for almost again.”

“And if we win it all?”

She smiled and whispered, “My work will be done.”

Ah beautiful irrational hope. Let’s play ball!

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. His audio books are available from Audible.com.