World Series, Game Seven: Oops…Power Failure!

Last evening, Linda and I were looking to enjoy game seven of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. It had been a good day for us…one of the better ones in recent months given frequent trials and tribulations related to the passing of Linda’s mother earlier this year.

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One-half hour before game-time, as we busily completed our last chores for the day, I noticed that the light bulbs in our dining room hanging fixture looked rather dim. Even with the dimmer control “full-on” they still looked dim. A check of our bathroom lighting fixture confirmed that, indeed, something was amiss!

e26-bakelite-st64-lantern-filament-led1Those lights were also dim… and flickering. The worst-case scenario would have been that our utility-to-house electrical connection was, somehow, faulty – big bucks? We called P.G.&E. (the utility) and verified that there was a system problem localized to our neighborhood. Within minutes, the power went completely off, just before game-time!

We proceeded to follow the baseball game the same way our parents did decades ago…via radio – battery-powered, of course. Sitting in the darkness of our family room, we listened intently as one of baseball’s all-time great games unfolded in Cleveland. We constantly shook our head in dis-belief at our rotten luck in the matter.

Hours later, as we still sat in the dark, our despair deepened, and the game entered the fateful ninth-inning of play, the house suddenly came alive as numerous lights throughout instantaneously received their life-blood surge of electrical current. Within minutes, our television DVR came back to life and transported us directly to the stadium in Cleveland where the final drama of game seven was about to unfold.

What crazy timing for an electrical power outage and what a fantastic, rain-interrupted finish to game seven we were finally able to witness. We will not forget the day and the game, nor will the faithful Cubs fans who waited since 1908 for a World Series Championship. It was truly fascinating fun to witness not only the expected excitement of the victorious Cubs players, but also the extreme emotion of the fans during and after the contest. This series and, particularly, game seven, constitute sports and baseball at their finest. I could not help but note the earnestness and sportsmanship of the entire fan-base in attendance at the stadium, Cubs and Indians fans alike. The whole of it all? Most definitely a positive commentary on major league baseball, the fans, and the players.

My dad was a big fan of the Chicago Cubs as a young man growing up in Chicago and playing some ball. I recall this from a few of our long-ago conversations. I was only eight when Dad was transferred by United Air Lines from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area, but I retain certain mid-west edges to my persona along with many vivid recollections of my youth, there. Chicago was the center of both my parents’ family roots.

In 2004, Linda and I took a long-anticipated vacation trip to visit the places of my boyhood and to enjoy the sights of Chicago. We had a fabulous trip while visiting the important scenes of my early life, most of which were, surprisingly, still there and largely unchanged over fifty-six years! We hired a driver (Steven) and his town-car for the day of my sentimental tour around Chicago and, along the way, had him stop at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. I had never been there. Here is Steven, his town-car, and the home of the yet-to-be World Series Champions, the Chicago Cubs. Congratulations to the Cubs and to my home town!

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Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey: Chasing the Heisman Trophy…and Barry Sanders

Every now and then, a particularly exceptional player surfaces in the ranks of college football. Such a player was the great running back, Barry Sanders, who won college football’s coveted Heisman trophy back in 1988. Sanders was a running back at Oklahoma State University with speed and exceptional quickness, qualities which made him almost impossible to corral on the football field. His reputation was cemented by a stellar career with the NFL’s Detroit Lions; Sanders is regarded as one of the very best ever to play the game…. at any level.

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford University’s nationally-ranked football team has a player cast from the same mold as Sanders – sophomore Christian McCaffrey – running back, pass receiver, and punt/kickoff returner par-excellence. Linda and I were at Stanford Stadium last Friday evening to see young McCaffrey set a Stanford single-game school record for total all-purpose yards – 389 yards which included 192 yards rushing on 29 carries. In addition, the young phenom snaked his way through the entire University of California defense for a 49 yard touchdown off a screen pass followed by a 98 yard kickoff return for another score. That first touchdown showcased the Sanders-like balance, elusiveness, and anticipation that made Barry Sanders so unique. The second score highlighted McCaffrey’s flat-out speed as he glimpsed daylight and hit the afterburner, leaving all pursuers in the dust.

Rumors Last Season

There were rumors last season about young McCaffrey who, as an incoming freshman, deeply impressed the entire coaching staff and the other players not only with his ability, but with his mature attitude and work-ethic. Those rumors of something special surfaced early, emanating from spring football camp last year. Stanford head coach David Shaw occasionally played McCaffrey last season as a true freshman, but only in spot situations, preferring wisely not to overwhelm a young, budding talent with Stanford’s complicated offensive schemes. Whenever young Christian did trot out for a play or two, it was invariably with good results. In fact, I recall that on his very first play in the game we saw, he reeled off a long gainer.

As an alum and a long-time follower of Stanford football (since 1960), I have seen them come and seen them go, including some truly great players like Plunkett (Stanford’s only Heisman winner – 1970), Elway, Stenstrom, Luck, Hogan, Gerhart, Nelson, Hill, and Lofton. Sometimes, though, the early program hype does not fully materialize during the ensuing four years.

I wondered about young McCaffrey last year who still had a boyish-look about him, and, yes, talent and good speed….but why did Coach Shaw not utilize him more if he was that good? As this season opened, Stanford lost unexpectedly to Northwestern, and the entire team played poorly. Stanford has since decisively beaten all opponents except for a close loss to Oregon, late on the schedule.

Since the disastrous Northwestern opener, I have been surprised and impressed by two things about this Stanford team beside the fact that they are good:

First: The maturation of McCaffrey as a physical player since last year. He worked hard in the weight room during the off-season to bulk-up, adding an additional thirty pounds of mainly muscle – extra baggage which makes breaking tackles easier, but tends invariably to temper a player’s quickness. Now, as a sophomore, he is very physical going through the line yet more elusive than ever with greater quickness and flat-out speed than last year. In that respect, alone, he is an anomaly. There are few players around with the flat-out speed to catch him on his way to the end-zone. Very impressive, and it has been a long time since Stanford had a back who, like O.J. Simpson at USC, long ago, will not be caught from behind!

Second: I noticed Stanford’s team demeanor throughout televised games when the cameras routinely scanned the sidelines. I saw unmistakable signs of great team chemistry on display. McCaffrey is partly responsible for that, I am certain. It is a rare “star” player who is truly likable and revered by his teammates without reservation. In that vein, today’s local sports page highlighted some pertinent comments made by Coach Shaw:

-After Friday’s Cal game: “I haven’t seen anybody in America like this kid.”

-“Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker – the kid’s just truly special. And our guys know that, and they take a lot of pride blocking for him.”

-Earlier in the year, Shaw commented in a half-time TV interview that his team had a good first half because they were playing hard and they were playing for each other. I believe the last part of Shaw’s comment fully explains the team chemistry – a credit to the individuals on the roster and a reflection on their young Heisman candidate, Christian McCaffrey.

A quick vignette to illustrate the point: Barry Sanders, Jr. – the son of the great Barry Sanders who holds the collegiate season record for all-purpose yards – ironically is a reserve running back to the man who is chasing his father’s long-standing record as well as the Heisman – young McCaffrey.

The junior Sanders is a talented back, but not in the same unique mold as his father. Earlier in the season, when young Sanders came in to spell McCaffrey and scored on a long run from scrimmage, he was mobbed by his teammates. The sincerity of their joy for young Sanders was evident. The season has been that way all along, and I credit McCaffrey’s presence and the coaching staff for nurturing the elusive team chemistry that is the mark of champions.

Out of curiosity, last night, I googled some of young McCaffrey’s recruiting film clips from his stellar high school career at Valor Christian High in Colorado. What I saw on film was the prelude to greatness which is currently unfolding at Stanford Stadium. One of young McCaffrey’s high school kickoff touchdown returns looked like a carbon-copy of what we saw last Friday night against the Cal Bears.

Reel after reel of great football plays and McCaffrey’s matter-of-fact reaction to his own success were the dominant themes. After a score, he politely hands the ball to the officials, modestly accepts inevitable congratulations from his teammates, and heads for the sidelines. I never once saw the “number 1” finger in the air, chest thumping, or strutting of any kind – and that self-effacing style is also evident at Stanford. How refreshing is that, in this age of self-promotion on the football field? I fully understand why McCaffrey’s teammates consider it a privilege to be blocking for him – all game long. Barring injury, he is on his way to becoming a truly great player as well as a fine example of what collegiate football should be all about!

Football Moxie and a Sprinter’s Speed:
A Rare Combination and a Great McCaffrey Story

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To understand how a Christian McCaffrey “happens along,” it helps to know something of his fascinating lineage:

His maternal grandfather is David Sime – silver medalist at 100 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and former world record holder in the 100 and 220 yard sprints. David Sime was the world’s fastest human in the time-frame of 1954/56.

Sime’s personal story is fascinating in itself, but suffice it to say he graduated from Duke University medical school as an ophthalmologist after missing the gold medal in the 100 meters by a hair to the German “Thief of Starts,” Armin Hary. He fathered several children, one of whom is Lisa Sime McCaffrey who graduated from Stanford after starring there on the women’s soccer team. While at Stanford, she met and subsequently married a 6-foot-five, lanky, sure-handed pass receiver on Stanford’s football team named Ed McCaffrey – Christian’s father. The senior McCaffrey was an All-American at Stanford and enjoyed a notable career in the NFL as a Denver Bronco. Ed McCaffrey is the owner of three Super Bowl rings.

Hearing the McCaffrey name (often) last Friday night at Stanford Stadium rekindled still-vibrant memories of sunny, Saturday afternoons at Stanford Stadium in the late 1980’s. I still hear the echoes of long-time stadium announcer Ed McCauley’s play-call floating above the crowd’s roar: “….the pass complete to Ed McCaffrey for 24 yards and a Stanford first down….”

Never forgot the sights, never forgot the sounds, never forgot the great ones.
Never will. Good luck to Christian McCaffrey…and GO STANFORD!

Up-Close and Personal: The Great Pancho Gonzales and Spectator Sports Back-Then

Pancho Gonzales  003_PSIn one very special sense, live sporting venues and the live spectator experience are nothing like they once were. Gone is the fan’s ability to experience, up-close-and-personal, the true essence of today’s sports “heroes.” The observable reality has been replaced by “images” that sports marketeers would have us believe.

A germane illustration of what has been lost today is my youthful experience with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tennis players who ever lived: Richard “Pancho” Gonzales whose reign at the very top of the tennis world stretched from 1952 to 1960 – a very long time.   I was born in 1940 and attended high school in the late nineteen-fifties. Many in my age group consider ourselves extremely lucky: We grew up during the “golden age” in America. But nothing is ever all one way or all the other. We had even worse racism than exists today, we had polio, we had World War II on our doorstep, but, in the early nineteen-forties, we soon had hopes for a brighter society to come…and it did come in the years following the war.   My youthful recollections include vignettes of a day-to-day existence that was much more free and unregulated than today’s way of life. Another appropriate phrase is “less manipulated.” In spite of inferior communication technologies in the form of no internet and infant television, we, nevertheless had a more intimate  access to the authentic personas of our sports “heroes” (I do dislike that terminology).   By today’s standards, we kids, back then, were under-privileged as far as attendance at major sporting events was concerned. Often, our sports heroes came to us only via newsreel, newspapers, bubble gum cards, and, later, television. Rare was the lad who actually was able to attend a major league baseball game or a big-time football game – college or professional. But for those fortunate enough to acquire a ticket to a major event, the experience was much different from that of today’s fan – far more intimate.

The Greatest Tennis Player in the World…and Yesterday’s Venues

  By 1958, my senior year of high school, I had discovered the sport of tennis. At that time, the best player in the world was the great Pancho Gonzales who possessed the most powerful serve and the most formidable all-around game ever seen at that time. In 1959, Gonzales, the ranking professional tour champion and the best player in the world, was coming to our area to play at the venerable “Cow Palace” arena, just south of San Francisco, as part of player/promoter Jack Kramer’s annual professional tour. Unlike today, in those days there was a definite distinction between amateur and professional status. Gonzales was playing head-to-head over a cross-country series of matches against the newest pro, Lew Hoad, the great Australian amateur champion, two years prior. Also featured on the tour were two other recently turned-pro members of Australia’s legendary amateur tennis dynasties, Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper. I had a particular fascination with Gonzales and how his background and reputation stood in such glaring contrast with the gentlemen tennis stars from Down-Under.

Pancho Gonzales  004_PSMy dad and I had good tickets for that evening; we arrived at our seats early so as to soak in the entire atmosphere of the event. During the preliminary match prior to Hoad vs. Gonzales, I happened to look behind our block of seats and noticed a tall, lean, but muscular fellow in sport jacket and slacks perusing the arena from where he was standing in the aisle, several rows behind us. He had black, wavy hair and projected a swarthy complexion coupled with a brooding, stern expression. I watched him for a minute or two before concluding that the imposing figure was the great Pancho Gonzales, himself, probably accustoming himself to the environment prior to his curtain call. Nobody else seemed aware as people walked to and fro past him; I summoned up my courage, and, leaving my seat, I approached him with a fuzzy new tennis ball in hand which I had brought in high hopes of getting someones’s autograph that evening.

I asked, “Are you Pancho Gonzales?” He slightly nodded and quickly added that he would not autograph my tennis ball. “Bring me something I can write on,” he said. I scurried back to my seat and got the program I had purchased on the way into the arena. He scrawled in the lower-left corner of his full-page picture, “Pancho Gonzales,” and I was thrilled. I still have that program with his autograph.

Pancho Gonzales  001_PS As expected, Pancho, with his great skills and matchless competitive fervor, had his way with young Hoad that evening and throughout most of Kramer’s World Professional Tour. The dash and dark fury of his play that night fit perfectly with my pre-conceived notions of him.

Gonzales was an intimidating tennis player who played with speed, power, and an unrelenting desire not just to win, but to mow down his opponents on the court. He learned his tennis not from some teaching pro at the local tennis club, but from playing with other young, under-privileged lads on the public tennis courts in Exposition Park, adjacent to some very poor neighborhoods in central Los Angles. It is no exaggeration to say that he came up the “hard way,” quite unlike many of the other players he met on the amateur circuit during his young adult years. As a tennis player, Richard “Pancho” Gonzales was largely self-taught. His economic underdog mentality, plus the paucity of minority players on the tennis circuits were likely the elements which fueled his fierce determination to not only succeed in his sport, but to dominate it.

Seeing the Real Pancho Gonzales…Up-Close-and-Personal!

  I got to see more of Pancho and the Aussies a few years later at a swanky club tournament north of San Francisco. This time, Gonzales, still in his prime, was playing the feature match against the latest Aussie challenger (and phenom), the great Rod Laver. The match did not go so well this time for Pancho – soon to be obvious afterward even if one did not witness the match itself. Shortly afterward, as the small crowd of us spectators filed out of the compact tennis stadium and through the clubhouse, we walked right past a large round table in the club bar ringed by the entire contingent of Aussie players heartily enjoying a few drinks and each other’s company. No sign of Pancho, there. Outside – in plain view along the curb in front of the clubhouse, sat Pancho, still in tennis togs and racket in hand. His young, attractive wife sat beside him and was doing her best to calm his obvious anger over the loss to Laver. Pancho was well-known as temperamental and extremely competitive, and here, as exhibit A, was proof for all to see. No skill at lip-reading or body language was necessary to get Pancho’s “drift” from just across the street.

My last close look at Pancho and his world of tennis came at a senior players tournament at the more modest local tennis club. Now, several years later, new challengers occupied the top rungs of the world tennis ladder, but Gonzales and that former band of Aussies could still play some fine tennis as seniors. Our seats were but a few yards from courtside where Pancho was playing one of the Aussies (I cannot recall who). We were close enough at court level to see and hear everything – even the beads of sweat on Pancho’s brow. He seemed to be relaxed, satisfied with his play, and enjoying the match until one of the umpires started to call foot-faults on his serve. The umpires under such circumstances were always merely club members who volunteered for the duty – certainly not paid, experienced professionals.

After a couple of foot-fault calls, Pancho began to mutter and glower, and berate the umpire’s poor judgement, halting play for a considerable period. To everyone’s relief, play resumed and then it happened – another foot-fault call – exactly what the spectators at courtside were dreading. I recall a collective cringe! Gonzales was struggling to contain his contempt for the umpire and his call(s) while glowering some more. There was a very protracted dead silence. Suddenly, from the crowd, a brave, clarion voice rang out: “Play ball, Pancho!!” I’ll never forget it – another collective cringe! Now the intimate courtside crowd really held its breath; most were familiar with Pancho’s storied temper. I thought to myself, “I’m glad we are not sitting next to that guy in the crowd who just called out; who knows what might happen.” The atmosphere finally calmed, and the match resumed, thankfully without further incident.

I relate these episodes with the great Pancho in some detail to illustrate how up-close-and-personal the sporting scene was for us fans of that era. The aftermath of the Gonzales/Laver match as I witnessed it both inside and outside the clubhouse would not be visible in the controlled and varnished sporting atmosphere of today. Money was not the be-all and end-all for these athletes. Personal pride was clearly a prime motivator for a player, and that was especially true for Richard Pancho Gonzales.

The best athletes of the day, men like Gonzales, Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, etc. were all paid handsomely, but nothing in proportion to today’s scales. None became wealthy by age twenty – like so many today – based on mere potential alone. As these vignettes of Pancho illustrate, we fans could actually walk among and mingle with great athletes, seeing them at their best and, sometimes, at their worst – but seeing them as real people, not marketing creations. Security guards? There were none to be seen, unlike today where no star athlete is allowed to walk off the field of play…or anywhere, without one or two burly security “attendants.” Fans generally deferred to a self-imposed respect for the athlete and his/her privacy even when they found themselves in close proximity. Who or what is to blame for the current situation which requires constant security?

“Follow the money” as the saying goes – too much money, and too much marketing management of sport. I hate to listen to today’s athletes being interviewed. Everything they say is vanilla pap because that is the way business runs the show – don’t get controversial …ever. There are potential sponsors tracking your every word and every aspect of your image. The public is not completely blameless, either, fueled as it is with a worship for today’s sports “heroes” (I really dislike that characterization) which transcends any respect for the real person behind the image.

The small club tournament I described which highlighted the divergent attitudes of the good-natured Aussies and the brooding Gonzales would never be held, today. Such marquee players, today, command far more money than can be realized in such a small, intimate venue. That, more than anything else, characterizes the situation today. After a match, today’s players disappear into tunnels and corridors beneath the giant stadiums which are now requisite to fuel both players’ demands and large expected profits. After showers and inane press-interviews, limos now whisk athletes off to their downtown hotels and eateries. The sights I witnessed both inside and outside the clubhouse long after the match would never even happen in today’s environment.

I consulted Wikipedia to fill in a few facts about Gonzales’ life and career. I expected a few pages worth of material; instead there were eleven, there is so much to the story. Here are a few excerpts of particular note which relate to my post:

–Tony Trabert (fine player of the era): “I appreciated his tennis ability but I never came to respect him as a person. Too often I had witnessed him treat people badly without a cause. He was a loner, sullen most of the time, with a big chip on his shoulder and he rarely associated with us on the road. Instead, he’d appear at the appointed hour of his match, then vanish back into the night without saying a word to anyone. We’d all stay around giving autographs to the fans before moving on to the next city. Not Pancho.”

Trabert’s description, here, matches my eyewitness experiences uncannily accurately, except that Pancho did tolerate my interruption that evening so long ago and did autograph my program.

— Married and divorced six times, with eight children.

–Gonzales died in 1995, in poverty and almost friendless. The recent champion tennis player, Andre Agassi, paid for his funeral.

Although I might have enjoyed a drink at the bar more with the convivial Aussie players like Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall, and although I admired their exemplary sportsmanship, I always loved watching Pancho Gonzales play tennis because his emotions were real and right there on his sleeve for all to see….and he WAS the best in the world in his prime – for a very long time. Like him or not, Ricardo Alonso “Pancho” Gonzalez was “the real deal,” truly one of a kind.

Back to Baseball Basics : Hitting the Ball, for Example!

Have you ever been frustrated by some skill that seemed beyond your reach? Who has not, especially in those ability-driven activities, sports and music? I have had three such notable lifetime experiences – two in sports and one in music. As of this post, and, late in life, I am batting two out of three, with one more meaningful challenge left – the art of hitting a baseball. I just purchased this baseball bat!

IMG_2331 Many fellow retirees might ask, “Why concern yourself with THAT now, in the golden years of retirement?” Are you contemplating a new career in major league baseball? Hardly, but I have a grandson now playing Little League baseball (his first experience), and our whole family is enjoying watching. Athletics come naturally to Matthew – we realized this rather early, with him. He and I enjoy throwing footballs and playing “catch” in the backyard with a baseball and glove, but team athletics pose a different challenge. So far, so good. Early in the season, Matthew was awarded the game ball for catching a pop fly for the final out in a close game with runners on base. He can field, he is fast on the base path, and he meets the ball pretty well with the bat. Lurking in the back of my mind is the challenge of becoming a good hitter at the plate. I hope Matthew has more success than his Grandpa did on that score!

11044580_10152741939913310_3547499852237230642_n[1] I vividly recall my challenges in freshman/sophomore high school baseball, and the biggest of all was hitting the baseball. Baseball came along before I found my true calling: Running the hurdles in track during my last two years. I had little confidence hitting at the plate because I had no clue as to “batting mechanics.” I wrote a personal memoir some time ago which included my early sports experiences. Here is a brief excerpt which relates one memorable and somewhat comical experience which accompanied my adventures in the batter’s box: My debut in frosh-soph baseball at San Mateo High benefitted from my treacherous learning curve that previous summer with the Lions. Our coach, Jack Alexander, was a good man who appreciated my effort; he also appreciated the fact that I was only going to help the team by the good example of my attitude and hustle. There was one time, however, when I surprised him – and good! It was a late inning substitution again. I do not recall the game circumstances, but we were playing Capuchino High School from Millbrae/San Bruno. I suspect we were losing decisively late in the game, given the situation. On the mound for them was a pitcher with the reputation of having the best fastball in the league; his name was Daryl W. He was going through our batters like a hot knife through butter. I could see he was a hard thrower for sure, so I stepped into the batter’s box with considerable trepidation. As always, hitting the ball was not something that came easily for me, and even our best hitters were striking out against this pitcher; so expectations were low all around. I stepped in, took a few practice swings, and waited. He went into his windup with a high kick and delivered. From what I could tell, the ball was coming very fast and it looked like it was coming toward my hands; I jumped back from the plate. The pitch came right over the plate with awesome velocity and terminated with a loud tha-WACK! in the catcher’s glove. Despite the great velocity of the pitch, the ball apparently had some real lateral movement as well because it ended up a perfect strike. My first reaction was ….GEEZ! Then, I felt slightly embarrassed for having jumped back from the plate on a perfect strike. My confidence was now even two or three notches lower, and I was just hoping that his control would not falter and that I would not be killed by a fastball to the temple. I steadied myself as he delivered again. I got a peek at the ball coming – this time seemingly right over the plate – and swung for all I was worth. Crr-AACK! I opened my eyes to see that baseball take off like a shot very deep to center field. When I recovered from my surprise, my legs began to churn toward first base. Why, I do not know, but the center fielder was playing back around 350 feet from home plate. He drifted back a bit and caught the ball. I suppose his thinking might have been as follows: in the unlikely case that anyone is able to hit this fastball pitcher, it is going to go deep. There was a lot of excitement on our bench as I trotted back to sit down. I am certain that no one else hit that pitcher harder than I did that day. Some time later, Tom H., who was one of our better first string players, told me how clearly he remembered the way I crushed that pitch. He said Coach Alexander literally fell off the bench when I hit it as did others of my teammates. My baseball experience was both valuable and humbling. I felt quite certain that I lacked the eye-hand coordination required to be a good hitter. In a way, it was much like my inability to hit high notes on the trumpet because of a poorly-suited embouchure [Note: Later proven untrue!]. As with my first athletic experiences at Lomita Park school, it was even more obvious that there would be no easy tickets for me in sports and that hard work and dedication would take me only so far in baseball. Besides, baseball was a team sport where an aura of personal confidence went far in promoting achievement as well as solidarity with one’s team mates. I always got along well with my team mates, but confidence was not one of my personal assets. Nothing breeds confidence like success, and nothing breeds success like confidence; it seemed I was just not able to get a foothold in baseball.

End of memoir excerpt

The other two especially significant “doing” challenges in my life besides hitting a baseball were: Playing the trumpet, especially in a higher register, and acquiring a strong and reliable tennis serve. My ultimate breakthroughs in these last two endeavors happened long after I began taking trumpet lessons in my early teen years and long after I started playing tennis in high school. Those two personal “triumphs” came about only after careful study and analysis of the technique utilized by trumpet players and tennis stars who had what I wanted – proficient ability. I finally learned how to learn things.

“Learning how” to Finally Do Something Well:
Perhaps the Greatest Feeling in the World!

The renowned author, David McCullough, expressed it very well when describing the elation of becoming proficient in a challenging task by doing it: “I can do this…and I am getting better!” He stated a canon truth when he maintained that skills like painting and playing the piano cannot be mastered by reading a how-to book; one has to do them! I agree, but I also maintain that the optimal method of learning for us not-naturally-gifted mortals is to supplant the doing with critical analysis of how to do it vs. how we are doing it. Further “doing” then becomes an attempt at experimentation with different approaches and a verification of what works best – working smart, in other words. My experience has revealed, in no uncertain terms, that practicing the same, possibly ineffective approach, over and over and expecting different and improved results is bound to frustrate…been there, done that. When my wife took home movies of my long-term lousy tennis serve many, many years ago, I was astounded at just how lousy it looked, as well. I had no idea – no concept of the inept body mechanics at play. I could immediately see why my serve was so weak and unreliable. Until I made major changes to my body mechanics which were in concert with motion physics (yes, science!), I got nowhere. Starting from scratch on a completely new serve was not easy and required hours of backyard, slow-motion visualization of my new service motion. It was difficult training new muscle responses, but it worked. The result: A classic-looking, reliable serve, and most important – one with power that really benefitted my tennis game. Cabrera-Back-Foot[1]Back to baseball! I am rising to the challenge, once more, in search of optimal body mechanics… like those of the great hitters in baseball – players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial. Often, great natural athletes like these know little about the physics of baseball; they instinctively visualize the appropriate body mechanics and efficiently proceed to convert them into automatic reflexes. The rest of us can truly benefit from watching the slow-motion and stop-action films so readily available today which reveal the instinctive secrets of the great ones. So…it’s off to the backyard with my new baseball bat for some slow motion visualization of what it takes to produce an efficient and effective batting swing. This stuff keeps me feeling young! I love investigating the whole learning process in sport, and I have high regard for the great coaches in any sport who can quickly and efficiently improve the athletic performance of young athletes by sharing their hard-won knowledge and insights into optimal technique. I have aspirations that I might even finally learn how to hit a baseball: Hmmm….better late than never. Yes, I am confident that I can learn to do that – the last remaining item on my lifetime big-three list of personal challenges. Make no mistake, there have been and remain many others, as well. These three were merely among the most vexing.

More importantly, I hope that I can be a baseball resource to my grandson, should he ever need any extra coaching. It may happen that the tables might be turned and Matthew will be the one who shows me how! Either way, it’s a win-win situation.