Monthly Archives: March 2012

Spring is for Baseball

Ah, spring! The season of renewal, when green returns to the landscape, bringing with it a feeling of new beginnings, of hope arriving again after long nights of darkness. Spring, the season when the entire year seems to truly begin.

I’m talking about baseball, of course. As everyone knows, a new year does not truly commence until someone, somewhere, is playing baseball. And this year my friends Rory, Michelle, and I were able to ring in the new year in central Florida, home of spring training, those casual weeks where professional baseball players prepare for the year while playing casual scrimmage games in cozy little ballparks. It’s nothing like the typical major league game, which has become a circus of sensory input: raucous sound effects, fireworks, glitzy pre-produced videos and advertisements, mid-inning entertainments where six-year-olds play video games to win prizes. Spring training ball has some of those things, but they feel like shrugs, and you grow to enjoy them: the utilitarian scoreboards; the Washington Nationals’ single sound effect for foul balls, endlessly repeated; the Atlanta Braves’ announcer’s irritated blitzes through more or less everything he is forced to say. Actually, the Braves’ stadium, because of its location (inside ESPN Wide World of Sports, in turn inside of Disney World), is the most major-league of spring training parks: there’s a scoreboard that can display images, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is grotesquely punctuated by fireworks (a garish interjection after “bombs bursting in air”; we burst out laughing), and the center field grass is mowed to feature a gigantic Mickey Mouse head.

Speaking of Mickey Mouse... (click any picture to expand it)

But the poor Braves’ circus of a home field is the exception that proves the rule: that spring training isn’t Serious Sports, it’s there for our pleasure. Once a year we don’t have to worry about whether or not our team wins, or how the playoff picture looks, and we don’t have to scream over stupid plays that cost games. Heck, the score doesn’t even matter. This week the Washington Nationals let a game end with their pitcher taking the batter’s box and watching three strikes, because why not? Spring training is what baseball would look like if nobody was watching, except that people are allowed to watch.

Our view of Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida

Seeing baseball for the first time in five months, and driving nearly one thousand miles for the privilege, does prompt a question to slip into my mind: why love baseball?

As if it’s possible to answer that. Let’s try. I like to describe baseball as a canvas, the most social of sports. Baseball is the game you go to with friends, and the salient thing is that you’re with your friends, not that you’re watching a game. Football doesn’t permit that sort of casualness, for whatever reason, and basketball takes place in arenas which approach the deafening loudness of jet engines. At a baseball game you can sit back, relax, and watch the flow of action–like people-watching, or going to an outdoor bar with tasteful entertainment.

The tempo of baseball is slower, too. On a television screen, the pace gets boring, because 75% of a game is spent watching a single camera angle of a pitcher preparing to pitch. Plus, there are those annoying announcers, who care so much about the game, whereas if you were there your eyes would be casually scanning the field, soaking everything in, waiting for the action.

Now, there’s another thing. Baseball is the delayed-gratification sport. Basketball games can involve 220 points scored in 48 minutes (the record for a 48-minute game is 320, or one point every 9 seconds). American football goes in fits and starts, with long pauses and spurts of action, like baseball, only in football at least the teams have to move around, and everyone has to run, and for a split-second chaos might break out. In its delayed gratification, slow tempo, and weird timeless feeling–like you could go away for 15 minutes and not miss a single run scored but somehow miss an essential part of the narrative anyway–baseball is most like soccer. I can’t peel my eyes off a soccer match even though I know nothing big is likely to happen; the same is true in baseball. You at least get a sense, in the very small moments of those sports, that you’re witnessing some sort of grand story play out, like the quieter scenes in an epic novel which make the big climax all the more rewarding.

A Houston Astro grounds out. The ball can be seen far off to the left of his hips, as a blur in the grass.

That must be part of the appeal: the slow beat of baseball, the way that every few innings big things start happening, releasing all the narrative tension that has been building up in the expository parts of the game. And then there’s the look of it. Baseball fields are beautiful.

Look, we as Americans have a bizarre obsession with grass. The Boomer generation is fixated on having gigantic lawns around their houses, and mowing all the crisp green Kentucky bluegrass. Our parks are mostly great big green expanses of grass; it’s sort of our all-time favorite plant. And a lot of sports take place on it: soccer, rugby, ultimate Frisbee, golf. But none of them offers the fascinating symmetry, riveting color, or strange curving perfection of a baseball diamond.

Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch.

I’ve started to realize how little television captures the experience. On television, you have a constant reminder of the score; when I’m not really watching a baseball game, I care deeply about the score, but I’ve found that when I’m actually at one I can enjoy it without even being sure who’s winning. Plus, television brings close-ups on players spitting or just generally looking fat, things nobody makes you watch when you have seats in the park. And there’s the beauty of the diamond sloping away from you, the behavior of all the other players as they wait for a pitch, the banter between a baserunner and an umpire, the way it’s all so darn relaxing. A training game in Florida is all about fresh beginnings; at the start of a game, the baseball field is clean, waiting for something to bloom upon it. We aren’t in a hurry; we can watch and wait. We’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again but it always feels like we’re coming home.

In other words, baseball is a lot like spring.

Randall Delgado of the Atlanta Braves pitches to Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. As if it really mattered what was happening in a scene as beautiful as this.


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A Pop-Culture Idiot Listens to the Hits

I know quite a lot about some things. Popular music is not one of them. When I saw M.I.A. at the Super Bowl halftime show, I thought, “Oh! That one who was in the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack!” Which is downright well-informed compared to my thoughts when Madonna was performing in the same show: “Wow, Lady Gaga really did steal her style.” Today I looked up a list of all the Grammy Award winners for Album of the Year. I own three, and two (Getz/Gilberto, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) are from the 1960s.

From this grew an idea: wouldn’t it be funny if I, a complete pop-culture ignoramus, listened to a bunch of songs and wrote up my totally clueless opinions of them? Answer: funny, yes. Otherwise redeemable, probably not. Embarrassing, almost certainly.

Lucky you.

NOTE: I’m not intending to cover the years 2011-12 exclusively. There are some earlier songs that I’ve been dying to complain about which are also included here.

Lady Gaga: “Bad Romance,” “Telephone,” “Born this Way.” Gaga’s best songs are insanely catchy, with awesome tunes. A lot of contemporary music has a pervasive sameness–in the mood, in the volume/dynamics, in key–which Gaga defies; the major/minor alternations of “Bad Romance” especially stand out. But… gosh, she really did steal everything from Madonna. And, admittedly, inside the Gagaverse there is a new sort of sameness, although at least it’s her sameness.

The Civil Wars: “Poison and Wine.” Oh, dang it! I just got tricked into some kind of boring country ballad!

Pictured: my second-favorite American Civil War(s)

Rihanna: “We Found Love.” This is one of a number of songs where I don’t understand why they thought that the vocal style and the rest of the track belonged in the same song. Also: the lyrics are kind of repetitive, aren’t they?

The Civil Wars: “Barton Hollow.” I was convinced to give this duo a second chance. Okay, this song is more country-gospel than I could usually stand, except that it’s awesomely villainous-sounding. I’m not sure how I feel about the lyrics (to the extent that they were written rather than just taken from other places), but that sound! It leaves scorch marks. Civil Wars, you’re forgiven.

Arcade Fire: “Ready to Start, “The Suburbs.” I had really high hopes for Arcade Fire, on basis of hearing something I liked from them once, but “Ready to Start” just felt cold and monotonous and slightly too familiar. “The Suburbs” had a punchier sound but I still can’t warm to the lead vocalist. I tried listening to “Wake Up” but turned it off after 30 seconds.

Nicki Minaj: “Super Bass.” Wow this is bad. There should be a rule against musicians saying their own names in their songs (except for “We’re the Monkees”). Those little digital synth hiccup noises are terrible. Someone pity me for listening to this.

The Black Lady Gaga? ...or the Black Madonna?

Katy Perry: “I Kissed a Girl,” “Hot N Cold.” “I Kissed a Girl” sounds weirdly ominous given it’s about something we all can agree is a lovely experience. Also, Perry’s voice sounds just boyish enough to be a teenager whose voice hasn’t quite cracked yet… you know, like Justin Bieber. Or the Beach Boys. “Hot N Cold” is a totally different experience: it’s sassy and has a slightly deranged sense of humor, and it’s also a really freaking good tune.

Florence + the Machine: “Shake It Out.” Lead singer Florence Welch has a weird thing going on here. In the initial minute she’s a slightly too affected, weak-voiced indie singer, and then she turns into a commanding presence with, unless it’s my imagination, leanings toward Celtic folk music. The song underneath her confusing-but-good voice is very 80s, very synthesized, but kinda catchy. And the lyrics get stronger as they go along, which makes me okay with this song being fairly lengthy.

Wiz Khalifa: “Roll Up.” I guess the lyrics are kind of sweet. Actually, they’re almost cute. I’m not used to hip-hop sounding cute (or songs that drop the f-bomb sounding cute). Halfway through, I realized what the synth chorus melody reminded me of: that song Celine Dion songs in Titanic. Ha! I just completely ruined hip-hop for you.

Straight Outta Southampton

Telekinesis: “Please Ask for Help.” There’s a whole lot of alt-rock that all sounds the same to me, as if everyone who makes alt-rock got together and said, “Let’s decide on a style and do that.” Telekinesis, like their Pacific-Northwest-Coast-mates the Decemberists and the New Pornographers, seem to be charter members of this pact, but also like the other two bands, Telekinesis is pretty good. This song benefits from unusually well-written, cohesive lyrics.

Selena Gomez: “Love You Like a Love Song.” Okay, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this exact same melody in another song before, only with acoustic guitars and tasteful strings rather than an electronic dance beat. …oh, wait, halfway through the tasteful strings show up.

I'd say something rude about being a '90s holdover or dating Justin Bieber but, gosh, she's so cute.

Adele: 21. Damn. Adele’s voice does not sound like something somebody learned how to do. Adele’s voice–okay, in the age of Photoshop, there are three kinds of picture. There’s the kind that’s obviously real. There’s the kind that’s obviously ‘shopped to look better. And there’s the kind that’s so freaking unbelievable that it has to be real (consider).

Now that voices can, using the miracles of post-production and AutoTune, be more or less Photoshopped, there are three kinds of voices: the kind that’s obviously real, the kind that’s artificially enhanced, and the kind that’s so astonishing it couldn’t be faked. Florence (of the Machine) is the first kind; Ke$ha is the second; Adele is the third.

The knock on 21 is true, of course: it’s all break-up songs about her ex. There’s a huge stylistic range which means the offerings range from great to seriously disappointing. And Adele’s actual songwriting leaves considerable room for growth (what does rolling in the deep even mean? or “you played it to the beat”?). But gosh, the raw materials are there, the raw materials not for a good artist but for a great one. You can already hear the greatness in, especially, “Rumour Has It.”

Mashup-Germany: “Top of the Pops 2011.” Oh, hey, I didn’t need to hear any of the above, because this brilliantly edited mashup has pretty much all of them. And it’s fun and coheres really well. (Most inspired moment: the contrapuntal combination of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Pumped Up Kicks.”) Maybe in the future I’ll just wait for Mashup-Germany to mash every year’s music together and listen to that. It’s fun and it saves time!

Mashups exhibit much more care and creativity than they would if DJs simply, say, dropped the music in a blender.

By the way, mashups? Classical music totally invented that.

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