Tony Gwynn

In 1994, Tony Gwynn batted over .400 for most of the season, and every morning that summer I would open up the Sports section of the newspaper and check the box score to see how Gwynn had done the day before. He was on a tear heading into August, and many thought he might be the first person since Ted Williams in 1941 to crack the .400 batting average mark.

To me, the most important statistic in baseball was the batting average. It was the first thing I looked at when I checked out the stats on the back of a player’s baseball card. I would arrange my cards in my collection based on a player’s batting average. Home runs were overrated in my opinion. Home run hitters were guys seeking personal glory while the good hitters were more interested in team success.  I followed all the prolific hitters. I knew of Rod Carew’s year in 1977 when he batted .388 and George Brett’s 1980 season when he batted .390.

carew brett

I knew of all the seasons that Pete Rose had over 200 hits. For many years, Rose was by far my favorite player, but by 1990 his reputation was tarnished and all those baseball cards of his that I’d collected were now seemingly worthless.

Tony Gwynn kept my interest in baseball even after the black eye of the Pete Rose scandal. Gwynn was a good guy, loyal to his team, and a tremendous hitter.

1994 was destined to be the year someone would finally break the .400 mark. Although Gwynn repeatedly batted well over .300, never before had he gone so deep into the season hovering so close to .400. Then August 11th came and the baseball players announced they were going on strike. The season was over. I hated the player’s union and the owners for disrupting Gwynn’s glorious season. When Gwynn was unable to replicate his torrid pace the next year, I had nothing left to cheer for. I hated baseball. The strike had ruined everything.

The Sosa-McGwire summer of 1998 temporarily resurrected my fractured relationship with baseball as I began taking an interest in the type of player I had always detested. The home run hitter. These guys were hitting home runs at such an impressive rate that they captured the attention of the country.   Baseball was back. Mark McGwire smashed Roger Maris’s record (as did Sammy Sosa), but when the bloated Barry Bonds surpassed the record in 2001, the excitement was missing. Everyone knew something was off. The subsequent and ongoing steroid scandal sunk baseball to a level lower than the strike-shortened season of 1994, and the inflated stats from 1998 onward were no longer of any interest to me since it was impossible to know which ones to believe.

The last time I believed in baseball was in 1994, during that unfinished season. Would Gwynn have done it? Would he have cracked .400?  We’ll never know.

Tony Gwynn passed away on June 16th at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer. He didn’t get a chance to finish coaching his team at San Diego State University. He didn’t get a chance to see his son, Tony Gwynn, Jr. finish his own professional baseball career.

Tony Gwynn and Tony Gwynn, Jr.

On Father’s day, the day before Tony Gwynn died, his son told a Philadelphia reporter about his father, “I always try to get in an I love you. For a while that was uncomfortable for me, I don’t know why. But since 2010, it hasn’t been uncomfortable. It’s something I want to make sure I get in because you never know what’s going to happen.”

There are several things that the baseball strike and cancer didn’t allow Tony Gwynn to finish, but nothing stopped him from achieving the ultimate victory in life: achieving a meaningful bond with his family before it’s too late.

 

 

First Dance

Dance

I remember

dancing—

the first embrace

we both unsure where to place

our hands

and I wondered how much I should relish

the feel of my fingers pressing into her flesh

or the tickle of her hand crawling into my palm

If I close my eyes

and lift my hand skyward in a sign

of benediction

an invitation

or a wave farewell

I can sometimes feel her hand against mine

the squeeze

the pressure

before she pulled away

thanked me

and said goodbye

Beauty Matters

mona ace

You’re one of fifty-two people who mill about in a large room.  Each of you holds a playing card against your forehead.  No one knows their own card, but you can see each other’s.  The goal of this little game is to pair off with the highest card possible, but to accomplish this, your request for partnership has to be accepted by the other.  Of course the Aces and Kings are the most popular and they pretty much know right away that they’re the cream of the crop.  It’s instant mutual acceptance when an Ace requests to partner with another Ace.  It works fairly quickly with the Kings as well.  By the time this experiment is over, for the most part, Aces have paired with Aces, tens with tens, sixes with sixes, and twos with twos.

It must be kind of depressing being a two, being the last in the room to find a partner, watching all the high cards go, then the middle ones, and experiencing the horrible realization that you’re the low card that no one wants to pair with.

Research has shown this is how couples typically pair off in the real world.  Hot women tend to be with hot guys.  Sevens with sevens.  Twos with twos.  Through the process of assessing interest and receiving rejections, we get a pretty good gauge of where we stand relative to others, and we choose our partner accordingly.

The popular belief is that beauty is subjective—beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but really, we all hold similar opinions as to who we consider physically beautiful.  Even people in one culture can easily pick out beauty in another culture.  We are hard wired to perceive beauty.

So we do our best to enhance ourselves, to add value to our card.   We’ll diet and exercise to maintain the best proportions or wear makeup to project the illusion of youth.  We do this because it’s necessary to attract a partner with the most sexual allure.  We value other traits too, but physical beauty reigns supreme.  Talents can add to one’s overall allure but it’s more like one suit value trumping another.  Adding a Harvard degree to a killer body might make you the Ace of Hearts to the Ace of Clubs.  In other words, talent, charm, and intellect can increase the value of your suit, but not your pip value.

We often talk about the shallowness of physical beauty and how real beauty is something within, and there is a certain internal beauty we do admire.  It’s this internal beauty that makes a close friend or relative loveable in a heartwarming kind of way, but this kind of beauty doesn’t translate to romantic attraction.  They are two distinct kinds of beauty—one endears us to many friends and the other excites a potential romantic partner.

So can a Six ever make it with an Ace?  It happens but it’s not common.  If we’re slightly devious, we’ll try some sleight of hand.  Alcohol to level the playing field.  The use of power and/or intimidation.  Money.

shrek

Our stories, myths and legends try to convince the lower valued cards to hold out hope and that maybe in some perfect universe, Marisa Tomei might be attracted to short, stocky, bald men.

tomei

The lesson that many of our most cherished love stories attempt to drive home is that  inner beauty is everything.  But in what fairy tale is Prince Charming a three hundred pound oaf with big ears and acne?  The truth is, most fairy tales and stories are populated by pretty heroes and ugly villains.

So what about the twos and threes?  What is their destiny?  To become witches?   Criminals?  Is this what we expect from less physically attractive people?  With constant rejection and low societal expectations, wouldn’t a two or three naturally come to resent the world?  I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt that sinking feeling of being the last man or woman standing in the room—it sucks—but we all haven’t faced this rejection on a day-to-day basis.  This rejection does not come from only potential sexual mates.  Pulchronomics, which studies the economics of beauty, shows us prettier people earn more money than their plain counterparts.  Handsome children earn more attention from teachers.  It’s no wonder that criminals tend to be uglier than most.

Obviously, being ugly does not make one a criminal just like being depressed doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide.  There is, however, a striking correlation, and I wonder if we fully consider and appreciate the consequences of being physically unattractive and receiving constant rejection.

What we do tend to do is ridicule those who are preoccupied with their looks.  But in a world where looks has a greater bearing on future success than education, a focus on primping actually seems to be the smarter path to take.

This being said, we also tend to overvalue the benefits of beauty in relation to overall happiness.  Perhaps being the perpetual object of desire makes it easier to engage in extra-marital affairs, which can lead to painful divorces, breakups, or love triangles.  Perhaps the promiscuity associated with Hollywood is less indicative of the loose morals of show business and more the result of extraordinarily beautiful people constantly in the midst of each other.

So what’s the lesson?  Obviously beauty matters more than it seems appropriate to acknowledge.  But the more important question is what can we change?  Do we try to make the not-so-physically attractive more eye-appealing and encourage vanity?  Or do we try to change the perception and importance of beauty?  Can we really transform something that is hard-wired within us?

I think it would be nice if we could occasionally ask for a reshuffling of the deck.

The Failure of Reason – Sharpening An Old Saw

by Robin Hostetter

In the mid 60’s, a young Mario Andretti worked his way through the ranks of professional drivers by racing stock cars. A rubber company sponsor delivered the tires to the track without treads, so that the proper pattern could be cut in on site, customized for the conditions and track and driving style. This was state-of-the-art, for everyone knew that a tire had to have treads to grip the track.

One day at practice, Mario anxiously awaited the delivery of his tires so he could shake out a new car for the race that weekend. But the delivery was delayed until an hour before the track closed. Mario, not wishing to lose a day of practice, asked that they be installed as they were- slick, uncut. Every one warned him he would slide right off the track for everybody knew a tire had to have grooves to function properly.

Mario insisted, saying he was more interested in just getting to know the car, and would push for speed another day. He challenged the track, pushing only as fast as he felt he could control the car.

He set a new track record that day, not just by a few seconds, but by fifty per cent.

Reason said that tread gripped the road, kept the car from sliding off due to angular momentum on the corners. No one doubted the assumption. Mario demonstrated the actual physics, overlooked by a generation of reasonable people. The grip of the tire is determined in large part by the area of rubber in the contact patch, the more the better. Cutting grooves into the tire only diminished the amount of rubber in contact with the track, making them less “sticky” than having no tread at all.

AndrettiNow everyone runs on slicks- it is the reasonable thing to do.

The Failure of Reason – Sharpening An Old Saw

by Robin Hostetter

We don’t believe the dinosaurs thought about the comet that wiped them out, but I’m sure it pissed them off. The whole consciousness of Gaia, Mother Earth, was offended by that death blow. Life had evolved to fill every niche; land, air, and sea teemed with it.  Stable for millions of years, Mother Earth had achieved perfection, she thought.

Then that outside force, a war hammer from the stars, and Nature started over, this time not just to fill every biosphere of the earth, but to face down threats from the stars as well. She knew it would take more than just biology; it depended on emergence, characteristics of a complex system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Complex systems like our large brains; we call it intelligence, the ability to reason.

shower

20 million years later and here we are. Intelligence is expensive, the power to reason comes at great energy costs to the organism, and there has only been one species that has made the cost workable. Us, with maybe the large sea mammals holding a back-up copy of the basic software.

There was a time when the human species was on the endangered list, a time when there were only a few thousand of us. But we made it through that narrow gate, we made our large expensive brains work for us, and now we rule the planet. Some of nature’s processes are still outside of our control, but we’re working on gaining control of even those.

So, we are Gaia’s tool, evolved to extend the shield of life beyond the boundaries of our own atmosphere. And what are we doing?  Struggling with petty arguments, backing away from the great challenge for which nature created us, turning our backs on the stars.

Today we struggle with a government that has shut down, unable to do even the most basic of things. Our sky watch is dark. And in less than a month, an asteroid will pass between us and the orbit of the moon, death whistling by to remind us that the universe is uncaring, if not downright hostile.

The sky is falling. Reason has failed. Winter is coming.

meteor

 

What’s Happened to Roger Federer

lossIt was no surprise that Roger Federer breezed through the first three rounds of the 2013 US Open.  Even though his ranking has faltered, dropping now to number seven after his amazing resurgence in 2012 that saw him briefly regain the number one ranking, we still expect him to win.  He’s Roger Federer.  Watching Federer is, as David Foster Wallace described, a religious experience.  After his loss to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open and his early exit at Wimbledon, we are now wondering, what’s happened to Roger?

Is Age Catching Up to Him?

The logical answer is that he is simply getting old.  Age eventually brings down our greatest sports icons.  Yet Federer is only 32.  Michael Jordan was just beginning his second run of domination at 32.  Watching Federer against Robredo, it appeared that Federer was the better player.  His grace on the court is still evident.  His agility is there as his incredible shot making ability.  He still shows that he is the most technically proficient tennis player in the history of tennis.  So where is the drop off?

Is it Something Physical?

Physical concerns are always an issue with age, especially with tennis players.  The game is violent on the joints.  Think of this.  A tennis player goes from a near sprint to a complete stop, applying an enormous amount of pressure on the knees, hips, and back.  It’s one thing to do this on grass or clay where the softer surface provides more give, but on the hard courts, the body takes a beating.  Every tennis player is eventually going to limp off the court.

But Federer has avoided most of these physical ailments.  He has never missed an extended amount of playing time.  Why?  Probably because he is the most relaxed tennis player we’ve ever seen.  Compare a still shot of Federer striking a ball with one of Nadal.
495035-roger-federer Australian Open TennisTension causes more injuries than athletes tend to realize.  Federer has remained healthy because of his ability to relax. I’m sure he’s employed some form of autogenic training along with meditation to achieve this level of calmness on the court. Despite a sore back in the early summer, Federer went into the US Open claiming to be completely healthy.  He certainly looked physically healthy.

So why is Roger losing?

I’ve always argued that the difference between the number 1 player in the world and the number 100 is actually quite small.  Let’s look first at why Roger was winning.  When he was at his peak, he was about 1 point per game better than the lower ranked opponents.  1 point per game doesn’t seem like that much separation, but it will get you results like 6-2, 6-1.  Why was Roger better?  Of course there’s his technical proficiency.  Secondly, he had superior shot making ability from defensive positions (i.e. his squash shot).

Thirdly, for ten years he has been mentally dominant.  This is where he gained separation from the top players.  Against top 40 players, he was probably about 0.5 points better per game and against top ten players, a little less than that.  Compared to the top tier of players who all had similar technical proficiency and shot making ability, Federer maintained a consistent edge because he believed he had an edge and because he did everything in his power to ensure that his opponents would not have the belief.  This is mental dominance.

It reminds me of a scene in Orson Card’s Ender’s Game when Ender explains why he continued to beat up a bully even after he’d knocked him down.

“Knocking him down won the first fight.  I wanted to win all the next ones, too.”

Federer had to win just about all his matches to maintain his aura of invincibility and plant a seed in every opponent’s mind that they could not beat him.  With the exception of Nadal, he succeeded in this.  There was no saving it for just the big tournaments.  He brought it every tournament, playing with the fear that if lost just once to somebody, maybe, just maybe they might begin to believe they could beat him. One of the most dangerous weapons an opponent can have is belief.

Then Nadal beat him on grass.  Then Djokovic and Murray, which shouldn’t have been that farfetched because in ability they were equals.  The only thing that had previously prevented them from beating Federer was the lack of belief they could beat Federer.

With others knowing he could be beaten, he lost the mental edge he had held over his  opponents for so many years.

But losing to Robredo?  And then Igor Stakhovsky?  How could this happen?  Federer blamed his losses on confidence, but this is only part of the bigger picture.

Where has he slipped?

I remember a comment Pete Sampras made shortly after he retired from tennis.  He said that the biggest deterioration with age is not physical.  It’s mental.

It’s mentally exhausting being the best.  Physically, Federer feels fine which is why it’s so hard for him to understand why he’s losing and why he legitimately seems baffled when he does lose.  He still strikes the ball as solidly as he ever has.  He has not lost a step as some analysts maintain.  He just gives up a few more free points than he used to.  Tiny slips in concentration.  A fraction worse than before.  But when the margins are so small, especially with the top players, wins turn to losses.

Mental slippage?  Really?

As brutal as tennis is on the body, it may be more brutal on the mind, at least for people blessed/cursed with the compulsive desire to be the best.  Training the mind to concentrate for extended periods of time takes practice.  An interesting bi-product of this intense concentration is the seemingly absurd but true anomaly that when a top competitive tennis player comes off the court, he can recall every point in a match.  They’re not consciously memorizing points; it’s just their level of focus is so high and they are so in tune with what’s going on that this notion becomes possible.

Thanks to mental toughness pioneers such as Dr. Jim Loehr, the techniques for staying focused and relaxed has advanced in tennis as much as the technology in equipment and the understanding of biomechanics.  Free points are harder to come by and top players no longer have the luxury of being able to slip in and out of focus like McEnroe and Connors did when they had their outbursts or interactions with the crowd.  It used to be that “being in the zone” was a rare achievement.  Now, it’s a daily necessity.  There are those who argue that tennis has become more boring because the personalities have become much more subdued.  But I prefer watching the mental giants like Federer because simply because it’s incredible what they’re doing out there, sustaining excellence point after point.  Mental giants can be intimidating in a quiet way.

A male tennis player has to sustain focus for three to four hours (sometimes even more) in a closely contested three-out-of-five set match.  The normal amount of time the human mind can maintain uninterrupted concentration is about two hours.  (However, with the vast number of diversions available to us, we are probably evolving—or devolving—to the point where even two hours is a stretch.)  This is why movies typically do not run much longer than two hours and when they do, the audience begins to feel fatigued.  This is why professional poker players immediately stop playing when they feel mentally fatigued.

In competition, or when the stakes really matter (in a war zone perhaps), we can push our minds to do a little more.  But pushing the mind like this is impossible to sustain forever.  Even chess players retire.  Federer has done this week in and week out for over ten years, not just staying atop the rankings, but pummeling his opponents.  Because of his success, he has played more matches than anyone else.  But now the mental strain is beginning to show even before the physical deterioration.  During his fourth round loss against Robredo, the shots were there, but there were a few more loose points than we would expect to see from Federer.

What to Expect from Federer Looking Forward

There’s no doubt Federer continues to have the competitive desire to be the best, and I disagree completely with those who suggest Federer should retire or that he’s even lost a step.  Physically, he should be able to compete with the best for the next three or for years.  If he rests and refreshes mentally, he should be able to put together a run like he did to end the 2012 season.  But the days of dominating day after day, week after week, year after year are over.  Unfortunately, the human mind can be pushed only so far.