Monday, October 29, 2018

How The 2015 NFL Season May Have Ruined Sports

The factoid flashed across the bottom of the screen: “The last time the Red Sox won the World Series a loaf of bread was 7 cents.” It was a cool fall night in 1986 at my apartment in suburban Perrysburg, Ohio and the Mets were coming to bat in the bottom of the 10th. The Red Sox had scored two in the top of the frame for what appeared to be a comfortable lead. If you’ve read this far, you likely know what happened next, so I won’t dwell on the details. Let’s just say that the price of bread would go up by a few more cents before Boston would win a World Series.

The thing that is often lost in the “Curse of the Bambino” discussion is that Boston did not put many good teams on the field between 1918 and 2004. The Red Sox teams that did manage to make it to the World Series during that period were fluky, not overly talented pennant winners who always seemed to go up against much better teams in the postseason; a Gibson-led Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, and the 108 win Mets. That Boston was able to take those series to seven games was itself a minor miracle that only intensified the feeling that they were ultimately cursed.

The 2018 Red Sox, like the 2013 and 2007 editions, however, were not underdogs putting up the good fight against superior competition. They were, far and away, the better teams in those series, and that creates its own sort of pressure. After winning 108 games in the regular season and cruising through the AL playoffs, there was a sense of inevitability to Boston’s World Series push, but I’ve experienced that feeling before and frankly it may have ruined sports for me forever.  

After a choppy start to the 2015 season, the Carolina Panthers hit their stride and won 15 of 16 games, losing only to the Atlanta Falcons by a touchdown in week 15. In the playoffs, they steamrolled the powerful Seahawks and Cardinals and were prohibitive Super Bowl favorites against a Denver Broncos team that had looked inept on offense for much of the season before riding a strong defensive performance to an AFC Championship game win against the New England Patriots.

The 2015 Panthers had a modus operendi that year of getting out to large first half leads and then nearly blowing them in the second half. While that’s a dangerous recipe for winning, their two losses actually came in hard fought, low-scoring affairs that found them with the ball and a chance to go ahead in the closing minutes.

I thought the bad feelings about Super Bowl 50 would subside after a few months, but they never really did. I thought the excitement of remembering that magical 15-win season and those awesome playoff wins would one day add balance to the disappointing way the season ended, but to date it hasn’t. It’s HARD to make it to a Super Bowl. You need a really good team and a few breaks along the way. That a team, a very good team, could get so close, then fall to a lesser team is depressing. The Panthers also made it to the Super Bowl in 2004, a game against the Patriots in which they were huge underdogs. They played admirably, though and actually led briefly in the 4th quarter. In the end, Tom Brady orchestrated a short drive to get New England into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri, who coincidentally set the NFL total points record on Sunday, pushed through a kick as time expired. That loss, while painful for a few days, felt okay once the confetti settled. The Panthers had put up a good fight against one of the great football dynasties ever. They were, for practical purposes, all those Red Sox teams that somehow managed to keep it close against better players. The 2015 team was more like these Red Sox; anything short of a championship would forever taint their memory.

And that’s why I’m really glad the Red Sox put an end to the Series Sunday night. I’ve come to the point in my sports experience where the agony of defeat is starting to outweigh the thrill of victory. The Panthers are having another good season, winning Sunday afternoon to push their record to 5-2 and keep them firmly in the playoff conversation. I'd love for them to win a Super Bowl one day, but I'm not getting any younger.


Chappaquicick Will Leave You Frustrated, And That’s A Good Thing: Plus Three Conspiracy Theories

My father was an avid reader, but his choice of reading material often left something to be desired. He especilly enjoyed reading the “tabloids,” so there was always a Weekly World News or National Enquirer around the house for an “inquiring mind” like mine to leaf through. The stock-and-trade of those publications was reporting of semi-fictitious news stories, often with just a hint of truth to make their outlandish conspiracy theories seem plausible. It is no surprise, then, that I have a decent knowledge of Chappaquiddick and the various conspiracy theories surrounding it. That story dominated the tabloids for years, supplanted only half a decade later by the death (and possible resurrection?) of Elvis.

The movie Chappaquiddick tackles the story of that warm summer night in 1969 head on, but leaves the viewer with as many, maybe more, questions at its conclusion than they likely had heading in to the theater. Rather than attach themselves to one theory or another about the tragic events of that night, the filmmakers are content to stick to the official story, along with all the confounding ambiguity and significant gaps it offers. The end result is a film in which the actions of many of the prime characters make little to no sense. If it were a fictional story, this would be a fatal flaw, but the fact that these people actually acted that way makes it fascinating, if frustrating.

The facts of the story are such: Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, a rising star in the Democratic Party and the last surviving Kennedy “brother,” attended a get-together of staffers who had worked for his deceased brother Bobby. The party was held on the tiny Martha’s Vineyard island of Chappaquiddick. The exact nature of this event is open to speculation, but the guests were male Kennedy associates and female staffers in their late-20s, so draw your own conclusions. Around midnight, Kennedy left the party with a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. Some time later a car driven by Kennedy ran off a small bridge and plunged upside down into the relatively shallow water. Kennedy escaped the wreck, but his passenger did not. After that, things get fuzzy, but the one undeniable fact is that Kennedy waited nine or ten hours before reporting the accident to authorities, and in fact did so only after the car was discovered by two boys out fishing and reported to the police.

All this took place at the same time as the Apollo 11 moon landing, so it understandably got pushed below the fold, but it was still a big story. A week after the incident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended. He went on television and expressed his regrets for his role in the accident, while telling a highly suspicious story with a lot of holes. A largely sympathetic nation (he had lost his brothers to assassination) was willing to overlook the inconsistencies of the story, and Kennedy went on to be one of the longest-serving U.S. Senators.

When you actually see this story played out in real time on the screen, however, it becomes very obvious very quickly that something is not right. There are massive holes which the movie simply leaves as holes: What were the two doing in his car at midnight? How did Kennedy escape an overturned, flooded car without breaking a window or opening a door? What happened in the nine or ten hours between the time the car entered the water and Kennedy reported the accident? These are not insignificant questions and the lack of resolution will frustrate the viewer, but any attempt by the filmmakers to fill in the blank spaces with conjecture or theory would be a disservice to Kennedy and/or Kopechne.

It is worth noting that a review of the movie in The New York Times calls the film a right-wing scree aimed at denigrating the memory of Senator Kennedy. While I have never been a particularly big fan of the Senator and am probably not the most impartial voice in the matter, that’s bunk. Yes, certain aspects of the film cast Kennedy in an unflattering light, but that will happen when you leave the scene of a fatal accident, can’t remember what happened and fail to report it to the authorities. The Times problem with the film is  apparently that it doesn’t go out if its way to exonerate Kennedy. Let's be clear here, even taken at his word, Kennedy is not a hero or martyr, and the film's suggestion that some political spin and outright lies may have taken place are hardly out of bounds given the circumstances.

There is a conspiracy theory that casts Kennedy in a slightly better light, the so-called “backseat” theory. This theory postulates that Kopechne left the party after having a couple of drinks and fell asleep in the backseat of Kennedy’s car. Kennedy, not knowing anyone was in the car with him, was simply relieved to have survived the accident and figured no harm could come of sleeping it off before reporting the accident to the authorities. But if this was the case, then why not say so. It’s arguably a more plausible story than the one told. Well, that leaves to another conspiracy...

A purse belonging to another staffer named Rosemary Keough was found in the submerged car. In fact, based on this purse, the victim was originally misidentified. The Keough conspiracy theory suggests that Kennedy did indeed leave the party for a tryst, but that it was with Keough, not Kopechne. Kopechne was merely asleep in the backseat, and Kennedy and Keough had no idea she was there until the news hit the next morning that there was a body in the car. While this theory does close a hole or two, it also suggests that two people could enter a car without noticing there was someone asleep in the backseat and that two people could escape a sunken car neatly closing the doors behind them.

A more outlandish conspiracy theory states that none of it was an accident and that it was effectively a “hit” on Kopechne who had some dirt on the Kennedys and in one variation was carrying Ted's baby. This outlandish theory says that Kennedy was never in the car and the whole thing was planned and executed by a team of Kennedy operatives who somehow botched what was supposed to look like an innocent accident. The problem with that theory is that if the intent was to kill Kopechne without raising suspicion, there were much simpler ways to accomplish that which did not implicate the Kennedys; have her “mugged” one night while walking home, for instance.

With the passing of Senator Kennedy in 2009 and most of the eye witnesses either dead or in their latter years, the Chappaquiddick incident will likely go down with the Jonbenet Ramsey murder and the Lindbergh Kidnapping as mysterious tabloid fodder that are never quite resolved.

Monday, October 1, 2018

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: 1982 Edition

The summer of ‘82 has been in the news as of late — don’t worry, not going there — and as it turns out, that particular window in time was a significant turning point for me. I didn’t keep a calendar and wouldn’t
swear to the accuracy of my recollections in court, but a few moments from that summer stand out as impacting my attitudes about life, my taste in music and my feelings about tiny flying mammals.For me, the summer of ‘82 kicked off with the completion of the final exam of my sophomore year at Ohio University. My best estimate is that it was either Wednesday, June 9th or Thursday, June 10th. OU was on a “quarter” system back then and the academic calendar was a little weird. The Fall Quarter started in mid-September and ran through Thanksgiving. We had a Holiday Break from Thanksgiving until New Years and then Winter Quarter ran from early July to late March. After a week off for Spring Break, Spring Quarter began in early April and ran through mid June. The negative thing for me, and one of the factors influencing my decision to transfer to Bowling Green in 1983 was that summer jobs in my hometown ran on a “tourism” schedule from mid May until late August and the late ending date made it hard to find employment. In the month leading up to that summer, I had been aggressive in my job search and had interviewed with and, I thought, secured a retail job at Sears in Sandusky over Spring Break and a subsequent visit home in May. When I arrived back in town, though, the store manager said they decided they couldn’t “wait for me” and had hired someone else a week earlier. This was a pretty significant development since I was paying a fair portion of my own way through college and by the end of my sophomore year had pretty much exhausted my financial resources. I spent a good part of those first couple of weeks out job hunting. I must have filled out 50 applications for jobs ranging from grocery store bag boy to house painter. In my off hours I mowed a couple of lawns for pocket money and hung out with my friend Carl.

Carl worked summers at a prestigious yacht/golf club called the Catawba Island Club, or CIC, and he encouraged me to put my application in there, so I did. Like many of the other places I applied I was told that they were fully staffed for the summer, but would keep me in mind if anything opened up. By the last  week of June, I was feeling a little depressed and beginning to doubt I was going to find anything. Carl,
his older sister Jo and I went to see the movie Ghost Story at the drive-in. It was a pretty forgettable film about a bunch of partying college kids who accidentally kill a girl and then cover up the crime. As you
might guess from the title, that ultimately does not go well for them.
A week or so later, on July 5th, Carl and I arranged to meet up with our high school buddy Jeff. Jeff had opted not to go to college and instead had taken a manager’s job at the Great Scott grocery store in Port Clinton and had moved into a small apartment in downtown. There was going to be a full lunar eclipse around 1:00 the morning of the 6th and the plan was to have a few beers and watch it from the roof of the store. When we got up there, though, it was kind of nasty — dirty and wet — so we decided to go to an eclipse party that one of Jeff’s neighbors was throwing back at the apartment. That went well enough until the girlfriend of the host went off with another guy on a “beer run” and didn’t return. Jeff, Carl and I then got caught up in a “posse” to track them down. It’s probably worth noting, for the record, that our participation in said posse wasn’t completely voluntary and we were pretty concerned about what might happen if we actually found them. Fortunately, we never did and just wound up running around town and spending the night at Jeff’s place.

The next morning, after about 2 hours of sleep, we got up and headed over to Carl’s house. Carl’s family had a small sailboat and we decided to take that out on the lake. We had a great time sailing around off Catawba Island; wherever the wind would take us. And that was a crucial point because none of us actually knew how to sail, so when it came time to head back we came to the somewhat disturbing observation that we were a mile or two offshore and the wind was continuing to blow us toward, well... Canada. We pulled in the sail and started paddling with our hands. Jeff, who had been on the swim team in high school, tied a rope around his waist, jumped in and pulled us along behind. At one point a motor boat, seeing our situation, pulled up alongside and asked us if there was a problem. Not wanting to look stupid, we claimed that no, we were just enjoying a fine summer day on our sailboat with our friend having a swim at the end of a rope. It took us most of the afternoon to get the boat back to shore, by which time we were exhausted, sunburned and embarrassed. It was also the very last time the three of us would do anything as a group.

When we got back to Carl’s house, Carl’s dad asked me how my job search was going. His dad was the superintendent of schools and well-respected in the community. With all the excitement of the preceding 24 hours, I had sort of forgotten about the depressing prospect of another 2 months sitting at home with nothing to do. I told him dejectedly I was still looking, but hadn’t found anything yet.

I went home that night, rubbed Noxema on my sunburned face and extremities, collapsed into bed and slept until noon the next day when my mother woke me up and told me I had a phone call, somebody named Mark from the Catawba Island Club. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. It was Mark Grabowski, the
dining room manager from the CIC. They had a busboy quit and if I could be there at 5:00, I had a job!

Was it a coincidence that I got the job a day after telling my tale of woe to Carl’s dad, who was a member of the club? Maybe, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think a call was made. If so, I owe Carl’s dad a huge debt because that job changed my life. 

I will say, though, my time at the CIC didn’t start out that great. At a country club, there are pecking orders, even among the staff, and I was definitely the peck-ee. The other busboys had been working together for at least a few weeks and were “led” by a couple of grade-A jerks, one of which was the starting QB for Oak Harbor high school. If there was a crap duty, I was the one who got to do it. Things started to turn around, though, when I got my first check. I had never worked for anything more than minimum wage and was so grateful for the job opportunity that I hadn’t bothered to ask about the pay. It turned out that busboys earned minimum wage PLUS they split 1% of the waitresses tips for that shift. That was a nice little bonus that amounted to about $50/week. Things went from looking sort of okay to looking pretty dang good. Then came the night of the bat.

My family lived in an old farmhouse. We didn’t have air conditioning and the window screens were old and ill-fitting, but we kept the windows open because it would have been too hot to sleep otherwise. I woke up one night that summer to high-pitched squeaks and the fluttering of leathery wings. A bat had gotten into my room. I started yelling and shooing at it with a pillow. Eventually I was able to get it back out a window, but the event bothered me a lot and I was not able to sleep soundly through the night for the rest of the summer.

In late August, my college roommate called and we went over plans for the coming year. We were moving to an off-campus complex called the College Inn and we would need some things we didn’t have in the dorm. He was bringing the stereo and fridge and I was responsible for getting a toaster oven. By that time, Carl had already gone back to school, so I drove over to Kmart in Sandusky by myself and picked up the oven and a new alarm clock. As was my habit, I also checked out the music department and decided to buy Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty. At that time, I didn’t own any of his albums, but was familiar with the title track and "The Loadout/Stay." When I got home and put it on the turntable, I was surprised by how good every song was and played it more or less constantly for the rest of the summer.

By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, I was getting more comfortable in my job at the CIC and had put away several hundred dollars. That Saturday was the last crazy-busy night of the summer season in the dining room, but I wasn’t feeling well. Lack of sleep and long, long hours had caught up with me and I spent a good bit of my shift shuffling to the employee restroom. Not a pleasant way to end the summer.

I probably worked a couple more uneventful shifts before packing it in and heading back to OU, but that Labor Day Saturday was the last thing I recall with any clarity until arriving at the College Inn. What could have been a depressing, difficult break had miraculously morphed into a transformational experience. I returned to school with greater confidence and resolve. My experiences at the CIC had taught me how the other half, well the other 2% actually, lives. I would go on to work two more summers at the CIC, eventually rising to the position of "Caller," one of the more coveted and well-paying positions there, and I still credit my experiences that summer as the root of the success I have had later in my life. 

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...