Thursday, September 29, 2011

Oh, my, did that just happen?

For those who follow baseball with much passion, Wednesday's waterfall of decisive games, epic comebacks, and grotesque collapses was a once-in-a-fandom event.  That kind of thing Just. Doesn't. Happen.  Teams don't lose nine-game leads for playoff position in September.  It's impossible to be that bad after having been so good, right?  Nothing is impossible, my friends; after that display even skiing through a revolving door begins to look conceivable.

For most the headline-grabbing event is the long, horrific fall of the Boston Red Sox.  Atlanta Braves fans are in the unenviable position of either suffering in silence or interjecting, "Hey, what about us?  We fell apart just as badly . . . oh, wait . . . ."  And in truth there are reasons that the Red Sox collapse is in fact a bigger deal, which we shall address anon.  But to the Braves first.

Earlier in September the Braves had an 8 1/2-game advantage in the chase for the wild card position, the final playoff spot in the National League.  The St. Louis Cardinals, the team trying to close that deficit, looked a bit disoriented and lost, and the Braves were riding their old-style formula of devastating pitching (now with a real bullpen, something the Braves teams of the '90s never quite mastered) and occasionally scoring a run or two to win the game.  After Wednesday's games, the Braves resided one game behind the Cardinals, looking at an offseason beginning sooner than anyone had anticipated.

At least as of the time their game ended, no one had frittered away such a large last-month-of-the-season lead and missed out on the playoffs, ever.  But if one were going to look for a team susceptible to such a collapse, the Braves weren't the worst candidate to pick.  So much of their success was bound up in their pitching, particularly a bullpen featuring a couple of young flamethrowers in Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, that if for some reason that pitching hit a rough patch there was no Plan B.  The kind way to say it is to call the Braves "offensively challenged."  Chipper Jones should cruise into the Baseball Hall of Fame someday, but he's on the downside of his career and so frequently injured or banged up as to be a shell of his former self.  Last year's rookie phenomenon, Jason Heyward, practically re-wrote the definition of "sophomore slump," to the point of losing the confidence of manager Fredi Gonzalez and being replaced for long stretches of time by a career minor-leaguer who had never really hit in the minor leagues.  (Here's a little-appreciated truth about baseball, particularly hitting: you can't get out of a slump by not playing.)  Dan Uggla, the slugging second baseman acquired in the offseason, played as if the last letter of his name had been replaced with a "y."  Aside from rookie first baseman and possible Rookie of the Year Freddie Freeman (no relation), there wasn't a lot of dependable offense there.  If the pitching faltered, even a little bit, the Braves were in trouble.  And that's exactly what happened.  It was hardly a total collapse, but Kimbrel and Venters became a little bit more hittable, the starters couldn't spare the rest of the bullpen by pitching eight or nine innings, and the Cardinals got hot at the right time to take advantage.  Now Cardinal fans can extend their good-byes to Albert Pujols a little bit longer.

Only an hour or two later, the Red Sox got the Braves off the hook, just a little bit, with their "yes we can!" answer to the Braves' "can you top this?" moment.  Boston completed a nine-game collapse with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles, while the Tampa Bay Devil Rays defeated the New York Yankees.  That rather mere description does not do justice to Wednesday night's turn (and turn again, and turn again...) of events.

Up to the ninth inning of their game, the Red Sox led, 3-2.  In the meantime, the Rays trailed the Yankees as much as 7-0 before beginning their comeback, which was not completed until the ninth inning with a barely-fair home run by one Dan Johnson, whose sole purpose in baseball seems to be to destroy the Red Sox.  In 2008 he hit a crucial home run in the Rays' pennant push, and did it again late last season.  In between, Johnson spent the 2009 season in Japan and most of the 2010 season in Durham, NC, home of the Rays' AAA farm team.  This spring something odd happened; the minor-league lifer actually got to leave spring training with the major-league team instead of shuffling off to Durham.  Faced with this unexpected karmic windfall, Johnson responded by mustering a batting average barely over .100 (in a sport in which a .200 average is a good sign you should seek alternate employment).  Quickly he was shuffled back to Durham, there to bide his time until the odd baseball quirk known as September roster expansion allowed him to return to the majors, in time to destroy the Red Sox yet again.

With the game thus tied, matters continued into extra innings, in which the 12th inning finally brought triumph in the form of a barely-fair home run from a much more conventional source, Evan Longoria, the Rays' most highly-renowned player.  This home run occurred just in time for Red Sox players to see it on their clubhouse TVs upon trudging dejectedly in after their ninth-inning loss, due to a sharp single by Robert Andino, who is now in the process of receiving a vulgar middle name in perpetuity from Red Sox fans, in the manner of Bucky Effing Dent (1978) and Aaron Bleeping Boone (2003).  Andino's single, appropriately enough, ticked off the glove of Sox left-fielder Carl Crawford, finishing up his own horribly disappointing first season in Boston as the recipient of a very pricey free-agent contract, allowing him to escape the horrors of playing for Tampa Bay.

Let the irony wash over you for few moments.  Enjoy that?  Good.

Now as to why the Boston collapse was so much more of an attention-grabber than Atlanta's:

The Red Sox, despite a history of being the plucky underdog to the Evil Empire in New York, are in fact their own Evil Empire these days.  Their payroll isn't a whole lot smaller than that of the Yankees, and their fan base has acquired the same level of smug obnoxiousness as that of the Yankees, despite trailing in World Series championships twenty-something to two.  Their chief offseason acquisitions before this year were classic examples of a large-market club plucking away the premium players small-market teams can no longer afford; Crawford from the Rays via free agency and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres via trade.  With such offensive improvements added to what was believed to be a solid pitching staff, the Red Sox were widely picked to waltz through the American League and into the World Series. surveyed a group of forty-five writers, analysts, former players, etc. and all of them--yes, all forty-five--picked the Red Sox to win their division, forget that messy wild-card stuff.  (The Braves were a frequent, but by no means consensus, pick to win the NL wild card; in other words, they ended up about where those ESPN foofs picked them to end up.)

It should be pointed out that as of September 1, those forty-five experts appeared to be right on the money.  The Red Sox were in fact in first place, something not true of the Braves in their division; this simply adds another level of incredulity to the overall collapse.

Meanwhile, the Rays, to put it mildly, spend less on their roster.  A lot less.  By all accounts the Cardinals in the NL were much likelier playoff candidates in the AL.  The Rays, despite playoff turns in 2008 and 2010, were not expected to make the playoffs at all this year.  Since nobody goes to games in St. Petersburg (the Tampa Bay area does not deserve this team) and the stadium, a goofy-looking lopsided dome, isn't a moneymaker in the mode of iconic Fenway Park, the Rays operate with a limited budget.  Besides Crawford, the Rays bid goodbye to one of their top starting pitchers and virtually all their relief pitchers over the offseason, for budgetary reasons.  Their two on-the-cheap free-agent signings were Johnny Damon, most notable for rocking the Jesus look during Boston's 2004 World Series run, and the erratic Manny Ramirez, who ended up "retiring" five games into the season due to being busted for performance-enhancing drugs.

So, on paper at least, the disparity between Boston and Tampa Bay was more impressive, by far, than the disparity between Atlanta and St. Louis.  And yet there Boston was, looking if though they had suffered some sort of collective mind-wipe that left them unable to remember how to play baseball.  The Rays had a good month of September, but not great; such was the magnitude of Boston's slide.  The Rays play at Texas Friday night, the Red Sox go home to wonder what happened.

If you've waded through this whole thing waiting for some grand theme or mini-sermon to top it off, you are about to be grandly disappointed.  There is no grand theme.  Such unfathomable swings and falls defy thematization.  (I'm certainly not going to bring divine intervention into it; I do believe God has a flair for the preposterous, but this?)  Folks, stuff happens.  Wildly improbable, statistically unthinkable things happen, and trying to extract some lesson from it is a bigger fool's errand than my own.  Enjoy it, if you're a fan of the Rays, Cardinals, or underdogs; suffer through it, if you're a fan of the Braves, Red Sox, or corporate oligarchies or whatever.  This is that thing that sport (particularly baseball) does, every so often, that makes them irresistible to those who love it.  It certainly doesn't happen every season.  Most years a team like the Red Sox prevails, and handily, while the Rays go scraping for change between the sofa cushions.  But not this year.  Sometimes the underdog wins, and there's not a whole lot to do but shake your head and wonder, and enjoy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Just shoot me

For a long time the idea of writing a blog was something, to be honest, I would have sneered upon most mightily.  It isn't hard to find blogs out there that are little more than vanity pieces, with too much of this and not enough of that and lousy grammar to boot.  It got better, and with time I was less disinclined to read blogs by others, even if writing one myself was still not a consideration.  As I stumbled onto blogs written by friends of mine, even if friends I hadn't seen in quite a while, it became something that helped me catch up with folks I had lost touch with, to my regret (mind you, there were plenty of folks I lost touch with who, when contact was re-established, I quickly figured out might have been best left in the past.  That happens).

So why does Notes on a Fool's Errand exist?  (And should that title have been italicized or in quotation marks?)  A few reasons.  In part I wanted some way to keep some folks up-to-date on how the fool's errand is going, particularly folks back at the "home church" in Lawrence (though I don't live there, my supporting church and presbytery are back in Kansas).  Letters would probably be more polite, but stamps aren't cheap and there's no guarantee the Postal Service will survive my time at Union.  Besides, there might be some folks out there in other places besides Lawrence who might like to know what's going on too (probably not, but I can hope, right?).

A secondary reason is for the sheer practice in writing, more specifically a non-academic mode of writing.  I certainly had to do a good bit of writing in my previous career, and at times I could be quite good at it.  That is, though, a rather different mode of expression; the writing of research presentations necessarily has a bit more formality and some elements of Joe Friday ("just the facts, ma'am") to it, although I confess I wasn't always adept at keeping to that formula.  Any writing (primarily the writing of sermons, though maybe other things, ... who knows?) that I do going forward (after the student years) will of necessity be a little less formal, a little less academic, and (shudder) sometimes a bit more personal.  No, writing a blog isn't like writing a sermon, and I'll be the first to say that my experience in academic writing will be incredibly beneficial going forward.  There are, though, some elements of that mode of written expression that I have not tapped into in a while, and writing this isolated little blog may help in re-awakening those elements in me.

One week of fall term is in the books.  Academically I'm going lose a bit more eyesight this fall from all the reading, but I do believe it's going to be an exhilarating experience.  All of my classes -- New Testament I, Theology I, and Church History I -- are just teasing me with how much intellectual and, yes, even spiritual stimulation may be forthcoming even as I lose my mind or suffer the inevitable destruction of my faith that so many people attribute to seminary study (yes, that was a tongue-in-cheek remark).  As much as I'm sure I could have gotten a stellar seminary education at the other schools to which I applied, I am more convinced than ever that I'm in the right place and among the right people.  I have got to find a job somewhere, but other than that I am excited, eager to plunge forward, and even happy.

Personally that's a great thing.  For the writing of a blog ... I don't know.  "Still content, still happy, still excited" isn't much of a blog entry.  And one of the things I really don't want to do with this blog is to "write angry."  Good Lord, there's enough of that out there.  (For that reason you'll seldom see me writing about politics these days; even this disclaimer sentence is beginning to make my blood boil.)  Is misery necessary to write a blog?  Or is that one of the stereotypical things that I was reacting against in the early days of disdaining blogs?  Or am I just flat-out incapable of making contentment and fulfillment sound interesting?

There is, though, something else I want to avoid in writing this stuff, the thing that provokes the title (no, it is not meant to be taken literally, any more that it was meant so as the title of a cheesy sitcom some years back).  Please, dear Lord, deliver me from smugness.

You've read that kind of thing, you know what I'm talking about.  The kind that cannot cut some slack.  The kind that has gotten rather comfortable with a position of moral or ethical superiority, and brooks no real-world frustration or disappointment in others.  The kind that takes too much pleasure in an unhealthy dollop of schoolmarm scolding of those who don't live up to the blogger's standards.  Frankly I'd rather write angry than write smug.  So if you catch me in that, that's where the title of this post comes in.  I may not react that well to it, but I will emphatically need the chastisement if I am guilty of that, so bring it on.

If one week is able to teach anything, it has taught me how little I know.  Not that I can't learn it, but how much I do have to learn.  And of course I'm aware that this is not an original insight (I promised way back in post number one that I wouldn't have many original things to say, didn't I?), and as a professor I was certainly aware that learning and growing had to be a lifelong pursuit.  I am thoroughly jazzed at the learning to come.  At the same time I am humbled.  I know so little.  There is so far to go.  I'm in no position to be lecturing to others.  But then, really, who is?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Service Day

Part of the orientation schedule here at Union, inserted between two days  of the kind of orientation stuff you might find at any institution of higher education, is Service Day.  Incoming students (and some returning students and faculty) head off for an afternoon of work at one of six social service groups in the Richmond area.  Given my choice I signed up for an afternoon at the Central Virginia Food Bank.

This Food Bank (under the umbrella of a group called FeedMore) serves as a clearinghouse where food is collected, preprared, and packaged for distribution by other groups, from Meals on Wheels to Children's Cafe to any number of others.  A busy day might involve three thousand or more food packages moving through.  Our group may well have put together several hundred meals today; in the middle of working you really can't tell.

There were occasional moments of threatened comedy.  My first station involved packing and loading fruit cups for distribution.  These had already been filled, but needed to be covered.  The Food Bank has been able to acquire machines to stick those plastic filmy covers on things like fruit cups and meal trays, and I (along with Brian Blount, the president of Union Presbyterian Seminary) was on the receiving end, loading fruit cups onto trays to be taken to another station for packing.  The trick is that once the machine gets going, it's not easy to stop.  Even if switched off it takes several more seconds to stop, in which fruit cups keep popping out.  More than once, in the first few runs, we were almost overwhelmed by fruit cups.  If I say it was nearly a "Lucy and Ethel moment" and refer you to this YouTube video, I think you'll get the point.

Later came the greasy work of slicing up meatloaf for loading onto meals, along with mashed potatoes and spinach.  I got the grunt work of pulling out the trays of meatloaf from the cooler, dividing them up into pieces around 3.5 ounces each (or as close as I could get, since some of these meatloaf trays came out looking like continents in some post-Pangea stage of continental drift), and putting those meatloaf servings into trays.  Others down the line added gravy, mashed potatoes, and spinach, then the trays were covered by another machine and labeled for distribution.  The supervisor called it "the worst job," though I'm not sure why.  Later tasks included shrink-wrapping large racks of meals and other items for loading on trucks for delivery to other agencies.

This was the point at which the enormity of the Food Bank's task became clearer.  Even if many other meals had been delivered already that day, there was still an awful lot of stuff left to go.  Furthermore, looking at the labels on the various items awaiting delivery reminded me of some of the complications that accrue to the task of providing so many meals.  People have food allergies or intolerances.  Some are vegetarians -- no meatloaf there.  Others have dietary restrictions due to other health issues.  The Food Bank has to work around all of these, and be sure the wrong meals don't get sent off to the wrong agencies.  It can be a pretty mind-boggling task, but they handle it, and handle it well from what I could see today.

It was a good solid three-hour volunteer shift, and seemed to be well-appreciated by the staff and other volunteers.  I certainly left feeling it had been a worthwhile day of service work by all means, and considering the Food Bank as a place to continue to volunteer on my own.

Still, the clincher of the day was yet to come.  After another meal back on campus (fried chicken...mmmmm), the day's wrap was a worship service led by Motor Racing Outreach, a ministry connected to NASCAR, which of course has a race in Richmond this weekend.  We did get our brush with celebrity: Trevor Bayne, this year's Daytona 500 winner, was one of the speakers.  It was "worship" in the contemporary mode; many of you who know me will guess my overall reaction.  I won't burden you with my reactions otherwise (I don't feel like starting fights these days), except to acknowledge that I didn't know any of the music.

But part of the order was to hear some words from students who had gone out to the various agencies and volunteered to reflect on their experience.  All three of these were well-said and good to hear.

Then one more person spoke, more impromptu.  Syngman Rhee (not to be confused with the one-time Korean president) is kind of a big deal in PC(USA) and mainline Protestantism more generally.  He's been a moderator of PC(USA) and worked with the denomination in many ways.  He now teaches here at Union, and was also part of the contingent at the Food Bank today.  His words eloquently recalled his own experience on the receiving end of such food distribution, as a refugee fleeing North Korea in the early 1950s.  Church World Service, then an arm of the National Council of Churches, was on hand quickly to minister to those refugees with food, blankets (Korean winters aren't pleasant, apparently), and more.

One could volunteer at a place like the Central Virginia Food Bank and not end up seeing the beneficiaries of one's work face-to-face.  That doesn't make the work any less important, of course; clearly there is a significant need in the Richmond area for the service the CVFB provides.  Still, being reminded of just what might happen on the receiving end of such work provided a fittingly thoughtful and even celebratory end to the day.  A lot of people volunteer in so many places.  Some of them are found "on the front lines," directly working with those in need.  Many are found "behind the lines," providing unseen support and making the work "on the front lines" possible.  May God continue to bless the hands, feet, arms, backs and work of those behind the lines, hairnets, plastic aprons and all; rubber gloves greasy with meatloaf or speckled with mashed potatoes, juggling fruit cups, and making it possible for people to be fed who might not otherwise eat tonight.