O to Copa: Home and the Local

I miss a lot from my former lives. I’ve spent time living in Ottawa, Vancouver, Costa Rica, Montreal, and now Toronto, and with each move, each shift of life, I’ve left something special behind: a girl I loved, a friend I cherished, an apartment I felt right in, a diner that burned my grilled cheese just right, a quiet street I liked to stumble home, a spot on the beach to celebrate the eventide, a girl I loved. I like moving. I enjoy that sense of displacement. The rush of adrenalin born of fear of solitude and loneliness. The way a new place smells. The way it tastes. Of walking unfamiliar streets completely alone. And what I like best of a new place, a new temporary home, is discovering a local, a pub or tavern to call my own. And on a recent visit back to Montreal, I stopped by a former local to find it turned inside out, contemporized, changed. And I realized, much to my disappointment, that I haven’t had a local in some time, that I’m without a true home.

Many more intelligent folks than I have considered what we “need.” Virginia Woolf claimed that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Why this only applies to women and fiction is beyond my two degrees in English, but it didn’t turn out all that well for Ginny did it? Neil Young claimed a “man needs a maid” but Neil is notoriously messy, and that all turned pretty bad for Carrie Snodgress. Hunter S. Thompson told us “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” which some of us have tried to varying degrees of success, Thompson himself on the low end of that measurement. For me, a man needs a home, and that home is a local, a bar to call his own, a place where you can drop in at 11am without judgment for a cold 50 and read the paper. A place where a stool is always empty, where you can have both conversation and silence, where a hockey game plays on a TV quietly in the distance, where a friend will drop by, or not. And where it doesn’t matter.

My first local was an Irish pub in Ottawa called Gentle Annie’s. My friends and I went there because, well, it was close to our homes and they’d serve us even though we were sixteen. The owner, Des, whose nose had burst so many blood vessels it looked like an irrigation chart, and his staff very much knew how old we were, mostly because we would drunkenly admit it in the wee hours. We were peach-fuzzed little drunkards, but we could hold our liquor and we tipped well. We knew all the words to all the Irish songs, and we belted them out as best we could. The only problem with being so close to our homes, was that from time to time a friend’s parents or one of our high school teachers would come in. We’d all pretend not to see each other, except for on one occasion when a rather inebriated algebra teacher struggled to his feet to declare he was taking attendance, and proceeded to call on the five of us by surname over and over until someone settled him down.

On one of my last visits to Gentle Annie’s, I accidently broke my buddy Joe’s front tooth with the end of my pool cue. Opinion on how it happened differs, as Joe claims I hit him and I maintain that he face planted into my cue as he bent over for his pint.  Joe, suffering from too many drinks and a bit of vanity, naturally called 911 from the bar payphone. We were a little surprised when two cop cars, a fire engine, and an ambulance showed up upon hearing of a broken tooth at a local not averse to the occasional scuffle. The cops laughed at us, the fire engine quickly departed, and after the ambulance attendant explained to Joe that he would be charged a $95 fee for the ride, he thought it best to just go home and sleep it off. To this day his cap doesn’t quite match his teeth, and his mother holds me responsible for his now slightly less than perfect smile. He’s still very pretty, though.

There were a few places when I moved to Vancouver that I considered my local, but I never really felt at home in that city until I found The Fringe Café. The Fringe was like a house party with all your closest friends, every night, all night. I would imagine that the party is still going on, but I haven’t been there in twelve years. The Fringe was special, in that you could go in at any time and feel comfortable whether you were reading a book or hitting on the barmaid or doing shots of Jäger. The staff was more than friendly, and it was not uncommon to stay drinking right into morning, and greet the day staff as they came in for their early shift. On two separate occasions I put my ball cap down on a candle, nearly setting fire to the table, and perhaps the bar. Another time I left the bar not by walking out the front door, but by somersaulting the length of the room and out the back. I remember once refusing to leave the patio, and being carried, pint in hand, by Karen the bartender to an indoor seat. I remember great music. I remember feeling light. I remember good people. I remember being three thousand kilometres from home, and not at all.

Eventually, the sane man sobers up and leaves Vancouver. And in the years that followed I was without a local. There were a few weeks in Ottawa where the Alibi Room was close, but it was too small and dark to find any real comfort. It was, however, the place that supplied my roommate and I with toilet paper, as we were broke and he was handy with opening the locked dispenser in the men’s washroom with his Swiss Army knife. But then one night a girl I was seeing decided to pour an entire litre bottle of water over my head in the middle of the bar, and after that it wasn’t really a place I wanted to go back to.

In Montezuma, on the Peninsula de Nicoya in Costa Rica, there were a couple of little hotel bars I liked, where eventually the staff acknowledged me as a pseudo-regular. If I was a true regular anywhere there, it was the breakfast place that would whip up my eggs and café con leche as they spotted me coming down the beach, or the groceteria that had cheapest pilsners and discounted guaro. But down there, we were always happiest to drink on the beach, and no one is in Costa Rica on any permanent basis. No one is home.

It wasn’t until I got back to Canada, and moved to Montreal that I found a local again. The Cock n’ Bull was one of the first bars I had been to in my youthful visits to Montreal, so it seemed natural to return. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I liked going there alone in the afternoons for pitchers of 50 and to read the paper, maybe try and do some writing. There were always these sad old men at the bar, Bukowksi’s without pens or poetry, drinking draught beer from white wine glasses, contently awaiting some kind end. I kind of admired them, their comfort in solitude, their confident quiet. It was here that I wrote most of my first book, where I could look into the future of my speakers as they sat at the bar next to me. As I found a community, when we called each other, we didn’t even need to say which bar to meet at, just when. The Cock n’ Bull became a home. Many nights would start at a large table, pitcher upon pitch being devoured, and inevitably end up with just myself and Nick McArthur as 3am rolled around, doing shots of Southern Comfort, wondering where everyone went, talking about how one day we’d be writers.

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Sabermetric Relationships Pt. I

So, I’m hanging out with my 3-year-old niece yesterday afternoon, you know, just drinking Stellas (Lights, don’t be judgmental), thinking about my last two divorces, why my former employer keeps telling people I’m illiterate and that my left foot is articificial, and wondering if anyone would buy the film rights to my book of poetry so that I could pay off my substantial student loan debt or perhaps buy a Crispy Crunch, and she says to me “Uncle Michael, you have no children because you are alone.” At first, I thought it was the Belgian ale talking, and that her comments were ill informed and mean-spirited. But, you know, she’s three and her tolerance is embarrassingly low, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that her declaration was born of both caring and ingenuity. She was reducing my existence to a very basic equation: (Uncle Michael) x (0 partner) = 0 children. At three, she was quantifying her uncle for the purposes of evaluating his position in life. She was, perhaps unknowingly, developing the philosophy of sabermetric relationships.

Sabermetrics is the “specialized analysis of baseball through objective, empirical evidence, specifically baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.” It is a term coined by baseball historian Bill James, popularized by Billy Beane as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, documented in the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and brought to the masses by the film adaptation starring Brad Pitt. Its philosophy is quite simple, though its execution is less than scientific, certainly something that can be said of dating. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, historically typical quantifiers of baseball players, are antiquated notions of a 19th century perception of the sport and the statistics that were available at the time. More specifically, sabermetrics relies more on empirical evidence, and less on chain-smoking, heavy drinking, overweight scouts in fedoras sweating through their short sleeve dress shirts making summer long road trips to places like Bluefield, Virginia; Missoula, Montana; and San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic.  Basically, it removes the romanticism from summer’s pastime.

So with all that romanticism out of work, why not borrow it? Why not plug sabermetrics into the less quantifiable pastime of love? My niece, two sippy cups of Stella in, started the process, but since she naps often, is asleep by 7:11, and easily distracted, I thought I’d attempt to finish it.  First, let’s replace Bill James with Henry James. Makes sense, right? James was a realist, favoured celebrating the banal over stylized romanticism, and appreciated a good narrative, and what is baseball but an unending narrative? And what’s more banal than statistical analysis?

But the substitution of James for James is intriguing on many levels. Of knowledge, the exploitation of which fuels sabermetrics, Bill James wrote:

“There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve.”

Henry James had similar thoughts on knowledge:

“It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that–as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.”

And what leads best to loneliness, but ignorance? Henry James enjoyed juxtaposing elements of the old world with those of the new, and what is sabermetrics but that exactly? My niece was on to something. Perhaps she could be the next Orioles GM.

Once we’ve exchanged the James’, we’re forced to confront the acronyms–the seemingly endless list of statistics that excite the sabermetrics faithful. Where once baseball was about the digits of RBIs, HRs, and AVGs, love was about acquiring seven digits, a six-pack, and occasionally doubling up. But no more. Love, like baseball has become more complicated. The sheer number of forums in which you can meet another person is seemingly infinite. From Facebook to Twitter to Lavalife to J-Date to Second Life to speed dating. Whatever happened to just going to the bar, getting drunk, and letting the rest sort itself out? Well, the same thing that happened to batting average, the Triple Crown, and chewing tobacco I suppose.

So, off-and-on for the next while, I’m going to consider a few of sabermetrics most prominent statistics, and how they relate to relationships, and continue to develop the philosophy of sabermetric relationships. Today, WAR.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a non-standardized statistic that is used to show how many more wins a player would give a team as opposed to a “replacement level”, or minor league/bench player at that position. While WAR values are scaled equally for pitchers and hitters, the result is calculated differently for pitchers versus position players: position players are evaluated using statistics for fielding and hitting, while pitchers are evaluated using statistics related to the opposing batters’ hits, walks and strikeouts.

Basically, this is the baseball equivalent of measuring a prospective partner against his contemporaries. Let’s say you’re a single young woman, and you’re at a respectable bar with some friends for an evening of cocktails and frivolity. Sitting across from you is a table of like-minded young men, out for similar cocktails and hopes of frivolity. As a young woman, you’re immediately judging that table, calculating each individual at the table’s value in comparison to all the others. The table is the bench. The stats are simple at the evening’s beginning, generally based on aesthetic. As the evening progresses, as the night gets into the later evenings, the stats change. Because WAR is non-standardized, on any given evening we can consider stats such as Drink Consumption, Conversational Acumen, Ability to Stand Up, and Tab Payment Quotient.  Depending on what point in the season we’re playing, and how deep our bench is, different considerations come into play within the umbrella of WAR. Most people strike out, some walk home, and some are fortunate enough to work the counts deep, score a few runs, and make it into extra innings. Okay, the metaphor is corny there and a bit weak, but remember this was the idea of a half-cut 3 years old. Work with me.

Next Week: STDs & BABIPs: DIPS, LIPS, and Prophylactics

Baseball, Love, & Shakespeare

If Shakespeare were alive and well and writing today, he’d be writing about baseball. He’d scrap tired manuscripts about Oedipal princes and spoiled princesses, and pen epic plays about pine tarred bats, about no-hitters, about Bill Buckner, Rick Monday, Steve Bartman, Kirk Gibson, Jack Buck, Vin Scully, and game 6 of this year’s World Series. Sometime late last night, or early this morning depending on where you were, St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman David Freese hit a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat the Texas Rangers and cap what was arguably the greatest Fall Classic game ever played. It was the kind of ending Billy would have stolen for himself, and provided that rare live drama that a ball fan hopes for every time they tune in. Drama, heartbreak, villains, heroes, comedy, tragedy, raging ups, and mournful downs.  Busch Stadium was Elizabethan last night.

A high hope for a low heaven.

Shakespeare would have loved baseball. It’s grand mythology. It’s theatre-like stadia. Its obsession with tradition. Its pageantry. The way its history interacts so beautifully with that of the United States. Baseball is truly America’s pastime. It belongs to Americans like no other sport. Both its modern failings and victories have been mirrored by the sport’s. It is their oldest child, perhaps their favourite. Maybe they invented it, maybe not, but though Shakespeare didn’t invent theatre, he may have perfected it. The same could be said for St. Louis, where baseball is lived and breathed, where summers are judged by not by weather or economy, but rather the success of the Cardinals.

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

No other sport lends itself to narrative like baseball, and game 6 had everything. Scoring nearly every inning. Two go-ahead extra inning homeruns. Pitchers pinch-hit for pitchers. Double switches. Ophelia’s suicide. Dropped balls and opportunistic moments that suggested divine interference. Nelson Cruz, the Rangers right fielder committed a Buckneresque mistake in playing too shallow and allowing Freese’s 9th inning triple to sail just beyond his reach. And then Freese, who had given up on baseball after high school, whose major league career had an auspicious start, who was revived only when he was traded to his hometown team, who was counseled by Cards’ hitting coach and tainted star Mark McGwire, who had committed one error earlier in the game, and missed another catchable ball, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 11th, and cranked a Mark Lowe pitch over the centrefield fence to force a game 7. Redemption and victory, what makes for better tales?

Good night, sweet friend: thy love ne’er alter, till thy sweet life end.

And then, there’s the heartbreak. The Texas Rangers were within one strike of their first championship twice. If not for Cruz’s poor positioning, the team would be waking up this morning reeking of champagne and victory, not beer and defeat. If manager Ron Washington had brought in C.J. Wilson in relief instead of Lowe. If the collective held breath of the St. Louis faithful had exhaled at once and blown Freese’s ball back. If, if, if. The Rangers were as close as you can get without actually getting there. So close that the team’s families had been brought down to a room in the depths of Busch Stadium so that they could celebrate with the team. So close that plastic sheeting had been hung in the Rangers’ clubhouse in anticipation of champagne showers. Those awful World Champions 2011 hats had been unpacked. Nolan Ryan was smiling. Parade routes were being planned. And then, in a stunning moment, gone. You have to feel for the Rangers, for Cruz, for Washington. If they don’t win tonight, the heartbreak will be multiplied ten fold.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

It’s difficult to quantify the heartbreak of sport, and most certainly more difficult to explain heartbreak in baseball. It is unlike any other sport, in that it unfolds at a slower than slow pace, and yet can end in the blink of an eye. And in that manner, baseball is more like love than any other sport, something Bill Shakespeare would have dug. When love ends its dénouement is inexplicable, sudden, often violent, and rarely faithful.  It is not unlike David Freese’s shot to centre. One moment anything is possible, the next it’s gone. There are two sides at play, but multiple parties with vested interest. There’s a fair amount of drinking involved. Victory is a ring, losing can break the best of men. Afterwards, there’s nothing to do but watch the game tape, learn from your mistakes, drink yourself stupid, and hope you get a second chance. Tonight, the Rangers are getting that second chance most never do. Most of us don’t have to face hard breaking curveballs, though. Enter Chris Carpenter, stage right.

There are few things better than love. Game 7s come close.