On ritual

We said our farewells to Fritz over the weekend. I don't expect you'll go read through his obituary, so I'll give you the gist.

Fred Mills, "Father Fritz" to his flock, was a reverend, a weightlifter, a hiker, and a Red Sox fan (a die-hard fan — literally — there was a Red Sox logo on the shroud covering his coffin at calling hours).

His family relationship to me is kind of tenuous on the surface. He is my wife's first cousins' stepfather — my wife's uncle and Fritz's widow raised a couple of women. Fritz had his own children coming into that marriage as well.

While Fritz's family stayed in New England (primarily Cape Cod), he lived in Central New York, and he was always at family gatherings. I met him first in 2010, five years after the stroke that ended his power-lifting days and his ability to hike on his own two legs. The three things I remembered from that first meeting were still true when I last saw him a couple of months ago:

• He had a crushing handshake. If you weren't ready for it, you risked taping up a couple of fingers for a week. And he held on for a lot longer than is generally deemed a social norm. One of his daughters inherited that grip and the hold, and I thought to mention it when we met.
• He looked you in the eye, not in a challenging way, but in a gentle, respectful way.
• He wanted to talk baseball. It was common ground, and since I grew up a Red Sox fan in Massachusetts, it was a good way for us to connect.

His funeral was at an Episcopal church. I don't really understand the inner workings, but strictly from a standpoint of observation, it's almost Anglican (Church of England), I guess. They take communion (so it's in a Catholic tradition), but priests can marry, they have female priests, and I didn't see any crucifixes (a cross being a cross, a crucifix having a crucified Jesus on the cross).

There were some rituals that were curious to me, an outsider (I'm Jewish). One was something they called in the program The Peace. It's a stopping point in the service during which you look around and wish those around you peace. The priest later explained the communion ritual (which I'm guessing changes a bit from church to church), but it was almost another half hour before the communion ceremony. Some of the readings began and ended with the priest elevating the bible above her head and making a declaration.

As I mentioned, these were curious to me, but they probably felt perfectly normal to someone else.

As some of you know, I'm a Freemason. One of the things that connects the fraternity to its past is its ritual, which can vary from place to place, but remains integral to every meeting and every degree ceremony.

The ritual is certainly unusual to an outsider, and was to me when I first saw it, but is now a mark of comfort that, no matter what else happens before, during or after the meeting, the meeting will open and close with ritual.

It's the same in many other organizations, including religious gatherings, fraternities, business, etc. People look to ritual to emulate others — do a search for morning ritual or rituals of successful people, and you'll get millions of options, some of them downright scary (like, say, Hunter S. Thompson's daily routine.

Watch some baseball players as they step up to bat. Some of them have elaborate rituals before they get in the batter's box, including touching different parts of their bodies, adjusting their uniforms or batting gloves, touching the bat to a specific point on home plate, etc.

Ritual guides us in practice, connects us to our past, and brings us a comfort of familiarity in unfamiliar situations.

What are your rituals?

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In defense of baseball

American football is, without a doubt, the biggest money-making sport there is.

Auto racing is among the most popular.

Soccer – or football to the rest of the non-American world – is another of the most popular.

baseballBut people seem to have something against baseball. It's not just some people; it's a lot of them. It's boring, they say. Too slow. If, as an offensive player, you fail at your job 7 out of 10 opportunities, you're a sure-fire hall-of-famer.

In fact, the notion that a person can actually play baseball well offensively is just ridiculous (and as a culture, Americans are offensive-minded). Someone throws a ball from 60.5 feet away, often in the 90mph range. The ball moves based on the spin, and it's your job as a batter to take an instrument that's about 32 inches long and, at its thickest, about the width of the ball. There are eight people in front of the batter and one immediately behind attempting to stop the batter from succeeding. Seriously. Ridiculous.

Baseball's a different sort of sport. Endurance is important: in roughly six months, there are about 18-20 days off, including weekends. There's a lot of travel.

And there's very little predictability.

Johan Santana pitched a no-hitter last night. It's not an unheard-of feat. In fact, it's the third one in the major leagues this year. But he threw 134 pitches, which is a whole lot; this time of the year, many starting pitchers are just starting to be allowed to throw 90 to 100 pitches before they're pulled for worry that they'll hurt their arm. Santana threw 50% more pitches than he might have been allowed, and he still got batters to fail every time they were up.

He may not pitch well at all the rest of the year. Like I said, little predictability.

But there is some predictability.

Baseball people are numbers people. There are so many numbers measured and available that even an average manager could predict within a few feet where one particular fielder should play based on who is pitching, the type of playing surface, the time of day, the weather and what color jerseys his team is wearing. Change one of those factors (well, except the jersey color), and the same fielder could reasonably be moved 40 feet and the manager would still be correct.

I think few people (yes, some, but still, few) would argue with sitting in the sun on a quiet afternoon, the smell of freshly cut grass, hot dogs on the grill and a cold beer in hand. And outdoors, that's exactly what baseball is. And with a lack of predictability, there's always the chance that attending a baseball game means you're going to see something amazing happen.

[photo credit]

[ stability ] + [ passion ]

I'm not one for resolutions. Well, I was last year and year before, but it turns out I didn't look back on them at all, make the goals and track them. So I'm looking at this young calendar year, and figuring out what it's going to be.

2010 was a year of upheaval – and let's make it clear that upheaval isn't all bad. I have found a life partner with whom I share a mutual love, support and respect I've never known. For the first time in my life, I've landed in a job I love at a company whose product I am 100% behind. And for the first time since I moved from my parents' house, I'm in a residence I'm not likely to be leaving anytime soon. So 2011 is going to be a year of stability.

It's also going to be a year of passions renewed.

Baseball memorabilia

Roger Clemens rookie cardMy dad and I were voracious baseball memorabilia collectors when I was a kid. We would go to card shows at least monthly, I would trade cards with the neighborhood kids, and we were involved in a Strat-O-Matic league.

My parents have started their transition to retirement (it'll be a several-year process, likely), and that includes leaving behind my childhood home. I'm inheriting the collection of cards and publications, and I've started doing some inventory. The publications start in the 1950s (with a couple sporadically before then) and continue into the 2000s; while I haven't seen all the cards yet, they appear to end right around 1990, which is when I entered high school.

So I'm figuring out what's what, and I'm picking that collection back up. I'll fill any holes in the sets, and start looking at what's up in the community these days (I see Donruss has been bought and Fleer is out of business, but that was a quick couple of minutes of not-quite-research).

Reading

I've always been a reader, but here it is January 5, and I've started my third book of the year. I've finished Kaaron Warren's Slights and read Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap, and I've started Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!

I think there will be some re-reading this year, too – Carlos Ruis Zafon's Shadow of the Wind is on my read-again-soon list, and since I'm already reading a dystopic novel (the Harrison), I'm likely to want to re-read any or all of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.

Exercise

I know exercise, fitness and weight loss are on a lot of people's lists. But I'm working at a gym (which means I really have no excuse not to go), I'm already in the midst of some personal training, and on Saturday, I start an intensive weight loss competition.

I'll still be playing tennis and, as spring and summer approach, softball; I'm just hoping to be in better shape.

I'm also planning to do more volunteer work, more fundraising, and continue to be active in the community. By the way, in case you were wondering, these are the organizations I supported in 2010, in case you're looking for causes this year:

Central New York Community Foundation
WRVO
40 Below
Syracuse First
Alchemical Nursery
St. Baldrick's
St. Jude

Photo Credits:
• 1985 Topps Roger Clemens baseball card by Tommy Duchniki on Flickr
• Books by Phing on Flickr
• Weights by rick on Flickr

What would baseball fans do without newspapers?

When The Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased their print editions, something happened that wasn't evident to either the save-the-newspaper or the dude-the-Web's-great crowd: fans of the Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners both lost local places to study box scores.

When I moved to Syracuse, I not only arrived in a town which places much more emphasis on college than professional sports, I discovered I was in a place where people by and large aren't baseball fans.

People here definitely have allegiances – I've met lots of Yankees and Red Sox fans, and a smattering of Mets fans – but by and large, these are team people, not baseball people.

There are some of us die-hards, who live for the smell of grass, the season's first hot dog, who keep score at games, and who study statistics.

Baseball fans? We're numbers people. There's something old-fashioned about that, for sure.

And while the Web is certainly a great place for box scores and statistics (it's bottomless, it's got great archiving ability, great sharing ability), there's something that seems right about having that stuff in a newspaper, isn't there?

Seattle and Denver still have print newspapers, but across the country, that could continue to change.

And ESPN.com's Jim Caple is worried about it.

Could bloggers and Web writers cover teams, get access to players, managers, coaching staffs, etc.? Cover both the news and analysis? Absolutely, admits Caple. But, he asks, could bloggers afford the travel and lodging expenses required to go on the road to cover a team?

Not likely, he says.

News flash: Newspapers can't afford to do it either. That's why they're cutting down on news hole and in some cases, stopping printing altogether.

Some former Colorado Rockies beat writers for The Rocky Mountain News have started InsideTheRockies.com, which is part of a project done by former RMN reporters called In Denver Times (which is in beta now and launches May 4).

There isn't up-front advertising evident, and it looks like In Denver Times is going to try out a subscription model. Is it sustainable? I guess we'll find out (and good luck; I'm always rooting for new Web sites, especially if they're doing original reporting).

Caple's right in one aspect: most people can't afford to travel with a team and cover them without the backing of Big Media.

But to successfully cover a team, I don't think that's necessary.

Follow me here. You do a league-wide network with localized editions for each team. You need two bloggers for each ballpark: one covers the home team every game, and the other covers the visiting team – senior partner and junior partner, if you will.

The person who covers the home team is going to be the primary expert on that team. The person who covers the away team is going to act essentially as a stringer for that team's hometown edition. Newspapers already do this for minor league baseball and hockey – they pay somebody on the other end to cover a game and get into the locker room for post-game quotes.

If a team is truly giving a hometown beat writer access, they'll accept a phone call if clarification or more information is requested.

The funding model for this is the same it is for any other online-only publication: you sell advertising, and maybe you can do some exclusive content (extended video interviews with players, perhaps?) for subscribers.

Why couldn't that work?

Chiefs, Nationals sign development contract

Here are some thoughts on the new two-year development agreement the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs signed with the Washington Nationals, but to tell you the truth, I think I said most of it when I predicted last Tuesday it would happen.

Someone, though, did ask me last night why he should be excited about such a mediocre parent club coming in. My feeling is two-fold: (a) do you go with someone who has a history of bringing mediocre teams here, or with someone who might surprise us? and (b) someone showed some real interest in the community; that's never a bad thing.

So, good luck to the new wave...

Trade Manny? Ride out the season? Re-sign him?

There is nothing I hate more than working with a team in which someone is not pulling his or her weight.

But there's a corollary to this, and it's an ethical question that I don't have a good answer to: If someone's potential output is greater, by far, than the potential output of most team members, and the person's actual output is quite a bit greater than the output of other team members, is the person not pulling his or her weight if s/he does not appear to be doing as much as s/he is capable of?

Enter Manny Ramirez.

Every year right around this time, the Red Sox slugger does something fans say is "just Manny being Manny," and the team declines to comment.

This year, it's being taken up a notch.

The brief background, in case you missed it: Ramirez pulled himself out of Friday night's game against the rival Yankees (a game the Red Sox lost 1-0). He claimed to have sore knees, and rather than just sit him out, the Sox sent him to the hospital for an MRI.

His knees looked fine. And if, more than halfway through the year, your knees are sore but not damaged, and you're collecting a $20 million paycheck, you play a big game against a big opponent.

Usually, everyone is very quiet about this. Ramirez does a little whining, the Red Sox management says they'll take care of it in-house, and everybody goes back to playing baseball.

But Ramirez is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, and he has what in baseball is called 5/10 – five years with the same team, and 10 years in the majors. His 5/10 gives him the ability to veto any trade (think: "The Nationals are the worst team in baseball and are out of the playoff race. I won't accept a trade that sends me there.).

But written into his contract are team options for the next two seasons. That means at the end of 2008, the Red Sox can say, "you're coming back to play for us in 2009, and we'll pay you $20 million." And at the end of 2009, they can do that again for 2010.

So Ramirez isn't really sure what his job is going to look like for the next couple of years, and he really doesn't have any control over it.

Add to that, the fact that the trade deadline is fast approaching, so Ramirez' veto power aside, if the Red Sox are going to deal him, it has to be soon.

What's the big deal? Well, since joining the Red Sox in 2001, Ramirez has been named to the all-star team every year. He has finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five times. He hits around or above .300, every year, and tops 20 home runs, and sometimes 40. Check out his career stats: you can't just let that walk out the door, can you?

And this is where we come back to the ethical dilemma. Ramirez' potential is huge, and he's near the top of the team in every major offensive statistic (tied for first in home runs, fourth in doubles, third in batting average, second in RBI). But he appears to not be doing as much as he could. What do you do with him?

First off, the Sox need his numbers. No doubt.

That's going to make trading him, as Dan Shaughnessy suggests, really difficult. Ramirez says he won't veto any trade, but let's face it – unless someone like Albert Pujols is involved, the Sox aren't going to trade him – they need to get the output they're getting rid of back in return.

Shaughnessy reminds us that this happened back in 2004 with Nomar Garciaparra doing all the whining, and management did manage to make a trade – and the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

So it could happen.

What's not going to happen is just telling him to get out.

Whether or not the Sox trade him, Dan Lamothe knows what he's talking about: Manny Ramirez will most likely not be in a Red Sox uniform come 2009.

While this is a little sad, look at the bright side. Yes, there's a learning curve playing left field in Fenway Park, and Ramirez plays the wall fairly well, Pawtucket left fielder Chris Carter is hitting .299 with 22 home runs and 74 RBI. Compare that with Ramirez' .302/19/65, and it's a toss-up.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Carter can do for Boston next season.