Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Fenway Park, southpaws, and Tiger Woods, ice dancer extraordinaire

One of the joys of living in Boston is having access to Fenway Park, that quaint little bandbox that somehow encapsulates the soul of the city. My wife and I are lucky enough to share season tickets with 9 other couples, giving us access to eight games a year. Our two boys are mostly away now, but we've kept all four of our seats because there is no better way to catch up with friends than taking them to Fenway. Few couples turn down an invite, because the Red Sox are a fine team, a great team, actually. And the games are always sold out. But they take their time about playing them. No baseball team takes more pitches than the Red Sox, and no pitching staff works so slowly. 3 1/2 hour games are not unusual, and if the Yanks are in town, count on the game crawling along for 4 hours. Most of that time, of course, is devoid of action. So there's plenty of time to catch up.
....On Thursday we took Barret Brown and Charley Sawyer, two of the more amusing conversationalists we know. Charley is an architect; Barret an ice dancing coach of national renown. Charley and I play golf quite a bit; Barret and I meet for drinks at U.S. National figure skating championships, where she fills me in on the latest, unprintable gossip. She swears me to secrecy every time, or I would share it. Seriously good stuff. In a nutshell, if you can imagine it, figure skaters you have read about and watched your entire lives have done it...and been caught doing it. It's why I love the sport.
....I met Charley, not on a golf course, but on a heliski trip to British Columbia that ended tragically, and wound up being one of the most dramatic stories I've ever written for Sports Illustrated. Published in 1991, it was entitled
Snow Blind and you can read it by clicking on the big blue title. I went straight from the heliski adventure to the 1990 U.S. Nationals, where I met Barret and told her in grisly detail about the trip. I did not mention the Chicks on Sticks, an Aspen trio who had been interested in spending as much time as possible with Charley. But he was a good boy, not being a figure skater, so I don't hesitate to do so now.
....It was an afternoon game, which are all too infrequent these days in baseball, and Barret, who hadn't been to a game in many years, was seeing Fenway as if for the first time. She is artistic, and saw it artistically, commenting on the great swathes of green in the urban landscape; the patterns made by the mowers; the moving shadows in the afternoon sunlight; the red-tailed hawk that soared above. She loved being there and, as this photo attests, it showed. She is a woman with a generous smile.
....I cannot resist, when I'm with her, getting into our old, familiar, well-practiced argument: Is Ice Dancing A Sport? I have the same discussion with NBC commentator Tracy Wilson at every Olympics, a foolish place for me to go since Tracy, who is a friend, won Canada's first ice dancing Olympic medal in 1988 with partner Rob McCall. You can see a clip of their superb work here, taken at the 1987 World Championships: Tracy Wilson. Watching it does not change my fundamental premise: I like ice dancing; it's athletic; it's difficult; it's entertaining; but it's not a sport. Why? Because it can't be fairly judged. The criteria is entirely subjective, at least to my eye. Sure, there's a big difference between the first place dance couple and the 15th. But between the first and second? Second and third? Third and fourth? Barret allowed that at the most recent World Championships in Los Angeles many coaches and former ice dancers felt that the fourth place couple, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, had been better than the first place couple, Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. I told her I had no opinion on the matter, since it couldn't be judged. It's like placing Oklahoma! over South Pacific.
....Which doesn't change the fact that ice dancing is wildly popular: in Europe, tickets to ice dancing sell out before the women's finals. Little known fact: The great golf writer and novelist Dan Jenkins, a man's man if every there was one, loves watching ice dancing. And it has given me one of my favorite sportswriting stories. In 1984, when Jane Torville and Christopher Dean were performing their Bolero free dance at the Sarajevo Olympics--they received solid 6.0s from the judges--a British sportswriter bet Sports Illustrated's Bob Ottum he couldn't get the word "lubricious" into his story. [lubricious: 1) characterized by lewdness 2) slippery] Ottum accepted the bet. This is how he won it:
"The Torville and Dean program was perfect, possibly even transcendent, and it was skated entirely to Ravel's Bolero. This one should be shown only after the kids have gone to bed. It started with what appeared to many people to be long moments of unseemly writhing on the ice with the two skaters on their knees. Perhaps one writer best described it when he turned to a colleague in the press gallery and whispered, "How do you spell lubricious?"
....May I just say that that was the golden age of Sports Illustrated, when writers really wrote, and were given the space to write. In any event, after Bob lost his battle to cancer, I took over the figure skating beat in 1986, and have not written as good a paragraph on ice dancing since.
...It so happened that Thursday we were at Fenway was also the opening day of the Masters. Both Charley and I have been fortunate enough to play Augusta National, and I covered the event in 1989 (Nick Faldo's first win); so about the fifth inning I started checking my Blackberry for scores. Mostly I was curious about Tiger. Barret told me the one time she'd been to the Masters was in 1997, the year of Tiger's first Masters win. She's no golfer, but she obviously understands sports. "I've never seen such focus in a man. If I could teach my ice dancers to focus like that..." Her voice trailed off wistfully. One of the complaints one frequently hears in the figure skating world is the best athletes--at least in the States--seldom go into figure skating. "Tiger is so strong," Barret said. "He's totally ripped. And he's so flexible." Then she said the sentence I never thought I'd live to hear. "Tiger Woods would have been a great ice dancer."
....Of course...if only...what a waste! You could see her rolling it over in her mind: If I could just get my mitts on Tiger Woods, gold medal here we come!! But I'll say this, it made me realize just how athletic a pursuit ice dancing must be. And it made me appreciate that no matter how ripped and flexible and coordinated an athlete may be, to a coach focus is the talent that separates the great from the good.
....As the innings rolled on and the shadows lengthened, the Tampa Bay Rays brought in a lefthanded pitcher. I asked Charley if he knew the origins of the word southpaw. He didn't. I pointed to the shadow being cast by the pitcher. It was pointed almost directly toward center field. The sun was setting behind home plate. That's because when ballparks are ideally positioned, the sun sets behind the batter so he won't be blinded by the late afternoon sun. South, then, is the first base side of the pitching mound. Hence: southpaw.
We argued about that for awhile. Turns out the sun in Fenway sets directly into the right fielder's face, not the center fielder's. Charley can be a little anal that way. Time passed pleasantly enough as we meandered to other topics: houses, golf courses, trips. After 3 1/2 hours and eight innings, my wife and I bailed to beat the traffic, despite the fact the Sox only trailed 4-2. It's not something I'm proud of, and few of the Fenway faithful ever leave early. But it works, and if they played quicker, I'd stay till the end. Besides, I don't get all worked up over who wins or loses. I'm actually a White Sox fan in my heart.
....But Charley and Barret stayed to the end, a 4-3 Sox loss, guaranteeing them an invite back next season. Here's what they reported to us afterward:
....Barret: "We DID stay and it was plenty exciting. And painful with the winning runs left on base. Talk about sucking the life out of the room!!! The end was so sudden...with this huge collective sigh, or was it a scream? And then people just stood up and headed out like nothing had happened. I wasn't sure I had it in me to walk, but as Charley pointed out...that's baseball. Get over it. I loved being back at Fenway Park! Watching how the changing light played on the space, seeing the red tailed hawk (who gets to watch every game), ogling the larger than life stars of the sports page, having a good reason to jump out of my seat and was all great."
.....And Charley: "After the game, while Barret waited in an endless bathroom line, I lingered in the almost empty grandstand to watch the place go quiet. A few others did the same. What a beautiful evening. How lucky I am to not have any kind of a life so I can actually stay to the end. As you know now, it was a really good ninth inning. Didn't end quite right, but hey, it's April, who cares? the Park felt great, the baseball was good and occasionally exciting, it was a beautiful afternoon, the early season vibe was perfect."
....Just another day at Fenway Park, the soul of the city.

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