Teach them how to say goodbye

There’s an infamous plot line in an episode of the American comedy series, Seinfeld. The episode is called the “Burning” and it’s the one where Jerry Seinfeld advises a friend, George, to use the old Vegas showmanship trick of leaving the room after a comedic high note. Get a good laugh? Great, say goodnight and leave the stage. Later George uses the advice and leaves a work meeting after a good joke and goes to a movie theater to watch “Titanic.”

It’s also the episode, if you’re familiar, with the “tractor story” and the where Kramer and Newman fake illnesses for Med students and Elaine accuses David Puddy of being a Christian. That’s a lot to pack into a 22 minute show.

Leaving on a high note is exactly what Alistair Cook did today in London. He strode out to thunderous applause and honestly could have just had a nice little day in the sun, but instead he batted for hours and hours, saw 286 balls, and just like he’s done so many other times, scored a quiet and attractive and game-winning ton. it was easily the perfect way to go out.

I can’t think of anything else to compare it to, in cricket or in sports overall. My first thought was Cal Ripken, Jr., who hit a home run in his last All Star Game. But that pitch was grooved and it wasn’t his last game, just his last All Star Game.

Thinking about Cal Ripken, Jr. — who famously played in over 2,600 games — got me to thinking about baseball’s original Iron Man, Lou Gehrig, who sat himself down after 2,130 games. Two days later he retired. Two years lated he passed away at only age 37.

That’s usually how it ends for sports figures. Either their careers end tragically short due to injury or death, or they hang on a bit too long. The ego that led them to their ascent of their chosen profession also contributing to their sad demise. Zidane’s headbutt. Ali’s fight against Larry Holmes in 1980. Willie Mays’ last two seasons with the Mets.

In cricket there was Ricky Ponting who looked like a dying and raging Lear in his final Tests, but he was one of the few. For some reason, cricketers know more than other athletes when to call it quits. Sachin could have held on a while longer, so could have Dravid, surely. I think Shane Warne could still bowl at the top level. But they always seem to hang it up on top.

Part of this probably has to do with the fact that the sport isn’t quite as physically punishing as say, American football or boxing (Ali had taken 200,000 hits by the time he retired), which affords cricketers the ability to remain competitive right up until the end. But I think it’s more than that. I think, more than any other sport, cricketers have a flair for the dramatic, for the poetic moments. Cook surely could have played another year or two at the international level, but doing so would have risked injury, or a drop in form leading to getting dropped, and so his career would not have ended in London on a sunny September afternoon with the scent of autumn on the wind, but it could have ended on day 3 of a rain shortened match in Bridgetown. Cook never would have let that happen.

Cricketers are like Russians, in that sense. They both love to do things the poetic way. When Russians need to duel, they pick a spot that could be the setting of a second act of an opera: a sun dappled forest hill, a sumac grove near the bend of a river, under a cherry tree as it rains it’s blossoms on them. And Cook is the same way. He never would have retired someplace utilitarian. Despite his quiet manner, he wanted London and autumn, against the side that he made his debut against.

I am being hyperbolic, of course. Cook decided it was his time, and called it quits. Like Sachin and Dravid and thousands of other cricketers have done. But still, I think it’s true that cricketers, more than other sportsmen, simply love the poetry of the game, and their actions within its confines. You see it in celebrations and in how they dress (do you really need that sweater, Stuart?). They don’t just like playing cricket, they like being cricketers, and they like acting like cricketers. The jackets at the coin toss, the gallantry of upholding the spirit of the game, and the retirement at the end of summer on the far edge of the world’s greatest city.

 

This is water

My sister fought — and beat — colon cancer this past spring. She was diagnosed on the fourth of July, 2017, then went through chemotherapy, then radiation, then surgery, before finally been declared cancer free. It was a long, hard year for her. Exhausting and painful. But for all those months, she kept in her mind the promise of that pure, wonderful, perfect moment of sitting in a doctor’s office on some distant afternoon and being told that the fight was over, that she had won.

But that moment never came. Sure, it happened, but it was not the pure moment of elation that she had hoped for. It was just another moment in a life full of them. Her fight was over, and part of her missed the fight. It was a few months before she was, once again, able to look toward the future, to plan, to feel good. It wasn’t cancer one moment, then no cancer the next. There was no fist pumping, no pure elation. Just life. Progressing.

Pure moments, pure joy, those really only happen in sports. Think of the moments when you received the best news of your life. News that you had dreamed about for months, maybe years. Was it a run through the streets screaming moment? It probably wasn’t. Life isn’t like that. Change, and good news, happens over long stretches of time. And when the news finally comes, it’s almost a letdown, because it’s never as good as you hoped it would be, there’s always a drawback or two, and then you miss the anticipation, the waiting, the looking forward.

This morning I read one of those Cricinfo 25th anniversary posts about Edgbaston ’05. It’s one of those matches that everyone remembers, even those of us that weren’t even aware that it was happening at the time. You hear the words “Edgbaston” and “oh-five” and you are instantly transported back in time. You see the sun on that Birmingham patch. You see Freddie Flintoff setting the place alight. You see Michael Vaughn’s worried face. You see Brett Lee’s brave final stand in that simmering cauldron, the crowd quiet and murmuring and riddled with anxiety, minutes from watching their side go down 2-0. And you hear those words and those images float through your mind, then you hear the commentary, that famous commentary:

Jones! Bowden!

It’s a perfect moment. A pure moment. The kind you only get in sports. From the brink of despair to a glittering pool of joy, all in just a few seconds.

But the best moment of Edgbaston ’05 took place shortly after that. When Flintoff bends down to comfort a despondent Brett Lee. He puts his hand on his back, and takes his hand in his. “You were fucking brilliant, mate,” he tells Lee, a look of almost sorrow on the face of Flintoff, sorrow and empathy in the face of all that joy, all that elation.

It’s a pure moment too. But not like the moment before when the ball settled into Bowden’s outstretched hand, it’s not like the pure moments you get in sports, it’s the kind of pure moment you get in life. And that’s what makes it so special, so memorable, because it reminds us of the innate goodness in humanity, in the world.

We all have such moments, when someone, sometimes a perfect stranger, reached out with kindness, or helpfulness, leaving you godsmacked with just how kind people can be, and how the world really is a good place, in the end, despite all the vitriol and hate and violence. It’s a good place, and those small, pure moments are what keep the fires at bay.

They are rare moments in sports, that’s why the Flintoff handshake stands out for us, normally sports are bravado and testosterone. But Flintoff’s empathy reminds that people are, for the most part, good. It’s a rare moment in sports, but not necessarily in life. At least, they don’t have to be. Because it doesn’t matter if you are receiving the kindness, or giving it. “Perform random acts of kindness” is a cliche, but it’s also true. You can be Brett Lee, or you can be Freddie Flintoff, no matter which the kindness will help the world keep spinning, will help keep the darkness from taking over.

So when you see someone hurting, despondent, help them. Be kind to them. But more. Be kind to everyone. Because that’s the dirty little secret that we all know but so often forget: everyone we see is fighting a war, is maybe on the wrong side of life’s tug-of-war, is feeling happiness maybe slip away forever. They have just buried their mother. Or their child was bullied at school. Or their parter lost their job. Reach out to them too. Even if you don’t know their struggle, even if they don’t look like their struggling. Reach out to them, put your hand on their shoulder, and tell them they are fucking brilliant.

We don’t get pure moments like you get in sports in our regular life. Ours are quieter, harder to see, harder to celebrate, but also way better, and far more important. There might not be a crowd cheering us on, there might not be a commentator enshrining our moments in bronze where they will live forever, but our moments collect in our hearts over the course of our lifetime, they never leave us, their light never diminishes, and they are what keep us afloat and make this a good world, a good life, one with staying for.

Edgbaseton ’05 produced wonderful cricket, moments of joy and madness, but it’s Flintoff’s kindness that made it the perfect Test. It’s not the moment of being told that she was cancer free that my sister remembers, it’s all the small kindnesses that she both received and gave over the year of her fight, those moments that kept her going, kept her smiling, kept her alive.

51 seconds. All that’s great about sports, and all that’s great about humanity.

What a moment.

 

The Kaepernick ad and the black armband protest

And, so, that Colin Kaepernick Nike ad. No matter what you think of him, or his protests, or anything else politically, you have to like the sentiment: be the best ever in whatever you do. Don’t be a cricket blogger, be Jarrod Kimber. Don’t be a slightly above average county cricketer, instead dredge up every last bit of your talent and become captain for England.

Of course, it’s idealism. A corporate vision of utopia. Not every kid who has a killer jump shot is going to get lucky enough to play in front of the right college recruiter on the right day. Back to cricket: Yesterday,  I was thinking about Lasith Malinga and his return to the Sri Lankan side for the Asia Cup. His unique arm action — like a kid skipping rocks on a lake — made me swoon when I first started following the game. That big fluff of hair, those wicked in-swinging yorkers breaking the legs of batsmen. And then I thought about all of those kids in the ghettos of Colombo who grew up mocking that action, and that thought warmed my heart a little. Malinga’s been playing international cricket since July of 2004. 14 years. And so an entire generation of Sri Lankans have grown up watching him bowl death overs. But then I remembered an article that Jarrod Kimber wrote a few years back:

Like many in Sri Lanka, the cricketers from Chilaw are largely invisible inside the system. There are Test-quality cricketers playing on the streets of the Hikkaduwa right now that will never play with a hard cricket ball in their life.

That’s the thing. That’s what we should all be rebelling against. The systems that keep those outside. And that’s what Kaepernick is doing, or at least that’s what he — and many others — believe he is doing: protesting against the systems that keep people down, or even, in some cases, end up killing them. He is giving a voice to the voiceless. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with how he is going about it, his intentions and his actions are exposing the very systems that take away the even ground necessary for us all to be the best ever in whatever we choose to do. In that sense, the ad has multiple narratives.

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Reading about Kaepernick of course also got me thinking about on field protests, and since this is a cricket blog, I started reading about the “Black armband protest” at the 2003 World Cup. For those interested, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore black armbands in a World Cup match for Zimbabwe, played in Zimbabwe (the country hosted six group stage matches), against Namibia. They were protesting the death of democracy in Zimbabwe (Mugbabe was nearing the height of his powers) which included the seizure of white owned farms as well as human rights abuses that the EU had punished the country’s elites for just recently.

The planning for the protest was quite in-depth, and included a statement partially written by an attorney delivered just before the start of the match. Farcically, both players neglected to actually bring black armbands to the ground, so were forced to use black electrical tape instead. Some of the crowd even joined in on the protests throughout the game as they learned of the statement, putting their own black armbands on. Flower batted for 39 and Olonga took no wickets for 8, as Zimbabwe won the rain shortened match.

As we all know, political statements on the field during a cricket match are a violation of the spirit of cricket, and so the hand wringing commenced almost immediately. The reactions were, at first glance, similar to the reactions to Kaepernick’s protests: a slap on the hand from an ineffectual governing body, and loud consternations from the Zimbabwean president and his party, while the support from fellow cricketers and the international press was largely positive. The similarities stop there though. Olonga was called an “uncle Tom” and was charged with treason (one fan wearing an armband at the match was also arrested and charged, but 200 fans wore them at Zimbabwe’s next match), he was sacked by his club, he received death threats, and was dropped by the national team for the remainder of the group stage, playing only one final match for his country (a super six match) before retiring — and was even kicked off the team bus.

Flower, for his part, while the reaction from certain parts was equally acrimonious, he was also considered undroppable and played for Zimbabwe the remainder of the tournament. And while he didn’t wear a black armband, he did wear black wristbands or white armbands. He had already announced his retirement from the national team, and so received no further punishment.

Both men eventually settled in England, and were awarded honorary lifetime memberships of the Marylebone Cricket Club.

Now, it’s a complicated issue. And one that has come up in the news recently, only in South Africa instead of Zimbabwe. And I won’t begin to try to understand the minutiae of Zimbabwean politics in the early 2002s. But what Flower and Olonga were attempting to do was the same thing that Kaepernick is trying to do: give voice to the voiceless and expose the systems that keep people down. Right or wrong, their actions were at least an attempt at virtuousness. An attempt to use the stage they were given to shed light on an issue that exists mostly in shadow. Just like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Just like Věra Čáslavská. They had the biggest stages in the world, and they used them.

People get crispy about mixing politics and sport, or politics and music, or politics and just about anything. But usually they are only against it if the athlete or musician is expressing an opinion that they don’t agree with. We are all guilty of this. Both sides. But we shouldn’t be. As long as the opinion or protest is valid, it should be not just allowed, but celebrated. The world is filled with far too many people not just outside the system, but who are being crushed by the system. And if an athlete wants to give voice to those people, then more power to them. Be they democrat, republican, whatever. For we should all have the chance to play hard ball cricket.

Never Again

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Where do you start?

Alastair Cook made his Test debut in March of 2006. 12 and a half years ago. I was 30. Living in a St. Paul suburb. Still smoking cigarettes. Working at a toy company. Traveling too much. Working too hard. Life was okay then. Okay in that way that you don’t really recognize until it’s too late. I took the bus home everyday. And when the #61 would hit Snelling Ave. I would call my wife and just say “yep” and then she would get in the car with our dog, Murray, who would get excited the minute the phone rang, and come pick me up outside the diner in the strip mall next to one of those 24 hour fitness places.

Cricket was but a glint in my eye. Honestly, it wasn’t even that. It was, to me, nothing. Like it didn’t exist at all.

In the fall of that same year, Cook flew to Nagpur on short notice and hit a glorious 106 against India in the grueling heat to pull a draw out of a hat for England, batting in alien conditions with jet lag and an Indian attack that held no quarter.

And then time passed like falling leaves.

In April of 2007, I quit smoking. And everything changed. The whole world changed, for me. And I discovered cricket. Here was this game that I knew nothing about, that made no sense to me, but that I could wallow in completely, let it hold me in its arms. And somehow, despite every notion to the contrary, I was able to quit smoking. I followed the Cricket World Cup like an infant followed a set of keys. And while it was a hard, terrible time, I got better. Thanks to cricket. Everything changed, and for the better. For the way better. The whole world opened up, light poured in.

Later that year, December, I was still working at the Toy Company, living with my wife and dog, as Cook batted for 118 against Sri Lanka in Galle. His 7th Test hundred. And it saved the Test for England. He was only 22 years old. I was 31. And at the time it felt like life was just beginning for me, as it seemed for him, too, probably. He blocked and played off his back foot. He was handsome and charming, like a prince in a knit sweater in a field of green on the other side of the world.

In 2010 he scored in my opinion his most brilliant Test century. I don’t know. I think maybe it was because I was able to watch it live. But when no other England player could manage anything, he eked out this quiet little 110 against Pakistan at the Oval. And that would start this run for Cook that really made me a fan. His 235 against Australia at the Gabba, his 294 against India at Edgbaston. The April before the latter, I started this blog. I was working one of the worst jobs of my entire life. I remember that Edgebaston Test, watching him bat on and on and on and on, and somehow it made me feel as though everything was going to be okay.

And then there was that series in India in the fall of 2012. His 176 at Ahmedabad, his 122 in Mumbai, his 190 in Kolkata. That was maybe the hardest fall of my life. We had run away, and then we’d come home, and it was as if my life was being lived on the edge of a cliff, like everything could collapse and spill over the edge at any moment. But in the fall of that year, I graduated from college after spending most of my 20s and 30s as a college drop out. And through those rough days, I remember two or three times waking up, having gone to bed with Cook at the crease, and see that he had spent most of the night there, as I’d slept, on the other side of the world, in the heat and haze, playing off his back foot, keeping himself alive via his sheer force of will.

For Cook, though, after that, things started to drift. Hard years came, and hard years went. But, for me, life started to happen. I was offered my perfect job and then a year later, another perfect job. Things started to solidify. And, for the first time, be okay. There was a slight insurgence, for Cook, against New Zealand, with his 162 at Lords, and of course his 263 against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi and, his last Test century, his 244 at the MCG when the Ashes were already long lost. But, mostly, we felt we were all watching him struggle against the inevitable tide. That his hand had been played, and that it was his time to move on.

Then, today, Sept. 3, 2018, on what is traditionally the last day of summer in America, he retired. 12 years. 160 Tests. 12,254 runs. 32 centuries.

For so long, my entire life as a cricket fan, I had been used to seeing Cook in the England whites, the cross of St. George over his heart. He was never hurt, or dropped, or sick. He was just always there, through every England Test. And now, after the last Test against India, all of a sudden he won’t be there. I’ve watched him bat in India, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia. I would turn on the cricket and there he would be. Opening for England. With his strong jaw and shock of black hair, handsomer than any devil. And sometimes he would bat for minutes, and sometimes he would bat for days, but no matter what, he was always there.

But, now, he won’t be. From the 22 year old on debut against India when I was a year away from following the game, to yesterday against India at Southhampton. From the Toy Company to the public radio station. College, and dead dogs, and divorce. Through it all: Cook has been there. And later this year in Sri Lanka when England’s openers walk out in the heat and haze, it won’t be Alastair Cook. It will be someone else. And that thought makes me almost intolerably sad. For me, as a cricket fan, considering when it all started, England is Cook, and Cook is England. But. Now. No more. For good or for bad, that’s the new reality.

Life is change. That’s what my mother always says. But sometimes there’s too much change. Sometimes you want that old cricketer who’s not even that old to give it one more year, because too many other things have changed and you want a few things to stay the same. You want that old cricketer to trade in those aching joints and walk out into the sun just a few more times. Sometimes there’s too much change. I’ll close my eyes tonight and when I open them in the morning the light will be soft and to my left, like it never has been before. And for a few seconds I will wonder where I am. But then I will remember. And it’s a dark, hard moment, that remembering. So I wish Cook had hung on for a little longer. Just one more series even. Given me a morning like I remember. Those mornings back in 2012. When I’d wake up with the dog and take him outside and look at my phone and know that some kid from Gloucestshire had batted the whole time I’d been sleeping.

But. Never again. Just like so many other things.

Life is change.

When Summer Ends

The shadows are stretching long in Southampton this afternoon, as England and Moeen Ali took India’s last few wickets, clinching the series victory. As a neutral, I was hoping of course for an Indian win so the fifth Test would be the decider instead of the dead rubber it will now be. But, alas, no. England found a way. Somehow. And with the series now clinched, you can almost feel summer start to fade, for fall and winter and dark and cold to start to seep in around the edges of the world. Summer doesn’t ever end on September 21st. Instead, there’s always this little moment that signals the quiet beginning of its long, slow journey into the night.

I’ve written about this before.

Sometimes summer ends when the Twins are knocked out of the playoffs. I remember 2002. Listening in the kitchen of our apartment downtown as the Angels won game five and ended the Twins’ run as my stepfather lay stroke riddled in a hospital in the suburbs. It was almost as if you could feel summer start to lift and peel away. In 2003 my wife and I watched the Twins lose to the Yankees and then took a walk around Lake Phalen and it was as if the whole city was outside, mourning the winter to come. In recent years, it’s been days like today, when the English cricketing summer ends. The long shadows, the late afternoons, that undefinable feeling of a series coming to end, the players tired, the crowd (usually) sparse on some quiet Monday as the England team bumps fists and walks off, not to be seen again until spring. But other times it’s not about sports at all. Sometimes it’s a quiet bike ride and you are just over come with the feeling of: summer is ending, today summer is ending. In the States, this feeling usually comes for most on Labor day weekend — this weekend — because school traditionally starts on the Tuesday after the long weekend. You walk the streets on that bank holiday Monday and see that the Sumacs are already turning and you get wistful and melancholy but in that nice way, you know, fresh school clothes, change, a clean slate.

This year, though, I didn’t get a summer.

There’s no easy way to say it, so I will just say it: on May the 4th (Stars War day), my marriage ended. A 19 year relationship. A 16 year marriage. Well, almost, in both cases. Out of fairness to everyone, I won’t go into any details. But I have spent the entire summer in this state of mourning. Like, the sun never came out. Not once. I had never had a summer. Those long, perfect days of June I spent in a quiet new apartment next to a bakery in the West 7th neighborhood of St. Paul, feeling this weight on my chest, crushing me. Or, more accurately, like my insides were slowly being scooped out, and left to rot on the sidewalk.

Summer never came. And now it’s already gone.

My weekends were lonely and quiet. I went on some bike rides, maybe one or two, I had a couple nice evenings on patios drinking with friends, but mostly, I was alone, and hurting, and unable to reach out. I didn’t sleep. I was always exhausted. Nothing stemmed the flood from the hole that was in me, that had been carved out and allowed to bleed. Time passed like a dying fire, sinking into itself. It wasn’t living, it was breathing. And with each hour that passed, I felt summer slipping away from me, and I felt my old life slipping away from me. Forever. And now England are walking off the pitch, the shadows long, and tomorrow is Labor Day, and all I want is to, somehow, push the sun back into the sky, and give us all one more day of summer.

That last line is from the deeply flawed but also magical Kevin Costner baseball film, For Love of the Game.

I don’t know who wrote that. Whether it was the screenwriter, or if it was a Vin Scully ad lib, or if it was the author of the original novel (written by Michael Shaara, randomly, that guy who wrote all those Civil War novels), but it’s perfect writing. And it’s how I feel right now, as I sit in my kitchen and watch the squirrels on the trees furiously work to prepare for the coming of the long dark winter in the north:

And you know Steve you get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.

“Against the future, against age … against ending.”

But that’s the thing. For me and Billy Chapel and for those English cricketing fans enjoying the sun on their backs in Southampton one last time and for those kids dreading the start of the school year, we should never pitch against the future. We should lean into the future. Yeah, I didn’t get a summer this year. But I will get a summer again, God willing. We all will get a summer again. Let’s lean into that future. Not just the summers, but the falls and the winters and the springs. Let’s not mourn the death of a season, but the instead revel in the start of a new one. We can fight against time, against aging, against ending, but in truth, happiness is not in the delay of time, but in the accepting of its inevitable advance. For, no matter how we try, time keeps moving.

To paraphrase Hanif Abdurraqib: today I am sad. I was sad yesterday. And I might be sad tomorrow. But today I watched Arsenal play with the sun on their backs in Wales, and today I listened to this band out of Brooklyn called Wild Pink sing about sitting on a hill top and watching smoke drift out of chimneys, and today I held in my hands a picture of me from a time when I was not sad, where I am young and I have a smirk and there’s light in my eyes. Today I am sad. But tomorrow I might not be.

And that’s the promise of time.