Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

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Really short entry, WTF edition

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I’ll just post my tweet here, because I’d just repeat it:

Though, well, it bears repeating: What … The … Fuck? Guaranteed Rate Field? Even Finazzle Field, my suggestion for the Braves’ new ballpark, would be better. (“SunTrust Park” is merely bland by today’s standards.)

If I were commissioner, I would require all ballparks to be named after cities/neighborhoods, teams or people. Enough with the 20-year naming rights contract crap.

Next thing you know, they’ll be giving bowl games names like R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. Oh, wait.

(Late) Sunday read: They don’t say, ‘Work ball!’

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Image from Twitter.

Today is baseball’s Opening Day. It’s changed a lot since I first started following the sport; back then it was usually on Tuesday and always started in Cincinnati, in honor of the city’s status as the first home of a professional team. Now it’s on Sunday so ESPN can get a big audience, and one of the games will feature the Yankees, because we don’t see the Yankees enough the other 161 games of the year.

(Tonight’s marquee game is Cubs-Cardinals, the National League’s version of Yankees-Red Sox.)

The New York Times has a wonderful piece on six baseball lifers — a coach, an umpire, a pitcher, a slugger, a hitter and (my favorite) a broadcaster. Dip into it; it’s my Sunday read.

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Tonight

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This is not me, and that is not Mulligan. Photo from ashagoldstein.com.

I will go to bed early. I will not stay up to 11:30 watching basketball or surfing the Internet.

I will sleep a sound and peaceful eight hours (at least). I will not wake up because a cat jumps on my chest. Nor will I have to get up to pee.

And tomorrow I will wake up rested and start going through all the crap I don’t want to keep. I will be unsentimental and channel my inner Marie Kondo. I will finish writing an article and I will have time to watch basketball and surf the Internet.

So I say.

#SuperBowl: Too many runs

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Image from AJC.com.

My wife has a saying: “Too many runs.” Those are the games in which your team jumps out to a big early lead. As a fan, you get cocky. This is easy. We’re crushing them.

Faltering at that point doesn’t happen often, but still, “too many runs” should be a warning. (My wife knows — she’s from Cleveland.) For whatever reason, your team can’t hold the big lead. As Hemingway once described going bankrupt, it happens gradually, then suddenly.

The next thing you know, your team has endured a terrible loss.

The Falcons had too many runs.

They were up 21-3 at halftime, then 28-3 midway through the third quarter. Arthur Blank was dancing in the owner’s box. Local sportswriters were burnishing their prose. Then a fumble, poor play-calling (why not three running plays when you’re in field goal range with a chance to put the game away?), a sack, a holding call, an amazing catch … and the lead had slipped away. The Patriots won in overtime.

The sting from this one will last a long time. My social media feed was full of comparisons: the Bills-Oilers playoff game. The 2016 election.

I thought of Jim Leyritz.

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Odds and ends: Baseball, awards, ‘Face’

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Image from BaseballHotCorner.com.
A few things that have crossed my brain …

  • Three cheers for Jeff Bagwell, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Tim “Rock” Raines for making the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday. All three are deserved Hall of Famers, and I was particularly pleased to see Raines — much overlooked, even in his heyday, because of the truly amazing Rickey Henderson — finally get the necessary 75% of ballots. The guy could always steal a base, but unlike folks like Vince Coleman, he could also hit, hit for (some) power and play solid defense. The big problem for Raines was that he mainly played for the Montreal Expos, where he was never going to get any notice. Hell, I’d forgotten that he had some late-career years with the Yankees and actually picked up a World Series ring.

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Ralph Branca, RIP

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Image from USA Today.

Ralph Branca won 21 games in 1947. Ralph Branca had a respectable lifetime ERA of 3.79. Ralph Branca pitched for all or part of 12 seasons in the majors, was a three-time All-Star and a respected member of the Brooklyn Dodgers pitching staff for years.

But almost all of his obits lead with the same thing: Ralph Branca, gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ dead at 90.

Some baseball players are forever associated with one pitch or one event. I know a guy who spit every time he heard Calvin Schiraldi’s name because of Schiraldi’s role in losing Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. I think of Donnie Moore as a Braves reliever, but most people probably remember him for giving up that home run to Dave Henderson in the 1986 ALCS.

And Branca? He gave up the most famous home run of them all, the one by Bobby Thomson that won the 1951 pennant for the Giants in a game they were losing 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.

Branca, though devastated by the home run, was a true sportsman. He appeared at card shows with Thomson and helped form the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which helps former major leaguers in need. The priest he visited after the homer had it right.

Later Branca recalled sitting with a priest and family friend, asking why this had happened to him.

“Because,” he was told, “you’re strong enough to bear it.”

P.S. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a link to Red Smith’s column about the game, still one of the greatest deadline-written pieces in journalism history: “Now it is done,” it begins. “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. …”

Playing Cubbies and Indians

My wife is upset.

My wife is upset because she is a hardcore Cleveland Indians fan and her team is in the World Series.

Now, why would this be upsetting, you ask? She should be thrilled. It’s been 19 years since the Indians have made it. They’ve won their postseason series with guts and guile, a tribute to their bullpen and Terry Francona’s management.

Well, my Cleveland-born wife is upset for one reason: their opponent.

The Chicago Cubs.

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Baseball vs. football … stadiums

Are pro baseball stadiums better than pro football stadiums?

Anybody who reads this blog (that would be both of you) knows I love baseball and don’t think much of football. I never had a fantasy of visiting football stadiums, but there was a time in my life I thought I’d get to every baseball park. (I had that fantasy 30 years ago, which means that most of the stadiums I originally hoped to visit have long since vanished from the earth.)

But there’s another reason I wanted to visit baseball parks. They have personality, like their cities.

Do football stadiums have that quality?

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Sunday read: In memory of Turner Field

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Coming soon to an Atlanta baseball park near you. Image from Aplus Sports and More.
I think we can all agree that Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves’ decrepit, rotting old ballyard at the corner of the Downtown Connector and I-20, passed its expiration date years ago.

The wifi was terrible; the bathrooms, in my memory, consisted of plastic buckets and wads of old Sears catalogs. (I mean, no bidets? Seriously?) Skip and Pete died. So did Skip & Pete’s BBQ.

Hell, the place was built when Bill Clinton was president. That’s like a whole generation ago. The iPhone hadn’t even been invented yet!

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