Wednesday, July 18, 2012

And a young man shall lead them

Asked what he'd do to change Boy Scouts, a young man I've known for several years, moments before he would become an Eagle Scout, said this week that he would make scouting more inclusive, allowing scouts and leaders who are gay and transgender.

It's a stock question in the formal board of review, the final step in a Scout's advancement to Eagle.

Scouts usually answer in practical observation over their many years in their troop — add or subtract a merit badge, make the uniforms less geeky, raise incentives to drive scouts outdoors more often, things like that.

Here was a scout seeking boldly what the Boy Scouts of America will not give.

BSA on Tuesday reaffirmed its ban on gays, after a two-year study of its policy.

The issue has weighed on my mind for many years, and that's where it stuck until this week.

Scouting still wrestles with the issue of protecting its scouts. Unfortunately, the records are rife with adults who found scouts easy prey for pederasty. Sexual crimes against scouts still appear in the news, many of them from years ago, though some ongoing.

I give scouting credit for taking steps to protect kids, because since I joined Boy Scouts as a leader with my son, the organization has implemented clear, sensible steps for which leaders must provide vigilance over scouts' safety. At least two adults must be present at all times on scout activities, for example; scouts can't sleep in the same tent as an adult unless the adults are their parents or guardians (and in our troop, scouts bunk with other scouts and adults bunk in distinct places opposite the campsite). Scouting has also imposed prohibitions on hazing and introduced campaigns against bullying, to protect scouts from other scouts.

But the ban on gays is a major misstep, always has been. Somehow, scouting seems to have conflated homosexuality with pedophilia, as if gays and lesbians would run amok among a sea of boys.

As a corollary, scouting implies that allowing only heterosexual adults guarantees children's safety. Uh huh.

Though I've often joked that scouting is stuck in 1955, offering skits and jokes in its literature that scouts wouldn't have found funny even then, here it is truly mired in the past, and ignores what America really is and what it comprises.

It devalues the rapidly changing social and family structure in the country. It rejects the idea that people who happen to be gay could offer insights and wisdom and scouting instruction too. Snow camping, rock climbing, snorkeling, canoeing, hiking — the outdoors is not the exclusive realm of heterosexuals. It should be for all, and scouting, which touts ideals of citizenship and leadership, should reflect that.

I get it; allowing gays and lesbians in scouting is controversial. It runs counter to the doctrine of many churches that support scouting. In his book On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of America's Youth, Jay Mechling argues that allowing gays in scouting would create logistical problems as churches that often support troops, often at no cost, would close their facilities because a change in policy would violate their beliefs.

In a Los Angeles Times story, reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske quotes Mechling's response to BSA's decision: 
Jay Mechling, a professor of American studies at UC Davis and a Boy Scouts volunteer, called retaining the policy on gays "a business decision based on religious pressure."

"That's not to say there aren't leaders in the Boy Scouts who feel strongly about morality and homosexuality. But when they see a lot of the troop leaders are churches, they go the direction they think is going to be healthiest for having the most boys registered," Mechling said.

Mechling, 67, is an Eagle Scout who spent 25 years researching the organization for his 2004 book, "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth."

He said he saw firsthand how the Mormon Church became entwined with Boy Scout leadership, sponsoring troops and camps in the San Gabriel Valley and Catalina Island. He also saw troops and councils elsewhere in the state that quietly accepted gay leaders and members.

"There really is a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell,' because the official Boy Scouts policy is that people's sexuality is not what the Boy Scouts is about," Mechling said.
Though it's a practical consideration — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, endorses Boy Scouts as a primary activity for boys in its churches — right now many public venues, citing scouting's violation of civil rights by discriminating against gays, have closed their facilities to scouts.

Scouts are supposed to acknowledge God in some way, and in my experience an adult leader here and there will help scouts earn special medals for development of their faith, and sometimes scouting events will stage ecumenical Scout's Own services. For the most part, scouting doesn't press scouts or leaders for an exhibition or testament to their faith. Many troops are sponsored instead by civic organizations — Kiwanis, Elks, Moose and the like — which don't necessarily press an expression of scouts' religions.

Though not privy to scouts' conversations, I doubt that sexuality comes up a lot. Some scouts may use "gay" to mean "lame," and we adults tell them they can't use the label in the troop, nor call others names.

Scouts are mostly interested in getting outdoors, and we don't get out nearly enough. That's where scouts, if they so choose, can develop their faith, but it's certainly where they can think deep thoughts and consider quietly who they are. It doesn't require believing in God or being straight.

I've wrangled with expressing my thoughts on this, wondering what others might think. Short of signing an online petition supporting a deposed Cub Scout leader who is lesbian and a mom of a Cub Scout, I've done nothing.

Then a scout I know spoke up, on the precipice of becoming an Eagle Scout, about the major issue that divides so many about what otherwise is an enriching and ennobling organization. So I join him in his beliefs.

It is such a small thing. Scott Ostler, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote this week about the Penn State scandal, decrying those who salute his courage in writing about how football coach Joe Paterno and top administrators allowed Jerry Sandusky to sexually assault boys rather than expose the football program to bad publicity.

"Zero courage is involved," Ostler wrote. "One hundred percent of the courage in this entire debacle is found in one person: (Jerry Sandusky's) Victim No. 1. There's your courage."

I feel the same; my handwringing is for naught. The courage goes to the new Eagle Scout, and scouts and leaders across the country who risk their quality of life seeking change in an organization that needs changing.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What the what?

OK, I peeked.

In a moment of weakness and a paucity of interesting TV, I checked in on the Major Leauge All Star game Tuesday — the one I said I never cared for and wouldn't watch.

Bottom of the first, National League 5, American League quickly out and scoreless.

What the heck happened?

Then, like finally seeing clearly into the living room darkness on Christmas morning, I learn that Pablo "Panda" Sandoval, the Giants' third baseman, had hit a bases-loaded triple to right field, 10 feet short of a grand slam (how is that the first bases-loaded triple in more than 80 years of All Star games?) to contribute the lion's share of the five-run inning. He scored on a single.

Melky Cabrera, the Giants' left fielder, had singled in that first inning bombardment, and then hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning to bring the National League tally to eight runs. He won the game's Most Valuable Player Award: a crystal bat (huh?) and a new Camaro.

Whichever National League team wins its championship also gets home-field advantage in the World Series, the only real stakes (besides league pride) in the game. The American League gets nothing. We fans get nothing. OK, memories, conversation. The game otherwise doesn't count. The regular season resumes Friday, teams nursing their wounds or stoking their boilers, depending, racing/limping to the season finish.

Today, another dark day without baseball, is the day to think about starting pitcher Matt Cain's getting the All Star game win with two shutout opening innings, allowing one hit; catcher Buster Posey's first inning walk to contribute to the scoring (and spending the rest of the game in the bullpen helping warm up each of the All Star pitchers); to consider that at the start of the game, four of the nine National League players were Giants. Today is time to wonder what it might mean for the Giants the rest of the season.

Maybe momentum, maybe nothing. Tomorrow, against the Houston Astros, will tell. Saturday, when the wonder-inducing wunderkind Tim Lincecum makes his next start on the mound, will really tell.

By the way, you probably missed out on buying the official bat to commemorate Matt Cain's perfect game June 13. For $99.95 plus shipping, you could have bought it, but the 2,012 bats have already been sold. It's not clear to me why a bat would memorialize a perfect game, the essence of which is the absence of bats.

You can still buy the commemorative ball in its dust-collecting case for $89.95, just 2,012 made. Hurry, operators are standing by!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

It's only entertainment … it's only entertainment …

In this long dark tea-time of the soul* — which you might know as the Major League All Star break — I must take a reality check.

With much chagrin, I confess to throwing my arms skyward in the last week — more than once — and shouting at the television, "You stinkin' Giants! Can't hit, as usual! And now you can't pitch!"

I might have used invectives that children shouldn't hear, let alone my dog.

I've let the Giants get to me, and I said I wouldn't. I would enjoy this, win or lose, I said.

Oy, it's hard.

The Giants limped into the All Star break just as the Pittsburgh Pirates pummeled them. Such a hard-luck low-rent team for so many years, the Pirates. Now they hit, and hit hard. Now their pitchers command the game. Now the Pirates put together wins against the big boys, and have become the big boys in the process. Heck, they've become the 2010 San Francisco Giants, who gathered steam and won the World Series.

Good for the Pirates. It's probably their time to succeed. Just not against the Giants, who have just finished a long series playing the leaders in the National League divisions. Promise turned to problems; the Giants swept the Los Angeles Dodgers, shutting them out each game! Not long after Matt Cain pitched the first perfect game in Giants history! And almost set a new team record for consecutive scoreless innings!

Then the team came loose at the seams with one crack of the bat, the first pitch Matt Cain threw, in his second return to the mound since his perfect game. Cain gave up a home run on that pitch to the Cincinnati Reds' leadoff hitter. The Giants split the series with the Reds, then got swept by the red-hot Washington Nationals, then barely salvaged one out of three against the Pirates.
Along the way batters lost their swing — the Giants' flagship station, KNBR, has a retired criminal defense attorney, Marty Lurie, who sometimes spends eight hours a day or more on the air before and after games talking about the Giants, and this weekend said the Giants simply don't hit the ball as hard as opponents.

Along the way the pitchers lost their way, shutting down rather than shutting out. The brightest burnout has been Tim Lincecum, the so-called Franchise, who embarrassed batters with his searing fastball and fool-suffering changeup and quirky delivery that propelled such fire from such a small frame.

Now he's just a guy with a goofy windup whom opponents like to hit. In one self-described lifelong Giants' fan's succinct appraisal, Tim Lincecum is a guaranteed loss. A two-time Cy Young award winner, he's won three and lost 10 this season, and has the highest earned run average among starting National League pitchers.

He's the fuel of sports talk around here, befuddled and even seething fans wanting him sent down to the minors, wanting the Giants to stick him with a phantom injury and put him on 30 days of rehabilitation, wanting him moved to the bullpen.

"We should make him our team's closer," one radio show's caller said. I love it when fans say, "We." I always wanna ask, "How many home runs did you hit for the Giants?"

Others call Lincecum a pothead and say that's the source of his trouble, or that he hasn't conditioned himself. Others say that even at 28, he's gotten old, that his body can't deliver the heat the way it used to just three years ago, and he has to reinvent himself as a wily pitcher who can throw a lot of junk — maybe even a knuckleball.

It's soap opera, and that's as it should be. Baseball is only entertainment. Though I feel bad for Tim Lincecum and the Giants and anyone who fails in full view of the public arena like these folks — they're getting a lot of money to entertain us. In the last two games, a couple of the Giants players looked like they were getting a lot of money to lollygag in the game for which they're paid to play hard.

Invectives shouted. Arms thrown skyward.

What do we get out of it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Audio-visual salve from the concerns of the day … something to talk about with others who follow the team. Others may gain: The Giants themselves, their licensees, advertisers, should you choose to give them your money. But you get nothing.

World Series champ? Nothing. Cellar dweller? Same thing. It's all entertainment.

All of which, ironically, comes to an end for me these dark days, marked by the All Star game today. For some reason, I've never been interested. Maybe in a sport that truly means nothing, the All Star game is anti-meaning. Popular players make their appearance, do their time, maybe play hard, maybe not. The National League or American League wins, whatever. It's supposed to mean something — lately Major League Baseball has tried to make it mean something by conferring home-field advantage to whichever winning league's team makes it to the World Series — but it doesn't. The home run derby, televised carny acts. Endless talk and meta-talk. Forget it.

Four Giants are starting today, and good for them, but I won't watch. Too much folderol; too many announcers whose inanity I can't stand; I prefer the Giants' own sometimes inane announcers; players I don't care about or care for.

The All Star game is something of a sham, which is evidence of the genius of sports marketing. Fans can vote multiple times — they could even when I was a kid, and even as a kid it felt wrong — and in their zeal, Giants' fans put four on the team. Some so gamed the system that Freddie Sanchez got the fourth highest votes among National League second baseman. Sanchez hasn't played since about this time last year, and he won't play this season either, if ever again, because of injury.

Talk radio buzzes about how much better a year David Wright of the New York Mets has had at third base than the Giants's Pablo "Panda" Sandoval, but the Panda is starting the All Star Game.  Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said he was surprised Giants' fans didn't figure out a way to elect a "ball dude" — volunteers who snag foul balls before they reach the bullpen — to the All Star team. Giants fans responded viciously that they're tired of East Coast bias and that it's time the Giants got their due.That's the point: People watch, people buy, people talk, more people watch and buy, and so on.

Baseball goes silent for the next few days, then the second half begins. The Giants come home to host the poor Astros, and fans and analysts will blather about whether the Giants can come back strong. Most will wonder aloud and ad nauseam whether Tim Lincecum will pitch like the Tim of old Saturday night, and if he doesn't, what will the Giants do with him? Heck, what will the Giants do if Tim does pitch well?

Stay tuned. After the implosion of the last week, the Giants are still only one game out of first place in the National League West Division. It's only entertainment.

* Thanks, Douglas Adams.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Morning-after bluishness

Even distribution between skins and suits. Two wetsuiters had already taken off 10 minutes before.
Walking the dog this morning, I counted on one hand: "If I can swim a mile in 35 minutes, then I could do two in an hour and 10 … and three in an hour and 45 minutes … so four miles in two hours and 20 minutes. Which makes four-and-a-half miles in two hours and 45 minutes or so …

"So why did it take me three hours and 40 minutes to finish four-and-a-half miles yesterday?"

See, I can't help picking at the time scab.

I should be thinking about having been able to swim that distance at all, on a beautiful hot day amid all that green water, dense oaks and willows and pines growing on the east shore, tall clay bluffs on the west shore, my wife and family friends Lisa and Jenny Garner paddling nearby.

Though it has been documented I can swim 35-minute miles, that's on relatively short courses in races. Bracing myself for the July 4 Firecracker 8k swim, I tried to swim at a steady relaxed pace.

Besides, I swam it at least 35 minutes faster than I had last year, so I'm doing something better.

Safe swimmer buoy, runner's belt with water bottles … I look like Harrison Bergeron.
For one thing, I know my home water much better than I did last year, when I rarely ventured more than three-quarters of a mile from the south end. In the ensuing year, I have swum both ends of the lake many times, and occasionally in the middle. I knew my way around this time, knew the landmarks, and didn't waste psychic energy wondering where I was.

For another, I had been swimming the lake nearly every day. For yet another, I had done the Firecracker once before, and didn't worry whether I could do it again.

Independence day sprang calm and warm, the lake fairly glassy. Fifteen or sixteen swimmers showed for this unsanctioned event. The water at the start was 67.2 degrees, according to my friend Stacy's thermometer. By the first turn, it had dropped to 60 degrees. At the finish, he said it was 61. All very comfortable, a few cold spots here and there, but water temperature was not my enemy.

I decided, based on nothing but my gut, that I would swim 2,000 strokes, before stopping for a drink or gel. Three-quarters into the first leg, I wanted to quit, just get out and walk. I had tried; but I was counting strokes and knew I could do this. Eventually I swam 2,200 strokes to the rowers' 2,000-meter buoy, and stopped. My right calf entertained the flutter of a cramp. I daydreamed of a banana.

"I'll take a banana now, please," I called to my wife in the canoe. They looked around. I had not packed any bananas. I downed a gel and kept swimming.

Nancy and our friends would say later they thought I was mad at them, because every time I stopped I started off again before they could reach me. But I knew from last year that if I stopped to talk, my legs would cramp into 90-degree angles.

The second 2,000 strokes felt great — so great I kept going 300 more strokes to the small Texas Island in the middle of the lake. Another fueling. The next 2,000 strokes felt OK; I talked myself into another 200 strokes after completing 200.

Somewhere along the first leg, proving once again that swimming has to be the least photogenic sport.
Negro Bar lay up ahead. My pool. I knew it well, and felt relieved to round the final bend opposite the beach.

That's when it all fell apart. The current was palpable at this point, and got ever stronger the closer we reached the finish. Instead of finishing one more set of 2,000 strokes, I found myself stopping every 20 strokes, felt my legs cramping all the way up to my hips.

Joe Dowd, who started the Firecracker seven years ago, really needs to call it the Salmon Run. That's how I felt, fighting the current with my last energy.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, I crawled under the new Folsom bridge, out from under its shade back into the sun … and wondered if I'd make it to the finish.

My wife and friends, thinking I didn't need them, paddled onto the finish. I'd swim 30 strokes and find myself in the same place, bobbing uselessly in the water. Eventually I scratched over to shore and swam in the swift shallow water, but at least saw that the lake bottom was moving below me.

Swim friends Jim and Kathy and Doug and Brad and Dan and Tom finished well ahead of me. Stacy came in behind me, towing his awesome customized boogie board/food stash, festooned with the U.S. flag, about 20 minutes later, just as he predicted.

Feeling good enough to walk the dog today, and even dink around in the cold water this morning, I'm thinking, when's the next long swim. And how fast could I go?

I think of Penny Palfrey, who last week was pulled from her attempt to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, and had made it more than 80 miles in 40 hours — two miles an hour! — and buckle at the magnitude of what she'd done.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My first ballgame

Technicolor could not even do justice to how green
Candlestick Park's carpet was that day. Willie McCovey
launched the world's highest popup that day.
By miracle of the Internets, I know nearly every detail of my first professional baseball game, 40 years ago this summer.

The only factors not recorded for posterity (at least not online) are how vividly green the grass glowed at first sight (I've heard this many times from others recalling their first Major League game, even when the grass is fake, as it was in 1972 at Candlestick Park); and how bored I was by the third inning of the doubleheader. That's the inalienable truth we ignore about baseball; it can drag on, until our own lives slow to its pace around adulthood, when we can finally withstand weaving it into our daily lives over the radio.

Without the computer as crutch, I can remember:

• I went with my dad (and we went with some other people, but I can't remember who; since my aunt was the only reason we'd visit the Bay Area, maybe it was some of my cousins and her second husband)

(We took our kids to their first game, also at Candlestick, a story that merits its own post; our son's birthday is today.)

• The San Francisco Giants hosted the Chicago Cubs for a doubleheader (which seemed like a good idea at the time; if one game is good, how much better should two games be? Ask any 10-year old.)

• Juan Marichal started for the Giants against Bill Hands in the first game. I had heard of Marichal before I got to the park, either because my dad told me or he was one of those players whose names transcended baseball, like Willie Mays.

• Game 2 was a blur of nothing.

• Ron Santo played third for the Cubs. I had his baseball card. I also had cards for Bobby Bonds, the Giants' rightfielder (and Barry Bonds' dad) and catcher Dave Rader.

• Willie Mays was gone by 1972, traded to the New York Mets by Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who supposedly traded Mays for cash and then gave the money to Mays, because Stoneham couldn't afford to give the great Mays the money he deserved. I had come in hopes of seeing Mays, and didn't realize until that he reached the ballpark that he was no longer a Giant. Though I liked baseball, I wasn't paying careful attention.

• Willie McCovey, the first baseman and eventual Hall of Famer whom people called Stretch, hit a ball so high into the air, twice as high as the lip of the stadium, I felt the adrenaline rollercoaster ride of being one of the few fans who would see this man hit a ball clear out of vast Candlestick Park. The headlines the next day of this amazing feat: Imagine! It became a routine popup instead (to the shortstop in the bottom of the seventh in the first game, exacting detail courtesy of Nothing new under the sun.

• Giants Manager Charlie Fox got mad at an umpire's call (not sure which call; the exhaustive statistics fail my curiosity here) and told the umpire so, body shaking, arms wheeling, prompting his rejection from the game. In revenge Fox took advantage of the artificial turf, smooth as a billiard table, and threw several buckets of baseballs onto the field, where they rolled wherever the field was green, and then a couple of armfuls of bats, which arced this way and that as if free of gravity. I cheered with the crowd: A grown man having a child's tantrum! Who'da thought?

• The $1 program held me transfixed, especially the pencil drawings of selected players. They helped inspire me to draw, in the same way that Bernie Fuchs and Leroy Neiman and Mort Drucker did. It kills me I can't find the program, which I know I kept. It's somewhere in my series of godawful messes or (better) I gave it to my son. I'll post some of the work if I find it soon.

• One of the drawings was of the Giants' young infielder, Chris Speier, a wiry spider of a player who with second baseman Tito Fuentes were known as the Keystone Kids, turning double plays. I became an instant fan of Speier.

Here's what the comprehensive stats tell me:

• It was Sunday, June 11, 1972 (I missed the 40th anniversary by almost a month); the first game started at 1 p.m. under sunny skies, 70 degrees at Candlestick Point. In addition to me, 21,728 other people also paid to sit in the stands. The summary doesn't indicate whether the stiff wind was blowing, but it probably was. Almost always did.

• A legend, Leo "The Lip" Durocher, was the Cubs' manager.

• The Giants were not good, not like the year before, when they had won the National League West division. Two months into the season and they were already 16 1/2 games behind first place, with 18 wins and 38 losses. They weren't contenders like today, when they're leading the division. They had lost seven straight and would lose that game too, getting shut out 4-0. They rallied to win the second game 3-1. I didn't really care about any of this.

• It was not the great Juan Marichal's day. The Hall of Famer would lose, and would also commit two throwing errors in the same inning trying to pick off runners at first.

• Catcher Fran Healy and a sometime shortstop named Damaso Blanco drove in the go-ahead runs for the Giants in the second game. Ron Bryant got the win for the Giants. Burt Hooton started for the Cubs; Hooton threw a no-hitter his first year in baseball, but was really more known later as a solid Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher.

Forty years later, Hooton is still in baseball, a pitching coach for the Houston Astros' Triple-A ballclub. Chris Speier is bench coach for the Cincinnati Reds; he and his team were just in San Francisco to split a four-game series with the Giants, and I got to hear a lengthy radio interview with him over the weekend. Tito Fuentes is a Spanish-language radio broadcaster for the Giants. Willie McCovey is an almost daily presence at AT&T Park, where he sponsors Junior Giants youth baseball. Willie Mays is also a constant, long since returned to baseball's good graces after he and Mickey Mantle were shunned for being greeters at Las Vegas casinos. Marichal is still revered in these parts.

And each and every day this time of year, kids' hearts thump extra hard when they first catch sight of the glowing green grass of a Major League ballpark.