Archive for August, 2013

Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.

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It is designed to break your heart

August 2, 2013

Barcroft Park

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind

15-3.

That’s how badly the DC Dynasty had whipped us Arlington Cardinals in the wee morning hours.  It happed just the day before, in what now has been coined “The Great Hangover Game of 2013.”  You see, our young B-teamers, 11 and 12-year-olds all, had bounced back after getting thrashed by the Arlington A Team–the Storm–in the first game of this, our last tournament of the season, to actually win the next game by mercy rule.  The ecstasy of that 11-1 win, a game that started at 8pm, kept most of our kids up past midnight that night.

And any parent can tell you that a pre-teen with a bad night’s sleep is a truly gruesome sight to behold.  As our boys staggered onto the field for an 8am start, they looked more like they’d be hunting for brains than baseballs.

15-3.

And yet, here we stood the next day in the semifinals against that very same Dynasty, headed out to the field for the bottom of the 6th and possibly final inning of our season, and the story was a very different one.

7-7.

Once again, we had gotten down early, but this time we had our top pitchers on the mound, and our ace contained the damage and, with solid defense, we were down only 4-0 going into the top of the 4th.

Raj, our #2 hitter, led off the inning and worked a nice walk to get us started, and my big fella Gus followed with a booming double to right centerfield, our first well struck ball of the game and a capper for his breakout offensive season where he batted .533.  And even though Gus eventually got thrown out at home, our guys still carried that momentum forward doing what we worked on all season: working the pitch counts, laying-off the high heat, and focusing on putting the ball in play.  By the time the inning had ended, it was more than a brand new game.

5-4.

When we trotted out to try and defend that slimmest of leads, it would be my guy on the bump.  Gus was our #2, but had really developed into a solid pitcher in his own right.  After giving up a leadoff double to their best hitter, Gus managed to do what the Dynasty could not.  He worked around an error, an infield hit, and a walk.  Walking the tightrope as he had done all season, he managed to escape the 4th with only one run scored.  The bottom of our order was then no match for their pitcher, however, and we found ourselves out there again deadlocked in the bottom of the 5th.

5-5.

Gus again worked his best through a batting order far deeper than ours.  He gave up a bloop single which in our league is essentially an automatic double as with leads and 70 foot basepaths, it is the rare day when a runner gets caught trying to steal.  They played a fundamentally sound game and bunted the runner over to 3rd.  Now our entire season was dancing up the baseline, attempting to induce a wild pitch.

And, of course, up once again stepped their big fella, whom our parents had nicknamed, “The 30-Year-Old.”  He had burned us the day before with a home run that sealed our mercy-rule fate.  He already had two doubles on the day.  And puberty seemed to be rushing upon him so quickly that I swear you could see his stubble growing as he waved his bat menacingly in the batter’s box.  As I viewed the matchup, I could only think of one possible solution:

Surrender.

“Step off, Gus, step off!” I yelled, remembering a point in an earlier tournament that season when I wasn’t vocal enough in calling time out and it cost us (that’s a story for another day, but it’s a good story).  He complied, though glaring at me in that, “Dad, you’re the assistant coach, you know,” kind of way.  I turned to Danny and pled, “Walk him.  Let’s walk him.  Let’s intentionally walk him!”

Hey now.  Don’t give me that look.  It made perfect baseball sense.  Mr. 30 was the guy who has beaten us all weekend long.  There were two outs, and the most important run was at 3rd.  I was simply trying to apply a sound strategy to a big moment—perhaps with just a small touch of, “My boy has had such a great season, please-please-please don’t make him pitch to this brute!”

Danny called time and trotted out to the mound to chat with Gus.  I immediately ran to the ump to see if we could simply declare a walk rather than throwing four intentional balls, something that you are usually allowed to do at this level.  But when Danny returned, he simply said, “No walk.  Gus wants to pitch to him.”  Abject terror and immense pride washed through my body in what, though I hope to never validate, is what I would expect a small heart attack feels like.  My son toed the rubber, and let the first pitch fly.

He attacked high in the zone, and got Mr. 30 to take the bait.  Swing-and-a-miss—strike one.  A ball outside to even the count, then a low called strike on the outside corner to get him way up.  All season long, we had worked on varying location.  None of our pitchers, even our best ones, had “swing and miss” stuff.  So location and changing speed were our bread-and-butter to compete.  Now, it was time to execute.

“Climbtheladderclimbtheladderclimbtheladder,” I muttered over and over, hoping that our catcher Harry would make the right call.  I saw him come ever so slightly out of his crouch.  Yes!  Yes!! Do it!!!  Gus fired the ball right at chest level, and—PLINK—the ball went sky-high right to the left side, a towering fly to the infield.  Gus had done it!  He beat the behemoth!

As the ball sailed in the air, its hue shifted from a dirt-smudged white to neon green.  For in my mind’s eye, that ball became one of the hundreds of popups Coach Mark and I had swatted at our fielders with a tennis racket in what we called the “Sky High” drill.  It was the perfect way to safely whip soaring popups in the air so our fielders would know where to be and how to communicate.  It was one of those perfect coaching moments: a huge situation where you prepared these very players for this very thing.

But when both the 3rd baseman and Shortstop took two staggering, silent steps backwards, confidence turned to prayer.

A teeter.  A waiver.  A desperate lunge.

A ball making, quick, popcorn-like bounds as it landed safely in the short-outfield grass.

6-5.

Then our crimson uniforms were suddenly replaced with jerseys marked “Chico’s Bail Bonds.” A rage-fueled throw back into the infield careened past the 2nd baseman, allowing the runner to take 2nd.  And the only reason he didn’t get to 3rd is that the equally ill-advised throw back in managed to find the 2nd baseman’s shin, as he wasn’t even looking when the throw came bounding through.  After a ground ball single scored the next run, you could feel it all getting away.  But Gus, much to his credit, settled down and struck out the next hitter, giving us a small gasp of life in our season.

7-5.

Now, if you are skeptical of baseball gods ruling the fate of we mere mortals on the diamond, the top of the 6th should make you a true believer.  For we stood there with two outs, our season saved by the juggle of a catch in what would have been a game ending double play.  Tyler, the boy who had lunged at that fateful fly, came up to the plate.  Ty had been mired in a slump and was moved down in the order, and was not having a great day at the plate.  He got down early in the count, but each time the final pitch seemed destined to find leather, a small sliver of aluminum got in its way.  He fought back to fill the count, and, after a 10-pitch at bat, worked the walk.

Bases loaded, two outs.

Okay, sure, that’s a huge moment, but not the magic you were expecting?  Well Tyler’s walk brought the at bat a full year in the making.  For at this very tournament last year, in this very same semifinal game, in this very 6th inning, up stepped Jack, our centerfielder, who has been playing for me since 2nd grade.  In that moment, he lined a ball to Left that seemed ticketed for a game winning double, only to have the ball picked off by the fielder that the other team’s coach admitted was, “the kid we hide because he can’t catch.”

The statistical implausibility of this at bat happening again a year apart was enough to make me believe in the Easter Bunny (and I’m Jewish).  As he approached the plate, I could feel his apprehension as his chest filled and sagged.  Rustling up what little emotional control I could muster, I managed a smile and said, “Jack baby, you know you can do this because you’ve done it!  This time, just find a hole!”  Maybe it was just me, but Jacked seemed a bit heartened—and a lot determined—when he stepped over the eroded chalk line.

I saw him in his wide-open, left-handed stance, something we changed together to get him diving toward the ball so he could cover the outside corner.  And when that outside fastball came, JC was ready to roll.  CRACK.  A screaming grounder to the left of the 3rd baseman.  He had a shot at it, but it was too hot to handle and crawled up his arm and into left field.  Even with 2 outs, however, there wasn’t enough time to get that tying run in as the outfielder was playing too shallow.

7-6.

But, on the very next pitch, with our last-place hitter at the plate, the pitcher uncorked a wild one, and our runner dashed in safely.  I had to chide Jack who rather than running down to 2nd base decided to strut and clap his way to the bag.  “Get to the bag, then strut, big guy!” I yelled.  He grinned and nodded.

After a well-earned walk loaded the bases again, our leadoff hitter rapped a ball on a line, but right at the 2nd baseman.  No lead, but a mini-miracle for all concerned.

7-7.

And so Gus, our middle of the order hitter, the guy who had pitched more innings than anyone else—my son—was asked to go out one more time to save our season.

He didn’t have quite as much pop on his fastball, but was still locating well.  He got ahead of the leadoff hitter, and induced a weak fly ball to right.  But the yips got the best of our right fielder, despite the pre-game instructions for outfielders to “run in and dive for any close ball” he pulled up and allowed the popup to drop.  A quick steal of second, and trouble was once again looming.

As they did the last time, the Dynasty looked to bunt their runner over.  But this time, Gus was ready, and kept the ball up high-and-away twice inducing two foul pops to get ahead 0-2.  We needed the K desperately, and he loaded up to go low-and-in.  But the ball stayed up, and ran right over the middle of the plate.

And there was a sound of thunder.

A walkoff.  A walkoff home run, no less.

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

As we lined up and awaited the conclusion of the Dynasty’s home plate dogpile, I noted that our boys were surprisingly chipper, save one devastated blond fella.  I realized then that Gus had in the most sincere sense taken one for the team.  All the mistakes were washed away, because we had come back from them.  Even the missed fly ball to open the inning didn’t matter, because the home run made it irrelevant.  It’s not that they wanted it to be Gus’s fault.  But a piece of each and every one of them were relieved that it wasn’t their fault.  They were proud—rightfully proud—of their hard work and their fight and, even in a loss, felt that this B team put in an A effort both today, and throughout the season.

But, as the boys settled in for post-season cake and pizza, it was my boy with his back turned at the next table, shoulders hunched from the piano that fell on his shoulders.  All the coaches, this one included, took their turn at cheering him up to no avail.  Even one of the coaches of the Storm came over to tell him how well he played.  That bucked Gus up a bit, but the moment, the brutal finality of it, was an anchor no adult could pry free.

But someone could.

“Hey Gus!  Don’t be so down.  You actually did us a favor, as I didn’t want to get our butts kicked by the Storm again anyway!” said our #1 pitcher, patting him on the back.  “Yeah!” agreed Raj, “Who the heck needed that?”  A small grin, a seed of the joy that season had been until that very moment, fought its way through the heartbreak of the moment and broke through the gloom.  A hand reached for a slice of pizza.  And, not 10 minutes later, Gus sat on a see-saw doing his darndest to knock Tyler off as he in the glorious stupidity of youth attempted to balance in the middle.

The next evening, Gus was having dinner and as he wolfed down his 7th taco, casually told his Mom, “I’m ready for baseball to start again.”  “Gus, it’s only been a day,” Kirsten replied, incredulously.

“Really?  It feels like it’s been 10 years.”

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind