Wednesday, October 15, 2014


               Everyone needs a goal and lately I’ve had one. It’s to complete a walk of about 2 1/4 miles in my Scottsdale neighborhood, from my home to the end of a cul de sac next to the Indian reservation just to the south, and back again. I’ve gotten about two-thirds of the way; next time might be the charm.
              Actually, that’s only an interim goal, because what I’d really like to do is hike again in my nearby desert preserve. I know that terrain is everything, and that hiking in the rocky, rolling desert isn’t much like the walking-on-pavement I’ve been doing the last few weeks, but first things first.

               Time was when I could walk just about all day, and I mean three or four years ago, not when I was a kid. I was a kind of hiking professional, having spent six years running the adult hiking program at the local community college and three years beyond that continuing the program after the college dropped it. I got paid for that-- not much but enough to claim the status. I think I’m the only ex-pro athlete in my social circle, no small brag.

               A not-so-funny thing happened to me in my treks around the desert, though. A few years back my legs started to hurt after a few miles, and my feet started to go numb. At first I walked through the discomfort, but that became increasingly difficult. Soon I no longer could do the long hikes, then the medium ones and, about a year ago, the short ones.

 Wife Susie told me to see my doctor. I could get around OK for normal purposes, and could get my exercise from the lap-swimming I’ve been doing for the last 10 years, so I resisted, fearing the three little words no one wants to hear (“see a neurologist”). But last February I went, heard them, and was marched off for an MRI, which the athletes say stands for “maybe really injured.”  Mine was outstanding for its badness.

My next stop was to see a neurosurgeon. He told me that a gunk build up in my spine was squeezing the nerves that led to my lower body, and that my spinal column generally was in poor shape. If I didn’t have spinal-fusion surgery pronto difficulty hiking might be the least of my problems, he said.

Thoroughly scared, I relented, and the operation was performed in early April. My surgeon, a hearty, confident type (they all are, I’d bet), told me it came off brilliantly, meaning, I guess, that if I didn’t get better it was my fault, not his.

  And in fact, my recovery wasn’t difficult. I was on my feet in a few days, ditched my walker (and oxycodone) in about a week, and was back in the pool in three weeks. I’d cancelled a fishing trip for early June for fear I wouldn’t be up to it, but I was, and regretted the decision. Susie and I were off to Lake Tahoe as usual in mid-July, and there we did just about everything we usually do. I even went white-water rafting without a hitch.

The hiking, however, hasn’t gone well. Back on the track now that the weather has moderated a bit, I’ve found that my leg pain and foot numbness have been reduced from what they were before the surgery, but they’ve been replaced by a sore back, which hurts in ways and places it never used to.  Before, my legs and feet forced me to sit after about 15 minutes of standing activity. Now, I can go for about 20 minutes before an aching back does pretty much the same thing.

I’d guess that about now you’re asking why I don’t just forget about hiking and continue as I am, getting my workouts in friendly, forgiving aquatic environs. The answer is that while I’m aware aging means letting go of things we once enjoyed, I’ve had about enough of that.  

As a teen and young man I played golf, and got good enough to break 80 on a good course, but had to give it up at age 30 when the demands of parenthood and job mounted. I grew up playing 16-inch softball on Chicago’s playgrounds, and, after a decade of wandering among the softball heathen, resumed the game on my return to the city in my robust 30s and 40s, stopping only when my team quit.

 I played tennis for 35 years—from age 30 until 65—and while you’re never really good at any sport you take up as an adult, I became a solid “B” player before my quickness went. I was even better at racquetball but quit when my move to Arizona (in 1997) separated me from my longtime playing partner and Wall Street Journal colleague, Jon Laing. In racquetball a small difference in skill can cause lopsided results, and Jon and I were providentially matched to have competitive games. I still play racquetball in my dreams.

You can roll a bowling ball from one end of Chicago to the other, so nobody there hikes much. I took it up on a dare at age 47, when Ray Sokolov, a veteran hiker and my editor on the WSJ’s Leisure & Arts page, asked me to accompany him on a trek up 14,000-feet-high Mt. Massive in Colorado.

It would be incorrect to say that I found the outing pleasant. I’d never been above Denver, and Ray neglected to tell me about proper hiking shoes, so I did the climb in Hush Puppies.  Further, the trail up Massive petered out about 1,000 feet below the summit and we wound up an hour later in a rocky dead end with afternoon clouds building, forcing us to declare victory and turn back short of our goal. My blisters took two weeks to heal and my calves longer to stop mooing.

But I loved the wilderness and sought it again, doing other (more successful) expeditions with Sokolov and plunging wholeheartedly into the desert and mountains upon arriving in Arizona. I joined a conservancy and took classes in the local flora and fauna, helped on public group hikes and quickly came to lead them.  I loved both the group experience and the clean solitude of hiking alone, which I did often. It’s a cliché to say that the desert called to me, but it did.

It still does, darn it, from right across the street, and it bugs me not to be able to answer. If the answer turns out to be “no,” at least I can say I tried.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


               In what will be among the last actions of his reign, baseball commish Selig has appointed a committee to investigate ways of speeding up play. It’s a blue-ribbon group, made up of six present or former team or league executives plus Tony Clark, the head of the players’ union, who together have some 200 years of experience in the game.  A wiser bunch of wise men would be hard to imagine.
              Pardon me while I snicker.  The answers to Selig’s question, if they really are sought, could as easily be obtained from the first seven fans seated any night in any row of any ball park. Indeed, such a group might be a better vehicle for change, being less captive to the customs and traditions that have caused the problem.

The first questions any assemblage of experts or laymen might try to answer is whether baseball really needs speeding up, and if clipping a few minutes off the three-hours-plus length of the average contest would turn on the action-seeking young whom the game’s slowness is said to turn off. My guess is that it wouldn’t-- that baseball is a waltz-time sport in a hip-hop era, and that no fiddling with its rules would give it football’s bash or basketball’s dash, both of which are more in keeping with the current, edgy ethos.
           By me, that’s not bad; I’m finding that the older I get, the more I like baseball. I like watching the game best while I’m at the park, scorebook in lap, and with a knowledgeable fan next to me with whom to discuss the play that’s just unfolded, the current situation and the alternatives that might lay ahead. What’s the hurry, anyway?

Yeah, I’m old, and not a member of a “demographic” that some advertisers are said to prize, but my wife and I have little trouble spending money and many store keepers are glad to see us. Maybe baseball could court the same corporations that support the network evening news shows.

That said, however, I get it about baseball’s dawdling pace. No other game is so full of game-delaying shtick, performed for so little reason.  Cleaning it up wouldn’t require the delicate skills of a diplomat, only the ability to see what’s in front of one’s nose.  Come to think of it, though, that’s easier said than found. The trouble with common sense is that it ain’t common.

The first thing baseball’s Round Earth Committee might do is insist on the enforcement of a rule already on the books, the one that says that with no runners on base a pitcher must deliver a pitch within 12 seconds of taking the ball. No active pitcher does this except Mark Buehrle, but to my knowledge the penalty for a violation (an automatic “ball” call) never has been invoked. I know, it’s with runners on base that the game really slows, but an occasional none-on time call would mean that someone has an eye on the clock, which might speed things all around.

   The next thing that ought to be done is the outright banning of committee meetings on the field while an inning is in progress. That’s right, no more trips to the mound by managers, coaches, catchers or other players. I always laugh when a pitching coach trots out in mid-inning to steady a wavering pitcher; what’s he going to tell the guy besides “get the ----in’ ball over the ----in’ plate?”  If it’s how to pitch to the next hitter, the coach or manager probably is calling the pitches anyway, so that should take care of that. More-technical coaching can wait for between innings; pitchers spend more time in their dugouts than they do on the mound.

If the manager wants to make sure his infielders are positioned correctly he could do it with hand or arm signals, the way he positions outfielders.  Catchers who want to get on the same page with their pitchers signalwise also could do it by signal; one’s a fastball two’s a curve easily could be flipped if the situation demands it.

Especially wasteful is the manager’s trip to the mound to remove a pitcher—a simple wave from the dugout would do the trick. Keeping managers off the field also would eliminate the ridiculous practice of having those guys stuff their often-considerable bulk into uniforms. Even the slimmer ones look silly in those get-ups.

The next thing on the list should be batter behavior; in brief, once a batter steps into his box he should stay there until his turn is completed short of medical emergencies or running out foul balls. No more stepping out, craning the neck, stretching the arms, gazing at the heavens. If a batter wants to scratch, he can do it with one foot in the box while the home-plate ump taps his foot.

The most-productive move that could be made affecting batter behavior would be the banning of batting gloves, the tugging and re-fastening of which are among the game’s biggest time wasters. The gloves are affectations in the first place; there’s no evidence they make for better batting. Ted Williams never wore ‘em, nor did Rogers Hornsby, and they routinely posted averages one hundred points higher than those of today’s heroes.

The way to really speed baseball would be to do away with the games of catch that take place while a game is in progress. The custom of infielders tossing around the ball after each out when no one is on base stands out for its kookiness; no other sport has a similar practice. Hey, those guys have been playing the game since age five and they’re not going to forget how to catch and throw if they don’t do it every few seconds.

Ditto and then some for all the warmups pitchers are allowed—eight to begin each inning and the same number when a pitching change takes place. Pitchers can take as many throws as they wish before taking the field, so there’s no need for more once they get there. The argument that they have to “get used” to the game mound doesn’t hold water; if the bullpen mounds aren’t like the one on the field the groundskeepers should be fired.

 The changes I suggest easily could lop 30 minutes off the time of the average game, returning it to 30-years-ago status. By the current reasoning, that ought to please the kids. It would displease the concessionaires, though, because they’d have less time to sell their wares. If it ever came down to it, whose voice do you think would sound loudest?