Decision time in Bangor and Baseball

Let’s see… do I write about the Bangor City Council election, or the World Series? Which is more important?

Our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, seems impartial on that score. They didn’t send a reporter to the recent candidate forum, and I doubt they’re sending anyone to Los Angeles for Tuesday night’s Series opener, either.

I was gratified that the Community Connector bus system got a lot of love from the potential city councilors. Five of the six candidates for three seats showed up, and all expressed varying levels of support for extended bus hours.

I’m also happy that the Houston Astros eliminated the Yankees, even though a Dodgers-Yankees World Series would have had interesting historical implications.

If you don’t like baseball, I’m sorry for you. Stanley Cups and Super Bowls and whatever the other championships are called come and go, and I’m challenged to remember many of them, but I can mark my life by the World Series.

The last time the Yankees and Dodgers met in the Fall Classic, in 1981, the Yankees took a two game lead before Fernando Valenzuela, that year’s rookie of the year and Cy Young Award winner, gutted out a 5-4 complete-game victory that propelled the Dodgers to three more wins and the championship. The only other time the Astros made the Series, they were in the National League, and were swept by the White Sox in 2005.

As a little kid, the Dodgers were my first team, even before we moved to Maine during the 1967 Red Sox Impossible Dream season. The Dodgers had no hitting to speak of, but they had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and they won a lot of 1-0 games.

“Someone would beat out a hit, be sacrificed to second, steal third and score on the overthrow,” Koufax recalled in his autobiography (as told to Ed Linn). “Then we would gather the wagons into a circle around the dugout.”

This strategy came back to bite them in the 1966 World Series, when they scored two runs in the first three innings of the first game against the Orioles, and no runs at all for the next three games. The last two games were 1-0 losses decided by solo homers.

Within the next year, we’d moved to Maine, Sandy Koufax had retired, and the Red Sox had captured hearts all over New England, including mine. I didn’t pay attention to the Dodgers again until I lived in California, during the Tommy Lasorda years. I took my kids to their first big-league game at Dodger Stadium, traveling by train from Oceanside and then by bus to the ballpark, to see Valenzuela pitch on a Sunday afternoon.

It should come as no surprise that someone who remembers watching Sandy Koufax’s last game on a black and white TV is older, in some cases substantially so, than all of this year’s Bangor City Council candidates. Steve Harrison, who was not present at the October 18 forum, is the oldest of the group at 50.

The other five candidates expressed support for extended bus hours. Laura Supica has made later bus service a centerpiece of her campaign. Incumbent Ben Sprague, running for a third term, said, “It’s gonna happen.”

Whatever the outcome, this will surely be one of the youngest councils in years. I’m encouraged that a new generation of local politicians is embracing the idea of public transportation, walkable communities, and alternatives to the automobile.

Sprague seemed like the elder statesman of the bunch last week. I’m inclined to vote for him because of his intelligence and seriousness. Supica will likely get my second vote for supporting the bus system so ardently.

As for the others, I haven’t decided on my third vote. But I’m leery of anyone who can turn a question about sidewalks into a call for “social revolution.” Good grief.

I’m agnostic in this World Series, too, despite my loose history with the Dodgers. I revere Dave Roberts, their manager, for The Stolen Base Heard ‘Round the World in 2004. But he lost me as a manager when he pulled a rookie pitcher from a no-hitter in his first game. Did Dick Williams do that to Billy Rohr in 1967? Unthinkable.

The Astros, in baseball time, are a young franchise. They’re younger than I am. They have pitchers who can throw complete games. They have Jose Altuve, who is the shortest and may be the best player in the American League. It’s a team full of new faces. Perhaps this is their time.

 

A Tale of Two Trips

August was this year’s month for out-of-state travel. First came a solo work trip to Danbury, Connecticut, then, two weeks later, a journey to Missouri with the lovely Lisa to see the total eclipse of the sun.

I decided to do Danbury by bus, because I didn’t want to be one of those armchair liberals who advocates for public transportation while tooling around in a Subaru. I plotted out a trip that would put me on a bus from Bangor at 7 a.m., connecting at Boston’s South Station, with a transfer in Hartford that would get me to Danbury by five that evening.

Little did I know that bridge construction in Boston had sent a ripple effect through bus schedules all over southern New England. My first inkling of trouble came when I looked up from my laptop an hour and fifteen minutes out of South Station to see that we were just passing Fenway Park.

I missed my connection in Hartford. A second bus failed to materialize. I finally got into Danbury around eleven o’clock, sixteen hours after setting out from Bangor. It’s an eight-hour drive.

On the way home, another bus was canceled. I made it, but not without spending a lot of time in bus stations – which is why it’s always advisable to bring a laptop and a good book.

Eclipses happen when they happen. Humans are powerless to postpone them. I’m sorry to disappoint the purists, but we flew to Kansas City and rented a car. We wanted mobility in case clouds moved in – though it’s hard to imagine chasing a shadow moving over the land at 1,400 miles per hour.

Missouri drivers only seem to drive that fast. On Interstate 70, where the speed limit matches the route number, people blew past at 80 or 90. All along the route we saw temporary signs cautioning drivers about the upcoming eclipse. As if anyone could possibly be in the dark about it at this late date.

Kansas City has a ring of hotels surrounding the airport, and a convenient, free shuttle system. We stayed there on the first and last night of our trip, but we saw the eclipse from Jefferson City, the state capital. The path of totality just grazed Kansas City and St. Louis, but Jefferson City enjoyed two and a half minutes of darkness.

Though it’s surrounded by asphalt, the center of Jefferson City is pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with tree-lined streets and parks with views of the Missouri River. There’s a local bus system called JeffTrans. My only complaint concerns the hotel I booked on-line, which advertised itself as “_____ at the Capitol Mall.” Well, the hotel wasn’t “at” anything. It was five miles out of town, and the only thing within walking distance was another hotel, which likewise did not have a bar. To get anywhere, you had to get in a car – and this is, sadly, typical of many places in America, including Danbury, Connecticut.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked Jefferson City, and I was impressed by the welcome we and other visitors received. A Pink Floyd tribute band named Interstellar Overdrive performed “Dark Side of the Moon” in front of the capitol the night before the event. NASA set up shop across the street. Parking fees were waived in the downtown all day (I know, this encourages driving, but eclipses are nothing if not exceptional). The people were unfailingly friendly.

On the night before we returned to Maine, we took in a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Kauffman Stadium is a beautiful ballpark to which television does not do justice. But it’s miles from the city center, at the intersection of two Interstates, and, again, everybody has to drive. Parking is fifteen bucks. Though there’s probably a bus that can take you there, I saw no evidence of it.

The Royals’ starting pitcher, a lefty named Danny Duffy, held the Colorado Rockies hitless through the first five innings. What are the chances, I wondered, of seeing a total eclipse of the sun on one day and a no-hitter on the next? A walk and a two-run homer with two out in the sixth ended that line of wishful thinking. The Royals held on to win, 3-2, and we held on to survive the drive back to the hotel and the plane trip home.

Renting the car enabled us to travel freely within the American Car Culture. But I was glad to leave it behind when the trip was over.

The Designated Driver is a better Idea than the Designated Hitter

I am a Red Sox fan. I’ve been lucky to live long enough to see them win three World Series, a feat that eluded Ted Williams, my father’s hero, and Carl Yastrzemski, mine.

At the center of those three championship teams was David Ortiz, widely regarded as the best designated hitter ever to play the game. Unlike the rest of baseball, the history of the DH doesn’t go back very far – only to 1973, when the American League decided that casual fans were bored by watching pitchers try to hit.

Next to playing the World Series at night – another dubious legacy of the 1970s, a decade full of them – the designated hitter is the worst idea ever foisted on the best team sport in the world.

I’m probably on the losing side of this argument. The DH has permeated all levels of the game, down to college and high school. It was used in the recently completed World Baseball Classic. Many pitchers like it, and so do aging hitters who can’t get around so well in the field any more.

I would trade the championships of 2007 and 2013 (but not 2004 – that one I’ll always cherish) to make Ortiz play first base and John Lester swing the bat. Watch a National League game, and it becomes clear that baseball is a better sport when the pitcher bats.

Barry Zito was a soft-tossing lefty who won a Cy Young Award with the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Six years later, he signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the cross-town San Francisco Giants, and his career promptly tanked. But in 2012, the Giants, down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, gave the ball to Zito, having no one else.

Zito’s fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour, and if he couldn’t throw his curve for strikes, he often got pounded. In the second inning, the Cardinals put runners on second and third with nobody out. Zito struck out the number-seven hitter on a curve. That brought up Pete Kozma, a rookie on a hot streak. Zito walked Kozma intentionally. Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ pitcher, promptly grounded into a double play to end the inning.

There was no score at the time, and had the Cardinals plated those two runs, they may have gone on to win the game and the series. Instead, Zito took a shutout into the eighth to save the Giants’ season. They went on to win the World Series.

There’s more. The Giants put together three runs in the fourth before Zito came to the plate with two out and runners on first and third. Seeing that the third baseman was playing back, he laid down a bunt and beat the throw to first as the fourth run scored.

In an American League game, neither of these scenarios would have happened. The Giants would not have been able to manipulate the Cardinals’ batting order around the pitcher to get out of a jam, and Zito would not have come to the plate at all.

A good National League game is baseball at its best. The pitcher is not an automatic out, but he is a built-in soft spot in the batting order, and opposing pitchers work the innings accordingly. Fernando Valenzuela was a master at this. He was also a pretty fair hitter.

Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka drove in two crucial runs in the 2007 World Series with his only hit of the year. In 1985, an obscure relief pitcher named Rick Camp hit his only career homer to tie a Fourth of July game in the 18th inning, only to give up five runs in the top of the 19th and lose the game. Knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm hit a home run the first time he came to the plate, played for 20 more seasons, and never hit another one.

The designated hitter robs baseball of these delightful anomalies. A manager no longer needs to decide whether to leave his pitcher in a tight game or lift him for a pinch-hitter. It makes a subtle sport a little less so.

Much of baseball’s appeal lies beneath the surface of the action on the field. A good ballgame is like a good novel, which is why the sport is so beloved by writers. It asks the audience to flesh out scenarios with their imagination, to anticipate rather than to simply watch.

I guess maybe I am a purist, about some things.