Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why I Hopped Onto the Chicago Cubbies' Bandwagon

To the general baseball enthusiast or fans of teams outside of Illinois, the Chicago Cubs have been pretty harmless for a while. They haven't won anything in pretty much forever and when they've come close to winning anything recently they've tended to trip over their own feet. Besides the notorious Steve Bartman game in 2003, they've also had some pretty hapless and forgettable postseason departures in '07 (swept in first round), '08 (swept in first round), and most recently 2015 against my New York Mets (swept in second round). As everyone knows, they haven't won a championship since 1908. Haven't even been to the World Series since 1945. With a reputation and tradition for being lovable losers that's as rich as any organization in professional sports, it's been hard for anyone to really dislike the Cubs. I certainly've never had anything against them.

This year things were different. A lot different. After a few seasons of intensive rebuilding at the hands of Theo Epstein & Friends, the fully matured Chicago Cubs of 2016 were the best team in Major League Baseball and nobody else was even close. The Cubs won 103 games in a year when nobody else won more than 95. They allowed the fewest runs in baseball by a wide margin thanks to some shutdown arms and the best fielding ballclub in the game. And their lineup boasts two of baseball's best hitters (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo) surrounded by a versatile and talented cast of young sluggers and a few seasoned vets sprinkled in. Helming this imposing group is the man widely considered the smartest and most open-minded manager in the sport, Joe Maddon.

Going into their Division Series with the San Francisco Giants, I found myself actually rooting for the Giants. The Cubs just appeared to be too good, too much of a dominant powerhouse for me to root for them. They've also got some players I just can't stand like John Lackey and Miguel Montero. Flame-throwing relief dragon Aroldis Chapman, for as entertaining as he is to watch, also ain't the most likable character. And the Giants, while coming off a defeat of my beloved Mets, entered the series as the clear underdogs, an 87-win team with glaring flaws up against a 103-win behemoth with no discernible weakness. So I was rooting for the underdog.

At some point during the Division Series, my outlook changed, as I had a pretty incredible encounter with someone who is truly a part of Cubs lore.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Long, Occasionally Unendurable, Ultimately Redeeming Epic Novel That Was the 2016 Mets Season

Bartolo Colon aka Big Sexy sizes up his first ever big fly. (Getty images)

What stung most about the New York Mets' defeat in the World Series against the Kansas City Royals in 2015 was knowing how hard it was to get that far in the first place. That year the Mets hung around the fringes of contention for four months before the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes (and some injured players returning) catapulted them into the playoffs where they successfully battled their way through a gauntlet of the game's most formidable pitchers, finding themselves in a very winnable World Series which they would eventually cough up. Despite a roster loaded with burgeoning young talent, it is reasonable to fear this team may never again make it all the way through to the end of the postseason obstacle course.

Despite losing the World Series, I'll always maintain that just making it that far and winning the National League pennant was plenty enough. It was as successful a campaign as I could've reasonably hoped for considering where expectations were for most of the year.

2016 was a little different. Expectations were sky high when the season began. The Mets had a fully stocked roster in every respect. They'd addressed their weaknesses in the middle infield and most importantly had an embarrassment of riches in their starting rotation. The collection of starting pitchers, 1-through-5, looked like the best staff in the league, easily. On top of that, the hard-throwing righty Zack Wheeler would be returning from injury, joining the team sometime in the summer, likely pushing 43-year-old Bartolo Colon into the bullpen.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

On the Tragic Loss of Baseball's Beloved and Joyful Young Star Jose Fernandez

A week ago I awoke on Sunday morning and, like everyone else in the baseball universe, discovered the horrifying news that Jose Fernandez, one of the most talented and universally beloved players in the sport, had died tragically in a boating accident. He was barely 24 years old.

The next two days were filled with a feeling of grief so heavy that I struggled to figure out why I was so deeply affected by this. I did not know this person. He wasn't even a player on my favorite team. He was just a kid I watched on TV once in a while who was really damn good at baseball. Whether you're even a baseball fan or not, though, this is just a terribly heartbreaking event. After trying to rationalize to myself the deep pain I felt, I simply concluded that, like everyone else who'd experienced the unfettered joy that was Jose Fernandez, my heart was broken.

A week later, I'm still having trouble comprehending that we must now refer to Jose Fernandez in the past tense, that we'll never see him again. He'd just turned 24 years old. Limitless potential. A baby on the way. A young, powerful, boisterously spirited athletic superstar coming into his own as an adult, ascending to the upper echelon of his profession and primed to stay there, suddenly stopped. His life summarized and finished, concluded, the book of his life suddenly run out of words.

Even though he pitched for the Miami Marlins, one of the main rivals of my beloved New York Mets, there isn't a pitcher in baseball I enjoyed watching more than Jose Fernandez. A stout 6-2 and 240, he was a beast on the mound, with a smooth delivery chucking 97 mph fastballs or veering curveballs with as much movement as anyone I've ever seen. There really was nobody better. Since shocking the baseball world in 2013 by jumping into the major leagues straight from single-A ball at the tender age of 19, Fernandez was as dominant a pitcher as anyone in the game, right up there with perennial Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. In 2016, Fernandez struck out 253 batters in his 29 starts. In his league only Max Scherzer had more and he threw 4 more starts than Jose.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Albright, Tchelitchew, and The Geography of the Imagination

Research for Part 2 of my book brought me to the above. Observe the dark, Fruity Pebbles-flavored phantasmagoria that is Ivan Albright's rendition of The Temptation of Saint Anthony from 1946.

I encountered this through my study of Salvador Dali's version of the Saint Anthony story (the focus of my book). A contest in 1946 brought together a dozen of the period's greatest painters to render the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Dali, despite creating one of his most iconic works, finished in fourth. Max Ernst won, deservedly so. Albright had previously won a similar contest, getting his Picture of Dorian Gray into a film rendition of Wilde's novel.

Albright finished an impressive second in the contest. His version is astounding to me. That look on Saint Anthony's face, once you make it out through the enveloping phantasms, is so perfect. Albright's work often seems to be beautifully, horrifically gross. In Saint Anthony, the gross is turned down, and the beautiful ramped up by a vibrant color selection.

The awestruck response I had to this painting led me to look into Albright's work where I found another painting I've been rapturously gaping at recently, Poor Room.

Ivan Le Lorraine Albright (February 20, 1897 – November 18, 1983) was an American magic realist painter and artist, most renowned for his self-portraits, character studies, and still lifes. His dark, mysterious works include some of the most meticulously executed paintings ever made, often requiring years to complete. (wiki)
Albright's work rewards a microscopic focus and is macroscopically pleasing to the eye. That corroded frame in Poor Room draws me right in. His technique and execution is phenomenal. And the dude was from Illinois, of all places.

Despite possessing no national pride to speak of, I'm always pleased to encounter great modern American minds and creators I've never known of before, like author and essayist William Gass, also of the midwest, whose work I've been very intrigued with lately. Gass writes savory essays on art, among so many other things, and loves Joyce and Finnegans Wake. Another American essayist of utmost prose-crafting ability, Guy Davenport, has been inspiring and educating me lately via his treasure trove, The Geography of the Imagination. Therein he synthesizes arts and artists through a collection of 40 essays. (He also waxes in praise of Joyce and Finnegans Wake frequently.)

Davenport has an especial affinity for Pavel Tchelitchew, a Russian-born painter who was a contemporary of Albright (and Dali et al) in the first half of the 20th century. Davenport has an essay on Tchelitchew, more specifically a glowing review of a newly published biographical study of the artist entitled The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew: A Biography (1967), and otherwise sprinkles Tchelitchew into his writings often.

Throughout Geography of the Imagination, Davenport frequently lavishes praise and appreciative analysis on an enormous painting called Cache-Cache or Hide-and-Seek (1942). I'd seen this image once before many years ago but lately have been deeply absorbed in it. There is a magic to this painting. I can stare it for hours and hours. I regret somehow missing out on it during my last trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

This enormous painting is a pictorial equivalent of the method of Finnegans Wake. All of its images are puns which resolve into yet other punning images. First of all, it is a giant oak tree against which a girl presses herself: she is the it in a game of hide-and-seek. The hiders are concealed in the tree itself, so many children, who are arranged like the cycle of seasons, winter children, summer children.  
These children, seen a few paces back, become landscapes, and eventually two folded arms, as the tree itself resolves into a foot and hand; and, further back, the face of a Russian demon, mustached and squint-eyed. Further back, the whole picture resolves into a drop of water---Leeuwenhoek's drop of water under the microscope in which he discovered a new world of little animals; the drop of crystal dew on a leaf at morning which acts like Borges' aleph or Blake's grain of sand or any Liebnizean monad mirroring the whole world around it; Niels Bohr's drop of water the surface of which led him to explain the structure of the atom. 
This is a very modern picture, then, a kind of metaphysical poem about our non-Euclidean, indeterminate world. But at its center there is the one opaque detail in the painting: the girl in a pinafore hiding her face against the tree.- Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, p. 24 

Later on, in weaving a web of interrelated artists (as he does so well all over this book), Davenport tells of a visit William Carlos Williams paid to Tchelitchew's studio in 1942 where the painter was at work on another gigantic epic painting, Phenomena.

This painting is iconographically a Temptation of St. Anthony, with monsters of all sorts, monsters which, as Dr. Williams, a pediatrician, observed to the painter, are all
teratologically exact. - Davenport, p. 49 
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