Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Rock and a Hard Place

The following thoughts are about interscholastic sports.

Dear reader, I suggest that you read them secure in the knowledge that they were written by a music teacher, one who has been specifically a high school band director. Therefore these are the words of someone who has not always been in a position to see eye-to-eye with school athletic department personnel, shall we say. If there is a community of people who just don’t understand why sports people have to consider themselves so damned important, nay, sacrosanct all the time, it’s us arts types.

Not exactly all sports people, though.

The Boston Globe reports today about a scheduling dilemma that arose this week, which managed to wonderfully highlight the long-standing conflict between some school athletics’ governing organizations and the educational institutions that theoretically they are supporting.

The story boils down to this:

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) chose not to re-schedule its regional semifinal baseball game, scheduled for this morning (Saturday, June 7th), in spite of the fact that its start time directly conflicts with the administration of the SAT test.

Details: the game had been scheduled for this past Thursday, but the local weather forecast was questionable. So the two participating school’s athletic directors suggested moving the game to Tuesday, two nights earlier, after they jointly researched a mutually agreeable alternate location. The MIAA refused the request, stating that the location was too far for either team to travel. On Thursday, the MIAA announced a re-scheduling of the game to Sunday evening, in the interest of “completing the sectional” (whatever exactly that meant) by the end of this weekend – and then, within hours, changed its mind, and set the game for this morning.

Following team meetings yesterday (Friday), both athletic directors said their schools would play on “in some form” – after initially having considered mutually forfeiting the game.

Reportedly, any players who chose to take the SAT exam will have done so without penalty. One of the athletic directors said, “In the end, we are all here for academic reasons. Everyone in the administration is in full support of the players who will take the SATs.” And his school will reimburse those players who opt to play the game rather than take the test.

Those “academic reasons” are clearly concepts that the leaders of the MIAA have long since forgotten, or abandoned. The people running that organization, if they ever were teachers in a past life, obviously have not spent a whole lot of time near actual schools in a while. I don’t know whether it’s fair to try to create a direct analogy between this kind of state school-athletic governing body’s priorities and some of those displayed at times by the NCAA. But it wouldn’t take much imagination.

Let us set aside issues surrounding the SAT, including how much of a revenue generator it may be for a private company or two whose raison d’etre is not the education of students. And let us not deal with some colleges’ gradual move away from requiring their applicants to have taken that test – not all of America’s colleges have made that move, not by a long way. Regardless of any eventual SAT de-emphasis, currently it’s still something that college-bound students need to do.

Let us also set aside the fact that the two schools’ athletic administrators first jointly threatened to do the right thing and forfeit the game, and then caved to the pressure of their governing body (and probably also felt the pressure of “all that work done, all season long, by our student athletes, and then we’re going to deny them the opportunity to play for a regional title because of something that doesn’t affect absolutely every player? Is that fair either?” Which is something to consider, indeed. Okay, Mr. High School Marching Band Director … when your band has put in tons of work since the dog days of August, would it be any easier to pull them out of the State Finals in November for analogous reasons?).

But …

The MIAA surely (surely? maybe it’s not a foregone conclusion that they…) had access to school district calendars and important academic-activity dates. Surely(?) they would have been aware of dates that would present conflicts for a large percentage of its student-athletes. No, they may not be responsible for knowing the date and time of every A/V club fundraiser car wash … but this is the SAT we’re talking about. It’s not that obscure.

And this was an issue of re-scheduling. There was a choice to be made. The MIAA didn’t have to schedule an event in conflict with the SAT. But they went ahead and did it anyway. Because they could. Because, in their minds, the SAT wasn’t enough of a reason not to.

As a school music teacher, I have taken great pains to try to schedule concerts and other performance opportunities – our “games”, if you like – so as to create as few scheduling conflicts as possible. I don’t want to put any of my student musicians between a rock and a hard place: before they get to college, they should be able to experience lots of different activities: sports, music, drama, the list goes on and on. And students shouldn’t be caught between two different egomaniac activity advisors who know, know, that their activity is more important than anyone else’s. Surely we can all play nicely together?

It happens less often than it should. Some years ago, I gently eMailed my school’s girls’ tennis coach with a small request. When he replied, saying yes, I can easily live with having my team captain (we’ll call her Fern) miss the first half of one practice a week because she’s your bass player, and I think she should be able to participate as fully as possible in both activities and have a great senior year … well, let’s just say I was momentarily speechless. I replied to his eMail, thanking him for being very understanding and flexible, and the mutual admiration society was off and running. The only sad part of the exchange was that I felt like it was such a rare occurrence.

Happily, Fern’s tennis matches happened in the afternoon, and my concerts happened at night, so we didn’t have to further test the limits of this newfound detente. And those matches never happened on Jazz Band Afternoons – but I promise I would have played bass myself (a bad thing at the time), rather than keep Fern from playing number-one singles against the hated rivals.

You can imagine that it ain’t always so Little House on the Prairie.

In my head, I’ve always had something of a “priorities pecking order” at the ready. Games trump rehearsals … concerts trump practices … again, I check the sports schedule before scheduling my concerts … but concerts trump re-scheduled meets (and that’s not a hypothetical example; I fought that one about ten years ago). And then the athletic director and I would get in a room and I would still try and find some areas of compromise. Sometimes I shouldn’t have, but that’s my personality, for better or worse.

But the MIAA missed an opportunity to make some kind of small compromise, to acknowledge that the world is made up of more than just them, and instead gave a number of its student-athletes a very difficult choice to make. And all that did was to make them look that much more inflexible and arbitrary. Worse, it’s made them appear unconnected to the second word in their own title: interscholastic.

Horse, meet cart.

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June 7, 2014 Posted by | arts, baseball, education, music, news, sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Put Me In, Coach

Used to be that if I wanted to get away from the bad news that seems to pervade American life – y’know, the shootings and the natural disasters and the general political scumbaggery – I’d go pick up the Boston Globe sports section and immerse myself in the box scores. At least there, at least half the local sports teams could provide me with a winning narrative at least half the time, give or take the Patriots.

Used to be”, I think, ended probably around the same time that Reggie Lewis died. Which is to say that for the last twenty years or so, I’ve been well aware that Keith and Dan (or whomever)’s “Sportscenter” commentaries were about scores and contract squabbles in equal measures.

If only it were only that simple, lately. The sports world is now shot through with *news* stories, and not inspiring ones, either. Lance Armstrong and his voided Tour de France victories. A high school in Texas building a sixty-million-dollar football stadium (grotesquerie #1), and then discovering that the thing was built with support structures that can’t safely support all the fans they needed to accommodate (grotesquerie #2), even as they were laying off dozens of teachers. Speaking of grotesqueries: ancient zillionaire Donald Sterling, and not merely his backward racist utterances but the fact that the beliefs laid bare by those utterances are indeed entirely relevant because they governed his dealings with the people he held economic sway over, both the millionaire athletes and the minimum-wage apartment dwellers, and what in the living hell is he saying now for the love of heaven please stop and quit while you’re behind?

Kind of a relief to read the stories that have to do with actual competition.  The Ranger skater on a breakaway barrels into the Canadien goalie and the resulting pileup yields a knee injury that takes the goalie out of the rest of the seven-game series. Predictably, the Canadien faithful (and the head coach) conclude that the feet-first trajectory of the New York forward had to have contained intent to injure, and just as predictably, the Ranger faithful tell the Canadien faithful what they can do with their aggrieved fainting spell.

(And this Bruin fan, unaccustomed as he is to rooting for the Rangers, is doing so because the Habs sent his beloved black-and-gold skaters to the golf course for the summer, and is therefore ill-equipped to objectively judge whether he’s looking at “intent to injure” or “intent to score while careening”. Although, look, kids, it was a breakaway. Stuff moves fast, grown men fall down. It’s hockey. Quit yer whining and get on the plane to Manhattan.)

But man, the great wealth of sports world stories that deflate the natural optimism. So imagine my delight at witnessing a sports story that ends well and seems to redeem past injustices.

At the age of about nine, I lost one in the lights.

It was my final season in a four-year career in the heady world of Little League baseball. As I remember it, the team I was on wore uniforms very similar to those of successful major leaguers; and that was about where the similarity ended. Our team lost about once a game, on average.

Over the course of my tour in the Littles, I had found most of my defensive success in the infield. I could fire across the diamond from third with accuracy. I actually was part of a decent double-play combination at age eight. My single inning as a catcher featured a runner barreling home from third, and after the throw arrived from right field, I blocked the plate firmly, and when the umpire asked if I was still holding the ball, I showed it to him (and subsequently begged my coach to move me anywhere else on the field please and thank you).

As a pitcher, I was fine until I hit my first batter. Got him square in the bicep, and after that my inside-pitch location just went all to heck.

So, one night during my tenth year on Earth, the coach sent me out to centerfield.

The scene was movie-grade. It was a night game, under the lights. Somehow, everything looked more pro-baseball. The aluminum bats twinkled. We could imagine far more fans in the stands than were actually sitting on those little tiny bleachers on the third-base line, because it would have been tougher to see the ones that were sitting further up under the nonexistent upper deck anyhow. There were no cornfields around the warning track; in fact, there wasn’t even a warning track, just more grass and eventually the infield on the far corner of the complex. But it was okay.  We were in the majors.  (Of our town, anyway.)

I trotted out to center. Traded a few long tosses with my friend in right field. Bent over to pick a few blades of grass; the usual major-league groundskeeping. The first batter hit a slow roller to second, and I dutifully moved to back him up. You never know; nine-year-olds will occasionally let one through.

PING.

I saw the swing, heard the sound of metal hitting baseball, and observed that the baseball was going not to left or to right but straight over the mound, high, and toward me. I took a couple of involuntary steps backward – it had been a pretty loud PING – and looked up.

And my whole field of vision turned violently purple.

At no time had we held practices at night. A crucial error. During the day, there’s only one Sun, and you know where it is, so you know instinctively where not to look. At night, as it turns out, there are at least four suns, two to your left and two to your right, and if you look at any of them, your eyes’ chances of recovering in time to find that incoming artillery dial down to fractions of percentage points.

Couldn’t find the ball. At all.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad had I not known that it was hard, and moving fast, and undoubtedly headed for my braincase. I’d been hit by pitches before, and only at eight-year-old-pitcher speeds. This had the potential to get me good.

In spite of the part of my brain that wanted to look like a dashing sports superstar, the part of my brain that had a little common sense won out. I put my two forearms straight over my head. Protection trumps derring-do. It wasn’t flight, but my instincts told me not to fight with fifty miles an hour worth of cork, rubber and horsehide.

More than a little embarrassing, though, when the ball hit the ground a complete twenty yards in front of me.

I would like to think that I recall picking that ball up and firing a sizzling strike to the third baseman to cut down the runner who was trying to stretch a double into a triple, but it was about forty years ago and honestly I don’t remember. I was so mad that in that moment I probably could used the piqued energy to briefly become the Dwight Evans who used to take a ball that had rattled around in Fenway’s right-field corner and throw it in a physics-defying, nearly-flat parabola directly to Rico Petrocelli at third who then would apply the sweep tag, and none of this one-hopper crap, oh no indeed, and you, dear runner, will take a seat in your dugout and consider the foolishness of trying to run on my arm because you are more out than a guy who can’t find his house keys at two o’clock in the morning in the dead of winter.

No, I probably slunk back to my spot in center and vowed to be perfect the rest of the night.

I’m pretty sure that only I remember that little vignette, now.

Fast-forward four decades or so, to the middle of last week. I stopped off, on the way to a choir rehearsal, to watch my seven-point-nine-year-old nephew and his Little League team do their thing. He was decked out in a Dodger blue t-shirt and cap that in fact read “Dodgers” and “LA” respectively. I sat on the blanket that his mom had laid out on the grass, in foul territory beyond third base, and noted that at least one thing in this country hasn’t changed in all this time. As the sun began to approach the tree line on the other side of the field, kids were working on baseball skills. Coaches’ barked instructions were followed with instant enthusiasm. Running and throwing (and sometimes catching) drills were happening. Number One Nephew was running and throwing with utter second-grade abandon. (Throwing a good deal more accurately than most of his mates, it seemed to me, ten yards ahead into an eight-foot-square net, though that could be Uncle Bias talking.) And, as always happens when a group of three or more kids gather to play ball, one of them and then another one made a two-handed chuck of their fielder’s gloves high in the air. And might have lost them in the lights, if they’d been turned on yet.

Okay, I thought to myself, smiling goofily. The extended Hammerton bloodline has reclaimed that field. Because Number One Nephew was making it happen on the very same ballfield wherein my Centerfield Moment had occurred. For my money, the Curse is Reversed.

And not a contract squabble or a banned-substance suspension in sight.

Okay.

May 20, 2014 Posted by | baseball, family, sports | , , , | Leave a comment

A Hard Act to Follow

For twenty-six years, Sir Alex Ferguson has been the manager of Manchester United, a soccer team which takes part in that rather remarkable league called English Premier League football. And in that time, he has led that team to as many league titles as he has not.

That last sentence is a rather strange one. I am nonetheless rather proud of it, in spite of the fact that it almost plays down Mr. Ferguson’s accomplishment: thirteen Premier League titles in twenty-six seasons. If you’re an American sports fan, you might try to set Ferguson’s record in context by racking your brain, in search of the really successful sports team coaches or managers of your experience. Perhaps you may come up with names like Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Joe Torre, or Phil Jackson.

In Lombardi’s football head coaching career with the Green Bay Packers, he led that team to five championship titles in ten seasons – a similar “winning percentage” to Ferguson’s, but over less than half the time. John Wooden led the UCLA men’s basketball team to ten NCAA titles in twelve seasons – a still-unmatched “winning percentage”, but again, during a career less than half the length of Ferguson’s time with Manchester United.

As a Red Sox fan, I have looked at Joe Torre’s record as skipper of the New York Yankees in the 1990s and 2000s with envy, but that record is four World Series titles in twelve years – again, he led his team to the championship only a paltry 33 percent of the time.

Phil Jackson might come close: he gets points for winning eleven NBA titles in 20 seasons, as coach of two different teams – but there are those who would give Ferguson more points for being with the same team for so long. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who has been coach or manager (title-winning or not) of an American sports team for 26 consecutive years – and I can’t imagine it happening any time soon.

As is the case with many charismatic sports team leaders, there are Ferguson anecdotes that would make people smile with admiration and respect, and there are also anecdotes describing his treatment of his players that would make any rational human being think, “that’s probably no way to treat another person.” (Throwing a soccer cleat in anger at David Beckham’s forehead, in the locker room, and drawing blood? Not what I’d want to be remembered for. Tellingly, during the season after that incident, Beckham was not with Manchester United, but Ferguson still was.)

But at the end of the day – at the end of this season, and at the end of this career – Ferguson’s record of achievement will be what is invoked. He took an unheralded Manchester United team and turned it into a thirteen-time Premier League champion and a worldwide name in sports. And at the end of his career, he had been coach of the same professional sports organization (and had survived and thrived in an pressurized environment of towering media and fan-base scrutiny) for longer than most of his players had been alive, let alone participants in the sport of soccer.

The topic which will inevitably arise, if it hasn’t already, among the fans and followers of Manchester United is this: who will be the next Man U manager? And who can … who could … who would want to try to … follow Sir Alex Ferguson?

As a Boston sports fan for the last forty or so years (oh oww), I have had opportunities to ponder this series of questions. Boston has a nice little history of success (coupled with contrasting runs of futility, which of course set the successes into sharper relief); and when a Boston sports figure is visited with great accomplishment, we can’t imagine life without him. When Bobby Orr left the Bruins, it took me effort even to think of the names of any other Bruin defensemen, right away. The first year that the Celtics team roster didn’t include Larry Bird, Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, it felt like the Earth’s rotation had paused. And there probably aren’t too many people who can name the first people who stepped into those people’s roles immediately thereafter. I’ve used this phrase often: “someone will succeed them, but no one will ever replace them.”

It’s always difficult to be “the new guy”. And it’s really tough to be the one who has to follow successful people.

Again, the Bostonian in me pauses to reflect:

Terry Francona achieved legendary status by being the manager who led the Red Sox to not one but two World Series in four seasons, after the storied franchise suffered its equally-storied 86-year championship drought. His title-winning percentage was only 25 percent – hardly Wooden-esque. But when Francona stepped down as Sox manager, I remember being ready to feel badly for whomever came next. That fellow, Bobby Valentine, lasted just one season – which probably had more to do with his management style than with the man he was following, But following Francona – the man who broke The Curse – would have been hard to do in any case.

There are those of us who wonder what life will be like when the coach and quarterback of the New England Patriots aren’t Bill Belichick and Tom Brady – and their title-winning percentage, huge for the once-hapless franchise, is only 23 percent: three titles in 13 years.

I frankly can’t even remember who coached the Bruins just before Claude Julien brought his professional hockey approach to Boston just a couple of years ago and helped bring the Stanley Cup back to the Hub.

And when Arthur Fiedler passed away, after having been conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra for nearly fifty years, he was succeeded by composer and conductor John Williams. Williams, on the strength of his musical experience, not the least of which included his Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind movie-score successes, might have been among the very few names who could have carried off such a transition. Even so, he had his hands full convincing a number of the Pops musicians in his early time in Boston. And when Williams decided to depart the Pops, the startlingly young and (to New Englanders) relatively unknown Keith Lockhart was handed probably the most difficult task in Boston music history: take up the Pops mantle and follow the combined legacy of Williams and Fiedler.

On the smaller scale of my own professional life, I’ve observed or experienced the “hard to follow the legend” effect a few times.

The gentleman who was the choir director at the church where I grew up passed away after having held that position for twenty years. At the time, the average length of time spent in any one church-musician job was estimated to be not quite one-sixth that long. The young woman who was chosen as his successor was very different from him: she was probably forty years younger, she was a she (which constituted a new and challenging experience for some of the choir members), and she happened to be a classically-trained singer (our late choir director’s primary instrument was percussion). She was only at our church for a couple of years before moving back to the Midwest; but while her predecessor’s framed picture is still on the wall in our little chapel, she is remembered with great fondness (and more than a few mischievous giggles) by folks who sang with her then and are still around now.

I have chronicled, in this space, the process of transition that took place after the sudden passing of my college band director, who had held that position with nearly unprecedented success and national influence for thirty-three years. In one of those posts, I described my own experience as the guy whose job it was to follow another local college band director who had held that position with distinction for twenty-five years. Happily for me, he made it easier than it might otherwise have been; but there were still early moments of struggle (not by him!) – easily understood; no apology necessary.

At the beginning of this calendar year, I went to work in just the third new school district of my teaching career. In a rare occurrence for this profession, it was the first time I’d actually followed any “former music teacher” in that position. My first position was small, newly-created, and short-lived (it was eliminated after a year). The mandate from the principal at the second school I ever taught at was, “build a program” – there hadn’t been a full-time music teacher there for at least the previous couple of years. Four months ago, I stepped into a position in which I was following a gentleman who was a very popular and accomplished teacher. I’ve heard lots and lots of glowing reviews about him. The high school singers he’d left in place were quite a skilled bunch, which has been great for technical music-making (my first concert with them was this past week – there was some fine singin’ that night) … and at the same time they obviously missed him. A lot. And I’ve tried – using an anecdote from my own recent experience – to let them know that I understood at least a little bit about where their heads were.

The job of “the new guy” – no matter what the occupation, no matter what the position – is not (nor should it be) to make everyone forget his or her predecessor. And it’s not (nor should it be) to be just like that person, no matter how much the fans, or the media, or the ensemble, or the alumni, wish that could be the case. If the “new guy” does his or her job well, s/he will honor the accomplishments and influence of his or her predecessor where that is appropriate and helpful; and s/he will build on past successes. My college band director said, during a college class that taught music education majors what it took to direct school bands, “It takes ten years to build up a program; and only one year to tear it down.”

Whoever the person is who will be the manager of the Manchester United football club will have my sympathy, and my empathy. He will be endlessly compared to Sir Alex Ferguson, fairly or not. With luck, he will understand that everything he can do to try to be a successful manager may not be enough for some fans, or media, or players. And, it can be hoped, even if he isn’t the next Sir Alex, he can find some success – or at least he’ll not be so dispirited by the experience that he’ll be discouraged from ever trying to find success anywhere else, afterward.

May 11, 2013 Posted by | band, baseball, celebrity, choir, education, entertainment, Famous Persons, football, GNP, marching band, media, music, sports, Starred Thoughts, SUMC, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment