Monthly Archives: December 2017

In with the new

I have to get a little bit of an early start for the last days of the year 2017. Happy New Year to everybody.

Thank you to everybody who has read the blog this year, from ten different countries. I got over 1,000 views from the United States alone! (Yes, a lot of them were from myself, but hey, what can you do? Forgive me. 🙂 )

A little bit of the numbers, as of this writing, in chronological order when and if the numbers are the same (if anybody reads this, it will change):

United States – 1,014 views (2,380 all-time)
Belgium – 20 views (65)
Australia – 17 views (19)
Ireland – 6 views (10)
United Kingdom – 6 views (18)
South Korea – 2 views (16)
France – 2 views (4)
Canada  – 2 views (2)
Netherlands – 2 views (3)
Mexico – 1 view (1)

This year gave me my first ever views from Mexico and Canada, and several new ones from Australia, which had a huge spike thanks to a reference (who is Belgian, and helped the numbers this year as well!). It really means a lot, so here’s what I’d like to say.

Happy New Year
Gelukkig Nieuwjaar
Bonne année
Feliz año nuevo
Bliain Nua Shona
새해 복 많이 받으세요

And those are just from this year. So, thank you to everybody who has read this. Please keep doing so.

In Belgian tradition, children often save their money to buy colorful paper and write little messages to parents or elders and read them as the new year begins. I wanted to return the favor to my niece and nephew. Here goes:

Ik ben vereerd en trots om je nonkel te zijn. Wees goed voor mama en papa, en voor elkaar, maar vooral voor jezelf. We hebben dit jaar heel veel plezier gehad in Amerika en hopelijk kan ik binnenkort weer naar België komen. Gelukkig nieuwjaar en wees veilig!

Knuffels and kusjes van nonkel Eric

Hopefully, they’ll read that and be proud of me. In lieu of saying thank you individually, let me say Thank you, Merci, Danke, Bedankt, Obrigado, Gracias, Takk, and any other way I can say it.

Happy New Year!

Image result for new years 2018
Photo courtesy of Google Images. 

 

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IU is Home: My story

Indiana University’s bicentennial is on the horizon, set to run in 2020. I don’t know if this idea is connected to it, but something I saw on the IU website was the tag #IUishome. I decided to submit my idea for a story. Fingers crossed.

Here’s the prompt I sent in, having to limit my pitch to 250 characters.

“Professor’s son. Half-Belgian. Actor. High-functioning autistic. 

Eric met all of these criteria during his time at IU. He found support from the Office of Orientation and a student group called Students on the Spectrum, before graduating in 2011.”

This is why I’ve never been good at getting to the point. The whole story, the best version of this story, can’t be summed up in 250 characters.

Even if my pitch doesn’t get accepted, there’s always been a sense of pride in going to IU. On the one hand, I was going to be a Hoosier anyway, because it’s not only a hometown thing, but a financial thing. I got very lucky to be a professor’s son. Sometimes I wonder if I rewarded my dad’s efforts in me.

For a semester during my childhood, I lived in a suburb of Antwerp, Belgium called Wilrijk. This was in 1994, and there was a nearby park. For once, the role was reversed. If you think it’s hard come to America and learn English, it can be just as hard, if not harder, to do the same thing abroad. Especially when you’re doing it before your seventh birthday. Any Dutch/Flemish I learned was quickly forgotten, much to my chagrin later in life. If there’s one thing that I wish my dad had done, it’s to have us grow up in a bilingual household. But we always grew up speaking English. I never questioned it. Maybe I should have, in hindsight. Granted, I’ve been told I pick up languages well, but Dutch is harder to learn than French, because of so many compound words and the verb structure. As good as I am in the latter, it’s the product of seventeen years of practicing, some years more than others. I still make mistakes. And try doing it when you don’t have a classroom to do it. That’s where the annoying part of the process comes for me – students may be forced to take a language in high school and college, but they don’t realize how much of a gift they’re being given. And so few care enough to take it.

Although I was never quite good enough to make it onto the main stage at IU, I got close several times, and did two independent productions (known as IPs in theatrical vernacular). Even if I’ve cut back in recent years, for work and personal reasons, the medium of theatre allows an otherwise aloof, heavyset left-handed half-Belgian autistic to gain a measure of confidence. Every actor has been there – the failed auditions, the tears, the late nights. It can be draining, and perhaps that’s another reason why I’m cutting back for the time being. I hope it’s not a permanent thing. At the same time, it’s the rush of it, both on stage or in front of a camera, that kept me going. And it’s actually good that I’ve done what I’ve done as an autistic man – not only is it easy to memorize lines, but it also forces me to be empathetic, when I would struggle badly to do so in the real world. It forces me to step into somebody else’s perspective.

Admittedly, I didn’t do myself that many favors in college. I was a part of IUSTV’s program Hoosier Sports Night during my final semester, but that was only for one semester. I never did a reporting story, and never learned how to edit, and never even had a story published (one almost was, but an editing glitch meant the copy they got was past deadline; they acknowledged I got it in on time, but couldn’t run it because of the delay). I was also out for a while with plays, so even then, it only felt like half a semester. But I met a lot of amazing people, got to see a side of campus and myself I never thought I would. Another group that helped was Students on the Spectrum. It’s not quite a correct name, because you don’t have to be a student to go, but given how picky we are about labels, we just couldn’t think of anything better. The alliteration just sounds better, I guess. But the one I’ll always remember, and it was ten years this year, was the summer I worked in Orientation. It’s now called First Year Experience, but the summer of 2007 not only caused me to live by myself for the first time, but it was also my first ever paying job. It was a late start, but I hit the ground running. I was pretty open about my condition, and most were accepting of us. We had to work together, after all. And it was quite a job – we got to be adult camp counselors. How cool was that? All the early mornings, during training and the program, was worth it. One thing that we had to do every program day was go to morning meeting, which would start at 7:00. For every one person that was late, we started five minutes earlier until everybody was on time. In other words, if we had six people that were late, then we would start at 6:30 in the morning the following day. And I’m pretty sure that we started at 6:20 one time – and keep in mind that some of us were never technically off the clock until midnight (the shifts rotated every day, so we never had the same routine twice). In terms of IU, it’s perhaps the best thing I ever did. Maybe the problem is that I peaked too early.

Looking back on it now, I’m a little ashamed of myself that I wasn’t better to IU. It was certainly very good to me. Or maybe I wasn’t good to myself while I was there. Granted, hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. I’ve never left town, although this year will be seven since I’ve graduated. Will I ever leave Bloomington? Hard to say.

This is the story I remember. I gave it my best shot. If it doesn’t get accepted, at least I submitted it. It may sound hokey, but hey, a guy’s allowed to have pride in his alma mater. Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.

Photo below courtesy of Indiana University.

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2018 FIFA World Cup profile: SPAIN

It’s hard what to make of Spain. Are they a favorites, a dark horse perhaps, or are we doomed for a repeat of 2014? The last option seems unlikely, given their revitalized talent and the rest of the group. At the same time, I don’t know if they’re really favored as where they were about ten years ago.

SPAIN 
Image result for spain flag
Photo courtesy of http://www.flagpictures.org

Team profile 
Nickname: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)
Total appearances (including 2018): 15
Best Finish: Champions (2010)
Current manager: Julen Lopetegui
Caps leader: Iker Casillas (167)
Leading scorer(s): David Villa (59)

The Cup
Group/Placement: B2
Date of qualification: October 6, 2017
FIFA ranking at tournament draw: 8

Matches 
June 15 vs. Portugal – Sochi
June 20 vs. Iran – Kazan
June 25 vs. Morocco – Kaliningrad

Spain have to come in as the favorites in this group. While the match with Portugal is said to be about even, most would have Spain slight favorites on talent – and that talent is younger, which, in this sport especially, matters. Iker Casillas is no longer in goal, but David de Gea is said to be a suitable replacement. They navigated a pretty tough group to get here as well – although Italy ended up falling apart, the reputation alone is enough. They also dealt well with a potentially rising Albania team. They won the group fairly handily, relegating Italy to the playoff, which they ended up losing to Sweden. Given who else in in their group, as well as facing them across in Group A, I think another quarterfinal run is not only possible, but likely.

One of the curious parts about this group is how close the geography is. Portugal and Spain border each other on the Iberian Peninsula, and Morocco is very close to both of them, just past the Strait of Gibraltar. I don’t know if familiarity is a benefit at the World Cup, but I’d imagine it wouldn’t hurt too much either.

Right now, it looks like Spain’s main playmaker is Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, or as he’s known for short, Isco. Playing for Real Madrid, Isco is said to be one of their most dynamic players. The one down side is that he was injured for a friendly against Costa Rica, so it’s possible that I may end up regretting these words if he doesn’t play at all. Regardless of his health, La Furia Roja look to be in a position of power again. If they can’t quite win it all this time, I think a quarterfinal berth is within their grasp. I have to admit, I’m not really a Spain fan, but if I were, I think I’d take a quarterfinal berth in this Cup. It’s said to be pretty wide open in terms of talent, so we’ll have to see. Tiki-taka may not be the law of the land anymore, but it’s hard to bet against them advancing past the group stage at this point.

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When healthy, Isco should be somebody to watch out for on Spain. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com. 

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Spain’s FA logo. Photo courtesy of http://www.greenscene.me. 

 

Hot Stove League

During the baseball offseason, its unofficial name is the “Hot Stove League.” The name comes from the idea that baseball fans sit around a hot stove during the wintertime and talk about the game. During this period, free agent signings and trades occur, although the advent of free agency since the 1970s has reduced the romance and the value of it.

Every year, baseball fans wait to hear four words: Pitchers and catchers report. Officially, each team has different dates for reporting. The earliest team is listed as the New York Mets, reporting in the Florida town of Port St. Lucie on February 12. Most other teams are listed as the following day, with some on Valentine’s Day.

There are two official spring training “leagues” as well. The teams that play their games in Arizona are part of the Cactus League, while those that play in Florida are part of the Grapefruit League. There’s no official distinction between American and National Leagues, which is nice. Some Arizona cities host two teams, and will be listed below.

Where does your team play?

Cactus League (Arizona) 
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Tempe
2. Arizona Diamondbacks – Scottsdale
3. Chicago Cubs – Mesa
4. Chicago White Sox – Glendale
5. Cincinnati Reds – Goodyear
6. Cleveland Indians – Goodyear
7. Colorado Rockies – Scottsdale
8. Kansas City Royals – Surprise
9. Los Angeles Dodgers – Glendale
10. Milwaukee Brewers – Phoenix
11. Oakland Athletics – Mesa
12. San Diego Padres – Peoria
13. San Francisco Giants – Scottsdale
14. Seattle Mariners – Peoria
15. Texas Rangers – Surprise

Grapefruit League (Florida) 
1. Atlanta Braves – Lake Buena Vista
2. Baltimore Orioles – Sarasota
3. Boston Red Sox – Fort Myers
4. Detroit Tigers – Lakeland
5. Houston Astros – West Palm Beach
6. Miami Marlins – Jupiter
7. Minnesota Twins – Fort Myers
8. New York Mets – Port St. Lucie
9. New York Yankees – Tampa
10. Philadelphia Phillies – Clearwater
11. Pittsburgh Pirates – Bradenton
12. St. Louis Cardinals – Jupiter
13. Tampa Bay Rays – Port Charlotte
14. Toronto Blue Jays – Dunedin
15. Washington Nationals – West Palm Beach

Because of the nature of spring training, the games are considered unofficial. That’s why I officially credit myself with twelve MLB games. There is technically a thirteenth, which was in 2000 in Kissimmee (Grapefruit League) between the Astros and Yankees. Because of how many changes occur, I can’t remember the stats, except that the Astros won and I remember Dwight Gooden starting for them as a non-roster invitee. He didn’t make the team, but I think he did make the Yankees and won one last championship before retiring. I don’t think I can officially count it; if there are no stats from MLB, I don’t see it as an official game. Still, it’s baseball, in whatever capacity you have it.

We’ve still got several big Hot Stove events coming up. Free agent signings are still going on, and hopefully that’ll be resolved a.s.a.p. On January 24, only a few weeks before those four amazing words above are uttered, the BBWAA ballot (also known as the writer’s ballot) will release their picks for the Hall of Fame. The record for most inductees is five, in its first year (1936). It could happen this year, with Chipper Jones and Jim Thome leading a pretty crowded ballot.

Come and sit around the stove with me. It’s said that baseball is the greatest sport for hope and redemption. It’s said to be the sport where everything starts anew.

In less than fifty days, we’ll hear those four magic words again.

Image result for hot stove league logo
Photo courtesy of http://www.hotstovemlb.com. 

Tell me what it’s like to go outside.

“‘Come play with me,’ I whispered to my new found friend
Tell me what it’s like to go outside
I’ve never been
Tell me what it’s like to just go outside
I’ve never been….and I never will….”

In 1988, R.E.M. broke through into the mainstream radio waves with their album Green. They had been popular in many circles, but those were mostly college towns and niche radio stations. While their previous album Document was a smash, it was Green that made them so-called “rock stars.”

One of their songs, “The Wrong Child,” is the beginning of this post. The haunting mandolin melody underneath it makes it one of my favorites of theirs, and the lyrics are among the closest I’ve ever come to expressing myself as an autistic. As hauntingly poignant as “Everybody Hurts” is, and it still is, I’ve heard it enough times over the years to desensitize myself. It’s a great song, but it doesn’t get to me as much. This one does. “The Wrong Child” is the one R.E.M. song that either makes me cry or brings me as close as possible.

I’ve posted the video below, from YouTube.

Metaphorically, I’ve never been outside. The empathy arguments are unfortunately true from time to time. It’s situational. I’ve never been outside of my own mind. I’ve never been outside of my label, and because of the stigma attached to it, I doubt I’ll ever get outside of it. Even if more and more people are becoming aware of it, many of them will never fully accept me.

Should it really surprise you to see me so tired all the time?

It’s not just a physical fatigue either. I think I’ve figured out what the hardest part is for me. Being autistic is one thing, and definitely hard, but it’s not the hardest thing. The hardest part is having to explain myself over and over again. It gets really tiring after a while. It would be nice if just once, they took my word for it and didn’t ask too many questions. As counterproductive as it sounds, sometimes in order to get better, the non-autistic world needs to just let life happen.

Tell me what it’s like to go outside….

As heavy of a word as it is, “burden” is a word we like to use a lot. I’m linking an article along with this as well, from a site called “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.” Socializing is often burdensome for us, because as awkward as we can be, it can go both ways.

http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2017/02/autism-and-burden-of-social-reciprocity.html

This leads to one of autism’s greatest ironies. If you’re only coming at it from an “outsider” perspective, you may have heard the following argument: “Being autistic leads to isolation and depression.”

Here’s the irony of it: Many autistics like the isolation.

Yes, it’s true that both isolation and depression can be common among the autistic population, but funnily enough, I never found that one caused the other. And I don’t think it was depression that was leading to isolation for me. I think it was just stress from being autistic in a world that can’t or won’t accommodate it. The isolation is an escape. It’s calming. In fact, being allowed to be by myself has proved to be some of the best therapeutic healing I’ve gotten over the years. Why is it impossible to be constantly alone and still be happier?

For me, withdrawing from parts of the world is liberating. Do you know how freeing it is to not have to argue what to eat for dinner, or what to watch on TV, or what time to leave for a social event? Do you know how refreshing to not have to worry about what to wear to said events? Do you know how amazing it is to be able to avoid the awkwardness of having to ask for rides to and from these events, even if there is somebody more than willing and able to do so? (Thank you, by the way, to anybody who has done that for me.) This is another reason I walk everywhere – it’s not necessarily by choice. It’s not for health reasons, although walking is also said to help to be calming on its own. But one of the biggest reasons I do it is for my own autonomy. Call me crazy, call me determined, call me whatever you want to. You’d probably be right in whatever term you used it. Just like I need to be by myself a lot of the time, I also need that privacy in public. Most of the time, I go to social events by myself. I go out to dinner by myself. I’m sure I’ve gotten looks at restaurants, especially considering I go to only about for or five on a regular basis. But so what? Let them stare. It’s relaxing to be allowed to make my own choices. I’m living my own life. What else can I want?

This is where my joy in life comes from – being allowed to live my own life, make my own mistakes, find my own comfort. If I do go outside of my label, maybe I’d find more of a social life, maybe find a girlfriend, maybe do all of the “keep up with the Joneses” activities that we’re supposed to do. But I feel like I’d be giving too much of my old self up.

The song concludes with the following lines:

“I’m not supposed to be like this….but it’s okay.
Okay.

Okay….”

And it’s true. Given the burden I’m carrying, I actually think I’m carrying it well. Eat your heart out, Sisyphus.

Holidays on the spectrum

Most people, although not all, have the day off today for Christmas. That being said, do keep in mind that even if given the chance to go home, I’m sure there are some that wouldn’t take it. A person knows their true selves.

Autism isn’t a “seen one, seen them all” condition, even if some may think so. And so much of it is unseen, especially among the higher-functioning crowd. So, as antithetical as it sounds to the idea of Christmas, perhaps to the holiday season in general, I got one of my wishes this year: privacy.

All of my immediate family are out of town, and so I’m just holding down the fort here. But I have to admit, it’s really nice to get this quiet, not having to wake up to drive somewhere (and drive back), and just having a day to goof off, especially after a pretty hectic month. Still, if December is the craziest, I’ll take it given how close it is to the end of the year. I have mostly late days this week, so that’s nice.

I haven’t asked anybody on the spectrum, but I’d imagine holidays can be very tough on a lot of us. It’s not just the socializing, and for some of us, that’s actually okay. It’s the little things that are supposed to make holidays what they are that lead to the sensory overload. While I love the lights and bright colors of Christmastime, I know others with the condition absolutely hate it. In fact, for many, the lights give them headaches. That is a very real phenomenon. It could also be the noise surrounding other ones (Fourth of July, New Year’s, etc.), or taste issues (myself with regards to Thanksgiving). Others question the very nature of the holiday itself. Who am I to argue with that?

Don’t get me wrong. This is one of my favorite times of year – the color schemes, the brightness during the early sunsets of winter, the snow when we can get it. And we did get a white Christmas this year in Bloomington! It’s been a while. All I’m saying, all I’ve been saying to anybody who’s willing to read this blog, is to take autistics – and the lives we live – on a case-by-case basis. We’ll do our best to accommodate, but it’s a two-way street.

One thing I’ve noticed in these last few years: it takes two people to give a gift. One to give it, and one to receive it. Most of the time, we can see the good intentions involved. The problem is that we’re not necessarily the right person to give it to. We’re a little murky on the saying, “It’s the thought that counts.” Sometimes, you’re not only giving something we don’t want, you’re also giving something we don’t know how to use. Most of you know I don’t know how to drive, so what would be the point in giving me a car? I’ve never been put in that situation before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens in the future.

I always like to tell people that my favorite time of the holidays is the afterglow in the days in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s only five days, but it’s a time to collect ourselves all over again, finish out what we can. And the spirit is still there – I know for many, it’s hard to take the lights or the tree down. I know somebody who couldn’t let go of the spirit, so he waited until mid-March one year to take his tree down. That is my favorite part of the holidays. The event itself has come and gone, as it does every year, but the spirit takes a little longer to go away.

Don’t read this as an indictment of the holidays. The day after Thanksgiving to the end of the year are some of my favorite days of the year. I’m sure many autistics love to celebrate these events, too, or want to very badly. But don’t push us too hard to do it. Let us go at our own pace.

For me, some of the best gifts that I can get are neurological gifts. In addition to getting a calming day of doing practically nothing (were it not so cold, I probably would have gone to the movies, but no real rush), one of the best gifts that people can give me is to trust me to live my own life. And oftentimes, it doesn’t cost anything.

Thank you all readers and friends and supporters. 2017 allowed me to explore new projects as a writer, and try to solidify myself while allowing me to maintain a well-balanced feel to it.

To conclude, here are some of my favorite lyrics from any song this time of year:

Faithful friends who are dear to us 
Gather near to us once more. 
Through the years, we all will be together
If the fates allow…

Re-signed, or resigned?

I have to admit, bringing back Mitch Moreland seemed unlikely in Boston, especially with Eric Hosmer of the Kansas City Royals available (although we don’t know how much longer he’ll be there, given he’s said to command a hefty price tag). I have to admit, I wasn’t sure of this one – Moreland is better on defense, but has a hard time picking up the slack with his bat. Part of the problem is that he was not only playing hurt – he reportedly had a broken toe for part of the season – but was filling in for guys who were also hurt. The deal was for two years, $13 million.

Many Red Sox fans don’t seem too happy with this deal. Given the dimensions of Fenway Park, the offense was down for much of the year. And yet they still won 93 games with Moreland in the lineup for much of the year.

On one of the official Red Sox blog sites, http://www.overthemonster.com, there’s an excellent debate going on about the value of the re-signing. Moreland probably works better in a platoon system, and Hanley Ramirez is a better hitter. But Ramirez was more of a liability defensively, and turned 34 yesterday. His last All-Star season was in 2010, and he had a down year offensively as well. So, the more I look at it, there is some logic to it. Hosmer is a better player now, and probably long-term, but many on Over the Monster think he’d struggle with the dimensions of Fenway. Plus, his price tag would be too high. New rules included a higher penalty on the luxury tax, so they may not afford to keep him all the way anyway. Additionally, there’s an argument that after Carlos Santana was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies, this deal is largely used as leverage to try to get J.D. Martinez as a free agent from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Plus, they have a potential third option: IU first baseman Sam Travis. In limited duty, Travis did better offensively than both Ramirez and Moreland. Plus, I’d love to see an IU guy go as far as he can.

So, maybe this deal isn’t as bad as people are thinking it is. Moreland may not be as good with the stick as with the leather, but he saves Boston a lot of money long-term, gives them an extra bargaining chip at the table, and from all accounts is well-liked in the clubhouse. Another thing that was mentioned: Moreland knew he was likely going to be coming off the bench anyway, before injuries set in. So, even if it doesn’t have as much punch offensively as Red Sox fans would like, I think it’s a better deal than many are giving it credit for. They may not get Eric Hosmer, but I don’t think Hosmer justifies the contract he’s aiming for. I’m also not sure how good of a free agent class this is. And lastly, defensively, it’s almost a necessity at this point. With Dustin Pedroia starting the season on the DL, and with Xander Bogaerts (SS) and Rafael Devers (3B) not as strong defensively, it’s likely that team president/unofficial general manager Dave Dombrowski was limited by the moves he could make. Plus, I’m hoping they can re-sign Mookie Betts long-term by doing this.

We’ll see how this move will work out. Sometimes, an oft-repeated maxim in baseball is that not making a move can also work out well. With Boston getting a new hitting coach in Tim Hyers, and Alex Cora taking the reins, maybe a change of atmosphere in the coaching staff can help the players get back to 2016 level. So much of that, of course, also depends on overall health. But if they can stay healthy, I think this makes sense. Sometimes, the safe route is the best route. I hope this argument proves true here.

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Mitch Moreland in action. Photo courtesy of Boston Herald. 

Sources 
Wikipedia
Boston Herald
http://www.overthemonster.com

The metaphor of baseball

Hello, everybody. I hope you’re all having a wonderful holiday season. For many of us, Christmas is on deck, then New Year’s. Happy belated Hanukkah as well. This post isn’t about the season. It’ll be another baseball post, but I’ve always found I can do some of my best writing when I talk about it. Perhaps because of its age, and its design, it’s the easiest to write about. Because of the inherent violence of American football, it’s much harder to romanticize. There are many things I love about it. But despite all the changes, both within the game and societal, baseball’s the game for the casual fan.

“You see, for us, baseball was a game. But for Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez, baseball was life.”

The Sandlot

I was a child of the ’90s, and grew up a passionate Red Sox fan, ironically in the Midwest; and even more ironically, basketball was most kids’ first choice where I grew up. This was the same state that gave us Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, Kent Benson, Calbert Cheaney, and Reggie Miller. But although I knew those names, I always remembered different ones: Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron. Willie Mays. Ted Williams, the “Say Hey Kid.” If time travel were ever possible, and I could go back to the ’60s, it wouldn’t be to any cultural event like Woodstock. I would go to Dodger Stadium and watch Sandy Koufax on the mound in ’63. I would go to Fenway Park and watch Yaz’s impossible two weeks in The Impossible Dream in ’67. I’d go to ’61, to witness the M&M Boys, Maris and Mantle, wage their classic chase of Babe Ruth’s record; I’d go to Pittsburgh in any year, just to watch the elegant fire that fueled Roberto Clemente. In fact, I’ve said that if I had to choose one moment in time to re-live, it would be his magnificent performance in the 1971 World Series. It was societal change and amazing play all rolled into one.

Don’t get me wrong. Other sports are lovely. But baseball was always my first love. Once the tragic reality sank in at age 13 that I wasn’t headed to the majors, I resolved to be the best fan I could be. I could definitely still talk it. Despite all the changes to baseball and America as a whole, some good, some not so good, the game was always there. The cliche of baseball as a metaphor for Americana may be true, but if that’s the case, let me have this cliche. Let me have this metaphor. Football wouldn’t have any places for clowns; Casey Stengel likely would have had trouble in the NFL, and I think Tom Landry would have the same troubles in the MLB.

And baseball allowed every player to show off their uniqueness, for example in batting stances; Clemente rolled his neck in the on-deck circle to alleviate old aches; Joe Morgan flapped his top arm like a chicken; Ken Griffey, Jr. let his bag waggle on his shoulders before giving us that sublime swing of his; baseball allowed Mark Fidrych to talk to the ball, Mike Cuellar to dress from head to toe in blue clothing on days where he pitched, shoes and socks included; it’s let us see Steve Carlton throw one of his back-breaking sliders, and Mariano Rivera his cutter; it’s the best game for numbers – three strikes, nine innings, ninety feet in between the bases, 5,714 strikeouts, 4,256 hits, 2,632 consecutive games played.

As much as I love winter, the offseason is always hard to work with. In theory, the game never truly stops. MLB does its Winter Meetings, and at said meetings, they were able to vote Alan Trammell and Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame via the Veteran’s Committee ballot, also known as the “Modern Era” ballot for 2018. In recent years, the ballot has been tightened up significantly, and Ron Santo (in 2012, and a posthumous honor at that) was the only player from 1960 onward to make it in a good while. There were other managers, umpires, and executives to make it during that time, but the players were judged by their peers, which may be a harder sell for some. I’m not one of those people that counts down the day until spring training begins again (it’ll be in mid-to-late February, although the exact dates vary from team to team). Excluding special events, it’ll be the earliest opening day in Major League history – March 29, 2018. And every team is opening that day, which is the first time in fifty years that it’s happened.

A captivating monologue from the Tony Award-winning play Take Me Out argues why baseball is the closest thing to democracy as it should be practiced. I won’t post it here, but if you can find it, what a monologue it is. Football would be harder to write about. Basketball would be closer, but still fall a bit short. To paraphrase an excellent book by Will Leitch called Are We Winning?, other sports don’t breed diehards.

If this is a cliche, I’m not letting go of it that easily. It may not be life for me, but it’s certainly up there. The game has been an unforgiving mistress sometimes, but that respite of spring always keeps bringing us back. This, perhaps, is one cliche worth keeping.

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Photo courtesy of Rawlings. 

2018 FIFA World Cup profile: PORTUGAL

The reigning European champions come in with high expectations, having survived a tough qualifying group, going back and forth with Switzerland before winning on goal differential on the final qualifying day. But questions remain: can Cristiano Ronaldo help the Portuguese rise above to win the championship? Does he have enough steady talent around him? Is Portugal better without him? Group B opens play on June 15, with border rivals Portugal and Spain facing off. It looks to be an amazing match.

PORTUGAL 
Flag of Portugal
Photo courtesy of http://www.flagpedia.net. 

Team profile
Nickname: A Seleção das Quinas (The Selection of the Shields)
Total appearances (including 2018): 7
Best finish: Third place (1966)
Current manager: Fernando Santos
Caps leader: Cristiano Ronaldo (179)
Leading goalscorer(s): Cristiano Ronaldo (79)

The Cup 
Group/Placement: B1
Date of qualification: October 10, 2017
FIFA ranking at tournament draw: 3

Matches
June 15 vs. Spain – Sochi
June 20 vs. Morocco – Moscow (Luzhniki)
June 25 vs. Iran – Saransk

If Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)isn’t the best player in the world, he’s certainly up there. His rivalry with Lionel Messi, both domestically and internationally, has to be one of the greatest stories in the game right now. He holds the goals and caps record for his country. But now he’ll be coming into this World Cup approaching the age of 33, and there are still questions over whether he can lead Portugal all the way. Given a pretty easy draw ahead of them – at least after the Spain game – they look to be set for the quarterfinals. At the same time, Morocco is on the rise, and Spain probably has better talent. Both teams’ talent will be on full display on June 15 in Sochi, the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

I’m pretty positive that Portugal should advance, but are they really contenders or not? Sure, they won the Euros in 2016, but that took a lot of luck to get out of the group (three draws in the group stage and several late rallies), and they won the match against France after CR-7 left with an injury. Is it possible that Portugal doesn’t need him? Having him is an added benefit, don’t get me wrong, but given his controversial reputation for diving and immaturity, there are those who wouldn’t be upset if Portugal didn’t go all the way.

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Cristiano Ronaldo in action. Photo courtesy of TIME. 

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Portugal’s jersey crest. Photo courtesy of Pinterest. 

2018 FIFA World Cup profile: URUGUAY

Our final team in Group A is actually the most successful of all the teams, having won two of the first four editions of the tournament. Even if the subsequent years haven’t been as kind to them, they still come in as the highest-ranked team in the group, and are probably group favorites. But the teams in the next group may not do them any favors following the group stages.

URUGUAY 
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Photo courtesy of http://www.worldatlas.com. 

Team profile
Nickname: La Celeste (The Sky Blue)
Total Appearances (including 2018): 13
Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)
Current Manager: Óscar Tabárez
Caps leader: Maxi Pereira (124)
Leading scorer(s): Luis Suarez (49)

The Cup 
Group/Placement: A4
Date of Qualification: October 10, 2017
FIFA ranking at start of draw: 17

Matches 
June 15 vs. Egypt – Yekaterinburg
June 20 vs. Saudi Arabia – Rostov-on-Don
June 25 vs. Russia – Samara

All the statisticians have this as the weakest group in the history of the World Cup, or at the very least since the expansion to 32 teams in 1998. This is Uruguay’s group to lose, with two dynamic scorers helping them: Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. The latter finished with ten goals to lead all of CONMEBOL in scoring during this qualification campaign. A victory over Bolivia 4-2 allowed La Celeste to take second in the group. And with Óscar Tabárez having led them to a fourth place finish in 2010, and including this qualifying cycle, he has led Uruguay to four World Cups in his career – 1990, 2010, and 2014 being the previous ones. Even better, in all of his other three appearances, he made the round of sixteen twice and the semifinals once. He’s got to be one of the better managers out there. If he can get them to the round of sixteen for a fourth time in four tries, it would be almost unthinkable in this day and age. And he’s got the talent, and an easy enough group, to do it.

It would take a near-catastrophic meltdown for Uruguay to not get through. I don’t know enough about their back four to make a good argument, but with Diego Godin still in that lineup, and Suarez and Cavani up front, they may not need to have the best back four. The one downside is that assuming they make the knockout stages, it’s likely that either Portugal or Spain would be waiting for them, and Uruguay would come in as underdogs. But I think at this point, a broad group will take anything it can get. The smallest nation to win the World Cup is nothing to sneeze at – and they’ve done it twice. Keep an eye out for a potential upstart Uruguayan side.

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Edinson Cavani led CONMEBOL in scoring in the qualifying campaign. Photo courtesy of http://www.conmebol.com. 

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The Uruguayan AUF crest. Photo courtesy of http://www.cricketsoccer.com.