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Johnny Chinnici
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R.A. Dickey would have retired at 30, if not for reinventing himself. I’ll be turning 30 next month, the age at which most ballplayers’ skills begin to erode. But what about poets? Do you think there is a peak age for turning in your best verse? Do we spend more of our lives on the uptick or the decline? And what's the poet's best version of learning the knuckleball—that is, an entirely new skill to extend the career? Gosh, if poets followed the same trajectory as the typical baseball player, it would look something like this: 18 — Begin eking out a living, traveling by bus between small southern and midwestern towns, reading amateur poems that show occasional hints of potential in front of sparse but affectionate audiences who are mostly there for the cheap beer. 22 — Get a shot on a grand stage and embarrass oneself thoroughly, disappointing dozens of onlookers. Then, spend a winter fearful of whether everything you’ve been working toward has all been one big sham. 25 — If not forced into “retirement,” then you are more or less succeeding. The caveat is that the suits dictate your earning potential and you feel a sense of mock-freedom, little more than a dog and pony show helping grind the wheels of industry for someone else’s fortune. Additionally, the late nights and habitual drinking prevent you from developing a normal relationship or family. 28 — Publish your best work, the stuff that will be anthologized decades later. You fail to savor the moment because it all passes so quickly and you’re thinking of nothing but reaching higher peaks. 30 — Only you know that you are already washed up. The others cling to your past achievements while their own fear of mortality prevents them from seeing the inevitable temporality of your beauty. 32 — You hit your biggest payday, yet as soon as the laurels are hefted the critics begin whispering loudly about whether you’re overrated. 36 — Perhaps better to walk away leaving your legacy intact, but you feel strongly that you have more to offer. Your great wisdom, you believe, will make up for your declining mental acuity and slippery sources of inspiration. 42 — They trot you out for one last book-signing and hand-shaking tour. The people who say they grew up enjoying your work are themselves scarcely younger than you. You retire to Peoria and open a chain of chicken huts. ...but that’s not how it has to go, thankfully. Here’s to performance-enhancing drugs. Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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I own plenty of baseball memorabilia, but most of it’s in storage. Here in my apartment I have a baseball signed by seven Hall of Famers; a Johnny Damon autograph; an old Ernie Banks card. I also have a neat issue of SPORT from May 1951, which my mother picked up for me at a flea market on a lark. SPORT was a monthly that predated Sports Illustrated and featured great color photography and a roster of famed sports writers. The advertisements are hilarious today, but the articles made demigods out of both the athletes and the authors. Grantland Rice To the younger generations, Grantland Rice is known as little more than the namesake of Grantland.com, known for its middle- to high-brow snark. Rice, on the other hand, made his name famous through the purplest of prose. His legacy focuses on his penchant for aggrandizement and hero worshiping—something professional sports no doubt needed in the first half of the 20th century. My copy of SPORT was issued during Rice’s 50th year as a sports journalist. His assignments had become retrospection, and his article “The Cavalcade of Baseball” delivers all his signature touches. He begins with grandiose historical perspective: “Baseball has given this country more thrills than any other sport ever gave any nation. Baseball has furnished more entertainment for more people than any game ever invented.” The essay provides proof of the game’s greatness through recitation of the greatest hitters, pitchers, and teams Grantland ever saw. Cobb was the best player; Shoeless Joe was the best hitter. Rube Waddell, whom Rice played against in college, had “a greater combination of speed and curves than any pitcher that ever lived.” The question: does any writer have reason to remember, let alone study, Grantland Rice today? Is it fair for a kingmaker to be forgotten, or is it just the nature of sports writing? John Lardner A longtime Newsweek columnist and son of Ring, John Lardner’s obituary described him as “a sort of high-priced utility infielder for top-echelon American magazines.” John grew up around Fitzgerald and other celebrities, as well as Grantland Rice, due to his father’s career. Lardner’s entry in my SPORT was one of those terribly ridiculous human interest pieces, memorializing a diminutive, boozehound shortstop named Walter “The Rabbit” Maranville. He only fielded fly balls by the basket catch (at the waist) and was lovingly called “unprintable” names by Babe Ruth and other friends. The piece is titled “They’ll Never Forget the Rabbit,” but I must confess that I had never heard of the Rabbit nor John Lardner before opening up this magazine. Scattershooting... Blatz beer, Power Bilt golf clubs, Western Arms Corp. automatic pistols… The only mistake Branch Rickey ever made was selling away Chico Carrasquel… “the game which we call our national pastime today bears about as much resemblance to the 1842 version as a 1951 Cadillac does to a Stutz Bearcat”… Baseball is a TV headache—the problem of squeezing a whole ball game into a 12½-inch screen... Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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With the Dodgers headed to the next round of the playoffs— and the Yankees and Mets bruised–it’s hard not to imagine what NYC would feel like if the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Frank Sinatra memorialized the Dodgers’ move with the melancholy ode “There Used to Be a Ballpark.” It doesn't take a poetry MFA to figure out that it's about the death of childhood, too. Really depressing stuff. Forcing a baseball-related song onto his humble vanity album, baseball announcer Tim McCarver included a version of it on Tim McCarver Sings Selections from the Great American Songbook (a brief listen to free samples will satisfy curiosity). McCarver, a former All-Star catcher and somehow an Emmy-award winning TV analyst, will announce his last World Series this month. This isn't like the Bums leaving Brooklyn or Mariano Rivera calling it quits. McCarver's exit will receive sarcastic applause. Mercifully, the worst of the ridiculing and chastisement will end. Finish the sentence however you will: The thing about Tim McCarver’s announcing is, is that his announcing is... The face of Tim McCarver adorns a mock-Mount Rushmore on the niche blog Awful Announcing. He’s been mocked on “Family Guy,” reviled on Twitter, and muted by millions. Some have filed petitions on Change.org to ask Fox to remove him, as though his employment assaults human decency. How could someone so bad at a job be elevated to its highest level and remain there for decades? McCarver’s follies range from would-be Yogiisms (“Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”) to the flatly erroneous (“It’s a five-letter word. S-t-r-i-k-e.”). Other memorable moments have been more inexplicable, like confusing Barry Bonds with Barry Manilow. It’s easy to dislike Tim McCarver’s job performance. Yet try articulating why you hate Tim McCarver to someone who doesn’t like sports, and you’ll sound like a cantankerous ass. Where does such venomous anger come from? McCarver enjoyed a long playing career, mostly remembered for being the trusted catcher of Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. He won the World Series twice, including the socially tumultuous championship season chronicled in David Halberstam’s narrative October 1964. Turning to the microphone upon retirement from the game, McCarver played a key role in the modernization of sports announcing. His early work was considered groundbreaking analysis rather than mere commentary. That he misses the mark for today’s listeners is probably his fault—at 71, McCarver is years younger than many announcers who keep up with the sport and do not incite rage in the listener—but we cannot blame McCarver for Fox’s decision to keep him on the job. Longevity implies tradition, something a television company hopes to create when producing sports shows. McCarver will likely be heard from again, but never in the All-Star Game or World Series. For better or worse, October television won’t be the same without him. Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Personalities, rather than geographies, drive baseball fandom more than ever. Personnel moves via free agency, fantasy sports leagues, and streaming broadcasts online all make it less likely that you feel compelled to root, root, root for the home team. Better to find the one that speaks to your soul. For these 2013 playoffs, find your true match with this handy personality guide: St. Louis Cardinals: You believe that the best Italian food is served in restaurants with at least one table full of men playing some game that isn’t poker, but it isn’t dominoes, and you’re not really sure if one of them is the owner or what. Budweiser may not be the best beer, but it sure quenches your thirst. If not from Missouri, then your home state can best be described as “a quadrilateral.” Los Angeles Dodgers: You take great pleasure in buying things without even glancing at the price tag. Atlanta Braves: I met the parents of Braves outfielders Justin and B.J. Upton this summer, and let me tell you: good people right there. Just downright good folks all around. And that’s what cheering for the Atlanta Braves is all about: good pitching and defense, a mix of power and speed, Ted Turner, hot dogs, apple pie, and Delta Airlines. Oh, but they still do that tomahawk chant…so, like, you probably need to be okay with that if you’re going to be a Braves fan. [Note: the Braves are now out of the playoffs, but don't worry. They never truly go away.] Pittsburgh Pirates: Love an underdog? Sure, everyone does. We still talk about Pittsburgh as though the Rust Belt tag will never go away, but take another look. The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon, reasonable hotel rates. Beautiful terraced parks along not one, not two, but three rivers! A.J. Burnett isn’t even their best pitcher anymore. All right, these guys are no longer underdogs. You want an underdog, try finding October baseball in Birmingham, which was nicknamed “The Pittsburgh of the South” a hundred years ago. Think about that. Tampa Bay Rays: You live in the Tampa/St. Petersburg metropolitan area, love baseball, and had no established ties to another major league franchise prior to 1998. Perfect, you’re a Rays fan now. Would you like to go to the beach instead? Boston Red Sox: How do you feel about haircuts? They’re the worst, right? Close, but shaving is worse than haircuts. Shaving is for Yalies. You, contrariwise, went to school in Boston—er-herm, Cambridge—so you find that when a gentleman attends sporting matches, he does so not to identify with the athletes, but to bemuse himself over the hirsute specimens on the field. Any of this working for you? If so, you’re wicked into the Sox. If not, but you hate the Yankees, then you are also wicked into the Sox. Oakland Athletics: The team that brought you Reggie, Rickey, and the Bash Brothers today offers scintillating OPS+ figures from a roster replete with young men, who, despite... Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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“I don’t like intentional walks,” my mother-in-law says, looking up from her iPad to reveal that she has been paying more attention to the game than I realized. “I always hope the next batter hits a home run or something.” Like the pitcher would deserve it for being such a wimp. I might argue with her notion. I could begin a twenty-minute statistics-laden speech about all the outcomes after putting the man on base. But I know exactly what she means: just pitch the damn ball. My team has already been eliminated from the playoffs, so I’m watching academically. It feels neutered at best, masochistic at worst. Like attending a grade school play starring other people’s children, I assume. Without emotion driving the watching experience, there’s nothing to do except think about all the Moneyball-famed stats at play. Ya know, ma, the next batter has a terrible groundball-to-flyball ratio… We sit and watch the guy getting paid millions toss a ball lazily through the air, a safe distance away from the limply drooping bat of the would-be batsmen. It’s a boring play, to be sure, and the fans are always going to boo it, even while football fans (of lesser intelligence, ostensibly, right?) have a calm understanding of the even-more-boring quarterback kneel. I get why the intentional walk draws boos, but it’s also dramatic. Tantric, even. And I don’t mean the sexy statistics found strewn like rose petals in the silky spreadsheets of Baseball-Reference.com. It’s because the lack of a time clock is the most objectively superior thing about baseball. A pitcher cannot win by taking a knee in the middle of the field. He can’t pass the ball or puck around to his teammates just to kill time. What a pitcher can do is intentionally walk a batter to face a weaker one instead, or to create a double play possibility. It’s a gamble, though, and he still must pitch the damn ball to the next guy. It’s Saturday night in Oakland, scoreless in the bottom of the ninth. The first two batters get hits. With men at first and third and nobody out, the home team is almost guaranteed to score and win. The intentional walk merely dents Oakland’s Wins Probability Added measure. So to the chagrin of my mother-in-law and 40,000 Oakland fans, Detroit’s Al Alburquerque intentionally walks the next batter, Josh Reddick, a volatile and cocky kid from Georgia who hit a paltry .226 this year and claims to be, underneath his survivalist/conspiracist shaggy beard, “way better looking” than Brad Pitt. The Hollywood version of the guy’s real-life boss. Sometimes you just can’t let that guy beat you. The Oakland Athletics fans had all spent hundreds of dollars to be there and every single one had bothered to dress up in the team’s terrible green and yellow palette. Detroit’s manager makes the smart move, but the Oakland fans deserve a show. They boo the intentional walk. The delay only makes the exuberance to come moments later... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 6, 2013