Of Love for Dagestan, the Land of Mountains by Andy Shenk
May 12, 2012, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Reflections, Sports | Tags: , , , , , ,

The last time I visited Makhachkala, my friends and I were chased out of town, slipping out by the sea on a train headed for Moscow. We left carrying an oversized teddy bear, our suitcases, and memories of a proud, beautiful land.

Eleven years before I arrived for the first time with my family on a stuffy, overflowing Aeroflot airplane direct from Moscow, sixteen checked suitcases and boxes holding our belongings for a new life in the mountains of Dagestan. First, though, Makhachkala would squeeze us, enfolding us in its grimy, cement-stained arms until we resigned ourselves to sipping tea and watching old Bond movies flicker across the black-and-white TV. We lodged at the Hotel Lenin, right on the main city boulevard, Leninskii Prospekt. My siblings and I enjoyed the glass Fanta and Coke bottles we ordered from the hotel restaurant…the tepidly warm beverage, not so much. While our parents traipsed about buying furniture, securing documents, and attending social events to which their friends kept inviting them, we kids hung out with other expatriate children. Down to the beach on the Caspian Sea one day, another day walking up and down the wide pedestrian avenue in the middle of Leninskii Prospekt. There wasn’t much more to do in the city of 400,000 for an eight-year-old American boy who didn’t speak Russian. The city closed in on me, my grassy backyard and basketball hoop, cold clean water flowing from the tap, and immaculate streets and sidewalks that I biked down thousands of miles away in suburban Ohio. But I did begin to assimilate one important concept, subconsciously at first, when we first came to Makhachkala. After eight years of living in a one-story brick house in Northridge, Dagestan would be my new home.

Most of my years in Dagestan passed in the Tabasaran highlands, a hundred miles south of Makhachkala. There the Caucasus Mountains gracefully slope toward the shore of the Caspian Sea, pinching the ancient city of Derbent against the water just forty miles east of the village Bookhnog where we made our home. To the north, west, and south rose mountain ridges, the highest western ridge cresting just over nine thousand feet. On this sheltered land rested dozens of small Tabasaran villages, some thousands of years old, but all of them sputtering, choking in the fumes of the Soviet collapse. Work remained for precious few when the carpet factories and collective farms disbanded, and the grueling task of wringing food from the mountain sides drove the young folk en masse to the cities. Makhachkala, Derbent, Izberbash, and Kaspiisk swelled with the influx of young village couples hoping to find an easier, more profitable life in the urban sprawl creeping along the coast of the Caspian.

Continue Reading...Our family settled in Bookhnog, population two hundred, where the fog rolled in every afternoon from the valleys beneath our ridge, blotting out the mountain sunshine in the blink of an eye. Pea soup fog so thick you could hear the cows mooing for what seemed an eternity on their walk home from pasture before they came clomping by. The buckets full of crystal glass water from the spring a quarter mile away strained your muscles on the walk through the muddy village paths, but the sweet liquid sliding down the throat took away every ache and pain. On late September mornings we awoke to marvel at the fresh coatings of snow on the surrounding ridges and peaks; on clear summer evenings the full moon rose large as a golden saucer in the southern sky; at night we took our time walking to the outhouse, overwhelmed by the brilliant canopy of stars shining above.

The people of the village invited us into their homes freely, initiating us in the Dagestani traditions of hospitality. My siblings and I learned the Russian language alongside our friends at the local school, oblivious to their harsh Caucasian accent. The native tongue, Tabasaran, possessed over forty letters in the alphabet, including five distinct variations on our letter “K” and six variations on “CH.” During religious holidays, and at weddings and funerals we observed our friends’ Islamic faith drawing the community together. On May 9th and February 23rd Russian patriotism took precedence with school-sponsored festivities celebrating the brave history of the Russian and Soviet military.

Yes, in the evenings many men drank themselves stupid on vodka as only true mountain men can. Parents became old before their children’s eyes; by fifty many looked similar in age to pampered American septuagenarians. And the work, yes, the work came in unceasing waves of knee-cracking, back-breaking, joint-splitting labor up and down the mountain valleys. Cows to be milked at five, chickens and turkeys to feed, rows and rows of potatoes to plant and weed and hoe and harvest by hand. Slopes of golden hay to cut down by scythe in late July, dry, and carry home on rickety old Russian trucks. Wood to chop in the woods, split at home and stoke the furnace with. Hours of cooking, preparing meals from scratch to feed the sprawling families, all on simple wood stoves; perhaps a gas range if you were rich. Dishes to wash, and water to haul, and laundry to stomp clean by feet on the concrete slab by the village spring. Bookhnog, and with it, the Dagestani mountains, sagged under the weight of miserable work providing nothing but more work the next day and the next day and the next.

I lived in this land for much of eight years, growing from a boy into a soft-spoken American teenager who spoke Russian like the lads from the Caucasus. At age sixteen I moved back to the States to earn an American high school diploma and enroll in college. The summer following my freshman year at Carleton College two friends and I traveled back to Dagestan, sweating out a brutal thirty-five hour bus ride from Moscow to Makhachkala to spend two weeks with my Dagestani friends. The family had left a few years before, unable to secure governmental permission to remain living in the republic. I savored the time with old acquaintances, hiked up and down the dusty mountain roads to village after village to see everyone I could. Reluctantly, with tears in our eyes, Joe, Andrew and I left the mountains, bumping down the highway first to Derbent and then Makhachkala, where we said our final goodbyes.

Our last day, my final memory from the Land of Mountains, the local bureaucracy extended its welcome, too, hosting us in an office near the city limits, attempting to discern whether we were permitted to grace Dagestan with our presence. Seven hours passed in negotiation. Finally, a few minutes before the train for Moscow pulled out from beside the sea our inquisitors delivered us to the station and we breathlessly boarded our wagon, clutching the oversized teddy bear an elderly friend had delivered on the steps of the station, to be delivered to my niece in Columbus, Ohio.

I remember the dwelling place of my youth often now. Five years have gone by, but the emergence last year of Makhachkala’s football club, Anzhi, on the world arena allows me to reconnect daily with life in the Dagestani capital. I love watching the Dagestani fans crowd ancient Dinamo Stadium just a stone’s throw from Leninskii Prospekt and cheer their fabulously rich team on to glory. They’ve qualified for European competition next year, and will soon ascend European football’s highest heights, Inshallah. Some of my Bookhnog friends, long gone from the village, may be in the stands tomorrow when Anzhi hosts Russian champions Zenit in their final home match of the season. The Dagestan that I knew as a child is changing, foreign investment surging in to tap the Caspian oil fields and to build the tourist infrastructure long dreamed of by Dagestani businessmen and politicians. High-profile football will draw European fanatics, wishing to see their team play a match in one of Russia’s most hitherto unknown republics. The days when I could boast of being one of only a few Westerners to have ever lived in Dagestan are passing. So be it. All I wish for now is the chance to mingle again on the Dagestani streets and hike through the mountain valleys. I’d go to the Anzhi matches and wave my yellow-green scarf, proud to know this place and to know these people.


Stripping Away the Veil of Victory by Andy Shenk

Gregg Popovich received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year Award last Tuesday. At the press conference held in his honor, surrounded by his coaching staff and seated next to Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Pop dismissed what he had done to earn such recognition, as well as the role he had played in the Spurs’ success this year: “You know, when you win, a lot of things get attributed to you that you shouldn’t get full credit for. And the opposite, you know…when you lose, you get blamed for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t get blamed for.” Pop attributed his coaching success to the Spurs’ very fortunate draft history, concluding that “there have been a lot of people who have been in circumstances that have not been in their favor who would be just as successful in this situation, but just didn’t have the opportunity.”

The next day the Spurs played the Utah Jazz in the second game of their best-of-seven first round series. San Antonio won, 114-83, the franchise’s third-largest margin of victory ever in a playoff game. In the post-game press conference, Popovich gave a simple analysis of the lopsided outcome: “It’s still just a basketball game. We had a good night; they had a poor night. You know, I think they shot 23% in the first half, or close to that. That’s probably not gonna get it done for anybody…We shot it better than that and it was enough to make the game what you saw. It’s a lot about whether the ball goes in the hole or not, and they just had a tough night.”

Several years ago Popovich explained to reporters the origins of the “Pounding the Rock” mantra, which is prominently displayed in the Spurs’ locker room: “You get tired of all that other junk. ‘Winners never do this’ or ‘Losers always quit.’ ‘There’s no I in team’ — all the typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels. It’s always turned me off, so I thought that this was maybe a little bit more, I don’t know, intelligent.” The philosophy of “Pounding the Rock” dispenses with the superstitious and simplistic, focusing rather on the daily, dedicated effort needed to maximize own’s potential: “When nothing seems to help, go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and you will know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The more you listen to Gregg Popovich, the more you realize that the man will take credit for nothing. Upon receiving his second Red Auerbach Trophy, he did all he could to hand it off to his assistants and allow them to share the honor. They refused, even when he awkwardly pursued them across the court in front of eighteen and a half thousand fans.

Victories are the intended result of Popovich’s work rather than the necessary outcome. Following the game six loss last year to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, which knocked the top-seeded Spurs out of the playoffs, Pop spent most of the press conference effusively praising the Grizzlies: “A fine job. They were the better team and they played better than we did in that stretch of six games…I’m obviously saddened by the loss, but I’m happy for them and what they’ve accomplished. It’s been awhile for the city…Congrats to those guys.”

Pop’s entertainment lies in stripping away the layers of exaggerated significance placed upon his profession. Prior to watching the Grizzlies eliminate his team from the playoffs, he elucidated on the upcoming game in Memphis: “It’s a challenge, but it’s basketball. It’s nothing complicated…that none of us has not done before.” Pop knows that the wins, the championships, the floats down the River Walk will one day end. Rather than cling to the ephemeral, he enjoys the process and the many years he’s been allowed to teach a game to some of the greatest athletes in the world.

LeBron James and the Tale of How The Babe Earned His Crown by Andy Shenk

Author’s note: I am heavily indebted to Robert Weintraub and his engrossing account of Babe Ruth and the 1923 baseball season for this piece. It was in reading his book, The House That Ruth Built, that I first recognized the many common threads in the lives of Babe Ruth and LeBron James. Far from being a Babe Ruth scholar, I relied exclusively on Weintraub for my treatment of Ruth. 

In October 1923, on the eve of the World Series, one figure commanded the public’s attention, and took responsibility for much of the ink being spilled on the nation’s sports pages. George Herman “Babe” Ruth towered over the American sporting world of the early 1920’s, his legacy built on mammoth long balls, barnstorming tours through small-town America, and a reckless, salacious lifestyle in the Big Apple. Though only twenty-eight at the time, The Babe’s home-run hitting prowess had already proved an electric shock to the sport of baseball, winning Ruth and the Yankees legions of new fans, while at the same time upsetting baseball traditionalists everywhere who venerated small ball. With The Babe and his New York Yankees preparing for their third straight World Series appearance against rival New York club, the Giants, the debate over Ruth’s legacy in the game faced a defining moment. Would Ruth finally defeat the wily, small ball-oriented Giants and silence the critics who said his long balls and bombastic personality were but a passing fad, or would he come up short for the third straight year and risk cementing his reputation as a postseason choker?

To continue reading, head on over to my blog, Devout Fanatic.

%&#! The Lakers by Andy Shenk
April 14, 2012, 10:59 am
Filed under: Sports | Tags: ,

I’ve already mentioned on this blog my appreciation of the way sports can develop perseverance and faith in its fans. The San Antonio Spurs sorely tested that tenacity on Wednesday by falling at home to the Los Angeles Lakers, 98-84. I could stomach the loss, even though it came at the hands of a hated rival, but this game felt like more than a loss. The Lakers, absent shooting guard superstar Kobe Bryant, utilized their two seven-footers, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, to devastating effect against San Antonio’s undersized frontcourt. My worst Spurs’ nightmares—Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph of last year, the Laker trio of Bynum/Gasol/Lamar Odom, Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000’s—resurrected once again. Bynum pulled down thirty of his own rebounds and Gasol buried every mid-range jumper. When the lead reached the upper twenties, I cracked and shut the game off. Unable to quell my despondency, I wasted the rest of my evening with meaningless Web surfing.

I hated myself that night because I’d lost my equilibrium during the game. My brother-in-law, Richard, and I had been talking about this the other day: the phenomenon of fan loyalty, which makes cheaters (Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Ryan Braun) even more popular in their hometown. Die-hard fans defend their teams like protective mother hens, preen over victories, and ache miserably with each loss, identifying personally with it all. Now, watching the Spurs lose to the Lakers, each successive, disorganized, frantic possession on offense by the Spurs mirrored my own insecurities in constructing a meaningful life. The Lakers’ smooth scoring reminded me of all the slick, polished, successful peers I knew in college.

Unable to control my emotions watching the Spurs lose, I spilled out frustration everywhere. I wasted an opportunity to write because I was too angry to compose myself. I went to bed late, even though I needed to wake up at 5:30 for work. I ignored my wife all evening. Yet again, I failed to cook anything, even though we’re low on meals in the apartment. Clearly, my spirit exhibited none of the faith and perseverance I’ve described so glowingly.

You know what pissed me off most of all? ESPN.com featured the Spurs’ embarrassment prominently on their front page when last week’s Spurs’ road win over the Celtics had been relegated to the back page. There’s nothing like adding national insult to ego-bruising injury. Looking back, I can only hope that the Spurs had a bit more composure than I did in dealing with the loss.

Howling At The Moon by Andy Shenk
April 13, 2012, 10:41 pm
Filed under: Sports | Tags:

Last night my wife, Nikki, and I, along with one of my clients, John*, attended the Wolves-Clippers game in Minneapolis. Nikki and I don’t own a car, but we were able to borrow one from a friend for the evening. She picked me up from my job in Dundas a little after 3 pm and we made the twenty-minute drive west to Faribault to pick up John. From there it’s just an hour drive north on I-35 to downtown Minneapolis and the Target Center. We stopped for a quick supper at Chipotle in Burnsville, then booked it the rest of the way so that we could be there when the doors opened ninety minutes before the 7 pm tip-off.

We made it to the arena right at 5:30. Even though we’re not season-ticket holders, the Wolves’ staff let us in through the season-ticket holders’ entrance, half an hour before the general public is allowed to enter. I went off to buy some Wolves gear on which to collect autographs, while John and Nikki hung out on the concourse. When I got back, bearing some Wolves decals, John was buying a large soda from a concessions booth. Nikki and I had told him beforehand that sodas cost about $5 at the game. He couldn’t believe it and decided to buy one right away. He had to wait a bit for his $5.75 souvenir Mountain Dew, since the vendors hadn’t set up the cash register yet,  but that made it all the more fun – he made the first purchase of the night from the booth.

From there we moved down to the court so that we could watch the Clippers and Wolves warm up and hopefully snag some autographs. Nikki camped out on the Wolves’ side, while John and I observed the Clippers. Far more fans were clustered around the Clippers, most lining the tunnel through which the visiting team walks on their way to the court. It pained me to see the lack of attention paid to the home team, but it also seemed fitting, here at the end of this tragic Wolves’ season. Soon after we arrived the man everyone was waiting for, Blake Griffin, sauntered out. He paused for a few minutes to sign autographs, inducing the crowd to surge around his 6’10”, 250 lb frame. Neither of us got a signature, however, so we moved back to some seats to watch him, and the rest of the Clippers, prepare.

Though we didn’t get the Griffin autograph, we were rewarded with ink from DeAndre Jordan and Bobby Simms. When we met back up with Nikki, we found out she also had scored one from Timberwolf Derrick Williams. Initial warm-ups complete, we headed up to our seats in section 116. They were near the top of the lower bowl, opposite the Clippers’ bench and they did not disappoint. Just a few minutes before game time, the Clippers, back out on the court for final warm-ups, decided to loosen up the rim and backboard as well. Thunderous dunk followed thunderous dunk, capped off with one gravity-defying dunk from Griffin. Standing out at the three-point line, he threw the ball up in the air, waited for the bounce, then sprinted forward, grabbing the ball high above the rim and slamming it through from what looked like a distance of at least ten feet. John and I had ooohhhed and aaahhhed over the dunks from the beginning, but when Griffin delivered the final slam we turned to each other, high-fiving, nearly jumping out of our seats. The Wolves’ fans seated around us didn’t seem too happy, looking our direction perturbedly. Griffin’s not very welcome in Minnesota: his attention-seeking dunks and celebrity status contrast starkly with Minneapolis’ adopted son Kevin Love, the prototypical, unassuming lunchpail, blue-collar big man. With Love unable to play due to a concussion suffered in Denver the night before, Griffin would be opposed most vociferously tonight by the hometown fans, who rained chants of “Overrated!” down on Griffin several times during the game.

Such loyalty had no pull on me, however, a Spurs fan, or on John, self-avowed enemy of all Minnesota sports teams. With a crowd-pleaser like Blake Griffin in the house, John’s rooting interest tilted even further from the Wolves.

The game unfolded much according to script. Minnesota’s injury-ravaged roster finagled a one-point lead going into halftime, pleasantly surprising the 16,000+ fans. The third quarter bore witness to an initial Clippers surge, countered by the Wolves, who cut their deficit to three near the end of the period. The crowd, truly awake now, howled with fury at the full moon suspended from the upper deck of the arena, implored to do just that by the PA Announcer. Nikki and I joined in, howling brazenly at the players below, happy for one night to channel those fearsome inhabitants of the North Woods.

Alas, Minnesota crumbled in the fourth. As the game slipped further and further away, the Clippers’ offense, contained for so long, opened up at last, freeing Griffin for several trademark alley-oops. John celebrated accordingly, turning excitedly to the fans nearby, who, not surprisingly, remained nonplussed. I had no trouble sharing his happiness, however. The game had entertained far more than I expected, and, besides, I was far more invested in the scoreboard updates, which showed that the Spurs were stuck in a nailbiter with Memphis.

After the final horn we hit the exits, heading straight for the Timberwolves’ garage, located just around the corner from the Target Center First Avenue entrance. We mostly went there to gawk at the cars as they drove out one-by-one, but we also thought we might snag a few autographs in the process. First came big men Brad Miller and Darko Milicic, inactive for the game. A bit later Ricky Rubio, implored by the fans to stop for autographs, made his getaway, piling into an SUV with several friends and avoiding the crowd. Eventually, the meat of the active team, those who had played significant minutes, began heading home. Anthony Tolliver walked right up to the three of us to sign autographs. While he signed for fans, his wife brought out an adorable yellow lab puppy from a dog carrier in the trunk of their SUV, giving it to Anthony when he was finished. He plopped down in the passenger side, puppy on his lap, and his wife drove him out into the Minneapolis night.

Finally, the highlight of the night. Michael Beasley, his wife (wearing one of her husband’s jerseys), and little boy piled into $400,000 worth of vehicles. Mr. Beasley drove out first, stopping to sign autographs from his Audi R8, followed closely behind by Mrs. Beasley in a black Bentley sedan. Soon after they left the garage door closed, the fans dispersed, and we slowly headed back to our parking garage a few blocks away. John had grabbed three autographs by the garage, Tolliver’s, Beasley’s, and Wes Johnson’s.

An hour later we were dropping John off at his group home in Faribault. Following a quick stop in Dundas to throw my bike in the trunk, we pulled into Northfield a little after midnight. Our little apartment felt even smaller after the night in the big city. I still felt the buzz of interacting so closely with fabulous wealth. But, soon enough we were ready for bed, for sleep and its welcome pause before waking to another spring day in small-town Minnesota.

*Name has been changed for privacy purposes

Updates: Week of April 9-15 by Andy Shenk

This blog revolves around sports, especially those teams in which I have a rooting interest. In order to fill in the statistical gaps, therefore, which result from my haphazard manner of commenting on upcoming games and outcomes, I plan to provide an update on each team’s fortunes at the beginning of the week. This will also prove helpful to me in structuring my blogging for each week.

In addition to each team’s play on the field, I am greatly intrigued by attendance figures, radio and TV audiences, and other methods of calculating fan interest in a team. Much of the fun of being a sports fan comes from interacting with fellow supporters of the team. Especially when one lives at a distance from the team’s hometown, it is enjoyable to interact with others who share a similar passion. The greater interest there is in a team, the easier it is for far-flung fans to connect, whether on the internet or through fan clubs in various cities.

Of course, there is also the matter of bragging rights. As much fun as it is to hang out with like-minded fans, it is of equal pleasure to criticize, insult, and demean the other side. Proving that your team is more popular than another fan’s team is one excellent way to do that.

Finally, team popularity, and, more broadly, a league or sport’s popularity, are helpful in determining the future financial health of that product. Which teams across baseball are surging in popularity? How the NBA and NFL stack up statistically when comparing TV and radio audiences? What are the trends from year to year?

I hope to begin gathering these statistics and periodically sharing them on the blog. I will begin small, by looking at attendance figures for Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) baseball and basketball teams.

Now for some results!


San Antonio Spurs, 40-14, tied for 1st place in Western Conference

Last week the Spurs went 4-0, defeating Cleveland and Boston on the road and New Orleans and Utah at home. The Spurs winning streak is now 11 and they hold the top seed for the Western Conference playoffs over Oklahoma City.

Next week the Spurs play four times: 1) Monday, at Utah, 8:0o PM CDT; 2) Wednesday, vs. Lakers, 7:30 PM CDT; 3) Thursday, vs. Memphis, 7:30 PM CDT; 4) Saturday, vs. Phoenix, 8:00 PM CDT, ESPN

Lokomotiv Kuban, 9-7, 3rd place in Russian Professional Basketball League (PBL); up 1-0 in best-of-three series with Zalgiris to determine who advances to the Final Six of the VTB League play-offs.

Last week Lokomotiv began with a dud, losing by 9 on the road to Yenisey Krasnoyarskii Krai, the worst team in the PBL. That loss hurt their chances of qualifying for one of the four available PBL play-off spots. The team bounced back, however, with a 72-44 demolition of Zalgiris in the VTB League play-offs. Lokomotiv now must win one game on the road against Zalgiris in order to advance to play Spartak St. Petersburg in the quarterfinals.

1) Tuesday, at Zalgiris, VTB League play-offs, 11:15 AM CDT; 2) Wednesday, at Zalgiris, VTB League play-offs, 11:15 AM CDT, if necessary; 3) Sunday, vs. Triumph Lyubertsi, PBL, 8:00 AM CDT


Cincinnati Reds, 2-1, tied for second place in National League Central Division

Last week the Reds began the season by taking 2 of 3 at home from the Miami Marlins. Cincinnati won 4-0 on Thursday, lost 8-3 on Saturday, and won 6-5 Sunday thanks to a 2-run rally in the bottom of the 9th. Along with the winning record, the Reds did very well at the box office, selling about 107,000 tickets, for an average of 35,700 each game.

Next week for the Reds: 1) Monday, vs. St. Louis, 6:10 PM CDT; 2) Tuesday, vs. St. Louis, 6:10 PM CDT, MLB Network; 3) Wednesday, vs. St. Louis, 11:35 PM CDT, MLB Network; 4) Thursday, at Washington, 12:05 PM CDT; 5) Friday, at Washington, 6:05 PM CDT; 6) Saturday, at Washington, 3:05 PM CDT; 7) Sunday, at Nationals, 12:35 PM CDT

Carleton College Knights, 6-11 (1-3 MIAC), tied for 8th in MIAC

Last week Carleton dropped both ends of a double-header with St. John’s University, 7-5 and 3-2. The team looks to rebound with a full slate of games this week.

1, 2) Monday, at Gustavus Adolphus College, MIAC, 2:30 PM CDT (double-header); 3, 4) Tuesday, vs. Hamline University, MIAC, 2:30 PM CDT (double-header); 5, 6) Saturday, at Wartburg College, non-conference, 1:00 PM CDT (double-header)


Tottenham Hotspur, 59 points, 4th in English Premier League; through to semifinals of the FA Cup

Spurs won at White Hart Lane on Sunday, 3-1 over Swansea. Saturday they were held to a disappointing, scoreless draw with Sunderland.

1) Monday, vs. Norwich, Premier League, 9:00 AM CDT; 2) Sunday, at Wembley vs. Chelsea, FA Cup semifinals, 12:00 PM CDT

FC Anzhi, 60 points, 7th in Russian Premier League

Anzhi played to a 0-0 draw in Luzhniki Stadium with CSKA Moscow on Saturday. The team is still only six points from 2nd-place CSKA and Champions League qualification. This week’s home match with Dinamo Moscow is a must-win for Anzhi if they hope to close that gap.

1) Sunday, vs. Dinamo Moscow, 9:30 AM CDT

Nothing To Do But Watch Baseball by Andy Shenk
April 6, 2012, 9:46 pm
Filed under: Sports | Tags: , ,

Carleton College’s baseball facility, Mel Taube Field, is nestled in a back corner of the campus. The school water tower stands tall behind the home plate bleachers, Highway 19 climbs out of the Cannon River valley to the north, and the 900-acre Carleton arboretum stretches beyond the outfield fence. Except for those students who enjoy the hiking trails in the arboretum, very few venture out this far from the cluster of residential and academic buildings located half a mile away.

On Wednesday afternoon I made my first visit to the field in order to watch the Carleton Knights take on the St. John’s Johnnies of Collegeville, Minnesota. Both Carleton and St. John’s play in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), which features competition between eleven of the state’s finest liberal arts colleges. Though Carleton boasts many successful teams in MIAC play, the baseball team has struggled to achieve respectability. Only once has it qualified for the 4-team MIAC Playoffs, in 2009, and this year it is predicted to finish 10th of 11, following last year’s 9th-place finish. St. John’s, on the other hand, has qualified for the playoffs two years in a row and was tabbed for a 3rd-place finish this year by league coaches.

As I approached Mel Taube Field, the Carleton community’s lack of baseball fervor became readily apparent. A few dozen fans, wrapped in blankets, observed the game from bleachers behind home plate. On either side of them a handful of spectators stood or sat in lawn chairs along the grass on either side of the bleachers. Despite the sunny, 60-degree weather, only 10-15 students made the trek across campus to support the team. Most, like me, had arrived via bicycle, judging by the cluster of bikes at the base of the bleachers. In all, it looked like there were maybe 50 fans in attendance. Later, I would check the boxscore, which credited 103 individuals with attending the game. It’s comical when an announced attendance of 103 sounds preposterous, but I can’t help but wonder if Carleton isn’t inflating its baseball attendance figures.

I stood near the backstop for a while, waiting for my friend Gary to join me. I had shown up late for the game, and when I arrived Carleton trailed 6-0 in the top of the 4th. By the time Gary arrived Carleton the deficit was five and the Johnnies were back up to hit in the top half of the 5th.

We took a seat in the bleachers, only to realize that almost everyone there sported Johnnies’ red. Apparently, the Carleton supporters congregated on the grass alongside the Carleton dugout, while the stands were given over almost entirely to the visitors. Sitting amongst the enemy, we applauded politely for the home team, which finally made some noise of their own in the 5th, scoring three times to draw within two.

Gary and I chatted some as the game progressed, but I found myself more and more engrossed in the play on the field. I’d never watched a college baseball game before Wednesday and the startling differences between this game and the professional game, to which I’m much more accustomed, popped out at me. Singles to right field didn’t score the runner from second. A double in the gap couldn’t bring around the man from first. Ground balls hit to the charging shortstop became bang-bang plays at first instead of what I assumed would be easy outs.

The biggest adjustment was the constant chatter coming from both dugouts. I remember it from my two years of playing baseball, fifteen years ago, but I’d forgotten its ubiquity when close enough to the field to listen in. The Carleton ballplayers’ favorite word was “Kid,” which they used affectionately to encourage each Knight up to bat.

The flood of positive reinforcement emanating from the field, coupled with the bright sunshine, made the afternoon delightful. My daily job tends to wear me down mentally by the 3:00 pm clocking out time. The four and a half mile bike ride from Dundas to my apartment in Northfield generally releases that tension, but I found Wednesday that a relaxing 90 minutes at the ball field works even greater wonders. The steady battles between batter and pitcher, the crisp warm-up pitches between innings ending with the ball being slung around the infield from one athlete to another, the muscular swings of the batter on the on-deck circle, even the relative silence of the gathered spectators allowed for a gentle, care-free attention to the game…nothing like the exhausting focus and emotional availability required in my job caring for special-needs clients.

In the bottom of the sixth the Knights, trailing 7-4, loaded the bases, yet failed to score. With the score the same in the home half of the final inning, the seventh, the Knights put one man across home plate before fizzling out. The final, 7-5, favored the visiting Johnnies who benefited from several early errors to score four unearned runs. The victors lined up in the infield to high-five one another, while Carleton circled up nearby to discuss strategy for the second game of the double-header. In a few minutes, it appeared as though nothing had taken place for the past two hours. The Knights and Johnnies began preparing again to play. Some fans left for home, while others took their place.

In the first game of a baseball doubleheader played in front of a few fans, defeat or victory barely register. There is nowhere to go to mope for the losing side, while the winners must refocus immediately on the upcoming game. No fans exited Mel Taube Field on Wednesday afternoon heartbroken or elated. Acceptance could be the only word for this close, yet unremarkable game. Disappointment would set in for Carleton later that night, when they dropped the second game 3-2 and fell to 1-3 in the conference. Then, the afternoon’s tranquility would be hardly remembered, replaced with the finality of Oh and Two. Yet, when I left the field, following the first inning of the second game, a feeling of discovery, of unexpected pleasure, swelled within me. Baseball had been a delight this afternoon. I can’t wait to go back and discover more.

I’ve finished this piece at my kitchen table. It’s Friday afternoon, Opening Day for the local Minnesota Twins and the American sport is alive and well in our neighborhood. As I concluded my essay, a neighbor family sitting in their backyard, most of them proudly wearing Twins gear, broke into “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” The Twins lost to the Orioles, but the magic of lazy afternoons and evenings across Minnesota, and all the other states in the Union, spent listening or watching baseball is here again.