Sunday, September 30, 2012


While watching the excellent film Breaking Away the other night, it dawned on me that while the fine state of Indiana might not be known for much aside from Amber Waves of Grain and the Indy 500, it is the setting for three of the all time great sports movies.

Breaking Away (1979), set in Bloomington, follows four high school boys who have just completed high school and are at a crossroads in their young lives.  The main character is Dave, an avid cyclist who idolizes Italian bike racers with some hilarious consequences.  Largely based on a true story, Dave and his three acquaintances decide to enter the Little 500, an annual bike race held at the University of Indiana.  Against the odds, they win the race - of course they do - otherwise Hollywood would not have come knocking.  A young Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern are part of the cast.

Hoosiers (1986) tells the story of the Hickory High School basketball team that wins a state total in the 1950's. The script is loosely based on the 1954 state champion Milan High School, who with a tiny enrollment made an unprecedented run through the playoffs and defeated much larger schools along the way.  The film has a solid cast, including Gene Hackman and Harry Dean Stanton.

Lastly is Rudy (1993), maybe the most famous of the trifecta.  It follows the efforts of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger to not only be the first of his steelworker family to go college but to play football as part of the bargain.  And not just any old college, Rudy was obsessed with the venerable Notre Dame and his efforts to get accepted are the real story, although the fact he made the football team is pretty incredible.

So add three classic sports movies to the state that gave us bushels of corn, Larry Bird and David Letterman.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Corporate Challenge 2012

The Corporate Challenge is an Olympics styled event held every Aug-Sept and pits over 50 Dallas area companies against each other in events like basketball, badminton, volleyball, running and swimming.  For the not-so-athletic, there is even dominoes, poker and bowling.  Me, being somewhere in between, joined the GE soccer and cycling teams.  I figured there was safety in numbers...

We started our soccer practices in the heat of July and the scenes were reminiscent of The Junction Boys.  Blazing heat, bad fields, injuries, not enough water, and so on.  To make matters worse, our average age was 40-something and we scrimmaged against 20 year olds.  All the conditioning paid off to an extent: we breezed through our first three Corporate Change soccer games, winning all by a combined margin of 18-1.  It unraveled in the semis' when the opposition scored three of the luckiest goals imaginable and we went down 3-1.  In the bronze medal game, we lost 2-0, again giving the other team two gifts.  We ended up fourth out of ten teams in our division - no mean achievement given it was our first foray into Corporate Challenge.

I made about 15 new friends from other GE offices in the Dallas area, guys I would normally never interact with.  We are determined to keep the nucleus of the team together and hopefully add some youth next year  (we have plenty of experience).

What stands out in the Corporate Challenge is the athleticism and determination of people who have real day jobs.  Case in point was the bike race.  It was only 9 miles, but was won a 40-something guy who completed the course in a little over 20 minutes.  That's 27 MPH!!!  On average!!!

I was on a big old mountain bike and finished in 32 mins, or about 17MPH and Team GE placed 7th.

The Challenge goes on for about another two weeks and so far GE has two silver medals to show for our efforts.  We will get 'em next year!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: One Shot at Forever

The last of the three baseball books consumed this summer and the most enjoyable is One Shot at Forever by Chris Ballard (2012).  This is a true account of the incredible achievements of the 1971 Macon (Illinois) High School baseball team.  In Hoosier-like fashion, the Ironmen of Macon, with an enrollment of a few hundred students, make the State playoffs and cause upset after upset, beating much larger schools along the way.

The odds seemed stacked against the Ironmen starting in 1970, when some of the better baseball playing seniors graduated.  The team is made up of farm boys and coached by their eccentric / hippy English teacher, Lynn Sweet.  His unorthodox coaching methods (either no practice, or practice accompanied by the soundtrack to Jesus Christ, Superstar) drove the parents and school administration to such distraction that Coach Sweet was not supposed to be in charge for the memorable 1971 season.  Common sense prevails and Coach Sweet takes charge of his minuscule roster and depleted equipment room - they had about five bats between them and a bunch of mis-matched uniforms.  What the boys lacked in equipment, they made up in skill and determination.

The book is well written and researched, author Chris Ballard spent two years in Macon interviewing players, teachers and fans - even members of the opposing teams.  As the Ironmen win successive games, it is fascinating to see how the town unites and rallies around the team and attendance swells to the point that no-one is at home when the Macon High Ironmen are on the field.

My only gripe is that I borrowed the copy I read - now I need to get my own.

Book Review: The Natural

The second of the baseball summer reading trilogy, The Natural by Bernard Malamud is an acknowledged classic.  Written in 1952, the novel charts the fall and rise and yet another fall of Roy Hobbs and his bat Wonderboy.  Definitely one of the top fictional books about baseball, The Natural was made into a successful movie in 1984 and one I have yet to see but while the book ends on a downer, apparently Hollywood saw fit to change the movie ending to a more upbeat one.

The book shows an uglier side of the game, specifically the pressure to win (and lose), rabid fandom, and the deviousness of team owners.  The passages describing coach Pop Fisher and owner Judge Banner are excellent.  Oddly enough, the Rangers seem to have their own Roy Hobbs in Josh Hamilton, who in his short career has had some terrific stretches offset by horrible troughs.  As a further aside, the Rangers play the theme from the movie when the home team hits a home run in Arlington.

Malamud was not a prolific writer and The Natural is his best known work.  He did, however, win a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for The Fixer.  I will have to track that one down...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review: The Last Boy

So far this summer I have read three books, all baseball related   What could be better than the Rangers in first place and reading up on America's past-time?

The Last Boy by Jane Leavy (2010) chronicles the life and sad times of The Mick, one Mickey Charles Mantle, among the all time baseball greats.  Leavy's approach is partially based on personal interviews she did with Mantle long after he retired.  The book does not hold back and flips between the highs of the monster home runs and the bouts of self-destructive drinking binges.

Mantle is a fascinating subject.  Born in 1931, he grew up dirt poor in tiny Commerce, Oklahoma and under the tutelage of his father and grandfather, learned how to switch hit.  The role his father ("Mutt") played in the younger Mantle's early career cannot be understated. Mickey progressed rapidly and was what today is called a "five tool player".  He joined the Yankees in 1951 when the mighty DiMaggio was in the twilight of his career.  (Mantles first major knee injury was partially attributed to Joe D.)  Alongside such legends as Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen and Hank Bauer, The Mick won seven World Series rings in a career that spanned 17 years.  Mantle's lifetime batting average was .298, he hit 536 home runs and had 1,509 RBI's.  Huge stat's in any era.

The sad thing is he could have posted even better numbers if he was not plagued by injury (initially) and later cursed by alcoholism.  His last years are sad as his body breaks down and while he became closer with his sons, they had their own demons.  Mantle's estrangement from his longtime wife Merlyn also makes tough reading.  Maybe if Mutt had not died so young, Mickey would have been a better father and husband.

I have no basis to compare The Last Boy to the other Mantle biographies that have been written.  Obviously, I have some catching up to do... While Leavy's work was enjoyable, I feel there is probably a better one out there.