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ArchiveSEPTEMBER 2020



My Diamond Brick Road this year looks very strange because Major League Baseball started very late due to coronavirus considerations.  The chart below is for the National League Central Division, where all the teams except Pittsburgh are now in the playoffs.  Never before had a sub-.500 mark like Milwaukee's 29-31 qualified a team for the postseason, but 2020 is a year like no other.

In a shortened regular season of 60 games, Pittsburgh managed to win only 19.  At the top of the graph I've extrapolated to the usual 162 games.  The Pirates' .317 winning percentage would have led to a 51-111 final record, 65 games behind the league-leading Dodgers.  The last teams to lose more than 111 in a year were the 1952 Pirates and 1965 Mets (112 each).

But the regular season did end after only 60 games.  The middle-of-the-pack teams had not yet gotten untangled, and Pittsburgh wasn't even in the pack.  Their pennant chase was essentially over by August 5, when the Cubs had a 10-2 record while the Pirates were 2-10 (as indicated by the little outlined blue and gold diamonds near the bottom).

The 2020 Pirates posted MLB's lowest numbers in wins, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and saves.  They lost 15 games by a single run, most in baseball.  They committed 47 errors, second most.  Since the 2019 All-Star break, their record is only 44-89 (.331).

However, there were some late-season bright spots.  Pitching showed improvement, with the starters achieving an MLB-best 1.46 ERA over one 12-game stretch.  And a September roster addition, slick-fielding rookie third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes, batted .516 with three homers and four doubles over his final eight games.  In the final three, he put together a streak of eight consecutive hits.



“Life right now can feel like a big experiment.  Certainly, life on campus does,” note the editors of the student newspaper at my alma mater, Oberlin College.  “No one knows what's going to happen.  So far, our version of the experiment is going rather well.   But really, the truth is this: There may be a world in which you can put roughly 1,900 students on a college campus during the COVID-19 pandemic and it works.  There also may not be.  There are too many variables this year to trust in guarantees.

“But we believe that if anyone can make it happen, it's Obies.  Our care for our community and our commitment to accountability makes us strong.  We hold each other accountable to be better people, to fight for a more equitable world, and to put our money where our mouths are.  It's one of the reasons a lot of us came to Oberlin in the first place: to grow and learn in an environment where we are constantly challenged to be better and make the world better.”

Excerpts from the ObieSafe website (scroll down to hear Covid Conversations):  Students will be required to log their temperatures and complete a symptom assessment checklist each morning through the Full Measure app.  A quarter of all students, faculty, and staff will be tested every week, so that each individual is tested once a month.  All students will be issued five reusable masks, which they are expected to wear everywhere except in a private bedroom with the door closed.  If you are hosting an intimate partner in your room, please follow all guidelines for affirmative consent and utilize self-isolation and other strategies to reduce the risk of COVID-19 to others.  Parties will not be permitted for students living on- or off-campus.  Protests will only be permitted out-of-doors, and all such events must require that all participants wear masks and maintain physical distancing.”

I went to grad school at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, which is also dealing with the situation.

Students weren't allowed to attend today's football game in the newly-roofed dome, but they're doing their best to stay six feet apart.  The Newhouse School produced a video.

Here's associate professor Simon Perez showing broadcast- and digital-journalism students how to hook up electronic gear.

Tents may not be practical when the snows arrive in upstate New York next month, and in northern Ohio the month after that.  However, my almae matres will deal with that problem when the time comes.



Fifty years ago, when I entered the labor force, life on Earth was more or less in balance between humans and other creatures.

By 2016, however, human numbers had doubled.  Meanwhile, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles had plunged by two-thirds.  That's according to the WWF and Zoological Society of London's biennial Living Planet Report


The Guardian summarizes:  “Wildlife populations are in freefall around the world, driven by human overconsumption, population growth and intensive agriculture.”

This situation has developed over a long period of time.  Eighteen years ago, I wrote a story about the prehistoric hunter Og.  His sister had been abducted.  Worse than that, a tiger ate his father, and another tiger ate his brother.  Also, Og developed a rash.  But he was assured that every misfortune happens for a reason.

Now I've written another Og story, in which global warming and overhunting have brought new challenges.  Food shortages have forced a neighboring tribe to abandon the nomadic life and invent agriculture — and with it, civilization.  Og and his friend encounter civilized females, but Og himself is unconvinced about this New Way of Life.


SEPTEMBER 19, 2010 flashback   IT COULD BE WORSE

Sixscore years ago on this date, on September 19, 1890, the Pittsburgh Alleghenies played a game of Base-Ball against the visiting New York Giants.

At the time, the Alleghenies were in eighth and last place in the National League with a record of 21 wins and 105 losses.  They were 61 games behind the first-place Brooklyn Grays, having lost thrice in one day to the "trolley dodgers" in a Labor Day tripleheader.


Pittsburgh's present team was eliminated from winning its division only 47 games into this shortened season.  But they're not as bad as they were 130 years ago.  Their winning percentage may be disappointing, but it's still higher than Branch Rickey's underachieving 1952 squad of Ralph Kiner, Joe Garagiola, and Dick Groat.

However, there was some hope for the Alleghenies on September 19.  Most of their contests that season had been on the road.  So far, they had played only 31 games at Recreation Park, and they had actually won 12 of them!

As they took the field that Friday afternoon, an enthusiastic hometown throng of 100 fans cheered from the grandstand.  (Yes, that’s right, one hundred.  The team’s estimated attendance for the entire season was only 16,064, which also ranked last in the NL.)

Alas, the home team did not win.  And we know what the rooters say about the home team:  if they don’t win, it’s a shame.  The game ended in a 7-7 tie.

In another two weeks, the 1890 season would come to a merciful conclusion.  The Alleghenies finished 23-113, with a road record of 9-88.  That season remains the worst in franchise history, considerably worse than even the current team's record of 50-98 (15-59 on the road).


There was nowhere to go but up.

When the Players’ League folded that fall, Pittsburgh picked up second baseman Lou Bierbauer.  In signing him, they were “pirating” him away from the Philadelphia Athletics, who supposedly still held Bierbauer's National League rights.

The following spring, the Pittsburgh nine moved into a new home, Exposition Park.  And they embraced their reputation as bad boys by adopting the pejorative nickname Pittsburgh Pirates.  Within another dozen years, they were in the World’s Series!

Maybe the present-day Pirates should try to steal second baseman Chase Utley from the Phillies?  Couldn't hurt.  Anything could happen.



With the high school football season getting under way, you may have noticed that fewer players are going out for the sport these days.  That's true across the nation, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In particular, here's the data for the state of Pennsylvania, where participation in 11-player football has been steadily dropping from a high of 26,910 participants in 2008-09.  The state lost another 225 high school football players in 2019-20.  Roughly speaking, over the past 11 years the participation rate of boys of high-school age has dropped from 7.0% to 6.6%.  (Nationwide, it's down to 6.2%.  One possible reason is a fear of serious injuries.)

The feeder system may be in decline, but there are still 130 universities in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision seeking high school graduates to fill out their rosters.

Half those FBS teams are members of the elite Power Five conferences.  For the most part they're still awarding the same number of scholarships, but a decreasing share of those scholarships are going to players from around here, specifically the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and Pittsburgh's City League.

Following an NCAA signing day last February, Mike White of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote, “It has been documented before by yours truly that the talent pool of major-college football talent in Western Pennsylvania is nowhere near as deep as it was even 10 years ago.  But the pool has never been as shallow as the class of 2020.”

Follow the blue line.  Thirty years ago, FBS schools signed 50 players from the WPIAL/City League.  Between twenty-five and ten years ago, the average was 30.  Seven years ago, the total dropped to 19, an all-time record.  But 2020 marked the lowest total ever, only 15.

How many local kids go to Power Five schools?  Follow the gold line.  Thirty years ago, 27.  Between twenty-five and ten years ago, an average of 18.  Last year, only 8, an all-time record.  But 2020 was even lower, with just 6.

This area “certainly has gifted players year after year,” White noted, “but not as many are suitable for big-time colleges.”  They may lack size and speed.

Could it be because most of the area steel mills have shut down?  Half the burly steelworkers lost their jobs between 1980 and 1984.  Many have gradually migrated elsewhere to find work, leaving an aging population.  A large part of the remaining families are in technology or health care or education, fields that don't require muscular genes.

Update, Sept. 2, 2021:  Mike White reports that “ten years ago, the depth chart for Pitt's season opener had 11 WPIAL players in the starting lineup,” but this year there are only two.  Both are offensive linemen.



In the spring of 1956, I was only nine years old.  At our house we still didn’t have television, but my recently widowed grandmother did have it at her place.  That's her in her rocking chair, with the TV set in the background.

During the daytime she watched soap operas.  Like everyone else, she called them “my shows.”  (How did that possessive term arise?)  A soap opera was a 15-minute serial drama, broadcast live from a studio in New York, accompanied by music improvised on the Hammond organ, and sponsored by a soap company.

On April 2, 1956, one such program upgraded the genre.  Its grand opening theme was played by both organ and piano.  And it was twice as long as the others.  The announcer said, “And now, for the next 30 minutes, As the World Turns, brought to you today by Ivory Snow.”

Ever since then, ATWT has been a daytime fixture on CBS.  After our family finally bought a TV set, my mother watched too.  She may have been watching on November 22, 1963, when Walter Cronkite interrupted with the news that President Kennedy had been shot.

However, after this Friday As the World Turns will go off the air.  In more than 54 years, there will have been 13,858 episodes.

That sounds like a very large number, doesn’t it?  But if you want a really large lifetime number, consider retired Pittsburgh baseball announcer Lanny Frattare.  In his 33 seasons of describing 162 games per year, assuming each team threw 143 pitches per game (the current pace), Lanny saw over 1.5 million pitches!



Whenever I was booked on the TV crew for a sportscast in our nation's capital, I usually traveled by air to the conveniently-located Washington National Airport, now Reagan National.  The short hop from Pittsburgh on a regional airliner would typically use the “Mount Vernon” approach, turning left near George Washington's old estate and heading due magnetic north (360°) up the Potomac River.  The plan was to aim for the White House but touch down 3½ miles short of it on Runway 36.

The date is uncertain — maybe 1994, give or take a few years — but one day I was sitting in my usual window seat, gazing out the right side of the plane at the river, preparing for landing.  However, instead of touching down the pilot banked left and advanced the throttles.  It was a missed approach!  He explained that another plane had come too close, so we had to fly elsewhere, come around, and make another try.

All right, I thought, we'll need to circle counterclockwise over northern Virginia and revisit Mount Vernon.  But we didn't gain very much altitude.  Before I knew it, we were on final approach again.  Apparently, Plan B was to obtain clearance and then circle right, proceeding to Runway 15 instead.  (I assume our plane didn't require the longer runway and the wind didn't require us to land in a certain direction.)

Looking out my window as we descended, I was amazed to see the Pentagon directly beneath us.  Were aircraft allowed to buzz the Defense Department?  I guess so.  I noticed various antennas on the roof only a few hundred feet below.  Then we landed, and I proceeded to my broadcast venue located elsewhere in that rather congested metropolitan area.

Other dates are less uncertain.

1970:  I actually was inside one of the rings of the Pentagon.  Our small group of Syracuse graduate students was visiting the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, who explained how the DoD releases news to journalists.

1999:  Runway 36 was renumbered Runway 1 because the earth's magnetic field had drifted.

2001:  American Airlines Flight 77 visited the southwest side of the Pentagon on this date at an even lower altitude.  The five hijackers were killed along with 59 others on board and 125 workers inside the building. 

The damaged section reopened within a year, with 184 benches in a new Pentagon Memorial adjacent to the crash site.


SEPTEMBER 10, 2010 flashback   BRING THE KIT

When I was a manager for our high school football team in the early 1960s, I sometimes had to run out onto the field carrying the trainer's emergency kit.  This was a big metal toolbox painted orange, our team color.  It held first-aid supplies and rolls of tape for patching up athletes.

One item was a scary-looking oral screw, a plastic tool that looked something like this.  As it was explained to me, sometimes an unconscious player would swallow his tongue, leaving him unable to breathe.  In such cases, the coach would have to insert this screw between his teeth and rotate it to force his jaws open, then reach into his mouth and retrieve the tongue.  Fortunately, I never witnessed this procedure.

The kit also contained a handful of smelling salts.  These were little glass ampoules, maybe an inch and a half long, containing aromatic spirits of ammonia.  Each was encased in a loosely woven white sleeve, designed to contain the shards of broken glass that would result from squeezing the ampoule between thumb and forefinger to release its contents.  The coach would hold the strong-smelling ammonia under the nose of a dazed player to shock him back into consciousness.

Nowadays, of course, we’re beginning to realize that when a football player “gets his bell rung,” it’s unwise to merely revive him with a whiff of smelling salts and send him back into action.  Instead, he needs to be checked for a possible concussion.


Back in those days, we didn't understand the importance of hydration, either.  Studies had shown that in marathons, the winners were the ones who lost the most water weight.  Therefore, losing fluids was necessary to maximize performance.  Dehydration was good!

We know better now, of course, but a Richwood Tiger football player wasn't allowed to drink any water on the practice field.  None at all.  He got thirsty, of course.  We managers had these plastic containers of lemon juice that we could squirt into his dry mouth on request.

While a manager, I described the play-by-play for several basketball games, one of them on an actual radio station.  But I never called a football game.  A few months after graduation, I got a chance to try.  It was on this very Friday night, 45 years ago, that I carried my tape recorder up to the roof of the pressbox at Memorial Field.  I had permission from the school to tape a fake radio broadcast.

There I am.  Well, no, actually that isn't me.  The photo was taken at a Richwood High School game on the same field a couple of years earlier.  But it could have been me.

The next week, I would be in college, and the next year, I would be broadcasting college football games for real.

September 10, 1965, was an historic date.  Richwood High School had consolidated with Byhalia to form the new North Union High School, though they were still using the same Richwood facilities until a new North Union building and football field could be constructed on the north edge of town.  This would be the very first game of the North Union Wildcats!

As I described the event in a letter five days later:

The Wildcats lost, 26-0.  Neither team was any good at running, as the blocking from a pair of underweight offensive lines wasn't working; only once was anyone able to turn the corner on an end sweep.  Marysville gained a good part of its yardage through the air.  North Union tried to pass, but [Jim] Blue was consistently wild; he either led his receivers too much or threw too short.  So, we can't run and we can't pass, and something's going to have to be done.

And [North Union] school spirit?  Well, to me it seems about as little as that of Richwood recently, except that there's less tradition.  No one seems to know the fight song or the Alma Mater; no one knows what a wildcat looks like; there's nothing to be proud of yet, not even a new high school building such as most other newly-consolidated schools have.  It's just a little bit dead.  Things are bound to improve as an NU tradition is formed, but this takes time.

It wasn't until their 45th season that the Wildcats finally qualified for the state playoffs in football, finishing with a 10-0 regular season record in 2009.


Before the pandemic changed everyone's routine, I usually paid my restaurant check with a $20 bill.  My change included $1 bills which I crammed into my wallet. 

Every few weeks I noticed my wallet was bulging with singles, so I removed ten or so and stashed them on a shelf.  Last winter I realized there was nearly $200 on that shelf.  I really ought to put the currency to better use, but how?  I didn't really want to walk up to a cash register clutching a pile of small bills.

After the pandemic changed everyone's routine, I began visiting more drive-through windows at fast-food places.  Aha, I thought.

Using a paper clip to package five $1 bills together, I stuffed a few such packets into my car's sun visor.  I hid a few more singles behind the other visor.  So if my order comes to $7.42, I simply hand over one packet plus three singles.  The clerk counts the bills and hands me a few coins.  I drop those into the car's center console, to be deposited at the bank when I've collected enough.  As of this week, the hoard on my shelf has been liquidated!

Next step:  switching over to using a credit card.



(The Orange kick off their football season at noon next Saturday)

In March I directed you to a “100 Moons” article consisting of letters I wrote from Syracuse around the time of the University's 100th anniversary in 1970.

My year on campus included another centennial, as commemorated by these helmets that I watched the football team wear in the fall of 1969.  Dozens of universities wore similar logos to honor what's considered the first college football game ever, in which Rutgers defeated Princeton 6 goals to 4 on November 6, 1869.

Of course, I wasn't aware at the time that a group of Black football players were beginning to hold secret midnight meetings about the racial injustice they were experiencing.  Eventually, the “Syracuse 8” (below) would sit out the 1970 season. 

But Syracuse University is foremost an institution of higher learning.  What was I studying there in 1969-70?

The previous article didn't explain much about that.  Therefore, here's this month's “100 Moons” to fill in more details.



“What do you want to be when you grow up?  You can be anything you like.”  That's what we tell kids.

Sometimes, of course, people are told what to do.  In old China, if you applied for a job as a civil servant the state would consider its needs, test your aptitudes, and then assign you to become a teacher or a policeman or an administrator or whatever.  In 1943 America, more than three million Americans were drafted into military service that year — including my future father, the 33-year-old office manager at a Chevrolet dealership.  He obviously wasn't cut out for the infantry, so the Army wisely trained him to sit behind a desk and issue soldiers' paychecks.  They also let him drive the payroll Jeep.

But today, most of us do not have careers assigned to us.  We freely choose.  That can lead to problems, according to Ken Jennings and John Roderick in a recent episode of their Omnibus podcast.

“A lot of the people who go for a job are the last ones who should have it, because of their reasons.  It's just like politics.  The politicians are all narcissists, and the cops are all bullies.  The people who become cops are the ones who really want to do that kind of stuff.  They want to bonk heads!”