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News » Private Eye

Team Play

High school sports should not be shaped by ward-house politics


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Everybody thinks they have a book in them, or a movie. I know I do, or did, anyway. For the longest time, I thought I’d write the great American movie about how tough it was adapting to life in the United States for immigrant miners like my two grandfathers. Most men of that era came here flat-broke, and a bare few spoke even a couple words of English. They were often separated into camps of Greeks, Italian or Slavs—each group housed in separate ethnic camps and paid in scrip by the mine owners who exploited them.

In the movie I never wrote, I planned to have the immigrants learning to communicate with each other in a tavern. A tavern was where they all gathered and, when not fighting one another, the miners would have been ordering their drinks and paying for them in a common tongue. But, the tavern juxtaposition just didn’t cut it and, besides, most of those groups only visited taverns operated by their own kind.

I thought about scenes from that movie for more than 20 years, not putting a single one to paper. I didn’t know it, but the movie had already been written and directed by John Sayles. His movie was Matewan, set in the same era as my own dream movie, but in West Virginia’s coalmines, not Utah’s. In Portland about 10 years ago, I met Sayles’ wife, Maggie Renzi, who produced Sayles’ movies (Lone Star, Return of the Secaucus Seven, Men With Guns). I told her she ruined my life by beating me to the movie. She laughed, and we partied for three days running. A few years later, I ran into Renzi and Sayles in San Antonio, and I told him the same thing. Then, I congratulated him on solving the tavern dilemma.

In Matewan, the immigrants don’t learn English in a tavern. They become acclimated to America in the simplest, most basic form, at the same place that has unified generations of Americans: On the baseball diamond. It was a stroke of brilliance on Sayles’ part, and a natural setting for the guy who also gave screen fans Eight Men Out, the story of the Chicago Black Sox scandal. My second movie would have been Barfly, so it’s easy to gauge the difference between a thoughtful writer like Sayles and myself. Baseball was a piece of glue in Matewan—that special game, played on that special field, upon which nearly all boys are measured for a lifetime. Nothing is as American as baseball—not apple pie, not the flag, not even bashing Republican presidents.

I’m writing this column from the Cooperstown Dreams Park, near where Abner Doubleday invented baseball, and just down the road from The National Baseball Hall of Fame. You want baseball and apple pie—visit the postcard that is Main Street Cooperstown, a timepiece of what small-town America used to be. I’m surrounded by over 20 baseball diamonds, with a game being played in nearly every one; 104 teams are registered in week 7 of the 13-week tournament series, held in Cooperstown each year since 1996. Two Utah teams are here, the Murray Spartans and the Utah Black Sox (comprised of kids from West Jordan and Tooele and, coincidentally, co-sponsored by City Weekly).

I’m here with the Spartans, who currently have 3 wins and 2 losses. Each Murray kid has had the chance to be the windshield and the bug—for example, my son hit a grand slam and pitched a save as Murray won two games on Sunday—cloud nine. Monday, he gave up three homers in the first inning of the game he pitched as Murray got waxed in both games they played—depression city. This morning, Murray won and the kids are elated again. That’s baseball—up and down—and never mind that some of the kids they’re playing against look like they could star in their own Gillette commercials.

I was skeptical about coming here for eight days of perceived babysitting. But, if there’s a better place to be in America right now, I’d like to know where that might be. Besides the stunning countryside of upstate New York, the whole acreage of Cooperstown Dreams Park emits a positive, energizing energy. Disneyland Theme Park’s could learn a thing or two about mop-up from these guys. Even the most casual baseball fan would fall in love with this idyllic, wonderful place.

And Dreams Park works like Matewan. My son, and perhaps one more player, are the only non-LDS kids on the team. That puts me in a religious and cultural minority, too. I had no idea what to expect. But here’s the deal: These folks—even Grant—are near-perfect role models for their own kids. We care equally about our kids, and we cheer in unison for all of our sons. The parents have bonded in ways that wouldn’t have occurred without these baseball diamonds. These are a fantastic bunch of people, and most of us wouldn’t have met if not for this team. However, I remain mystified how my new friends can become so silly without alcohol to speed the process—I mean, grownups doing cheerleading and break dancing—but I’ll get to the bottom of it by week’s end.

And, I’ll be an advocate of this concept forever: I hope that back home we drop the closed-loop of church leagues—LDS and non—and move past the ward-house politics that shape local high school sports. There’s no denying it exists, and the outcome is a bitter one. Sports should bring us together, team rivalries aside, not separate us. If we become split over something so natural as team play, there’s no hope that we can even pretend to get along as good neighbors. And anything that so patently divides Utahns only makes us all weaker.