self-organizing behavior

Well, baseball season is over. The Evil Empire won. To quote Rogers Hornsby, "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." I'm not quite like that, but I'll be happy when the Cardinals begin their pursuit of the 2010 world championship. Most of my students respond to my fondness for our national pastime with disdain. "Baseball is boring," they tell me. Maybe. It is a slow game. One September in graduate school my fellow geeks and I took the new first-year students to the old Durham Athletic Park (yes, the place they filmed Bull Durham) to watch the Bulls. At one point in the second inning the Russian woman sitting next to me turned and informed me that "this is the most boring thing I've ever seen!" I resisted the urge to come back with a jab at soccer, opting instead to explain the cultural significance of the game and how a night at the ballpark, complete with peanuts and Cracker Jack (and beer---not sure how that got left out of the song), is the most American of experiences.

And really, I don't see how baseball is more boring than, say, football. There are similar long stretches of inactivity between plays, lots of arcane rules, etc. The NFL drives me nuts---every game is either a blowout or a mad scramble to the end in which the last two minutes are all that matter. Yawn.

Some of my fondest memories revolve around baseball. As a boy my dad would take me to the old Tim McCarver stadium in Memphis to see the Chicks play (that's short for Chickasaws, by the way; they were the AA affiliate for the Montreal Expos). As an eight year old I ran freely around the park; parents didn't worry about safety as much then. Sometimes we'd bring along my friends Mike and Bill and we'd chase after foul balls and eat ice cream from those little batting helmets. I don't really remember the games so much, but I loved the atmosphere.

Twice, my dad took me to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play. We'd plan our trips for those weekends when they would play a double-header (two games for the price of one, unlike the nefarious day/night nonsense they do now). I saw Lou Brock steal bases. Keith Hernandez played first base. One time, Stan Musial showed up to the park to sign autographs for free (Hall of Famers used to do that); he signed a ball and a program for me. Unfortunately, he used a blue felt tip pen, so the ball faded away in time despite my best efforts to preserve it by keeping it in the dark. I still have the program, though.

I saw Barry Bonds hit home run number 758. I was three days too late to see 756; I had purchased my ticket months earlier as part of planning a business trip to the west coast. When I bought it I figured he'd have already broken the record by the time I got there, but he went into something of a slump in July and I started to get excited that I might actually see Hammerin' Hank's record get broken. Alas, I was in Anaheim at the Angels-Red Sox game on the Tuesday Barry hit his home run. By the time I got there on Friday, AT&T Park was half-empty, the throngs satisfied and no longer interested in seeing the aging, embattled star.   I count myself among those who think Barry's record is illegitimate, but I also think we're deluding ourselves if we think that Babe Ruth wouldn't have used steroids if they were available.  Bonds's chase made for good theater, though.  Plus, it's fun to sit next to drunk guys who taunt players who have showed up on the Mitchell Report (anyone else think it's odd that Bud Selig got a Nobel laureate to do a report about something like steroid use in professional baseball?).  I was at the Yankees-Rays game last month where Alex Rodriguez, in the sixth inning alone, went 2 for 2 with 2 HR and 7 RBI, setting an American League record.  The Rays fans next to me chanted "A-Roid, A-Roid" every time he came to the plate.  (aside:  the Major League record for RBI in one inning is held by Fernando Tatis, a Cardinal at the time, who hit 2 grand slams in one inning against the Dodgers in 1999.)

I used to fantasize about being a pitcher in the bigs.  During summers spent at my dad's place I would stay up to ungodly hours of the night (he worked 3rd shift) pitching mock seventh games in the World Series.  In my dreams I had a fastball in the high 90s, a very effective change-up, and a nasty slider that would leave guys like Reggie Jackson looking foolish as they flailed wildly at my amazing pitches.  In reality, I played little league one year, in which I rode the bench, played the obligatory one inning per game (always in left field), and went 0 for the season (although I did reach on an error once).  Even today, as an adult, my fastball tops out at 52 mph.  I never had a chance.

I didn't give up on the game, though, and spent countless hours playing catch and pick-up games in my neighborhood.  We often used tennis balls and no gloves as we played 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 games.  We'd have to use "ghost runners" after hits so we could go back and bat again when we got through our abbreviated lineups.  In one apartment complex we lived in, my friends and I played in a particular field adjacent to a road with speed bumps.  The rule was that if you could hit the ball on the fly past the nearest speed bump (maybe 250 feet away) it was an automatic home run.  My biggest moment of baseball glory came the day I managed this feat, clearing a semi trailer parked in between me and the bump.  I was legendary, for 15 minutes anyway.  Nowadays, I have to stick to the softball slot in the batting cages.  Last week I tried the slow pitch baseball machine and could barely make contact.  I think it really is true that the toughest thing to do in sports is to hit a major league fastball.

But this post isn't some maudlin story about missing my relationship with my estranged father or longing for my youth.  A thousand words in I'm finally coming around to my point.  It's this:  my friends and I spent lots of time hanging out and organizing our own games.  No one did this for us.  Today's kids have no clue what this is like.  We just moved to Gainesville from Starkville, Mississippi, where some people claim tee-ball was invented (there's some controversy about that).  Our house was about 100 yards from the town's baseball complex; on spring nights we could hear the clank of aluminum bats and frantic cheering from our deck.  Sometimes I'd walk over to see what was going on and I found four-year-olds playing tee-ball.  Four-year-olds.  When I was four I was playing with Hot Wheels in the dirt and snapping Legos together, not participating in organized sports.  By the time kids are eight (or even seven), they spend their summers on traveling teams traversing the southeast playing baseball.   It never occurred to me to play little league until I was nine.  These kids could not organize their own pick-up game because they've never had to; everything has always been organized and planned for them.  From the time they are able to play with other kids we set up play dates.  As soon as we can get them on to a team, we do it.

Just today, one of the assistant directors in my office got an email from the mother of an eighth-grader (in a pre-IB program (!)), asking which high school she should send her daughter to so that she'll be most competitive for admission to UF.  Whatever happened to just going to school?  And then coming home and rounding up a pick-up game?  As my wife's Facebook status read yesterday, "There's too much striving going on and not enough living."  I'd like to teach my son to just live, but every time I don't advocate for him I feel like a bad parent because I know everyone else is obsessing about getting their kids the best teachers in the best magnet program in the best school that sets them up for the IB program that will prepare them best for the best college so they can get into the best graduate school and have the best life that anyone ever had.

Except it cannot work that way.  It's just too much to live up to.   The world is a random place and there are too many variables to account for.  Preparation and planning are nice, and I encourage it to a point, but sometimes you have to just  let people figure it out for themselves.  And if you don't start fairly early then you're raising a kid who can't make phone calls to the registrar's office himself, but has to get dad to do it.  And he will because he always has.  Vicious cycle.

Ants self-organize out of necessity.  They build elaborate structures all by themselves, with no supervision.  Maybe it's time to let the kids be ants, at least a little.