Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Earl's Darkest Secret



Most of my friends are aware that I'm not a big sports fan. I can name perhaps two hockey players, two football players, one soccer player (Pele, from ads in comic books), and I know a few team names. Oh, and I know who Muhammad Ali is, thanks to the classic 70s giant tabloid comic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. ("Superman, WE are the greatest!")

But at the urging of my parents and various teachers, I was involved in a few sports in my youth. I curled for three years, and my team placed third one year, first another - no thanks to me, really. I played baseball in Leaf Rapids and Leduc - terribly. During one memorable game, I was hit in the groin twice and the buttocks once while at bat. However, that was three more times I got on base than usual, and at least I was better off than my friend Jeff Pitts, who once famously took a flung bat to the skull. (He's okay, and has survived far worse.)

And, as pictured above, I actually managed one of the intramural baseball teams at Leduc Junior High. I still have the score sheets kicking around somewhere.

Despite my indifference (some would say "antipathy") to sports, I find myself drawn to baseball. It seems more civilized to me than other sports, for one thing; it seems as much a game of physics as anything. There's little physical contact (unless there's a brawl), and there's something appealing about the culture of baseball: the music, the association with hot summer days, popcorn, hot dogs, cold drinks. And it's a game that anyone can play - anyone with a bat, a ball, a glove and some forgiving friends.

Jeff Shyluk and I played Earl Weaver Baseball on his Amiga during the waning days of our university careers. We created two teams: the Minions of Chaos and the Paladins of Order, based on characters we created (or stole) for a series of collaborative short stories we wrote on Ron Briscoe's Freedom BBS. Players such as Irrational Carrot and Beef Ball Moo squared off against Paramount Importance and Bottle Dropper at two ball fields Verlucci Gruond (yes, spelled exactly that way) and...and I can't remember the "good guy" field. Perhaps Jeff will assist.

This all culminated in the End of the World Series, a real nail-biter of a contest, during which one certain homer was memorably foiled by the ridiculously high outfield wall of Verlucci Gruond. I screamed and yelled and my manager character onscreen did exactly the same, kicking virtual sand on the umpire. When that happened, Jeff and I almost went mad with laughter.

The Paladins - my team - won the series, if only just, and thankfully the infamous All-Star game didn't count. (I believe I lost that one 99-1.)

Even now I sometimes get the urge to find a bat, a ball, a glove and a friend and waste an hour or two cracking wood against...against whatever baseballs are made of.

I do understand, at least a little, why so many of my friends and family members enjoy sports. There's something beautiful about the human body in action the human mind calculating angles and vectors and velocities, interposing bat or stick in just the right spot at just the right moment. Perhaps it's just the angry side of sports that turns me off, the urge to win at all costs, to hurt others in the pursuit of something as abstract as a championship.

When people play, everyone should win. Maybe that's naive, but that's the kind of sportsmanship I can get behind.

15 comments:

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

I would argue that sports share at least one characteristic with religion: the more organized they become, the the less fun they are. I have always maintained that 'games' are more fun than 'sports'. Do you remember caring who won a game of freeze tag or jump-ball at recess?

Sean said...

You know, I do have two gloves, a baseball, and a baseball bat...

Good post.

Steve: *I* cared about winning freeze tag at recess. : )

Totty said...

If you think baseball is civilized, you'll love cricket. It's the same, only longer, but with tea and lunch breaks. The big international "Test" matches can last 5 days.

ZeeBride said...

Totty is right, cricket is even more languid and after 5 days play, it can still end in a draw.

Dusty said...

No real sport is played with a round ball. Also physical contact is they only true way to know love.

Anonymous said...

Believe this or not, people are asking me to respond to this. I don't blog, I do enough writing as it is. But on the other hand (as usual), I have a lot to say on this topic which is also a very deep one, although Earl seems careful just to scratch at the surface.

Like Earl, I have been fascinated by baseball as soon as I was old enough to figure out the basics of the game. While I do agree that it's more fun to actually play baseball that just watch it, it would also help to have even the smallest amount of talent at the game, which I lack. I guess I have fallen in love with the fantasy that baseball has to offer, which is why I have also been very active with baseball computer games.

So, I will divide this post into segments. I realize this is Earl's blog and talking about myself for great length is gauche. I feel that to adequately explore Earl's story, we need to have some of mine as well. I apologise to anyone who thinks I am going too far here. I just want to help Earl tell his story.

Earl J. Woods said...

Please continue! I may be running an eponymous blog, but I always feel more comfortable when the writing isn't always about me.

Besides, I always appreciate your writing, I am Anonymous (Jeff).

Twenty points to whoever gets the reference.

Anonymous said...

I. BASEBALL SUB-MEDIOCRITY
Why would Earl even begin to consider playing a fantasy baseball game? Earl did play his share of computer games in University, but I don't think he is or was addicted to games the way that I am.

I have never been talented at baseball, despite the fact that I agree with Earl how fulfilling the game can be. In university, I played on a neighborhood team, and I was a lousy second baseman. Our team made it into the city playoffs because our neighborhood was so small all the teams in our division made it. I decided I could pitch the warm-ups for our team while the top players took time away for a strategy meeting, or beer and smokes. I pitched to my buddy who knocked me unconscious with a perfectly-hit line drive. I found out at the hospital that our team went on to win the city championship without me. Yay, team.

Baseball runs deep in my wife's side of the family, not mine. My mother-in-law was an exceptional ballplayer, truly gifted at the game. She played ball with her sister on an itinerant team that went around the Canadian prairie challenging men's teams. My brother-in-law has kind of a pug nose because she made a head-first slide into second base when she was seven or eight months pregnant with him. Well, I don't know about the nose for sure, but she did play ball while pregnant and she did slide to avoid the tag while in her final trimester.

The only time I ever really saw her play ball was at a family reuinion. By this time, she was crippled with cancer. She was not doing all that well. However getting out of doors made her feel a bit better, and there was no talking her out of playing baseball.

I remember coming up to the plate, and for whatever reason, I aped the famous Babe Ruth gesture of pointing to the outfield. I don't have enough power to heat a cup of coffee, so it was like watching another person stride out to the batting box and point like an idiot.

When I got a pitch I could hit, I laid into it with all I had. It was maybe the hardest ball I had ever hit. The contact jolted me like lightning. It was that pure, sweet crack of the bat that signals connection on all the right levels: ball, bat, me, the universe.

It was a line drive like a cannonball between second and short, rising as it blasted over the hapless pitcher. The outfielders were too far apart and out of position. The only one who could get this ball was my mother-in-law, looking grey, shrivelled, and in pain.

Her alert eyes instantly tracked the ball, and I saw as I took my first step that she had coiled herself for a leap. She actually jumped into the air, fully extended (I thought she jumped out of her skin), and snagged that ball in exactly the way you see big-league players do it on highlight reels for the evening sports show on TV. She landed and flipped back to the pitcher as if there was no cancer eating at her insides, and as if I hadn't hit the best ball of my life.

Afterward, she even told me sorry, because she knew that ball had legs and if she let up even just a tiny bit I would have had a monster hit. Sorry? No, that was one of the best catches I had ever seen. The hit was lucky, but that catch was a gift from God. Thus endeth my baseball career.

Anonymous said...

II. BASEBALL GEEKDOM

I do like the fantasy aspect of the game. I played in fanatsy pools, and then I got involved with OOTPB, which stands for "Out Of The Park Baseball", a computer game. I started with OOTPB3, and now OOTPB10 just came out the other day. It's an excellent baseball simulator, well worth the price. I highly reccomend it for anybody interested in baseball.

Any baseball computer game geek will tell you that among the greatest baseball games are OOTPB, High Heat Baseball (especially HHB3), and Earl Weaver Baseball (which morphed into Tony LaRussa Baseball, which also in part merged into the High Heat series).

Earl Weaver Baseball was the computer first baseball game to incorporate AI decision-making based on real manegerial wisdom, and Earl Weaver was perhaps one of the smartest managers in the game. EWB could play a real game of baseball, which is why I loved it.

Earl Woods came to like the game because it had this crazy voice synthesis module that could speak any name you gave to a player. It wasn't a human voice, but a bit like Steven Hawking's robot voicebox. Really, I didn't know much about Earl and baseball, but I grew to find out more as time went on. I at least found out that giving rediculous names to baseball players would make Earl howl like a baboon.

I already had a bustling fantasy league going, and Earl showed some interest in it. At the time, the Toronto Blue Jays were in the World Series. We could also watch real-world baseball on television.

It was a little strange watching TV with Earl, and there were no phasers, necromicons, or bits of naked Carolyn Munro in sight. However, watching the Jays make a run for the biggest trophy in baseball made for some great games and a lot of patriotic chest-thumping. I am sure those aspects figured deeply into Earl's sudden mania to watch baseball.

And it was manic. I remember Earl jumping out of the couch and shouting hysterically at the TV when Jay Buehner made his epic slide into home. Earl took ownership of Joe Carter's massive home runs as if he had hit them hismelf. It was a lot of fun. Earl, being smart, sensitive, and excitiable, was an impressive fan of the game.

Anonymous said...

III. ORDER vs CHAOS vs BASEBALL

Earl and I hit upon the idea of creating our own World Series. He had (still has) a running saga of an epic battle of good and evil featuring the Paladins of ORDER and the Minions of CHAOS. This battle is maybe best thought of as like a comic book, but without any pictures. There were at least 200-250 distinct characters in this universe, although Earl usually worked with about a dozen at a time. The closest analogue would be maybe "The Tick", although I recall an "Angry Carrot" or some such. There are a number of indie comics that share this template.

You want to know where Earl got his start with writing? Well, not with ORDER vs CHAOS, but he and I and others spent a lot of time adding to the story. You don't get good at any human endeavour without practise, so the O vs C epic helped Earl learn how to write effectively, at least up to a point.

So Earl had a couple hundred usable characters and I had a baseball simulator. We decided to combine them together, but the results were not like getting chocolate in your peanut butter.

For one thing, EWB allowed for total customization of the game of baseball, including field dimensions.

Paladin Field (I'm pretty sure that was what it was called) was the home field for heroic ORDER. it was perfectly symmetrical with low walls all around so that all of the fans could get the best view of the game. Its dimensions were generous, but fair. I believe we modelled it after Kaufmann Park in Kansas City, one of the most beautiful (and symmetrical) parks in America.

Verlucci Gruond was the home field for CHAOS. It was felt that the mis-spelling would add to the feeling of dread and evil that surrounded this horribly mis-shapen ballpark. The Gruond was absolutely as asymmetrical as the EWB game would allow. Think of the old Polo Grounds welded sideways onto Fenway, and that was the Gruond. It had a massive left field wall twice the size of Fenway's that actually blocked the view of the seats behind it, as EWB allowed for walls taller than the bleacher seating. The wall got shorter, but it twisted about as much as the game would allow. In short, it was a Moebius Wall.

The amazing thing was that EWB had enough graphical punch to display these parks in at least a reasonable amount of glory. If you go to Wiki and look up the Earl Weaver Baseball article, you can see what I mean. It's no wonder that EWB was voted as one of the 25 Greatest Computer Games Of All Time!

Anonymous said...

IV. ALL-STAR BREAK-UP

After the fields were worked out, we drew up the ORDER and CHAOS rosters. We had to use the character biographies that Earl provided and somehow fit them into the statistical table that was at the heart of EWB.

Dolt Man, one of Earl's favourites, was a big, dumb, lovable brute. Someone like that was easy, for you rate him high on strength, low on intelligence, and decent for everything else. Superman was another Earl favourite. But Superman would break the game (the stat ratings went from 1-10, but they could go insanely higher due to a game glitch). Earl argues that Supes would keep a tiny amount of green kryptonite on his person, just enough to slow him down so that the game could depict him.

Then there was Incontinent Cow. Could a cow hold a bat? If so, how well could it swing? We decided that cattle have no batting power, but a trained, focussed, and motivated cow could probably make an effective bunt. And so on. Naked Singularity, Whip Woman, Bottle Dropper, Tooth Shootist -- Earl was affirmative action and equal opportunity, as long as we could fill the rosters.

Eager but dreading it, we wanted to see how our fantasy teams matched up. Unfortunately, we waffled on the idea of playing out a whole season, and settled on an End Of The World Series.

Before we could do that, we decided on testing out the game with an All-Star exhibition. As Earl correctly reported, the score was 99-1, so there's not much suspense there.

EWB had a function to "clone" players to help fill out rosters. We decided it was keeping in with comic book tradition to take the best single player from each team and clone him/her/it to fill the roster.

So Superman cloned (ORDER) faced I believe Irrational Carrot cloned(CHAOS) for the inaugural and final exhibition game at Verlucci Gruond. Each player was cloned enough times to fill the entire roster. The game was terrible.

I guess we nerfed Superman too much because he was immediately overwhelmed by superior Carrot offense and defense. The Man Of Steel was able to chalk up only one run for every ninety-nine that Carrot scored. We watched the game play itself out with a mixture of horror and morbid fascination. It seemed to take forever. I think Superman managed to get his only run in the 7th or 8th inning.

We did succeed in proving that Verlucci Ground was indeed a hotbed of evil. I don't think Earl ever explained in the canon of the ORDER vs CHAOS storyline what happened to the clones after the game.

Anonymous said...

V. THE END OF THE WORLD SERIES

As the end of a chapter of the epic ORDER vs CHAOS battle, we decided to let EWB decide the ultimate victor in the ultimate contest on the ultimate battlefield: The End Of The World Series.

Earl promised to draw the storyline into either a heroic climax or a dreadful apocalypse depending on the outcome of a seven game series patterned after the World Series. It was probably the first and last time Earl allowed a computer game to decide the direction of his writing career.

Strangely enough, I have little reccollection of the games, and I can find no record of them. This much I remember: they were utterly spectacular games.

The teams were perfectly matched foils for one another. We thought that such outlandish players would never gel as teams, but EWB somehow made them work magic on the virtual field.

The game's managerial AI followed our wishes precisely. It knew when to force a steal, when to try for a squeeze bunt, when to throw junk to fool the opposing batter exactly as we wished for it. In the game, there was even a little animated Earl Weaver who would come out of the dugout to kick sand on the umpire's shoes when arguing a call. "Safe!" Earl Weaver would declare, while the ump would bellow a triplet of "Out! Out! Out!". Better still, you could have Earl Weaver argue a call by hitting a key.

Once Earl Woods was convinced that his runner was safe. He pointed to the screen and started yelling at me about the unfairness of the call. At that same moment, virtual Earl Weaver automatically lumbered out of the dugout, sand was kicked, words were exchanged... Earl Weaver and Earl Woods were as one and the same for that one brief moment. Priceless!

I also remember that the EOTW Series went the full seven games, which was amazing, thrilling baseball all of the way. Game seven was decided in the bottom of the ninth with a heroic ORDER single, if memory serves, that batted in the winning run.

ORDER won the series, the world was saved, and Earl Woods/Weaver proved to be the better baseball manager, if only by the vagary of a bloop single.

Anonymous said...

VI. POST GAME MORTEM

I have never simulated a baseball series as exciting as that End Of The World Series. Earl went back to his normal pursuits. I always knew from then on that Earl had a liking for baseball, but other things took precedence.

Some time ago, Earl and I were discussing the funniest possible single-line jokes that you could use as e-mail headers. Earl, of course, favour puns. You make his day when you pun in e-mail.

I sometimes like cruelty in my humour, although it could be argued that a great pun also inflicts great cruelty.

I settled upon "Earl Gets Hit On Head By Baseball" as being a funny e-mail header, as I can imagine the cocoanut klop sound a baseball would make as it clonked Earl on th headbone. I've always figured that the chances of Earl being in the same postal code as a real baseball, let alone one that would hit him on the head would be near zero. I don't really want Earl to get hit, as I know what happens when you get clobbered by one of those things, but to see that on the top of an e-mail, a serious e-mail that probably has nothing at all to do with Earl, would be kind of funny. I've never used it though.

And now Earl dredges up his own Clueless Joe tale of baseball, and for me that releases an entire flood of memories. My wife barely remembers the End Of The World Series. She recalls it dimly as one of the geekier things I have ever done, but that's a bit like saying that Iron Chef cooks a lot.

Is a secret love of baseball Earl's Darkest Secret? No, I'd say it was the time he recorded an awesome Star Trek themed message for his telephone answering machine, and something, er, happened to that message not long after he created it, but he didn't have a back-up copy...

I think it's actually pretty cool the Earl got into baseball back then, and that he still gets it now. Thanks for the memory Earl, and for letting me post this long reminiscence. That was fun, now play ball!

Earl J. Woods said...

Jeff, thank you so much for bringing that wonderful era back to life. I had a blast playing out that series, and I still remember the Earl Weaver computer voice intoning, with deadly Hawking-esque seriousness,

"At...bat...Irrational...Carrot. At...bat...Silly...Milk. At...bat...Toe...Stubber. At...bat...Shrieking...Groaner."


The story about Susan's mom was beautiful, and I'm glad you shared it.