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GP12May04: Tall Trees & Sturdy Men

Spring Has Sprung.  The irises are spectacular, the peonies have added an extra bolt of color to garden beds that may have been too green, and we are deluged with crimson roses that are now shooting up the white columns and latticework towards the front of the house.  Meanwhile, our Princeton Elm, though still young, is positively soaring and promises much future protection against the very ultraviolet Southern sun that now sears the thirsty lawn. 

The Cemetery Elm.  Our good friend Roger Holloway of River Edge Farms (www.americanelm.com), who sent us the disease-resistant (or, in the new vernacular, disease-tolerant) elm, thinks he has found the grandparent of all his Princeton elms. A grower, he has made it his mission to spread these elms about the country.  He is a member of our Global Province Network, where you can catch up on him.  But you can read more about him and the Princeton elms he has made his vocation and avocation on the front page of The New York Times (May 7, 2004, pp. Al & C16). DNA tests seem to confirm that a noble Princeton Cemetery elm, some 100 feet tall and apparently predating the founding of the cemetery in 1757, is the ancestor of all the wonderful, sturdy elms one finds in Princeton. 

Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  For Linda Peterson, a friend of long standing and such a talented writer about a panoply of things, Spring is about baseball.  As she takes in the doings of the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics out in the Bay Area, she has summoned up for us here memories of a baseball giant of yesterday: 

… All of which reminds me of my childhood team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the great left-handed accidental ethicist, Sandy Koufax … who declined to pitch on the Opening Day of the 1965 World Series, because it fell on Yom Kippur.  In Jane Leavy’s elegant biography, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, she writes about covering the U.S. Open tennis matches for the Washington Post on Yom Kippur, twenty years after Koufax took his stand.  “It was the day the Korean airliner was shot down over Soviet airspace. Deadlines were tight.  I remember feeling pressured and something else, a discomfort in my own skin.  I remember thinking ‘Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.’  I have not worked on the High Holidays since. Sandy Koufax had made himself at home in my soul.  In this I am not alone.” 

Flexible Is Good, Focus Is Better.  So, here’s something you might not know about Koufax.  He started his athletic career as a hoopsman, with a dream of playing for the Knicks one day.  But he had an arm—albeit untamed.  A couple of Dodger scouts, including Al Campanis, saw him throw, and lobbied Buzzie Bavasi to sign him.  But Koufax’s start was anything but impressive.  “Totally inconsistent, but brilliant,” was the rap.  But, with help from a lot of folks, including pitching coaches, and some gifted catchers, Koufax began to emerge as a star.  Most of all, it was his own focus on getting things right.  Robert Pinsky, the former American poet laureate, saw Koufax pitch at Ebbets Field, and years later, as Jane Leavy tells the story, he ended up with a poster of Koufax pitching.  As Leavy writes, “Pinsky hung the poster on his office door.  In the arc and force of the pitcher’s motion, Pinsky saw everything he wanted his students to know about writing: balance and concentration; a supremely synchronized effort the transfer of energy toward a single, elusive goal.” (Literary fans: check out Pinsky’s The Night Game, which captures romantic love, baseball and Koufax’s focus in, well … sheer poetry.)  (For more on Pinsky and his colleagues, read “Best  Intimate Creative Writing Program” in Best of Class.)  

You’ve Got to Play Hurt.  Sports docs, microsurgery, drugs—today’s ballplayers have plenty of resources when the body starts to break down.  In Koufax’s day, high tech was an inner-tube sleeve for his arm, plunged into a bin of ice.  Koufax’s arm began to wear out way before the rest of him.  He pitched most of the last seasons in constant pain, and he had begun to lose feeling in the fingers in his left hand.  He’d wake up on game day with his arm grotesquely swollen.  Still, Koufax soldiered on, refusing to gripe.  

Results, Results, Results (and Pay Attention to the Metrics).  In a short career, Koufax assembled an amazing record that earned him three Cy Young awards: no-hitters (June ’62, May ’63, June ’64) and a no-hitter-plus a perfect game on September 9, 1965.  A perfect game occurs when a pitcher faces 27 batters and no one gets on base.  They all strike out, fly out or are tagged out while getting to first base.  A perfect game is one of baseball’s rarest accomplishments; only 16 exist in major league history.  

Koufax was a serious student of what worked.  When the team statistician Allan Roth tracked at-bats his numbers revealed a deepening of what pitching fans know in their guts: it’s best to get ahead on the count.  But Roth’s analysis also showed Koufax how significant an advantage it was, leading Koufax to focus on getting that first pitch just right.  So, when asked what his favorite pitch was, he’d reply “Strike one.”  

Be Generous, Graceful and Know When to Leave.  Koufax was a gentleman on the field, and continues to be a gentleman in life.  He forged relationships with black teammates, befriended old-timers when they were failing, made friends out of enemies. And famously, when Game One of the World Series in 1965 fell on Yom Kippur, Koufax refused to pitch.  (In case you’ve forgotten, the Dodgers won the Series that year, with Koufax pitching the seventh game, shutting out the Minnesota Twins, 7-0.)  He retired at age 30, because he knew his arm was shot.  

The Bertuzzi Incident.  We’re passionate hockey fans.  But back in March, we were much put off when Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punched Colorado’s Steve Moore from behind and ground his face into the ice.  He’s on suspension, but we wondered what it takes to get thrown out of the sport.  It was the sort of thing that puts you off your feed.  That March Madness is now well behind us, as we celebrate in May the more enduring qualities of Roger Holloway’s  Princeton Elm and Linda Peterson’s Sandy Koufax, both very much with us in the present day.  

There Are Still Giants.  In baseball, in nature, in every aspect of the planet, there are still giants if we will hunt them out.  Let us write about them and skip by the mediocre.   The problem is not to fall for pale imitations that get diseased or otherwise go bad.   May we ever discover good character, ebullient DNA, or whatever it is that produces lasting bests. 

As we swim further into this Genetic Century (see Big Ideas to think about the nanobiotech world we have entered) with its infinite possibilities for cloning, we would do well to remember  that only very good stock—in trees or men—produces enduring excellence. 

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