The perfect game

I know I’ve been a little sports-heavy on this blog, but indulge me a few words about Matt Cain. The stalwart grand old man (at the age of 27) of the San Francisco Giants pitching staff sums up everything that’s good and just and right about baseball and sports in general. After seven years of dependable, often dominating, pitching, Cainer pitched his first no-hitter as a major leaguer last night. Not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game, meaning that he allowed no opposing players (in this case, Houston Astros) to reach base. To put this in perspective for non-sports fans, only 22 pitchers in major league history have pitched a perfect game;  no Giant has ever done it. And the only other pitcher to strike out 14 batters in a perfect game, as Cain did, was Sandy Koufax. Look him up, if you’ve never heard the name.

What makes Cain’s perfect game so, well, perfect is that it really could not have happened to a better player and a better man. Cain’s calm, mature demeanor on the field has made him the rock of the Giants staff. He is a quiet but fearless leader, the team’s player union rep. He never whines, never showboats. He handled his recent contract renegotiation with class, never issuing threats or ultimatums. He has been a Giant his whole career, and, thanks to the front office’s commitment to pitching, will finish his career as one. He is the face of the Giants’ connection to Project Open Hand, the venerable San Francisco charity that provides food for people living with HIV and AIDS, sponsoring the annual fun run the Giants hold to raise funds for the group. In the Showtime documentary series about the Giants, “The Franchise,”  Cain came across as a devoted husband and new father, and he remains one of those players about whom you never hear a whiff of scandal. When asked what he did on the day of the perfect game, Cain said that it had been just another homestand day:  had breakfast with his wife and daughter, let “my crazy one and a half year old” run around in a park, you know, family stuff.

And that’s the thing about sports history, you never know when it’s going to happen. You turn on the TV or you head to the park for just another Wednesday night game, except, in baseball, you can never be sure you’ll be seeing just another Wednesday night game. There’s always the potential for ordinary to turn extraordinary. Sports is unscripted drama, but not in the manufactured way of reality TV. It’s a drama (or, often, comedy) that plays out spontaneously, yet no one could have written it better. When Cain, the archetype of the broad-shouldered, un-flashy hero — think Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper  —  took the perfect game into the fifth, and then the sixth, and seventh, the crowd came to life, standing and urging Cain on with every pitch. His teammates went into a hyper-focused state, making impossible catches to take away runs, digging as deep as Cain was to avoid committing errors in the field that would have permitted a man to reach base.

When the final out came, the usually stoic Cain pumped his arm and shouted,  the Giants mobbed him and the crowd wept and cheered.  Recently voted the most unsung pitcher in baseball by his peers in an ESPN Magazine poll,  Cain had finally gotten the recognition he deserved. Catcher Buster Posey, who’s cut from the same preternaturally mature cloth as Cain and who spent most of 2011 recovering from a horrific on field leg and ankle injury, entered the record books as Cain’s battery mate in perfection — the baseball gods taketh away, the baseball gods giveth back and say, “My bad, bro.”

And that’s another beautiful thing about baseball:  Cain was not laboring alone out there, he needed Posey and his teammates (by the way, the final score was 10-0, for a team that usually takes a week to score that many runs) to ensure his achievement. A perfect game may be etched in one man’s legacy, but it is not his legacy, or his accomplishment, alone.  Matt Cain knows it, which is why he sat at the podium answering press questions flanked by Posey on one side and outfielder Gregor Blanco, of the magnificent catch, on the other. And, which is why Matt Cain will have a statue outside AT&T Park someday and Barry Bonds won’t.

Bruce Springsteen wrote a couple of lines in “Long Walk Home” about America itself,  but they apply to baseball as well, and I’ve been thinking about them today as I replay the game in my head:  “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born/ It just wraps its arms around you, nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.”  Perfect words for a perfect game.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012


Tales from the bargain bin

Ever since I was a kid, I haven’t been able to pass a remainder table, used record store, cut-out bin, yard sale or Goodwill without  stopping to dig through the books and music for buried treasure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an extreme coupon cutter or Dollar Tree fan, and Costco was so depressing I let the membership lapse years ago. I’m particular, too. Five bucks is my absolute limit, under $2 is the sweet spot. And we have to be talking about the good stuff,  like out-of-print gems, releases that fill gaps in my collection, or unfamiliar stuff that I’m willing to take a flyer on if the price is right. Five-for-a-dollar romance paperbacks:  Junk. Autographed first edition of Neil Gaiman’s exquisite fairytale The Graveyard Book for $2.49 in the local Goodwill:  Jackpot!  (One of my best finds ever.)

I learned the art of treasure hunting from my friend Mark Moses, who couldn’t pass a bargain bin without inventorying the goods. He would buy records that he already owned, just to spare them the ignominy of the scrapheap. Of course, Mark had a music critic’s discerning eye and a wide scope of musical interest and curiosity. He knew the worth of each of his finds, and I’m not talking about money, although finding a pristine vinyl copy of Dusty in Memphis for $1 would be an awesome day’s work in itself. In turn, I passed on the record-scavenging jones to my son, who keeps the tradition alive with a fever , and cheapness, that surpasses even my own.

So, I’m going to try something here. This is what (I hope) will be the first installment of an occasional series, depending on what my scavenging turns up. For the first “Tales from the Bargain Bin,” we have two stellar scores.

Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin. $1.99, San Mateo (CA) Goodwill.  Granted this is the original CD reissue of Aretha’s landmark Grammy-winning 1972 gospel album, not the more recent expanded version. But, when I saw this in the Goodwill CD rack alongside the usual piles of Chumbawumba and Boyz II Men castoffs,  I shouted, “Hallelujah!,” fell to my knees and started speaking in tongues.

Well, not really, but I wanted to. Who gives away Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin?  Who prices it for $1.99?  But, I’m not complaining. Franklin recorded this live set in L.A. at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church with a full choir directed by her mentor, Rev. James Cleveland. I have it on vinyl, but I wasn’t passing up this chance to own a version I could put on an iPod. This is Aretha in her prime, pouring her soul into the gospel music of her youth as well as into contemporary songs like Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy.”  This is the greatest singing you will ever hear. Period. Aretha’s rich, glimmering melisma on “Precious Memories”, her spine-tingling screams of ecstasy on “Amazing Grace”, her roof-rattling testifying on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” will  take your breath away. Amazing Grace is the holiest record I own. And I say this as a secular Jew and an atheist. I don’t believe, but I am moved beyond words by the joy, the spiritual transcendence, of Sister Aretha’s voice lifted in praise. And that’s religion enough for me.

Love Is a Strange Hotel by Clive Gregson and Christine Collister. $1.99, Burlingame (CA) Goodwill. I would say that this 1990 rarity by two former Richard Thompson associates was my most bizarre, random and unlikely Goodwill find ever, if I hadn’t already stumbled upon a CD of  Thompson’s obscure 1972 solo debut album, Henry the Human Fly, in the San Mateo outpost. And here I thought I was the only British folk nerd on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Clive Gregson and Christine Collister were a folk-rock duo who orbited Planet Thompson in the ’80s;  if you caught his full-band shows during this period, you saw the burly Clive strumming and the pixie-like Christine taking Linda Thompson’s place on duet and backing vocals. Gregson and Collister recorded a handful of albums before going their separate ways, and Love Is a Strange Hotel, which I’d never heard before, is one of their last efforts. It’s a mixed bag (more a demo, really) of covers, including 10 cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,”  Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up.”  The spare acoustic guitar and keyboard production is crystalline and their harmonies are as lovely as ever. But it’s Christine’s rich, husky, intimate wonder of a voice that should send you on a quest for Gregson and Collister (or Collister solo) finds of your own. Like Linda Thompson and Sandy Denny before her,  Collister draws you in quietly and then devastates you with emotional directness. On the CD’s best track, she shrinks Aztec Camera’s “How Men Are”  from the universal to the personal, with demure vulnerability and plaintive soulfulness. And I always thought Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer” was pure sap, but Collister’s soaring version over a simple piano accompaniment is, in its plain, Church of England way, as prayerful as Aretha’s revival meeting.

Here are Christine and Clive singing a track from an earlier album, “I Specialise.”

What were your best bargain bin scores?

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2012