Essays Lions Den

The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself—the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponent—all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.

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“I’ve been to pro games, and I can’t help feeling that there is something fundamentally unsportsman-like about men, mostly oversize to begin with, strapping themselves into all that outlandish equipment and wearing cages to protect their faces, all for a game’s sake. It’s brutish. In the epilogue to Paper Lion, Plimpton writes:

Detroit had a bad season my year. The team finished fourth in its division…Injuries hurt their chances. Eleven of the first-line players were knocked out of the line-up with injuries, most of them on the defensive team. Joe Schmidt and Carl Bretschneider of the linebackers were crippled, and so were Yale Lary and Night Train Lane. Gary Lowe ruptured his achilles tendon…

If I have already made it abundantly clear that football isn’t exactly my game, then I must say that Paper Lion is at once a more satisfying and complex book than Out Of My League, wherein the writer unwinds the sometimes nightmarish story of how he came to pitch to an all-star line-up of National and American League players in the Yankee Stadium, the team with the most hits picking up a thousand dollars.

“Plimpton got Sports Illustrated to put up the pot. It was his notion, he told the editor, that he would pitch ‘not as a hotshot—that’d be a different story—but as a guy who’s average, really, a sort of Mr. Everybody, the sort who thinks he’s a fair athlete…’ If it worked out, he hoped to go on to play tennis with Pancho Gonzales, box with Archie Moore, play golf with Snead or Hogan, and so forth.

The writing in Out Of my League is fresh and observant, but it suffers from spinning out a one-day adventure into a book. It is original, there is much to admire, but I think it would have been better as a shorter piece, like John Updike’s splendid account of Ted Williams’s last day with the Boston Red Sox. Ultimately, the most memorable thing about Out Of My League is what I can only call the author’s chutzpah, his actually going through with it, imposing himself on the players and the unsuspecting crowd at the Yankee Stadium. Many of the players were indifferent, others were cold. With Plimpton floundering on the mound, Mantle yawns ostentatiously. But then we never really worry about the author’s pitching performance per se as we do, say, about Jim Brosnan’s good and bad days in The Long Season. Plimpton’s professional pride, unlike Brosnan’s, could never be truly involved. Neither is his livelihood.

We also do not fret about how Plimpton will stack up on the field as the Detroit Lion’s last-string quarterback, but from the moment he begins haphazard practice, whacking a football into an armchair in his apartment, until he is finally allowed to call five plays in an inter-squad scrimmage at Pontiac, Plimpton holds us with the force of sheer good writing. If he was, predictably, a disaster on the field, I can think of no other non-fiction book that evokes more successfully the special taste and feeling of a game and the men who play it.

“From the moment of his arrival, Plimpton reveals a necessarily good and receptive nature and an enviable eye for detail. Of course he’s got a lot going for him. Even a run-through of some of the names on the Detroit roster has a distinctive tang to it: Milton Plum, Yale Lary, Nick Pietrosante, Dick LeBeau, Scooter McLean…as well as a linesman, nicknamed the Mad Creeper, who was, Plimpton writes, a near pathological case.

No one knew who the Mad Creeper was…His habit was to creep along the corridors late at night, three or four in the morning, sneak into someone’s room, lean over his bed and throttle him hard and briefly, just closing his hands around the fellow’s throat and then skittering off down the corridor, listening to the gasping behind him.

Plimpton seems to catch exactly the tension between rookie and veteran; the competition for jobs; the night of the team cut-offs; and the nerves that build up before a game, even an exhibition game.

Before Plimpton left to join the Lions, a friend in New York, who had once played for the Washington Redskins, warned him about the stupidity of ball players and told him to expect juvenile behavior. The barracks-room humor of the camp (water pistols, jock straps) does seem more than a bit overhearty at times, but Plimpton makes a convincing case for similar lapses among supposedly loftier groups, such as New Yorker staff writers; and I must admit that I found the fright masks funny. It seems that some nights the players would work off tensions by donning masks made of thin pliable rubber, vampire heads, Frankenstein monsters, and sneak up on a sleeping team mate to startle him.

“Sports, obviously, is a bloody big business, a growth industry, as they say, with the National Hockey League expanding to twelve teams next season, new professional basektball and soccer leagues promised, and the purses offered on this year’s PGA circuit the highest ever. If the profits to be made out of sports are immense, just possibly immorally high, then club owners differ from the tycoons in other industries by asking for our hearts as well as our money. We are entreated to trust them with our boyish admiration and enthusiasm, with what we retain of the old school holler, at an age when we are more immediately concerned with falling hair, mortgages, and choosing schools for the kids. Going back through the years, I think the first time I felt socially betrayed, lied to by anyone outside my immediate family, was when I discovered that the Montreal Royals, my home baseball team, was not made up of natives but largely southern crackers. This, of course, was long before club owners had the courage to move their franchises about so cynically. Going wherever the biggest profits were.

Professional sports, though I am still addicted to them, have begun to alienate me in yet another way. It was George Plimpton’s notion that as a sort of Mr. Everybody, a Central Park quarterback, a Sunday pitcher, he would try his hand at baseball, football, and other sports. James Thurber, he told the editor of Sports Illustrated, once wrote that the majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees. Yes; but if at one time Plimpton’s idea of testing himself, seeing how well he could do in pro company, seemed a feasible, even charming conceit, I fear it is considerably less so today. If once athletes were really rather like us, only more beautifully made, better conditioned, more gifted, suddenly too many of them are not like us at all. Suddenly basketball players tend to be seven feet tall and football players weigh three hundred pounds. Then football, rather than most sports, has come to suffer from over-specialization, with different teams for offense and defense. In contrast it would seem that soccer players, all of them sixty-minute men, must be far more resourceful. They are certainly more elegant and recognizably human to watch, trotting out on to the field in jerseys and shorts, unarmed, so to speak.

“Finally, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion joins a growing body of first-rate writing about sports; one thinks frequently of Norman Maller on the fights, Updike, and Mark Harris—but even then I have a reservation. Much as I enjoyed Plimpton’s book, I can’t help feeling guilty, like having been to a movie on a fine summer’s afternoon. An earlier generation of American writers had to test themselves not against Bart Starr and Archie Moore, but the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow trials. In Europe. Isaac Babel, looking for a change, rode with the Red Cavalry. George Orwell went to Wigan Pier and then Catalonia. Koestler came out of Spain with his Spanish Testament. This is not meant to be an attack on Plimpton, but on all of us, Plimpton’s generation and mine. One day, I fear, we will be put down as a trivial, peripheral bunch. Crazy about bad old movies, nostalgic for comic books. Our Gods don’t fail. At worst, they grow infirm. They suffer pinched nerves, like Paul Hornung, or arthritic arms, like Sandy Koufax.”

–Mordecai Richler, The New York Review of Books, February 23, 1967

Like this:

"Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." -- Ho Chi Minh

"Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground, Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down..." Listening to this '70s antiwar anthem on a recent afternoon, 38 years after the American War in Vietnam drew to a quick and blessed close, I am staggered by the emotional realization of something I have known on an intellectual level for many years.

In few countries do these words ring truer, purer and more poignantly than in Vietnam, where over 3 million men, women and children died a martyr's death in a war of national liberation. In America, the cost of freedom can be found on the battlefields of Concord, Gettysburg, and Normandy. It also echoes throughout the mountains, valleys, and deltas of Vietnam.

A generation of young Americans went to Vietnam, willingly, unwittingly or by force of law, as pawns of a policy elite, itself a prisoner of a Cold War containment and exceptionalist mentality, ignorant of Vietnamese history and culture and, like those before them and those to follow, utterly incapable of seeing the world through other peoples' eyes.

When all was said and done, the U.S. government walked, or rather, scurried away, leaving behind a shameful legacy of death, destruction and human suffering on a Draconian scale that haunts Vietnam to this day. The ghosts of the American War in Vietnam continue to haunt the U.S., as evidenced by the number of veteran suicides, considerably more than the number killed in action, the broken lives of so many survivors and the country's costly inability to come to terms with its past as prologue.

As many thoughtful veterans have observed in the decades since the last U.S. Marine helicopter lifted off of that CIA safe house in Saigon, they ultimately fought mostly for their own survival and the love of one another, not for freedom, democracy, motherhood and apple pie, and certainly not for Nixon, Kissinger, Johnson or Westmoreland. They endured in the fervent hope that they would not return home in a flag-draped casket.

Every family here has a story to tell. There are relatives who haven't walked among the living since 1968, 1970 or 1973, children whose smiling faces remain frozen in time, forever young in a family's memory, pictures on an altar, names inscribed on a temple wall, death anniversaries commemorated yet with no grave for a loved one. (The next time you see the black POW/MIA flag flying high above your local post office, consider this: Vietnam has 300,000 MIAs while the U.S. has about 1,300.) There are those who never knew their father, an uncle or a grandfather.

There are living reminders of the war embodied in the remaining Amerasians, the so-called "dust of life," many of whom have led tragic lives here and in the U.S., veterans and civilian survivors who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the millions of victims -- young and old -- of Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). (Of the 15 million tons of munitions that the U.S. military dropped on Vietnam, a country about the size of New Mexico, it is estimated that 10 percent failed to detonate on impact.)

What America owes Vietnam it can never repay, though there are many Americans in the U.S. and Vietnam today, including veterans, who are striving mightily and in myriad ways to contribute to the physical and spiritual healing process. They are people like my friend Chuck Searcy, who is an international advisor for Project RENEW, a project founded by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the Quang Tri Province's Department of Foreign Affairs that seeks "to prevent accidents and injuries from explosive remnants of war (ERW), making Vietnam safe for future generations."

To those of you who feel pangs of guilt for what you witnessed or were a part of, including the atrocities laid bare in mind-numbing and heart-breaking detail in Nick Turse's best-selling new book Kill Anything That Moves - The Real American War in Vietnam, for what you did or failed to do, or if you are simply looking for closure, take some time to visit Vietnam.

A twilight view of the fastest-growing district in Hanoi. The building on the far right is the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower known as Landmark 72, the tallest building in Vietnam with one 72-story office building and two 48-story residence towers.

To those who stubbornly cling to the belief that the United States had a right to be here in the first place and who embrace the fairy tale that the U.S. government, military, media, and/or anti-war movement "lost" the war -- I extend the same heartfelt invitation.

See and experience for yourself what Vietnam, the Country, looks, feels, smells, tastes and sounds like: (still) beautiful, dynamic, exciting, hospitable, safe, and at peace. No gunshots, artillery fire, whir of helicopter blades, or gut-wrenching fear, just the sounds of construction, the din of traffic and a hard working people trying to make ends meet, improve their lot in life, and enjoy the fruits of a rapidly expanding market economy.

As an American who calls Vietnam his home and is privileged to live and work here in a time of peace and progress, I think of the past from time to time (much more than the Vietnamese do) -- the suffering, the sacrifice, the death raining down from the azure tropical skies, the love, the perseverance, the hope, the triumph. I marvel at just how far this country with a history that spans thousands of years has come in such a blip in time.

The U.S. and Vietnamese flags flying side by side on the occasion of a visit from an American delegation to Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City.

The "Nam," as some of you still think of it, this country of your dreams and your nightmares, this place in time and mind that will forever be a part of you psychologically, spiritually and, in some cases, physically, survived everything our country threw at it. The story of Việt Nam is one of the great and glorious sagas of history, a nation that exemplifies in nearly ideal terms the resilience, courage, and strength of the human spirit.

So come (back), be ennobled, uplifted and, quite possibly, transformed. The moment you step off the plane you will begin to experience the "new history" that is Vietnam today; your old memories will be overlaid with new ones. Vietnam and its people may even cast their spell on you and inspire you to join your fellow veterans in the U.S. and in-country who are working alongside Vietnamese colleagues to help mitigate the impact of war legacies.

Either way you may find a measure of peace that has eluded you and which veterans who have gone before you often speak of. Your journey may well form the triad of a traumatic past, an optimistic present and a hopeful future. Vietnam is a forgiving and forward-looking place, where you will be welcomed, treated with respect and, in many cases, extended the hand of friendship. That alone is worth the emotional and literal cost of the trip.

Photos by Mark A. Ashwill.

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