Bob Tewksbury, “Ninety Percent Mental”

Ninety Percent Mental takes its title from the old Yogi Berra quip “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”  Tewksbury (with baseball writer Scott Miller) makes a convincing case that Berra was right. It’s hard to imagine a better account than this one of the mental skills required to be a pitcher in the major leagues.

Tewksbury isn’t necessarily the guy you would figure to become one of the best thinkers about developing and instilling the perfect baseball mindset. A 19th-round draft pick in 1981, Tewksbury climbed the New York Yankees’ minor league system “rung by rung” before surfacing in the MLB in 1986. In all, in fact, Tewksbury was sent from the major leagues to the minors a total of seven times.

By the time he retired from playing in 1998, Tewksbury had played for the Cubs, Cardinals, Rangers, Padres and Twins as well. He was with the Cardinals for seven straight years in the middle of his career. Faced with shoulder and arm problems off and on, Tewksbury became known as a control pitcher. In 1992, he went 16-5 on the season with a 2.16 ERA.

One stat really jumps out: In 1993, Tewksbury came very close to ending the season with more wins than bases on balls allowed. He ended the season with 17 wins and 20 walks. Twenty walks all season.

What does that kind of focus require? That’s what Ninety Percent Mental, in deliciously granular detail, is all about. Tewksbury, who was in the vanguard of those who realized that it might be a good idea to help young players develop mental skills alongside their physical ones, came to the mental skills issue organically through observation and self-analysis and a burning desire to survive. Part memoir, Ninety Percent Mental grounds us in Tewksbury’s modest New Hampshire upbringing in a tense household full of financial stress and marital tensions.

A chance encounter with Og Mandino (The Greatest Salesman in the World) led Tewksbury to devour Mandino’s books and then also absorb the positive-thinking world of Norman Vincent Peale. Tewksbury was—a reader. Go figure. “Always, in the down moments, something consistently led me into those self-help sections. I had a strong, natural interest in the subject but, really, no resources for learning.”

Early in his career, Tewksbury incorporated breathing exercises and self-affirmations into his daily routines. “Three decades late, I believe today what I began to believe while listening to that tape all of those minor league locker-room floors. That my improved performance on the field that month happened from the inside out. The change—real, productive change—occurs in a person from the inside out.”

You’ll know if you are a true baseball fan if you enjoy the chapter titled “Perfect Game.” (I did.) This is a blow-by-blow, moment-by-moment deconstruction of one of Tewksbury’s games as a Cardinal against the Houston Astros on August 17, 1990.  Tewksbury came into the game on a hot streak and got hotter that night, not giving up his first hit until the eighth inning.  In “Pitch Perfect,” Tewksbury goes through every batter—a nearly 20-page recap. The chapter includes some keen insights on the nature of perfection in baseball (or any sport). “Perfectionists tend to have low self-confidence, making it difficult for them to cope when things don’t go as expected. And in search of gaining confidence, they practice more and more, which increases the risk of burnout. The constant striving for perfection creates high levels of anxiety, they worry more about what others think of them and they focus more on their failures than on their successes.”

Modest throughout, Tewksbury pays credit to those who came before him. He devotes an entire chapter to Joe Torre and Torre’s natural ability to connect with, and inspire, athletes. Tewksbury has worked with Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller (among many others). The individual ups and downs of those three players, particularly Lester, make for convincing testimony that success in baseball requires a keen sense of self and a keener sense of self control.

Looking for a step-by-step “how to”?  Well, it’s here, but it’s embedded throughout the entire narrative. It’s about controlling what Tewksbury calls the ‘Little Man’ who tries to thwart your performance with negative thoughts and dark vibes. (The book is co-written with award-winning baseball columnist Scott Miller, who no doubt played a key role in the dramatic shape of the book and its colorful style). More than anything, Ninety Percent Mental makes you realize these are real human beings out there on the mound and that, like anything else in life, how you go about your work is every bit as important as your talent. Yes, baseball is ninety percent mental. At least.

Advertisements

Marc Levy, “The Last of the Stanfields”

Review of The Last of the Stanfields for the New York Journal of Books.

2018: Top Books

Highlights from reading in 2018.

Order is irrelevant. These are form titles I read last year, not necessarily published in 2018.

Fiction

1. Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

2. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

3. Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

4. Golden Havana Night by Manuel Ramos

5. Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing by Tim Weed

6. November Road by Lou Berney

7. Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin

8. The Swing of Things by Linda Keir

9. A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

10. A Dangerous Crossing by Ausma Zehanat Khan

11. The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry

12. Dodgers by Bill Beverly

13. An Aegaen April by Jeffrey Siger

14, Dead Stop by Barbara Nickless

15. I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression by Patricia Abbott

16. A Sharp Solitude by Christine Carbo

17. Sleep Not, My Child by Christopher Bartley

18. Dominic by Mark Pryor

19. Mr. Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

NON-FICTION

1. Black Postcards by Dean Wareham

2. The Game From Where I Stand by Doug Glanville

3. The Phenomenon by Rick Ankiel (with Tim Brown)

4. The Long Haul by Finn Murphy

5. American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

Dean Wareham, “Black Postcards”

A 2014 article on Stereogum included this great line about Galaxie 500: “One imagines the walls of the Galaxie 500 rehearsal space lined not with bikini girls with machine guns, but with posters of Buckminster Fuller and Trotsky.”

Galaxie 500 was slow-core, low-core, lo-fi, low-dive, down-tempo, moody, fragile and earnest. I loved ’em.

And Rolling Stone, listing Luna’s “Penthouse” among the top 100 albums of the 1990’s (No. 99), said this: “Dean Wareham made his name with the Eighties dream-pop trio Galaxie 500, but he really found his muse in these scandalously beautiful guitar ballads. His foxy voice slinks along the languid guitars as he plumbs his foolish heart in the back of a New York cab, going home alone after another night of fancy drinks and lucky toasts. Wareham purrs some sly one-liners (‘It’s no fun reading fortune cookies to yourself’) but the music celebrates the pleasures of being too young, too rich, too pretty and too single, shopping for true love while getting lost in Chinatown.”

Luna offered more of a glossy sheen, more accessible melodies, and a bit more 4/4 punch, but you can still hear the rootsy, organic earthiness of G-500 and Dean Wareham’s matter-of-fact singing style.

Wareham led Galaxie 500 for (roughly) four years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and then Luna from 1991 through 2004, when their seventh studio album, “Rendezvous,” was released. They toured after that record was released, claiming they were done; a farewell romp. Luna then went on a deep hiatus but returned a few years ago, releasing an album of knockout covers in 2017 (“A Sentimental Education”) along with a disc of instrumentals (“A Place of Greater Safety”).

For my money, Luna always hits that sweet spot where killer grooves, sharp lyrics, and blissful guitars come together. In concert, Wareham is understated, low-key, and pose-free (as is the rest of the band) as the rhythms build and the melodies soar. “Penthouse” and “Romantica” haven’t lost a step over the years, but I’m a fan of every album they recorded. Yes, “scandalously beautiful” stuff. The guitars rock harder than you think, but you have to hear them. No leaps off the drum riser, no rock-god poses with a showy boot up on the monitor.

Black Postcards, Wareham’s memoir of his youth up through the buildup and breakup of Galaxie 500 and through Luna’s entire first incarnation, came out in 2008. It’s blunt, funny, wry, poignant, sad, melancholy, frank, painful, inspiring, and heartbreaking all at once.

There are drugs, there is sex, there are parties—and boredom. There are dumb fans and bleak hotel rooms. If you ever wondered what it’s like to be in a band that tours—if you want to feel the grind, taste the tedium—Black Postcards has got you covered. (So does a DVD documentary, Tell Me That You Miss Me, an unflinching look at their last–though it wasn’t–tour).

For rock fans of a certain age, reading Black Postcards is a musical memory trip. There’s Salem 66 at The Rat in Boston, Throwing Muses at the 9:30 Club, The The and The Ramones at The Lorelei Festival in Germany, and Veruca Salt in Valencia. (There are plenty of brutal assessments of fellow musicians along the way, including a diss of former Denver act 16 Horsepower. “I confess I didn’t like them. I mean, I didn’t know them personally, but I didn’t like their music or their instruments or their porkpie hats.”)

The first half or so of the book is devoted to the rise and fall of Galaxie 500, in which Wareham battled the voting bloc of two fellow high school chums, who later became fellow Harvard students, drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang. Krukowski and Yang saw eye to eye on everything, later married. Krukowski and Yang thought Wareham quit the band seeking more fame. Wareham, believably so, rejects that notion.

“The suggestion is that I broke up Galaxie 500 for the money. No, it was not the money. There was no money. I had a hundred reasons, ranging from petty annoyances to major structural problems in the band. The bottom line is I quit because I couldn’t stop thinking about quitting … I didn’t want to be in a cult anymore. I wanted to be free.”

Black Postcards is intensely personal. Wareham takes us through marriage counseling and divorce with his wife Claudia, shows us the arduous process of recording with exacting producers and fellow musicians (ahem, guitarist Sean Eden, a.k.a. Meanderthal) who feels like he must try a hundred ways to nail a guitar solo.

Wareham details label deals and observes industry changes and the endlessly frustrating business of earning back advances. You can feel the changing of the guard, the upended music biz adapting to streaming and file sharing and the great fade of the almighty CD. Wareham is clear about his own secret (at first) coupling up with new bass player Britta Phillips, a move he knows will cause a major rift in the Luna dynamics, and he’s blunt about his relationship with fans, too. (Some good, some weird.)

Wareham shows us how much work he puts into lyrics as well. “I had patched the ‘IHOP’ lyrics together from an episode of Wheel of Fortune, my own readings on André Breton, and an article about the Khmer Rouge in The New York Times. They seemed to make sense. The song was about a cad.”

Throughout Black Postcards is the same dry wit that shows up in Wareham’s lyrics:

  • “Next up was Bordeaux, where we played in a legendary little punk-rock called Le Jimmy. A punk rock club can become legendary just by having booked some cool bands back in 1980, and then staying in business. If the toilet’s don’t flush, so much the better.”
  • “You can generally add a star to the review if you announce that the band is breaking up. People are nicer to you when you’re on the way out, or dead. Cher, for example, said the nicest things about Sonny Bono after his tragic skiing accident.”

Wareham is both jaded and clear-eyed. He didn’t push Galaxie 500 farther than it was supposed to go. He didn’t insist on Luna’s existence when the end was near (and clear). Wareham is an observer, keenly aware that bands are doomed from the moment they start.

“…the truth is that rock and roll does kill your life, just a bit. It can lead you down the wrong path, into a double life, perhaps, or a life of drink and cigarettes and other vices. To be rock-and-roll is to be self-destructive, right? Think of Gene Vincent, Dee Dee Ramoe, Sid Vicious, Brian Jones. You have to take it all with a grain of salt, and not get caught up in it. It can be fun, living a rock-and-roll life, but it’s a slippery slope. Some can dabble. Others are swept away.”

Wareham remains a dabbler (check his post-Luna solo output, including some fine collaborations with Britta, whose 2016 solo “Luck Or Magic” is also worth tracking down). Wareham brought Luna back for a tour in 2018, including a stop in Boulder to a fairly full house at the Fox Theatre.  (A great show.)  Does Luna live? Maybe.

Sure, I’d love a few more Luna records. But the band has left its mark. Nostalgia is for suckers.  Hats off to Luna (and Galaxie 500).  And thanks to Dean Wareham for taking us on a ride in Black Postcords. If he’s been keeping notes for the past 10 years, I’d read another account of the past decade, too.

++

A few clips to sample Luna:

Tracy, I Love You

(Live on KEXP)

Black Postcards

23 Minutes in Brussels:

(Credit sequence from the film “Tell Me Do You Miss Me”)

 

 

Kayla Rae Whitaker, “The Animators”

The Animators rocks along on the strength and depth of the entirely relatable narrator, Sharon Kisses. Yes. Kisses. It’s a great name for a character who has a hard time getting up close and personal with anyone, who keeps her ambitions and yearnings to herself, who wants so badly to be something, well, more.

As a college student in the visual arts program, Sharon meets fellow student and star pupil Mel Vaught. The two soon bond over cheap beer and their mutual love of animation—everything from Looney Tunes to “Fritz the Cat.” Mel Vaught can look at one of Sharon’s static drawings and see if it has the “potential” to move.  “She gestured to the paws,” recalls Sharon about Mel shortly after they first met. “The wavery sense of them I spent hours getting just right. It was true. It was what I thought about whenever I sat down to draw something. The story. Where has this been? Where is it going next? I’d never said it aloud, but somehow Mel had known.”

Mel informs Sharon that the “greatest thing you can do for something” is “giving it movement.” Or, at least, the possibility.

Soon, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses travel together from New York City to Florida to identify the body of Mel’s mother, Melody, who has died in prison. When the body is rolled out of the metal drawer in the morgue, Sharon notices the strong family resemblance between mother and daughter. Melody’s jaw is shut, Sharon observes, “but the possibility of movement is still loosely, dangerously there, as if her mouth could open at any moment.”

The Vaught-Kisses friendship is a rich one. Vaught is the outgoing, brash and fearless lesbian whose childhood and upbringing, including Mel’s dicey relationship with her mother, inform their first film collaboration, “Nashville Combat.”

Sharon is more reserved and analytical, more isolated and, at first, passive. Sharon’s sister told Sharon she couldn’t play with the “big dogs.” Her reputation is well-established: not worthy of prime time. Together, Vaught & Kisses are a memorable duo. They are each fierce in their own way. They share a love of storytelling and a fundamental belief in the power of art and the voice it gives them. Both are outcasts, though for different reasons. And both, throughout the course of the The Animators, find a way to help each other cope.

“I pursued my life as if it were the loose end of something I abandoned at birth and, at eighteen, set out to reclaim,” Sharon tells us. “I became an artist because I wanted to make a world in which I was not the pursued but the pursuer; because I needed to discorporate. I struggled. I was afraid I wasn’t very good. I was jealous and lonely. I was frequently sad.

“But even as my mind forgot, my body never did. I felt my animal hackles rise when in a room with large, silent men. I scrabbled for closeness, feeling myself shut closed like when the time for intimacy came.”

As if Sharon wasn’t already feeling alone and already unable to float free of day-to-day worries, Sharon has a stroke. This gives Mel a chance to re-animate Sharon and if you are thinking this section might be sad and filled with tropes, it is anything but. Whitaker gives a fresh voice (utter humanity and three-dimensionality) to a stroke victim as easily as she captures the details of drafting and producing an animated movie. In fact, the plot picks up after the stroke, not that it was flagging before this, and Sharon is back home in Kentucky finding love, confronting her mother, and wondering over and over why she is the one who broke free from the “family tunnel vision” that has lasted for generations.

The next Vaught-Kisses production is drawn from an incident from Sharon’s childhood, an incident that left her “feeling that I’d been marked, but I didn’t know by what, or how.”  This incident / moment casts a shadow over Sharon’s entire personality and sours both her relationship with her mother and a new boyfriend. The new movie is called “Irrefutable Love” and during the worldwide promotional tour that Sharon finds herself, if it’s possible, even more alone.

Story summaries don’t do The Animators justice. Whitaker uses every scene and exchange between Vaught and Kisses (and all the others they encounter) to build character and add depth. The book flies. Motion isn’t a possibility, it’s a thing.

There may be a thousand ways to end any novel (or movie) as Sharon Kisses knows all too well. But the ending to The Animators feels like the only one that makes sense and it’s high-grade lump-in-your-throat stuff. You might even find yourself discorporating—the absolute best thing that can happen when you’re reading a good book.

Final note: I listened on Audible and narrator Alex McKenna does a terrific job distinguishing Sharon from Mel and post-stroke Sharon from pre-stroke Sharon.

Doug Glanville, “The Game From Where I Stand”

Doug Glanville’s The Game From Where I Stand offers a winning combination—a likable narrator and a mountain of colorful details about life off the field and inside the game of baseball.

Minor leagues. Opening days. Glove selection. Coaches. Stress. Anxiety. Relationships. Autographs. Game preparation. Contracts. Money. Retirement. Winter ball. Dealing with reporters. Spring training. Hitting. Traveling. I’m hard-pressed to think of a subject Glanville doesn’t cover and he does it all with an appealing style. What does it feel like to be a professional baseball player? Glanville puts the reader solidly in one player’s cleats.

Glanville, who has written columns for The New York Times and other outlets, comes across as likable and easy-going. Glanville played in the majors from 1996 to 2004, primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies. He also also had two stints with the Chicago Cubs and one year with the Texas Rangers. This book was published in 2010 and, well, my only wish is for a more current account that includes how a player views the heavy-duty use of analytics in the game today.

What Glanville does explore, however, seems relatively timeless—particularly the kinds of attitudes ball players develop in order to survive. Glanville did not take being a major leaguer for granted. He played worried. He played with the daily concern that either performance or injury might lead to being demoted or traded. “One team’s trash is another’s treasure,” writes Glanville “I can say I have been both, and either way you slice it, you can’t help but feel like property, even if only for a moment.”

Glanville thanks Jimmy Rollins, who was his protégé, for a poignant piece of advice: Do it afraid. “A healthy amount of fear can lead to great results, to people pushing themselves to the brink of their capabilities … Yes, baseball players are afraid. A player’s career is always a blink in a stare. I retired at the ripe old age of thirty-four following a season of sunflower seeds and only 162 at bats. I had been a starter the year before. In this game, change happens fast.”

Coming up behind every major leaguer is a new crop of players who are younger, faster, stranger (and don’t cost as much). “There is a tipping point in a player’s career where he goes from chasing the dream to running from a nightmare. At that point, ambition is replaced by anxiety; passion is replaced with survival. It is a downhill run, and it spares no one.”

Glanville makes it clear that being a major league baseball player requires living inside a bubble. Glanville is particularly blunt here about the focus and dedication required—as well as the fallout from that level of commitment. “No one keeps statistics for DFP (Depressed Former Players) or DAR (Divorces After Retirement), but I assure you they are plentiful … Behind the bluster and bravado, they are as uncertain and fragile as any other human beings.”

That’s the over-arching flavor of this account, a real human being living a life inside the game. Glanville’s details are terrific—like seeing Randy Johnson eating breakfast at iHOP or his warm-hearted tales from playing winter ball in Puerto Rico—and his reactions at every turn seem genuine. He’s not afraid to reveal how he misplayed a ball that could have kept a no-hitter intact, for instance, and he gives a thoughtful analysis of the whole Steve Bartman alleged interference debacle (Glanville was with the Cubs at the time).

Unlike so many others, Glanville did not become another DFP or DAR stat. He had a level head and open eyes about every phase of the game—and the same thing applied when it came time for Glanville to plan his post-career life (which from all accounts has been successful both in broadcasting and business). Like baseball itself, this book is very much about the game and, of course, it’s about everything else, too. Baseball is life.