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Where the Streets Have No Name

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

People ask me why I like to run. Why would any human being, unless being chased by a chainsaw-wielding assailant, voluntarily set out to run a mile. Or two? Five? Ten? You’re crazy.

I could talk about the health benefits, that our bodies were designed by the evolutionary pressures caused by the centrality of distance running to stalking prey in the Serengeti, that it wakes you up in the morning and helps you sleep at night.

But all of these are besides the point, and make me sound like it’s some altruistic thing I do out of a sense of self-improvement and general enlightenment. That’s bullshit.

Like alcohol and sex, people run because if you do it long enough, the pain and the anger and the everything else just…fades away.
I run to excess. I run until I hurt. I once ran so hard I fractured an ankle, which sucked mostly because it kept me from running more. I’ve run in the rain. I’ve run in the snow. I’ve run in dangerously hot temperatures. I’ve run along the Danube, the Seine, the wine-dark Aegean and the broad streets of Berlin. I’ve run at midnight. I’ve run at five o’clock in the morning, before work, locked myself out of the house, and had to beg the MTA to let me take the subway to work so I could get my house keys. I’ve run at 5400 feet, in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, with the mountaintops beheaded by a morning mist that made everything look like a fairy tale.

I’ve run up to the acropolis at Bergama, under the eyes of bemused Turks who wondered who the hell this American tourist was wearing only shorts and wanted to be let in to see the ruins at seven in the morning. I’ve jogged in the footprints of Alexander.

I’ve jogged over the Brooklyn Bridge, screaming at thoughtless tourists who crowd the bike lane. I’ve jogged it as morning dawns over New York Harbor, golden light reflecting off the windows of the skyscrapers of the financial district, the giant Watchtower sign proclaiming God’s kingdom disappearing behind me, ketches and garbage haulers and schooners and yachts and water taxis sailing down the East River below me and I’ve thought: there is no other place on the planet I would rather be than here, in this moment, doing this, doing nothing else.

My doctor gave me some good advice once, after I recovered from my ankle injury. “You should stop when you start to feel pain.” I nodded like a dutiful patient but, really, no jogger would ever take that advice.

If you stopped when you first felt pain you’d never get to the end of the block. The pain’s the point. Distance running is, fundamentally, not about avoiding pain but embracing it, confronting it, welcoming it, and ultimately transcending it.

Because you reach those points when your lungs are screaming, when your muscles are aching, when you’re dying of dehydration and you curse every extra ounce of fat you’re carrying. You start thinking strange, ludicrous thoughts. You start to negotiate with your body. For me, the conversation sounds a little like Luke Skywalker talking to R2-D2.

Luke: I know the right knee is failing. R2, see if you can’t lock it down.

Sometimes I picture little failure messages popping up in my field of vision, like I’m a robot and my brain is getting little danger signals.

Warning! Heart Rate Exceeding Maximum Safety Levels!

Warning! Body Heat Reaching Critical! Shutting down higher brain functions!

Warning! Structural Integrity of left shin failing! Failure imminent!

I watch a lot of sci-fi.

But the thing is…after awhile you stop fighting the pain. You let it permeate you, fill you, become you. You find there is no you left at all. There’s just the physical sensations you’re experiencing. Your thoughts, your ego, shut down. You have no job. You have no future. You have no fear. You’re free.

Then the strangest thing happens. You start running faster. Because the pain is gone. Because everything’s gone. Because it’s just you out there. You and pavement and the rhythm of your feet striking the ground matching your breath and the world stops. There’s euphoria. You come face to face with that most elusive of all creatures: yourself. If you’re of a religious background, you see, perhaps, God. You know in that moment, that brief, wonderful moment, exactly who you are and what you’re doing, and what’s important.

What’s important is the next step. What’s important is the next breath. And the next. And the next.

Breathe.

And then you fly.

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I’ve Already Done One Today

June 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m really only good at three things in life.

Two of these are illegal to charge money for outside of the great state of Nevada. So I try to earn my living by writing. I’ve been doing this more or less for the last seven years. It’s not always interesting writing, I’ll grant you. In fact, sometimes it’s mind-numbingly boring. But it beats having to work for a living, sit in a meeting, sell a product, or have an actual skill set. It’s still writing and, like pizza and sex, even when it’s not great, it’s still pretty good.

The experience, I mean. Not the end result.

Oof. Yeah, there’s some bad writing out there, no doubt.

Anyway. If you’re a writer, you tend to write all the time. I write every day. Usually for work, occasionally for the blog, often on a novel, screenplay, poem, script, television concept, bit of witty dialogue, or idea for a puppet show. When I don’t write, I start to get twitchy. Really twitchy. Glancing-around-the-room-furtively, I-know-I-should-be-doing something-but-I-don’t-know-what, knee-bouncing twitchy.

Which leads me to my question: do people in other professions have this same compulsion? Do surgeons get weird when they haven’t cut someone open in awhile? Do guitarists find themselves fingering arpeggios on their mousepad without realizing it? Will accountants spend their off hours tabulating sums?

Or do I just have a compulsive personality? Is writing, like sex, alcohol, and distance running, just another one of my addictions? Will there every come a day when I can sit quietly in a room by myself without worrying if that last line of dialogue came out quite right, if that character is behaving consistently, if the joke landed?

Part of me hopes not. Part of me doesn’t really mind staying awake until two in the morning just because an idea’s grabbed me by the lapels and thrown me toward the laptop.

But part of me just wants to have a beer and watch the game without the voices of my characters talking to me.

And part of me really wishes it were legal to charge for those other two things. They’re great stress relievers.

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Some Awesome Things I’ll Likely Never Say

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

I spend a lot of time writing screenplays. They’re relatively easy for me to write. Hollywood screenplays adhere to strict structural rules which, like the rules for haiku, gives you just enough room to play around while suggesting specific story types.

There are, for example, certain narrative set pieces that only work in a screenplay. The chase scene, for example. You’ll never write a chase scene in a novel. Or, forgive me, you will, but it’ll usually suck. Because nothing makes the action stop dead in its tracks faster than having to take a few sentences to try to diagram exactly how far away the chase and pursuit cars are from each other, how close they are to the old lady cross the intersection, and how fast they’re going. You can do all that with much greater effect in a movie.

Likewise, few movies are about the internal emotional landscapes of damaged individuals who have trouble connecting with the outside world. Those that are are usually dreadfully boring and win Academy Awards for Acting.

Anyway. So screenplays. I write a bunch. Take some ridiculous premise (extra-terrestrial lands in boys backyard) throw in some well-written lines (phone home) shake well, and let sit. It’s kinda like doing Sudoku. I’m unlikely to write anything really good, but there’s a crossword puzzle aspect to trying to write a plot so that the whole thing hangs together in a way that’s at least vaguely coherent.

Which means I spend a lot of time trying to get in the heads of characters in completely ridiculous situations. Unlike writing a novel, where I’m trying to get inside the head of someone in a situation that is, hopefully, completely relateable, with screenplays I’m trying to get in the head of someone who’s trying to, say, diffuse a nuclear bomb before space monkeys can break into the fusion reaction chamber and complete their matter transference device that will allow their space monkey invasion force to teleport to earth.

At a certain point, you try to relate to your own life, try to figure out what *you* would say in this situation. And really, you have no idea. Because…c’mon, space monkeys? You’d be curled in a ball under your bed crying and wetting yourself. And you realize that there’s an entire list of awesome things you’ve heard thousands of times in action movies that you will never, ever, get the chance to say in real life. You know that, in most cases, this is probably for the best, but nonetheless, like Anthony LaPaglia in “So I Married An Axe-Murderer” we really wish *just once* we could hang on to that part of the helicopter…you know that part, that action heroes are always holding onto as the helicopter takes off? Or at lease we wish we knew what that part was called.

So here’s  a list of things that, at age 31, I’m realizing I’m never, ever going to have the opportunity to say in real life. I invite you to add your own in the comments section.

Awesome things I’ll probably never say at this point:

Brace for impact.

Where’s that mutiny you promised me?

The landing zone’s too hot.

We’ll have about ten seconds of useful consciousness before hypoxia sets in.

What does the Geiger counter say?

I don’t care if it’s two million, I still say the job’s too dangerous.

How good is your Morse code?

And to think: you had the jewels the whole time.

Target that explosion and fire.

Man I wish one of us spoke Swahili right now.

It’s a pleasure to see you again, Your Excellency.

Where do we rendezvous with the fleet?

Take as much ammo as you can carry.

No time for anesthetic, doctor, you’ll have to strap me down.

Anyone know how to deactivate the self-destruct sequence?

I doubt that would make it go nuclear.

This is my favorite time of year to see Kathmandu.

They nearly got the drop on me in Cairo

Where’s my evac?

Can you think of anyone who might want to kill you?

You’ll never make it to Marrakesh in time.

Strap yourself in, I’m gonna try to land her with the wheels up.

How long do we have before it blows?

That ought to hold them for a little while.

Unless we get these documents to Andre in two hours, there isn’t going to be a next time.

Toss me the detonators.

That artifact’s more powerful than you can imagine.

You can take the money, but the girl comes with me.

Heave to and prepare to be boarded.

This is even worse than the Slovakian prison.

Yoga Means ‘Union’. It Also Means ‘You’re Totally Fucked’.

June 17, 2010 Leave a comment

My sister has a very strange and specific form of epilepsy. It’s confined only to her wrists, and only seems to manifest itself while she’s driving. I’d forgotten this until I’d climbed in the backseat of her car and we’d merged onto the highway, at which point I became violently car sick. My sister drives with infrequent, but severe, course corrections, moving the steering wheel not at all for several minutes, then making sudden, severe course corrections that throw passengers from one side, then to the other.

What amazes me, though, is that despite these jarring gyrations, my mother, who sits next to me, doesn’t say a damn thing. This is in stark contrast to my mom’s behavior when I’m driving, which can charitably be described as overbearing. “Watch out!” She’ll scream as I’m easing through a parking lot at 5 mph. I’ll turn to see where she’s pointing, and discover a pedestrian several hundred meters in the distance. “You’re driving too fast! Slow down!”

For the record, I’ve only ever received one moving violation in my life, which came when I was seventeen, driving my mother from a doctor’s appointment, as she insisted that I make an illegal left hand turn.

Both of us are in North Carolina, a surprise visit arranged by my sister’s boyfriend to celebrate her receiving her Ph.D in psychology. While I’m proud of her for this considerable accomplishment, it makes any argument with her absolutely pointless, as she’s taken to trotting out the phrase “well, if you review the literature on the subject I think you’ll find” before asserting whatever point she’s trying to make. She’s even taken to emailing me longitudinal studies, as if I actually cared enough about whatever we were arguing about two months ago to wade through seventy pages of chi square analyses and charts.

I greet my mother at the airport after my flight lands. It’s good to see her again, but, as with every reunion, I wonder how long it will take before one of us will say something incredibly offensive to the other. In this case, our grace period lasts about eight minutes.

“Did you hear they’re going to build a mosque by Ground Zero?” she asks me aghast. “I think that’s in very bad taste.” I feel my blood pressure jump about seventy points and I begin to argue with her, pointing out that there are probably more Christians in the world who want to blow up the U.S. than Muslims, that forbidding a mosque near the site of a terrorist attack is about as dumb as prohibiting a church in Oklahoma City (Tim McVeigh was a Christian), or preventing Polish Embassies near University campuses because Ted Kaczynski is of Polish descent or Spanish cultural centers in Washington D.C. ‘cause, hey, those fuckers bombed the Maine. But my mother’s never been able to grasp the logical syllogism that, just because all dogs are mammals, not all mammals are necessarily dogs. Presented with the idea, she’ll assume not only that all mammals are in fact dogs, but that koala bears should probably be barred from entering the country because you can’t trust an animal that has its own pouch.

My mother and I are, of course, far too similar to get along peacefully for extended periods of time. Holidays and family gatherings are always fraught with potential conversational mine-fields, usually having to do with mom’s insistence that, whatever job I have at the moment, it probably isn’t a very good one. “Freelance writing,” she says to me with narrowed eyes. “Are you sure that’s the right career for you?” She has, at various times, said the same thing about acting, journalism, and all of my girlfriends. In fact, I’m relatively certain I won’t be able to get through a Thanksgiving dinner in peace until I’m an unmarried, tenured physics professor.

Which explains why I’m painfully hung over the next day when the family awakens in my sister’s condo. She’s scheduled to teach her last yoga class that day, and insists that we join her. “You’ve done yoga before, right?” I say that I have, but what I really mean is that I get tired trying to hold Child’s Pose. Warrior One makes me break down in tears. But literally everyone else is going, my mother, my sister, and her boyfriend, so I have little choice.

I know I’ve made a terrible mistake when, in the yoga studio, my sister gives my mother and I a horrified look. I stare down at our feet, and realize we’re the only two people still wearing shoes. We can tell we’ve made some sort of serious yoga-related transgression, and sheepishly remove our flip-flops and place them with the others outside.

My exaggerations regarding my previous yoga experience become obvious after about ten minutes, at which point my sister graciously and discretely places two yoga blocks near my feet. I watch as the women around me bend themselves in pretzels, and I struggle to tough my toes. I try to rationalize my poor performance: I’m a guy, we’re naturally less flexible. This fiction lasts about thirty seconds, just until I turn to my left and watch my sister’s boyfriend twist his entire torso 360 degrees.

I try to be angry, but it’s like comparing yourself to superman. The guy has a Ph.D. of his own, teaches himself how to develop apps for the iPhone in his spare time, and always has three insanely brilliant new ways for me to drastically improve my productivity every time I see him. Also, he looks like Orlando Bloom. I’d be insanely jealous of his omnicompetence but, really, I’m usually too busy interrogating him for all his brilliant ideas. Also, he has to put up with my sister’s driving.

My sister demonstrates an impossible looking headstand that involves dangling your legs behind your head in a precarious balance. I give it a try, and am shocked when I’m able to hold it for five seconds. I’m not at all surprised when, at six seconds. I fall screaming on my back. “That’s actually pretty good,” little Vagabondette informs me. “It takes some people months to even get that far.” I’m partially mollified by her compliment, and I’m surprised to find my hangover is somewhat improved at the end of the class, even more surprised when I realize I’m sorry it’s over and immediately want to do it again.

Dr. Vagabondette, teacing yoga

That’ll have to wait until I’m back in the New York, though. In the meantime, Vagabondette takes my mother and I on another hair-raising car ride back to the airport that whitens my knuckles and reminds me of the chase scene from The Connection. At te airport, we find that my mother’s gate is about two down from mine and leaving at approximately the same time. When my flight is delayed, my mother tries to convince me to arrange another flight to New York, by way of Detroit. She’s convinced that any flight within the continental U.S. can be made quicker by a connection in Detroit. When I tell her I’m flying to Toronto the following week, she again recommends seeing if I can fly through Detroit.

“Uh…Detroit is several hours west of Toronto,” I try to explain, but geography is right up there with logical syllogisms for her. My flight finally boards, and we hit severe turbulence on the way back. The girl to my right looks at me and smiles weakly. She’s not a good flyer, she explains, but expresses some amazement at how calm I am as we bounce around in our seats. “Oh, this is nothing,” I chuckle. “I’ve been dealing with family all weekend.”

Bindlestiff Family Circus

June 9, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s when I see The Amazing Amy, an 80-year-old grandmother doing contortion onstage that I realize I’m in for a strange night.

The Amazing Amy

Let me back up.

“It’s got monkeys and fire and stuff” the text reads on my cell phone. “Come out.”

It’s an invite to the Galapagos Art Space, which is a club in DUMBO I’ve been to a few times. My memories are kinda vague…variety acts and overpriced drinks. A huge venue (huge for New York, anyway) that’s entirely suspended over an indoor pool, which makes for nervous waitresses.

Galapagos Art Space

I can forgive the ridiculous drink prices because admission costs nothing, and because I’ve got nothing better going on that night.

I buy a Guinness for about eight bucks, groan, but sit and wait for my friend. We talk about work when he arrives, and compare notes on beer, on women, on the pursuit of happiness. We head upstairs for a better view.

Tonight, the show is being brought to us by Bindlestiff Family Circus. Our MCis a juggler of some kind who does a few tricks that he can pull off and many that fail miserably, often resulting in bowling pins falling into the pool below. He also has less than zero stage presence and a weird lisp that’s distracting me.

Mr. Bindlestiff, MC

Uncharitably, I can’t help but think what a more entertaining show it would be if he gave the hosting reigns over to someone who’d actually had some theater training.

It’s an open variety night, with the kind of bizarre mix of absolutely shitty performers and quite talented performers. There’s a cowboy who does lasso tricks I didn’t think anyone still knew how to do, much less anyone in New York. There’s a hip-hop juggler who upstages the MC. There’s the contortionist granny, who scares the crap out of me with her freakishly large chin and the weird hump in her back that grandmas get when the osteoporosis starts setting in real bad, who does a series of yoga poses accompanied by a guy doing obscene sound effects with his mouth. I quickly order another four Guinnesses because I can’t be nearly drunk enough to see shit like this.

I'm getting too sober for this shit

Keeping with the elderly theme, a pair of girls in mumus and Depends perform a bizarre strip tease that may be the least erotic thing I’ve ever seen and is, in fact, mildly terrifying.

I have no idea what's going on here

A couple does a pantomime to a song about heartache, the guy comes pack to perform with guitar. Bindlestiff announces that they have an open performance slot available for anyone who wants to come on stage. The guy who does is gut-wrenchingly terrible, playing a crappy song, throwing himself around the stage, and making farting noises with his mouth. My friend and I drown ourselves in our beers as we wait for him to leave.

AHHHH!

Then, she comes on.

She wears black dancing attire on a bare stage. A red drape falls from the ceiling at center stage. She climbs it. Her arms flex with an upper body strength that’s significantly more impressive than mine. Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” comes on. She starts doing stuff.

Yowza

She twirls. She falls. She makes me want her so bad I can feel it in my bicuspids. Floating above the stage on that red drape, she looks nigh-angelic. Not the stupid heavenly angels that come down to earth with Della Reese to help put right what once went wrong. More like one of the cool angels that hung out with the naughty crowd and got kicked out for smoking and doing tequila shots with boys under the bleachers.

You know, the kind of angel you want to take home to momma.

When the show finally ends she comes out, just happening to pass by my table, and I just happen to ask her name, and happen to chat her up, which is becoming more and more of a reflex for me these days and less of a conscious decision. She tells me her name and the name of the venue where she’ll be performing next.

I file the information away in a safe part of my brain, but, after my fourth Guinness, I realize I cracked the safe place open looking for spare change and old pizza crusts, because it’s midnight and we’re drunk and starving, and it’s only Monday, and we’ve got a full week of work to get through, and my body has to bike his way home in Crown Heights, and I’ve got to find a pizza joint that’s still open.

Tomorrow night, karaoke.

And a Star to Steer By

June 4, 2010 Leave a comment

“In every age, in every time, there have been those who are not content to settle down. They miss the kick of the wheel, the wail of the wind in the rigging, the exotic sights and smells of a harbor half across the world, the roar of engines cutting through the slipstream, and the powerful, body-shaking thunder of the jets. It is to these restless men with the wanderlust that the human race owes a priceless debt as he wanderers push the horizons out to the stars—”

– G. Harry Stine

“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”

– John Masefield

It’s June now and we’re all coming out of our holes. The sun is shining and our skins drink up the solar radiation that’s been denied to us for so long. Brooklynites are throwing barbecues on their rooftops, cyclists are whizzing by through the park, fair weather joggers have returned. It’s a great time to be in the city.

But I feel a familiar prickling in my thumbs, what Herman Melville called an irresistible urge to start knocking people’s hats off their heads. I find myself more and more on the Brooklyn Promenade, smelling the harbor air and watching the tall-masted sailboats launch their voyages, with a wistful eye.

I seem to get like this every year, once the weather turns right, and I fondle the edges of my passport, which always seems too new and unused to me. I start doing silly things, like researching entrance requirements for the US Merchant Marine Academy. I considering stowing away on the first ship I can find at the Naval Yards. I habitually examine the departure times at JFK for random locales: Marrakesh, Moscow, Beijing.

Have you ever heard the Voyage of the Scarlet Queen? Click here to listen to an episode from 1948. Scarlet Queen was a radio show about a 78-foot-ketch captained by Philip Carney and his trusty first mate Red Gallagher. Every episode begins with soaring orchestral music “Prepare to make sail!” screamed in the background by a deck hand, the sound effect of wind howling, Carney saying something to the effect of “Log entry, the ketch Scarlet Queen, Philip Carney, master. Position — three degrees, seven minutes north, 104 degrees, two minutes east. Wind, fresh to moderate; sky, fair…” Then they’d head into some exotic South Asian port where Carney and Gallagher would get involved in international intrigue and have to punch their way out of trouble, race back to the Queen, who was always speedy and yar, and they’d make for the next port of call with their cargo in the hold, maybe a few dollars richer, maybe poorer.

Chinese Junker in the East River, Bound for Singapore

I don’t know that this kind of life ever existed, but I know for fact it doesn’t anymore. Hopping a 777 to Berlin just doesn’t have the same thrill as hopping onto a ship. Instead of bracing sea air, you have to contend with the stale airport atmosphere, slack-jawed TSA employees and screaming babies. You stay or go based on someone else’s schedule, and you might not leave at all if a volcano’s erupting in Iceland.

But oh…what I wouldn’t give for a ketch of my own. Universe, you can keep whatever else you might have had in store for me, a wife, kids, golden retriever named Sparky who’d fetch my slippers, a comfortable old age, supportive family, fame, fortune, my novels published, my spot on the New York Times Best Seller List. You can keep it.

Just let me have the Scarlet Queen. Let me sail to parts unknown. Let me make new friends in foreign lands who want to rob and cheat me. Let me see mermaids. Let me feel the rigging move through my hands. Let the ocean’s spray cool my brow and let the waves rock my to sleep in a hammock at night.

All I ask…

All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by.

There’s Nothing Wrong With a One Hitter

June 3, 2010 Leave a comment

In fact, it’s miraculous.

So, yeah. This happened:

We, the internets, are now going absolutely bonkers over this. People are calling for the instant replay to be instituted. The New York Times and Keith Olbermann, among others, are calling for MLB to overturn the call, scrub the record, and award Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

I’ve been searching to find the words to describe how I feel about this. John C. McGinley has summed it up perfectly (fast forward to about the 1:45 mark).

The call should stand. Was it wrong? Ouch, yeah. As a Detroiter I want to gnaw my arm off. Does it suck? Of course it sucks. Detroit needs all the good news it can get.

Should we beg and plead with Bud Selig to scrub the history books?

Nope.

Three things: there’s a lot of bad calls in sports. We try to reduce the number of them with instant replays, but there are always going to be blown calls. Sometimes the guy was in the crease, sometimes the ball didn’t break the plane. Sometimes we don’t realize that until after its over. You make the exception for Galarraga (and there’s no more deserving candidate) and people will be screaming for exceptions from here on out. Teams and players will look for games to be overturned, decisions to be overruled and milestones to be awarded because something that shouldn’t have gotten screwed up was. And that’ll cheapen the whole thing. Galarraga doesn’t seem to be complaining. He’s handling this whole thing pretty well, from what I’ve read. We should show the same grace and sportsmanship.

Two: Baseball is sport. It’s about winning. It’s what makes it more enjoyable to watch that figure skating. It doesn’t matter how pretty your technique is. It doesn’t matter if your form is perfect. It doesn’t matter if you just made the most beautiful goal in history or got lucky ricocheting the puck off someone’s head. Sports involves luck. Sometimes you win ugly. Sometimes the points come through sheer stupidity. But what matters at the end of the day is that the Tigers won the game, not by how much (unless we’re talking about NCAA Football, which clings to its bullshit “yeah…but did they win the game with STYLE?” BCS system). Sure, sometimes we get sidetracked, and we get impressed with a perfection. Who doesn’t. But that’s not what the game is, or should be, about.

Which leads me to three: Jim Joyce’s bad call doesn’t take anything away from Galarraga’s accomplishment. HE RETIRED 26 BATTERS. That’s incredible. He won the game for his team almost single-handedly. An ump made a bad call that had nothing to do with Galarraga’s ability as a pitcher, and had zero outcome on the final score of the game. Everyone knows the runner wasn’t safe at first. Galarraga knows it, Joyce knows it, the planet knows it. Letting the call stand does not in the slightest reduce the spectacular nature of Galarraga’s accomplishment. Nothing can.

There’s nothing wrong with pitching a one hitter. In fact, it’s miraculous.