Archive | October, 2020

Passing Time with a Pastime

30 Oct

Call it a side perk of a pandemic, I suppose. With the social calendar on hold and weekend outings limited, I watched more baseball games than I have in years, and sucked up as much baseball as I could. The national pastime proved a marvelous diversion this summer: when my politics-related text strings wallowed in masochism during the first presidential debate, I blissfully sat back and watched the Yankees beat up on Cleveland.

The Yankees, the team of this Minnesota sports traitor, delivered on the entertainment value, if not always the wins. DJ LeMahieu won a batting title and Luke Voit won a home run crown and Clint Frazier, who I’d always wanted to succeed, broke out. The rest of the offense was an injury-riven or declining mess, which lent itself to a streaky and drama-filled season that came together at the end until it didn’t. A questionable pitching decision in Game Two of their Division Series with the Rays gets the biggest bit of the blame, but a starting rotation with only one truly reliable arm and a bullpen thinner than in years past created the separation. For a second straight season, the Yankees’ hopes ended on a late-inning home run off Aroldis Chapman. Yes, we now officially miss Mariano Rivera, knowing we’ll never see the likes again.

Baseball has undergone a revolution over the past twenty years, and after immersing myself so fully in the sport in the late 90s and early 00s, I’m still adjusting. Instead of checking the daily paper for a box score, I now enjoy MLB.TV and look up WAR and other various sabermetrics. Ever since Billy Beane and the Moneyball Oakland Athletics burst on the scene, baseball has herded toward a series of new insights into how games are won and lost, first valorizing on-base percentage above all else and now reaching an apex of openers, short leashes on starters, and extreme defensive shifts. I’m torn: I’ve always been a believer in using every piece of available knowledge to gain an advantage (Bill James’ 1984 Baseball Abstract remains a seminal text in my life), but sometimes the end result feels blandly scripted.

By 2020, that trend came to involve something we might call three-outcome power baseball, a game reduced largely to walks, strikeouts, and home runs. It might be a road map to success, but it’s also often rather boring. Baseball is at its best when there’s a full range of skills on display, but we’ve now learned that the game, as currently structured, often does not incentivize that. For some time I’ve held out hope that some losing team will start trying to intentionally beat the defensive shift with everything it has and start a new analytical revolution against it, but since it really is so hard for people not named Ichiro or DJ LeMahieu to exhibit the bat control necessary to spray the ball to all fields, I am now a card-carrying member of the Ban the Shift Club. I want baseball with high-average hitters, with speed and grace and not just station-to-station mashing.

Some of the realities imposed by 2020 made the game even less recognizable. The 60-game season turned a marathon season into a mid-distance push, a novelistic sport into a lurching novella. Empty stadiums in places other than Florida never stopped feeling unnatural, and while Atlanta’s all-dog section amused me, the cardboard cutouts mostly just seemed weird, and I was glad the Yankees stayed on-brand and snobbishly dismissed such gimmicks. The lack of travel outside divisions left fans in the dark about two-thirds of the teams, and the central divisions got exposed as posers when all seven of their playoff entrants accounted for seven of the eight of the first-round losers. At one point, it looked like the Yankees’ season might die on a couple of late August games played in Buffalo, the home-in-exile for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Baseball also got creative with some rule experiments only tangentially related to the pandemic. I didn’t much like the changes. The extra innings rules were wacky but excusable given the circumstances. Expanded rosters only exacerbated the spree of pitching changes and bullpen reliance, which only seems to slow games down and dim the luster of some of the pitching stars who should be the face of the sport. And I don’t care if it supposedly makes for better baseball: the complications that come from forcing pitchers to hit will forever entertain me more than a universal DH. Futility begets creativity, and sometimes genuine achievement. The expanded postseason was excessive for a sport whose marathon regular season should count for something, and too friendly to lower seeds. Three-batter minimums for relievers, on the other hand, are a perk that can help speed up the game, even if it may leave a few of my brethren, the LOOGYs (left-handed one-out guys), out of work.

For all the changes, the World Series still delivered the best two teams in baseball over the regular season, and it presented a collision between a team that embodies everything about the baseball analytics movement and a team that combines some of its sensibilities with a very large budget. Despite my annoyance with their style and their defeat of the Yankees, it was hard not to like the underdog Rays, especially when they pulled off that most improbable of wins in the Game Four instant classic. I was on the Rays’ bandwagon until manager Kevin Cash yanked the dominant Blake Snell after he gave up his second hit in the sixth inning of Game Six. They deserved a comeuppance for such mechanical thinking, and my schadenfreude surged with a vengeance when Nick Anderson promptly blew the Ray lead. Score one for the eye test, and the joy that comes from full immersion in sports.

The Bums who long ago left Brooklyn fully deserved their title after falling short with strong teams over the past three seasons. Corey Seager and Mookie Betts were the golden boy stars; Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation, finally shook his reputation as a playoff choker. Julio Urías, the one Hispanic player whose name the FOX crew decided to pronounce with an accent, was reborn as a relief ace, a true example of how a manager should ride a hot hand. Their depth across the board made them impossible to match, and they did enough creative and different things that they don’t seem representative of the analytics era, even though many of their players fit the trends well enough. This was a dynamic team that did everything well, and there’s no reason to think they can’t go on dominating the National League for years to come. Baseball goes through all sorts of trends, from power to pitching to speed, but the best of the bunch can do a little bit of everything.

In Yankees circles, there’s a raging debate over where to cast the blame for the Bombers’ inability to reach a World Series over the past four years, despite Dodger-level talent and money: does it fall on manager Aaron Boone, a formulaic focus on the analytics in the front office, choking high-priced players like Giancarlo Stanton in past years and Chapman this year, or the sheer random happenstance of playoff baseball? For my part, despite the analytical grumbling, I still blame the starting pitching. The most predictable way to win a tight series comes when star pitchers seize the moment, whether it was the Nationals last season or the Astros’ aces before that or Madison Bumgarner earlier this decade. For all the hype of the Rays’ bullpen, it became rather less dominant upon repeated viewing, while Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler were simply their otherworldly selves, and Urías and even Tony Gonsolin filled in admirably behind.

In the end, the Dodgers showed us what a great baseball team looks like, even if they didn’t get to show that over a full 162 games. Baseball was a welcome preoccupation, and now it becomes still harder to avert one’s eyes from election-related blather. But we can start to speculate on what an offseason will look like, and find new rule changes to grumble about. Meanwhile, can we please clone Gerrit Cole?

Past Peak

13 Oct

2020 has been a year made for tents. Deprived of so many of our normal summer pursuits, Americans have taken to mesh walls en masse over the past summer, and I have been no exception. In mid-October, I head out on one final expedition of the year, barring some tempting Indian summer or a drastic change of heart in my appetite winter camping. It’s time to knock out one more stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail before I trade in my hiking boots for my cross-country skis in the next month or two.

I begin at the Caribou River wayside, which sits just west of the Cook County line and the shoreline village of Schroeder. I’d hiked the first couple miles of this trail a few falls ago and thought it would look better once the leaves were mostly gone. I’m not disappointed: the ridgeline here offers near-constant views down to the lake through the trunks of the nearly barren aspens and birches. On this sunny day, Lake Superior is as rich a royal blue as I’ve ever seen, a thick bar between a blurred out-sky and the grey of barren trees, broken only by the shimmering silver of the sun. From clearer vistas, the slopes below look spackled in gold dust, the last of the leaves still clinging to their bows. The wealth of the Shore comes in silvers and golds, the rippling glass of the lake shimmering from one to another based on the cloud cover.

The leaves along the Superior Hiking Trail are mostly past their peak, and this decline in chlorophyll leaves me ruminating about other things that are past their peak. For example, America. Or human life outside the digital sphere. Or the novel as an art form. Or myself. (I am now at the age where, when my favorite sports teams sign people my age, I question whether they’ll still have value by the end of their contracts.) Everything is in decline, along with the leaves. Isn’t that a happy thought to ponder?

The next segment of trail is new to me, and begins even more barren than before. Its highlight is serene Alfred’s Pond, where a few tamaracks are alight and glowing along its banks. The stretch rolls through tame ups and downs aside from one steep hill by Dyer’s Creek, and with little in the way of major attractions it is one of the quieter stretches of Superior Hiking Trail I’ve seen. I play leapfrog with a jovial older man on my way up and past my stop for lunch, and an orange-clad multigenerational crew out hunting grouse also rolls past. A stretch lining the Two Island River provides a leisurely river walk, and I pause to ponder the long-past-peak railroad line from the former LTV Steel taconite mine in Hoyt Lakes (dead since 2001) to the ghost town of Taconite Harbor (dead since its last remaining feature, a power plant, shuttered in 2016).

I come to the parking lot off Cook County 1, and decide that this looks familiar, albeit much smaller than it did the last time I was here. Somewhere there is a picture of my eight-year-old self next to this sign: in the summer of 1998, my dad took me on my first overnight backpacking trip from here to the Temperance River. My other memories of this trip mostly involve hornets, one of which stung me. My whitewashed childhood memories make me think I took the sting in stride, though I will have to run this theory by my dad. I climb a ridge and the forest turns to maple, affording me the chance to crunch through a several-inch layer of leaves. Along the Cross River I catch and pass two parties, feeling good about my progress: I’ve seen no other hikers going this direction who seem to be plausibly targeting the two sites near the bridge. Maybe I’ll have some relative solitude.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? When my dad and I stayed here 22 years ago, we were the only party at the two sites. Now, a tent city has sprung up, and the two sites have bled together into one sprawling metropolis. By the time the two parties I’d passed roll into camp, there are no fewer than nine tents and one hammock nestled in along the banks of the Cross River. My own tent pad is practically on top of the trail, though mercifully flat and right next to some roaring rapids to drown out any noisy neighbors. I grumble that it may be time to look further afield for my weekend hikes. Add solitude on the Superior Hiking Trail to the list of things that are well past their peak. 

Still, the site works. I spend a while reading and writing on rocks along the riverbank, safely reaching Zen. Everyone is quiet and respectful, and the dog with the largest party is mercifully quiet. I never need to poop, which is a relief, because the latrine perches on a ridge directly above the largest cluster of tents, the undergrowth that provides privacy long since fallen to the forest floor. The neighbors I do meet, a Duluth couple around my parents’ age named Paul and Eileen, are lovely company as we cook our dinners at one of the fire rings. I head back to the riverbank for some headlamp writing as the stars come out, and am surprised to see I’m the last light on in camp.

It is a chill night along the Cross River, but my new sleeping bag liner is up to the task, and I sleep well enough given the circumstances. My campmates are early risers, and many get on the trail before I do; I shoot past three parties in the first two miles, for a second time scaring one of the women I’d passed the day before by politely announcing my presence from about 20 feet off. The ridge between the Cross and Temperance Rivers features more of those autumn windows down to the lake. That seems to be the mood of this hike: exposed, but with little that needs to hide anyway.

I don’t linger much along the banks of the Temperance River; I’d already hiked the east bank, which seems to afford the better views, earlier this year. Carlton Peak looms up more prominently with few leaves on the trees; I can see its dome looming through the barren boughs, my final climb on this hike. I wonder vaguely if there’s a steeper vertical than this nearly 900-foot climb from the Temperance anywhere in the Midwest. When I get to the base of the bulk of the climb, a 300-foot shot up to the peak’s long western arm, I resolve not to stop on the way up: who knows if this climb has a speed record, but whatever it is, I want to push it. The exhilaration of summiting is one of the best raw emotions I’ve felt in a while.

An overlook on the western end proves underwhelming, so I pick my way toward the looming anorthosite dome and scramble up toward the final 200 feet to the top of Carlton Peak. I eat lunch at its highest point, which is surprisingly free of people, and make my last additions to my notebook over at the Ted Tofte overlook next to a plaque in memory of a rock climber who perished on Carlton Peak some 30 years ago. I was plenty warm in a long-sleeved running shirt while I hiked, but as I sit atop an exposed dome, the chill sets in quickly. I move past yet another peak and trudge on down the final mile of my hike to the parking lot on the Sawbill Trail.

Peaks never last, and it’s dangerous to linger on them for too long. Renewal can yet come. Winter has its merits, and spring will come again. The United States will have a chance to write plenty of different futures, and our past definition of greatness may not have been the best one. My crowded campsite shows there are plenty of people who still yearn to get off the grid. The New Yorker short story I read before bed in my tent is the most engrossing one I’ve read in years; the written word isn’t dead yet. The Yankees may be out of the playoffs, but their immediate future still looks pretty bright. We will have a hockey season this winter, limited as it may be. My legs are in as good of shape as they’ve ever been.

To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay on the mountaintop remains an impossibility. But the view from on high is commanding, and the glimmers we catch can carry us all the way through to the end. The question remains: what do we do when we find ourselves past a peak, and how do we respond when old strengths may not be what they once were? With resolve, perhaps, or with an eye to lessons that might still hold true. Perhaps even with a hint of panache. These fallen leaves may just be the nutrients the soil needs for a rebirth at the other end of a cycle.

The Range of Control

6 Oct

Four years ago, not long after I moved back to Duluth and began a job that takes me to Minnesota’s Iron Range with some regularity, I drove down Chestnut Street in downtown Virginia. I nearly ran a red light as I gawked at boarded-up shops and strung-out addicts and imposing old architecture framed against a steely winter sky. The Donald Trump phrase “American carnage” was the first thing to lodge in my mind. I was a witness to the fracturing of small-town America, and I realized just how daunting my new job might be.

I work with Rangers on a daily basis and am the day-to-day economic development staff for a four-community economic alliance, but the coronavirus pandemic has deprived me of any effort to embed myself in the places I serve. Between March and September, I went to the Range exactly once, and that just a brief stop at a favorite coffee shop on a camping expedition further north. And so, eager to view it with new eyes, I guide my Twin Cities friends D and M on a day trip across the Iron Range on a Saturday in early October. M has never been, while D has only been for hockey purposes, so they head in with only loose preconceived notions. Just what do we make of a region that once was the engine of American industry, but has suffered steady population loss since the American steel industry convulsed through its greatest crisis in the 1980s?

We start toward the western end of the Range in Hibbing, the region’s largest city at 16,000 people, and long the capital of the American iron ore mining economy. The drive north from Duluth shows a Range in deep autumn, the trees near peak color and a fresh coolness in the air. For reasons lost on us, the road to the overlook over the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine pit is blocked off, so we’re denied a vista of the hole in the ground that won two World Wars. We settle for a spin around old North Hibbing, a few vacant streets left from the days before the entire town picked itself up and moved south to make way for the mine. That power of industry to move cities is no relic of the past: just ask nearby Virginia, where the new Tom Rukavina Bridge towers over the Rouchleau Pit after a federal highway was rerouted off of mining land.

Hibbing impresses my travel companions more than anywhere else on this road trip, and the Iron Range’s century-old wealth is evident here. The homes in the center of town have a welcoming, well-tended feel, and the high school and Hibbing Memorial Arena are stunning monuments to past glory. Howard Street, the main drag through the old downtown, has enough refreshed storefronts to make it feel like a cozy slice of Americana. D has brought a Polaroid camera and snaps shots down the street, catching the old Androy Hotel with its columns and arches. M appreciates the crossed pick axe and fork on the logo of the newer Boomtown Brewery, a restaurant whose presence reminds me of a day maybe a decade ago when my mom and I spent a day spinning about the Range and failed to find an adequate lunch spot in Hibbing.

The progress feels uneven, though: whether due to the coronavirus or the proclivities of Rangers who would rather spend a sunny Saturday outside, the Range’s downtowns are quieter than I’ve ever seen them. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time to a preserved Main Street from yesteryear, a sense that D’s washed-out Polaroids under moody skies only enhance. When we make it over to Virginia, there are no addicts on Chestnut Street today; just more quiet, dusty grandeur. They feel like movie sets, a blast from the past; the carnage is gone, but the grit remains.

The Range towns are not uniform. M finds charm in Chisholm’s Main Street as it slopes down toward the rows of flags along a causeway across Longyear Lake. Eveleth’s downtown likewise still has that quaint feel, its hockey monuments adding a distinctive local flavor that D and I both eat up. Gilbert has the largest proportion of boarded-up storefronts, and on the far east end, Hoyt Lakes faces the challenges of any community whose major industry has packed up and left—LTV Steel closed in 2001—and whose housing stock is uniformly dated to a single era. A friend from neighboring Aurora tells a tale of how his high school graduating class declined by a third after LTV disappeared, and the numbers at Mesabi East have only inched down since.

The big news in the central Range these days is the impending merge of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts. These two age-old rivals, just a few miles apart, are shutting down their big, old school buildings and building a new one off the highway between the two. The Rock Ridge Wolverines, leaving aside the misfortune of the identity-devoid lowest-common-denominator name and logo that seems to come with any new school these days, are in many ways a no-brainer. The two districts are next door to each other, have been bleeding students for years, and received a generous funding package to unite and provide their students more resources. Eveleth, Virginia, and Gilbert combined have less land area and population than Hibbing. The new school will pioneer an innovative academy model designed to prepare all students for the reality of the contemporary economy instead of cramming everyone on to a college prep track that may or may not make sense.

Still, it’s hard for anyone with a sense of history not to lament the merger, and D decries the changes afoot at the Miners Memorial Arena in Virginia, which will transform one of the state’s most unique, historic hockey venues into a more modern facility. Perhaps not coincidentally, two towns that have already lost their schools (Gilbert and Hoyt Lakes) are the ones M identifies as the biggest downers on the trip, though Biwabik, which like Hoyt Lakes has folded into the Mesabi East School District based in Aurora, still charms with its Bavarian Main Street theme. As economic development has lurched toward embracing the revitalization of old things and a skepticism of big box new development on the outskirts of town, the realities of enrollment numbers and repair costs for schools militate in the opposite direction.

I am often asked what it will take to revive or diversify the Range’s economy. If the answer were easy, we would have figured it out thirty years ago. The new economic development consensus emphasizes existing local assets, place-based development, and growing local business instead of chasing big new investments from outside firms. Broadband connectivity has become a bipartisan rallying cry, and the tales of kids parked in school and library parking lots after hours so they can do their homework exposes the depth of our digital divides. In principle support all of these things, though the Range has its own unique challenges on many of them, given its distance from major markets and rocky and swampy soil. We plug away and make incremental progress, even as national politics seems to have decided that incrementalism is for the weak.

On this trip, there are signs of that place-based formula going to work. The downtowns look better than they did four years ago. Recreational assets such as Giants Ridge and some new biking networks are certainly bringing in some outside cash and making the place somewhat more attractive to outsiders than it has been. Since the pandemic began, there is strong anecdotal evidence of urban-dwellers poking around the Range for affordable properties where they can live remote lives in wide open spaces, especially on the lake properties that dot the region. (Rarely, however, are those properties inside the limits of the Range’s towns.) The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state agency that collects a mining production tax and reinvests it in the communities, is now beating the drum of broadband funding and trail networks and downtown revitalization to go along with its longstanding business recruitment war chest.

Mining is still king, though, and taconite mining is not coal mining: while it will have its ups and downs, it’s not going anywhere. The big news this week is the purchase of ArcelorMittal USA by Cleveland-Cliffs, leaving Cliffs as the largest mining company on the Range and one of just two now operating (along with venerable old U.S. Steel). It’s a stunning turn of events; a few years back, ArcelorMittal USA (a subsidiary of the world’s largest steel producer) looked prime to rule Range mining, while Cliffs teetered on the verge of collapse. A series of aggressive moves by Cliffs have resurrected this now vertically integrated American company, and they’ve been on the cutting edge of new pellet technology. At the same time, domination by a single firm is never a reassuring thing, and the Range’s mining future is now in the hands of Cliffs’ bombastic Brazilian executive, Lourenco Goncalves. We’ve come a long way since the days of Congdons and Carnegies.

Any taconite mining intrigue, however, has taken a back seat to other proposed projects on the Range. The proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes received all of the permits it needed to mine before the inevitable rush of litigation, while Twin Metals near Ely is a bit further behind in the permitting process. Copper-nickel mining draws more concern over its potential environmental effects than the old taconite mines, and the resulting split has torn apart pro-mining Democrats (mostly the old guard on the Range) and environmentalist Democrats (mostly in the Twin Cities or Duluth) and almost singlehandedly taken down one of the longest-lasting political fiefdoms of a single party. Political implications aside, the copper-nickel debate is a fight for the Range’s soul, and a trip through Hoyt Lakes, the “mining town without a mine” on the far east end of the Range, makes it clear why so many Rangers want to revive the old engine.

After Hoyt Lakes, we head east on the Superior National Forest Scenic Drive, which takes us 60 civilization-free miles clear over to Silver Bay along the shores of Lake Superior. The leaves are brilliant, and from the overlook at Skibo, a golden carpet stretches back toward mining plants on the horizon. In Silver Bay, the parking lot for the Bear and Bean Lakes trail overflows so much that we see people parked half a mile from the trailhead along the road into town. We catch the glow of sunset by the Silver Bay marina and work our way down the shore at dusk, the leaf-peeping traffic stacking up miles outside of Two Harbors. After some dark days in spring, northern Minnesota’s tourism economy has roared back with a vengeance.

The past four years have been hard ones for localists. The escalating rhetoric of national politics has leeched down into every level, with Donald Trump and the leftist resistance as twin poles of totalized worldviews. It’s not wrong: there really are consequences to that national-level debate. But as we drive about, my fellow travelers and I—a heterodox group in our politics—are surprised at the relative lack of Trump signs in a region that became a national poster child for the white working-class flip to the red column in 2016. We’ll learn in a month or so if the romance has faded or if the transformation is now so complete that it doesn’t merit loud signs anymore. But it’s hard not to suspect that something else is afoot here.

As politicians bluster about tariffs and permitting battles carry on in distant courts, the Range sits at cold remove from so many of the trends roiling America in 2020. Its successes over the past four years, such as they are, have come from bipartisan or nonpartisan local efforts to clean up streetscapes and plow in fiber. The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened feelings of powerlessness over forces beyond immediate control, and the inability of too many Americans to make peace that lack of control has been revealing. But even amid crises near and far, humans still have agency over parts of their fates, and those who do seize the opportunities before them are the ones who write history. And because some people have, I have hope for the future of Minnesota’s Iron Range.