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In honor of the Kentucky Derby last month, Karen Given reported a story on Only a Game about the naming of thoroughbred horses. At the end, the radio show’s host, Bill Littlefield, did a  funny imitation of calling a race. I won’t be able to do it justice. You’ll have to listen to the clip.

“Since 2004,” Given reports, “Rick Bailey has been the registrar for the Jockey Club, and he really enjoys the creativity he gets to witness in his job. Bailey and his staff review about 40,000 names every year and approve two-thirds to three-quarters of them. The numbers add up pretty quickly.

” ‘We do have 350,000 to 400,000 names that are considered active,’ Bailey says.

“With that many names off the table, maybe owners are just running out of normal horse names to choose from? …

“The list of available names is getting bigger, Bailey says, because the horse racing industry is getting smaller.

“There will never be another Secretariat or Seabiscuit. Those names have been permanently retired. But the names of less successful horses are eventually released. Bailey publishes those names on the Jockey Club’s website every year. This year, that list included more than 45,000 names. …

“The list includes Bambi le Bleu, Fabulous Rex, and Zippity Doodah Day. …

“Most ancient horses, says [Philip Sidnell, who has written the book on ancient warhorses], are named for pretty mundane reasons. Take the horses who ran in the ancient Roman chariot races.

” ‘They had names like “Swift” or another called “Snotty” and one called “Chatterbox.” ‘ “

Listen to Littlefield showcase some unusual horse names in the clip, here. “It’s Cookie Monster, Maple Syrup and Spineless Jellyfish  … Cookie Monster is hungry on the outside …”

 Photo: Only a Game

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Bill Littlefield, at Only a Game on WBUR radio, got a lesson in the subtleties of Finnish baseball when he interviewed the Wall Street Journal’s Brian Costa recently. Costa went to Finland to report on pesäpallo, a game whose players are sometimes scouted by US baseball teams.

“Brian Costa: The biggest difference is the pitcher, instead of throwing the ball from a mound at the batter, stands beside him and throws it up in the air and sort of gets out of the way. But there are base paths, there’s four bases, there’s home plate, players field with gloves. …

“Bill Littlefield: Critics of baseball in the U.S. say the games are too long. It’s too slow. There’s not enough action. Would such critics be happier with pesäpallo?

“Brian: Oh, they would love pesäpallo. There are very, very few strikeouts, very few swings and misses, so pretty much every ball that gets pitched gets put into play. …

“Bill: What’s it like for fans attending a game of pesäpallo? And how many are there? Is this a big popular attraction?

“Brian: This is really not a city sport, so [in] Helsinki, you won’t see that much of it. But it is the sport of the Finnish countryside. You’ll have towns where the local population may be 3,000 people, and they’ll get 3,500 at a game. …

“Bill: You note that a scout from the New York Yankees was in Finland last month for All-Star weekend there. … [But] Finnish players, I gather, do not seem very interested in playing baseball as we know it?

“Brian: No they’re not. It’s very interesting. … None of them seemed to really follow Major League Baseball. The people who I asked about their impressions of it kind of smirked or winced or just said, ‘eh.’ I mean, they feel like they’ve got a better version of it.”

More here.

Video: PattijoenUrheilijat

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Imagine my surprise, driving along, flipping channels, to hear the unique voice of John and Suzanne’s high school history teacher, long retired. And he was on Only a Game. I know the show’s host is eclectic, but I couldn’t see how Bill Littlefield was going to work into his sports show Eliot Lilien’s expertise in World War I or Russian history.

Well, what do you know! It turns out Only a Game was focusing on the high school’s 50 years of a sport that Mr. Lilien started there: fencing.

Littlefield writes that 50 years ago, to get the program started, Mr. Lilien “found a few opponents at other secondary schools in the Northeast, and some at colleges, and some at clubs. …

“ ‘When you first began the program 50 years ago,’ I asked, ‘did you ever imagine that it would still be going strong in 50 years?’

“ ‘I didn’t think about,’ he said. ‘But I’m very grateful that it has been, and that this high school has been willing to support it.’

“Some of Lilien’s first recruits showed up hoping to bring Dungeons & Dragons to life with swords. He had to teach them that the sport required not fantasy but discipline, balance, tactics, psychology, and brains — most of the time.

“ ‘Of course, if you’re faster than anyone else, and stronger, it becomes less important,’ Lilien said.

“ ‘The mental part of it?’ I asked.

“ ‘If you can launch a gigantic attack, it doesn’t make any difference how smart the other person is. He’s gonna get hit,’ Lilien answered.”

Listen to the interview at Only a Game.

I wonder if the 50-year mark at the high school as anything to do with the local resurgence of interest in fencing. The space across from my hairdresser, where the wonderful craft shop Dabblers used to be, has morphed into a fencing studio. Fun to watch when you’re getting your hair cut.

Photo: Jesse Costa/Only a Game

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Looking for an indoor sport this winter? Have you considered belt-sander racing? Bill Littlefield has been covering the unusual sport at WBUR’s  Only a Game since 2002, and as Karen Given reported recently, the sport could probably use some new blood — er, participants.

She begins by revisiting the 2002 broadcast.

” ‘Two by two, they come screaming down the 85-foot-long, waist-high wooden track, trailing rooster tails of sawdust and long, yellow extension cords that power them to the finish line.’

“That is how reporter Sean Cole began his treatise on the New England Belt Sander Racing Association,” continues Givens, “which first aired on Only A Game on April 13, 2002. But here’s the bit everyone remembers:

“NEBSRA co-founder Dave Kenyon: ‘It’s a real family event. It’s a family event with beer.’ …

“There is still beer, so there is still belt sander racing. Or is there? I went to Jamaica Plain in Boston to investigate. …

” ‘You are at the 2014 Fall Nationals Belt Sander Drag Race and Costume Ball,’ Glen Gurner tells me.

“Gurner is a woodworker and former champion of this sport. But for some reason he’s really enthusiastic about the idea that this might be the last time NEBSRA, an organization he helped found, holds a belt sander race. …

” ‘It takes a village.”

“ ‘And the village is tired?’ I ask.

“ ‘Yeah, the village is getting old.’ …

“For about 10 minutes, Kenyon fusses over the position of the crowd and a 60-pound, lithium-ion-powered sander outfitted with a motorcycle engine. It has a theoretical maximum speed of 85 miles per hour, and its name is Bruce….

“I stay long enough to watch Bruce surge to life and almost immediately slam into the spring-loaded preventer at the end of the track. It’s spectacular, but no one dies. So the crowd goes back to reminiscing about old times.

“There are other belt sander races around the country. Some even have corporate sponsors and professional crews. But NEBSRA likes to believe theirs is the first — and the best. Kenyon is proud of how far this event has come in the past quarter-century.

“ ‘It’s so much more now. It’s homecoming. This is real homecoming. People have come up to me and said, “Thank you, thank you for doing this.” That’s nice,’ Kenyon said. … ‘There’s not enough rituals in our life anymore — not enough tradition. This is what passes for tradition.’ ”

Tradition! I can almost hear Tevye singing, “Tradition!”

Photo: Jessica Coughlin/Only A Game
Two competitors get ready to race at the 2014 Fall Nationals Belt Sander Race and Costume Ball.

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We bought Wiffle balls and bats this summer, but the grandkids were not quite ready for the big leagues.

Meanwhile, WBUR radio’s Bill Littlefield decided to cover the Golden Stick Wiffle League All-Star Series for Only a Game.

“At about 8:30 [on a] Sunday morning, a half-dozen Wiffle Ball enthusiasts began assembling the field that would host a three-game series of All-Star games between the most accomplished Wifflers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and their counterparts from New York and Philadelphia, dubbed, vaingloriously, the World All-Stars.

“The field, which took up most of the front yard of a large home in Danvers, Mass., featured black, cylindrical outfield walls which had to be inflated with a leaf-blower. There were yellow canvas lines tacked to the grass to distinguish singles from doubles and a backstop featuring a metal target and a couple of corporate logos. According to Jason Doucette, a player who’d driven down from Laconia, N.H., the logos were a little misleading.

“ ‘Not a lot of people sponsor wiffle ball,’ Doucette said. “Money-wise, we stick together. We try to help each other out.’ …

“Perhaps in part because of a recent cancer diagnosis, [Pat] Vitale was only scheduled to pitch one inning for Massachusetts/New Hampshire. But after Vitale had retired the New York/Philadelphia — a.k.a. ‘World’ side — in order, team manager and president of Golden Stick Wiffle Ball Lou Levesque was asked if he would follow that plan.

“ ‘No, no, by no means. We’re leaving him in there,’ Levesque said. “He’ll go right up to the full three if he keeps playing like that.’

“Would he yank Vitale if he didn’t keep playing like that?

“’Oh, yeah. Absolutely,’ he said. ‘Cut throat. This is the All-Star game.’ ”

More Wiffle fun  here.

Photo: Louis Levesque 
Pat Vitale tosses a pitch during the Golden Stick Wiffle League All-Star series. The 62-year-old managed to stay in the game for an unexpected three innings.

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Photo: Mark Andrew Boyer
Norm Burns, member of the U.S. CanAm Oldtimers 70-B team.

Trust Bill Littlefield at WBUR’s “Only a Game” to come up with the quirky sports stories.

In July, reporter Dan Brekke checked out the unusual legacy of a cartoonist who loved ice hockey and didn’t see why anyone should quit playing just because they got old.

Brekke writes, “Less than a year ago, 69-year-old Gary Powdrill was having a quintuple bypass open-heart surgery. But right now, he’s focused on a tight game between his hockey squad, the Central Massachusetts Rusty Blades, and the hometown Woodstock Flyers. And things aren’t going so well.

“The Rusty Blades are one of 68 teams playing in ‘Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament,’ an event created by ‘Peanuts’ cartoonist Charles Schulz – ‘Sparky’ to his family and hockey buddies – at the beautifully eccentric arena he and his first wife built.

“The tournament is for players from age 40 and up, with divisions set aside for 50, 60 and 70-year-olds.

“Steve Lang, one of the thousand or so players who has suited up this year, is skating for the Woodstock Flyers – the name refers to Charles Schulz’s little yellow bird character. The Flyers and Rusty Blades are fighting for third place in a division for players 60 and up. But unfortunately, according to Lang, the Flyers ‘don’t fly like the bird.’ …

“ ‘We’ve got ages from 76 down to 62,’ Lang said. ‘I’m 75. You know, we think like rabbits, skate like turtles.’ ”

New Yorker Bob Santini, 82, says, ” ‘I try to do the best I can, but the most important thing about a tournament like this is the camaraderie.’ …

“Jean Schulz, Sparky’s widow, says that’s just the way her husband wanted it.” More here.

Photo: Dan Brekke
Jean Schulz, widow of cartoonist Charles “Sparky” Schulz

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If you want people to innovate, get out of the way. That’s what I think must have happened when Bill Littlefield launched his sports program at WBUR. Clearly, someone gave him freedom to do it his own kooky way, and when radio stations around the country wanted to carry the program, that laissez-faire manager must have smiled.

Both sports fans and non-sports fans like Littlefield’s show. He covers all the usual sports topics but also showcases offbeat competitions like this one at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Karen Given was the reporter.

“Just 15 minutes before game time, the vast and serene campus green at Vermont College of Fine Arts showed no signs of the annual Writers vs. Poets softball game. There were no bats, no balls, no bases, and no players. Suddenly, Victorio Reyes stormed onto the scene.

“ ‘First of all I’m a poet,’ he said. … ‘There’s two things,” Reyes continued. “One: the United States invests way too much money in sports and too much emotion, okay? That’s the first thing. The second thing? This game is life or death. That’s all you need to know.’ …

“No one seems to know the overall record. Louise Crowley, director of the MFA in Writing program, said the game itself is similarly imprecise.

“ ‘We might have 50 people in the outfield. It’s just kinda an informal, crazy game.’

“ ‘Eventually, will there be bases?’ I asked.

“ ‘There will be bases, yes,’ Crowley said. ‘There will be bases, there will be a batter, there will be a catcher, you know. But other than that, it’s just sort of a free flowing, everything goes.’ …

“After dinner, there’s a reading, and then hours of painstaking writing and re-writing before workshops begin again early tomorrow morning. …

“Poetry instructor Matthew Dickman had a preexisting injury this time around, so his job was to provide inspiration — of the negative variety.

“ ‘Whenever a fiction writer gets to bat, a student, I’m going to sit behind them and talk about how difficult it is to get published,’ Dickman said. ‘How they’ll probably just go back to working wherever they work and their dreams will come to an end.’  …

“Every once in a while, the pitcher lobbed in a good one and the batter managed a hit — usually a pop fly that floated over the outfield. And, although the number of outfielders had ballooned to at least a dozen, every single one of those pop flies dropped to the grass.” More at Only a Game.

I laughed all the way through this report.

Photo: Going the Distance Blog
At the annual Vermont College of Fine Arts softball game, it’s war. Cats vs. dogs have nothing on poets vs. prose writers.

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