Royal Family: Leland Race Wrestles with Becoming Worthy of His Father’s Name

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A small crowd has formed outside the entrance of the Harley Race Wrestling Arena, a squat warehouse on the outskirts of Troy, Missouri. When Harley’s 32-year-old son Leland Race unlocks the door at 3 p.m., about four dozen people, almost all men between ages 25 and 50 in ballcaps and T-shirts, shuffle through a hallway and past the ticket window, where each of them happily hands Leland $30 in cash on the way to the arena floor. There, at a long table in front of a wrestling ring that flirts with the low steel rafters, sit two World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famers.

Tonight’s event is billed as “The Night of the Dragon,” and at 63, guest of honor Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat still has biceps that stretch the threads of his black T-shirt; his face is smooth and youthful beneath a shock of silver hair. Steamboat welcomes the fanboys with the exuberant “How are you today?” expected from a longtime “baby-face”—pro-wrestling parlance for “good guy.” He answers questions and reminisces about matches past as he signs original-packaged action figures, magazines, replica championship belts, and even a pair of folding metal chairs, and smiles wide for smartphone snapshots.

Beside Steamboat, 73-year-old “King” Harley Race slumps in a wheelchair, the result of a 30-year career spent as a heel, or bad guy, being tossed and body-slammed onto concrete floors and long folding tables like the one upon which his steel-reinforced forearm now rests. From head to toe, his body contains at least as much metal as does the golden National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Championship belt he held eight times in the 1970s and 1980s, now propped up like a nameplate on the tablecloth in front of him. His strawberry-blond curls have thinned; the peacock tattoos on his once-massive arms are wrinkled, blurred, and faded to blue.

And yet his hard gaze and grimace are somehow every bit as intimidating in person as they were on TV during his prime as a tough-as-a-turnbuckle antihero. He barely speaks beyond a gruff “You’re welcome”—that is, until his Sharpie begins to run out of ink.

Jason!” he bellows in a gravelly tone that echoes around the arena.

At this moment, it seems, the only motion in the building is Leland, instantly answering his father’s summons with two new markers in hand. Jason Leland Race bears little resemblance to his father. Bald and wide-eyed, bearded, with a slight overbite, he’s smaller in stature—a lean-but-athletic 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds—than the barrel-chested 250-pound patriarch looking on from the faded fight bills on the wall. Leland does share his father’s middle name, his passion for wrestling, and his marrow-deep conviction that Harley Race was and is the greatest there ever was or will be—at everything. The son leans over his dad’s shoulder, scribbles out a few lines to ensure that the new pens work, and then slips into the background as the autograph line chugs along and the nostalgia machine keeps churning.

Leland runs to the office to oversee ticket and merchandise sales, then off to the bathroom to stock up on toilet paper and soap. One moment, he’s back in the locker room seeing that the wrestlers, his students at Harley Race Wrestling Academy, have everything they need; the next, he’s using a plastic funnel to fill ketchup bottles at the concession stand. All the while, Leland is trying to focus on his own match, tonight’s main event, against the villainous “Superstar Steve” Fender. With the legendary Steamboat guest-refereeing and his father looking on, tonight is another chance for Leland to shine. Winning the bout is important for his storyline, sure—it will set Leland up for a shot at regaining the World League Wrestling heavyweight title that he lost six months ago. But more crucial is winning the crowd—projecting his baby-face persona, Leland “The Legacy” Race, not just through words and the famous moniker but also by putting on a show. By executing the flips, dropkicks, arm bars, and body slams with the technical proficiency that old-school fans associate with the surname and a bone-rattling impact that will make even the most hardcore aficionados wonder for a moment whether it’s not real. To show that 14 years of paying dues in these cramped small-town sheds and gymnasiums and tents has made him ready for the top rope, the WWE and the worldwide stage The King conquered and has long since abdicated. To prove that he’s worthy of the name Race. That he’s not just…

Jason!”

The autograph line is spent, the arena now empty but for a skeleton crew setting up rows of metal banquet chairs. Leland grips the handles on the back of his father’s wheelchair and rolls him toward the front office. The son pops open a can of Diet Coke and sets it beside the butt-filled ashtray on Harley’s desk. Here, The King will eat a loose-meat sandwich, smoke Marlboro Lights, and wait while Leland prepares for what they hope will be a sellout crowd.

 

Read the rest at stlmag.com

‘The Hurt Locker’ Back at Home

EODThe call comes in around 8 p.m. on Richard Swann’s military-issued flip phone. (“Old school, you know?” he jokes. “The government doesn’t want to buy us any new technology.”) It typically sits silent in its charger for weeks at a time in the living room of Swann’s home in Dallas, Georgia, a small town about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta. Still, Swann is hardwired to answer it, rushing from his 7-year-old daughter’s room, where, on this Thursday night, he’s cut short a debate over bedtime. He knows every call, however infrequent, could be a matter of life or death.

When Air Force Master Sergeant Swann was deployed, as he was for tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, these calls would come in three times a day. A land mine had been hidden in the sand, or an improvised explosive device (IED) had been stashed in the trunk of an abandoned car on the side of the road. His job, and the job of his fellow explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) airmen, was to put on a protective bomb suit and delicately disarm and remove the (sometimes literally) ticking threat —like a stateside version of The Hurt Locker

Stateside, Swann and the 94th Civil Engineering Squadron from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, on the outskirts of Atlanta, face a very different threat. While they’re equipped to deal with a domestic terrorist act such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Oklahoma City bombing, the vast majority of calls stem from everyday citizens who’ve stumbled upon weapons of long-ago wars — forgotten souvenirs from a tour of duty in Europe, Vietnam or the Middle East, “cool stuff” purchased from Ebay and Craigslist or relics found on rural Southern farms and pastures that were once battlefields. A typical example: Back in 2013, construction workers breaking ground on the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta inadvertently dug up a Civil-War era cannonball, which turned out to be a live round containing gunpowder and ball bearings.

Swann grabs his government flip phone and finds a quiet corner. Opening the aged device, he hears the voice of his superior officer. A man was spotted with an ordnance on the side of Panthersville Road, a rural byway just outside Dallas, mere minutes from where Swann now sits. The rest of the information is scant and vague: A military artillery round. Potentially live

The airman gives his wife a quick hug and kiss before running out to his Corolla, where he keeps a go-bag of combat boots; basic tools, like a Leatherman, knives and screwdrivers; and a flame-retardant flight suit that he now zips over his jeans and T-shirt. Swann backs the Toyota out of his driveway and heads out into the chilly October night.

Read the rest at wearemel.com

Open Mike: In the Booth With Moon Man Mike Shannon

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It’s 10 minutes until the first pitch, and Mike Shannon, bespectacled, hunched over a copy of the Miami Marlins’ spring roster in the broadcast booth, is working on the name of today’s opposing pitcher, Wei-Yin Chen.

“How do you pronounce this guy’s name?” Shannon says in his gravelly timbre.

Way-in. Chen,” says fellow broadcaster Mike Claiborne, seated to Shannon’s left. “Like way in on the infield.”

Way-in. Chen?”

“Right.”

“Just want to make sure we’re on the same page,” says Shannon.

When Shannon first started broadcasting, 44 years ago, a mispronunciation, a malaprop, or a colorful quip was acceptable, even endearing, to a like-minded regional audience. Shannonisms such as It’s raining like a Chinese fire drill! and I just want to wish everybody a Happy Easter or Happy Hanukkah are popular, if not necessarily PC, cocktail shorthand in St. Louis. But today, when the play-by-play can be streamed digitally to Chen’s native Taiwan and every sentence can be replayed, dissected, and decried on social media, global listeners expect the spot-on elocution of a Joe Buck or Dan McLaughlin. A slip of the tongue or cultural insensitivity here or there could get a young broadcaster in trouble. “Now whatever you say has to jump over six different hurdles and go through five different filters,” says Buck. “It’s taken some of that personality away.”

At 76, Shannon’s personality is more outsized than ever—hurdles and filters be damned. This morning, he showed up at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, before 9 a.m. for an afternoon spring game, the seat of his black corduroys covered in dust that couldn’t quite be swept away with his hand. He carried a paper cup of coffee and a red plastic shopping bag containing his black-rimmed reading glasses; copies of the The New York Post, The Palm Beach Post, and the Daily Racing Form; and four warm bottles of water. (Despite frequently slurring into the late innings about “cold frosty ones,” Shannon never drinks while broadcasting.) He huffed up four flights of stairs to the press box—both a moment of quiet from an elevator full of Cardinal fans whom he loves but who all think they know him and a quick workout for an ex-jock who underwent heart surgery three years ago: “Two birds,” he says, “with that stone. Heh-heh-heh.”

Once in the booth, he cracks wise to Claiborne about the “decimal” level of the PA rock music rattling the windows. (“This guy works at a disco, somewhere.”) He laments the absence of the Pilates ball he’s sat on for almost a decade to keep him in motion and allow him to exercise between innings. And when he learns thatSt. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold tweeted at 9:03 a.m. that today’s starting first baseman, Matt Holliday, has been scratched from the lineup because of tightness in his lower back, Shannon waits about an hour for confirmation by way of more traditional means—a call from a team gofer from the clubhouse to Shannon’s flip phone—before adjusting his lineup card. (“The whole f—ing thing has changed. Oh man, what a mess.”) Then he dutifully walks down the hall to inform his Spanish-language broadcast counterparts. “Que paso?” he says, in a hard Midwestern accent. “I only want two cervezas,” he says, joking. “Heh-heh-heh.”

By the time first pitch rolls around, even though it’s only an early spring training exhibition, Shannon is at the edge of his uncomfortable chair, almost sticking his head out the press-box window, feeding off the energy of the fans in red packing the stands below. “History could be made every time I go to that ballpark,” he had said previously. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Now on the air, Claiborne introduces Chen and the first three Cardinal batters: “Brought to you by Sapaugh Motors…where everyone leaves happy.”

“Happy, happy, happy,” says Shannon. “You know who sang that song?”

Claiborne: “Uhhhh…Pharrell?”

“You’re right on,” says Shannon, “and right on it today, too, is this weather. It is really…magnificent down here, today. We have some cloud cover. It’s gonna be up near 80, and the wind is blowing in from right field as Chen fires the first pitch of the day, and it’s a steeerike called.”

Read the rest at stlmag.com.

 

Twelve Hours a Slave: Why one man spends his spare time re-enacting America’s ugliest era

hamSitting on a stump beneath an old oak tree, beside a weathered barn in Sharpsburg, Maryland, a black man in a homespun woolen shirt and threadbare breeches butchers a turkey with a dull blade. His name is Marvin Greer; he is 29 years old. Around him, seven other African Americans, all of them wearing the period garb of freemen and liberated slaves — cotton dresses, straw hats and antique bonnets — go about the business of preparing breakfast for a dozen white men in blue Union uniforms who are bivouacked just downstream, a 19th-century tintype come to life.

Greer rode a bus 14 hours from Atlanta to participate in this Civil War re-enactment deep in the mountains near Maryland’s border with West Virginia, hard against the Potomac River. It’s breakfast time, and he’s part of the cooking detail. Bacon and onions sizzle in a cast-iron skillet along with apples and yams; a tin pot of coffee boils over, releasing fragrant plumes of smoke into the morning air.

A graduate of traditionally black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Greer has embraced history as more than just a major. Currently a part-time employee of the Atlanta History Center, he is paid to dress up as a slave and re-enact Southern history. Recently he landed a full-time job at Colonial Williamsburg, where he will exchange the garb of a slave for the knee-breeches and waistcoats of a freeman. As a site supervisor, at the Williamsburg, Virginia, theme park, Greer will be charged with integrating the African-American experience into the 18th-century programming.

On this warm September morning, Greer is on his own time, pursuing what many would consider an unusual hobby. He spends his weekends trekking to battlefields across the Southeast. Sometimes he shoulders a musket as an enlisted man in the Union Army — which employed freedmen as soldiers in the War Between the States. Other days, he’s simply a laborer, bearing witness to the approximation of history.

Today Greer is playing a real historical figure named Scipio Africanus, who was born free in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the mid-19th century. When the Civil War broke out, according to Greer’s research, Africanus left his family to become a body servant to Captain Francis Adams Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania, part of the U.S. force pressed into action by Abraham Lincoln to fight against the rebels. On this day 153 years ago, the 118th was pursuing Confederate forces along this route as they retreated southward from their defeat on the bloody battlefield in nearby Antietam.

Though Africanus likely never kept a journal — one has never been found, and his ability to read and write was probably limited, Greer says — he is mentioned in Donaldson’s meticulously kept logs, which state that Africanus was here with the captain more than 150 years ago. The diary contains only a passing description of Africanus as a “sassy nigger,” so in order to fill out the servant’s spitfire personality, Greer has incorporated elements — vernacular, backstory and even posture — of other freemen he’s researched from the area and time period. For instance, Africanus most likely would’ve camped with the other African Americans, most of them newly liberated from a nearby plantation.

The turkey starts to crackle in the pan. “There’s an upside of being in a Union camp,” Greer says with an amused smile, stirring the mix with a corroded two-tine fork. “They eat a lot better than the Confederates.”

Read the rest at wearemel.com

Basso Profundo: How a college football standout became an international opera star

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Morris Robinson is trying to lay low, something that’s never been easy for him. If anyone failed to see the 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound vocalist lumbering through the lobby of the Woodruff Arts Center an hour ago in black ostrich-skin boots, tuxedo pants, and untucked maroon T-shirt, they certainly heard his voice. Or rather felt it—a sonorous “Hello! How’s it going?” to the doorman at Symphony Hall that seemed to make the walls, the carpeted concrete floor, even the humid air waver like a tuning fork.

Tonight Robinson’s bass is even deeper thanks to some congestion—the onset of what he fears is a cold. That’s why he spent the afternoon resting alone in a darkened Buckhead hotel room instead of surrounded by family at his home in Tyrone, just 35 minutes south. And it’s why he sequestered himself in a cramped dressing room in the bowels of the Woodruff, where he periodically cleared out his pipes with bursts of la-la-la’s, doh’s, and rolling Italian rrrrr’s that made the white-tied instrumentalists start as they passed. And it’s why now, minutes before showtime, Robinson is backstage pacing, size-15 boots falling heavy on the hardwood to and from the stage door, where he keeps peeking out at the packed house. “I’m going to own the room,” he says to himself. “When I walk out, I’m going to take control.”

The sweat is beading on his shaved head. This is a rare show in Robinson’s hometown, a recital to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, his sixth performance in this building as artist-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Many of the people out there are friends and family. Some remember him as DeRhon—his middle name—the boy who sang in church but set aside music to play football, becoming an All-American lineman at the Citadel, before moving north to embark on a career in business. Maybe they’ve heard something about the man who, in his 30s, rediscovered classical music and left the world of corporate sales to become an opera singer.

It’s time. Robinson takes a last swig of lukewarm water and straightens his jacket. He clears his throat one final time and quickly blows a kiss to the sky, to the one lifelong fan who isn’t here—the mother who seemed to know all along that her son’s voice was meant to stir the masses.

Read the rest at atlantamagazine.com

Unique boxing program brings empowerment to Parkinson’s patients

DSC_1602Nobody uses the wheelchair accessible parking spot in front of Rock Steady Boxing. It’s Thursday morning, and the rest of the parking lot is full at the industrial park just northwest of Indianapolis.

Inside the gym, a gaggle of about 30 people clad in workout clothes lines up along the apron of a boxing ring. Forty-year-old men are elbow to elbow on the ropes with women in their 80s. Black, white, truckers, retired military, housewives and musicians. Some of their hands are taped, ready for the starting bell. Many of them wear a different shade of the same Rock Steady T-shirt, back emblazoned with the slogan “Fight back.”

All of these fighters have a common, insidious foe: Parkinson’s disease. If any of these patients were trying to straighten a stooped posture or still a trembling limb for the sake of their classmates, Kristy Rose Follmar quickly diffuses any pretense. A drill sergeant with short red hair, broad shoulders and a sleeveless navy T-shirt that reads “COACH,” Follmar addresses her pupils as “Parkies,” shorthand for people with Parkinson’s disease. Her voice echoes in the metal rafters high above as she orders the class to spread out across the concrete floor and stretch.

“Shake everything out!” she says. Then a smile: “On purpose!”

“You’ve got to laugh about things,” Follmar later says. “It gets pretty heavy at times.”

Heavy, as in a man falling and the entire class cheering him on as he crawls back to his feet. As in a husband coming to class with his stricken wife to be her “corner man,” working out alongside her and helping her face this relentless and progressive attack on her nervous system. As in regulars suddenly not showing out of shame or frustration or depression, or because the disease has temporarily — or finally — prevailed, as it inevitably does.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be confronted. In this gym, Follmar and her team teach people how to fight — literally. Ten years ago, Follmar helped start the first Rock Steady, a non-profit gym that preaches the use of repetitive, non-contact boxing training to improve Parkinson’s patients’ strength and coordination to help them stave off this unrelenting disease.

The idea has been contagious. What started with six members in a cramped Indianapolis shop has spread to 36 states and Italy, Australia and Canada.

When the stretching is done, Follmar walks over to the stereo and pushes play on an ’80s and ’90s R&B mix. As Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” comes on, she sets the digital timer for four-minute rounds. She slips on a pair of red punching mitts and slaps them together.

“All right, Parkies,” she says. “Let’s go!”

Read the rest at espn.go.com

Can Brad Stevens Put the Celtics Together Again?

 

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It’s Saturday night in Las Vegas, and the NBA Summer League is in full tilt. There’s none of the pomp of the regular season—that’s the appeal of this brief showcase—but the Thomas & Mack Center, on the UNLV campus, is still packed with well-known faces. Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is standing at the entrance. Former All-Star and current Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd patrols the baseline. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is courtside.

The pavilion’s setup is so intimate—it’s essentially a high school gym decked out with a pair of HD video boards—that the only thing separating the coaches and scouts from the fanboys and autograph hounds is a thin line of police tape, cordoning off a small section of reserved seats.

Summer League is a chance for NBA teams to evaluate young talent, and on the court tonight are the Celtics’ rookies, second-year hopefuls, and undrafted free agents. There’s just one twist: This ragtag group of inexperienced unknowns might as well be Boston’s 2015–2016 opening-night roster. Three years removed from the Big Three era—Ray Allen departed in 2012, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013, Rajon Rondo last year—the Celtics have the fewest marquee players of any major Boston sports franchise. None, in fact. Instead, the most recognizable Celtics brand name is, on this Saturday night, sitting in the lightly policed VIP section with his son. Four rows up, seated amid the easily identifiable NBA professionals talking on their phones and taking notes in their team-issued polo shirts, the man and his son are recognizable only for their utter banality: The boy is decked out in Boston green and white, glued to his team at the edge of his seat, while his father tries to strike up a conversation with a man sitting beside him.

The pair’s presence seems so out of place that it catches the attention of an usher, who approaches the dad and asks to see his team credentials. The father doesn’t seem surprised. He calmly lifts the plastic tag at the end of his lanyard to show the usher: “Brad Stevens. Boston Celtics.”

It’s hard to imagine Doc Rivers or Phil Jackson or even Golden State’s Steve Kerr getting carded at an NBA venue—and certainly not without a flash of annoyance or fluster of indignity. But Stevens takes it as a matter of course. Not getting recognized happens to him almost every day, and not just on the road. It happens when he’s boarding a plane at Logan, out with his family near their home in Wellesley, even grabbing a bite around the Garden smack in the middle of Celts-crazy Boston. Rare is the day that passes without the slender, 6-foot-1 coach going unrecognized. “I don’t think I’m overly recognizable,” he’ll say, running his hand over his clean-shaven cheekbones.

This could be a problem. If the ushers don’t recognize your head coach—the man team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has handpicked to whittle a band of young unknowns into NBA playoff contenders—then it’s a good bet he’s not famous enough to put on the cover of the media guide. And if not Brad Stevens, then who?

It’s not just Stevens’s face that blends into the scenery. His whole approach to coaching is based on deflecting attention. He hardly ever yells at his players, doesn’t stomp and carry on from the sideline. The only time he talks about himself is when he’s assuming blame for the mistakes and subpar play of his crew of misfits. It’s precisely the meek and humble demeanor you’d expect of a former Division III point guard and coach from a tiny private college in Indiana dropped into a locker room of NBA-size egos. “In college, you’re coaching young men who haven’t accomplished anything, and they have to adapt to you, mostly,” says Stevens’s friend Mike Krzyzewski, the iconic Coach K who has won five NCAA championships at Duke, and guided two pro-stocked U.S. national teams to Olympic gold. “Professional athletes are men—that’s what they do. If you’re smart, you’ll adapt to them.”

So far, Stevens’s adaptation has yielded a combined 99 regular-season losses in two years. To be sure, this Celtics team is a rebuild. Everybody understands this. And everyone acknowledges that in the midst of the carnage, Stevens has been able to carve out a few symbolic victories. Last year, he engineered a late-season hot streak—overcoming a flurry of personnel shifts, including Rondo’s departure, by deploying his tireless preparation and vast basketball IQ—and led the Celtics on a spirited 20–11 run to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs. It was impressive, but only to a point. If there was any faint hope that Stevens’s shoddy Celtics could compete with playoff-caliber NBA talent, it was wiped out when LeBron James and the actual stars of the Cleveland Cavaliers dispensed with Boston in four straight games and sent them home.

As Stevens leans back into his seat in Vegas, he’s looking at a bench of players who cannot win it all. If Boston is ever going to regain a legitimate place at the playoff-season party, it’s going to need superstars—and a coach who can command and control them. Young players eager to make their mark on the league, at bargain-basement prices? Mid-level talent looking to impress a true contender and jockey for a trade? These are the guys who will play their hearts out for Brad Stevens—which makes Ainge a genius and Stevens the perfect man for the moment. But what’s the long-term play? Teams tend to take on the personalities of their leaders. Phil Jackson was the mystic Zen master. Pat Riley was the firebrand; Gregg Popovich, the grizzled yeoman. Can Stevens’s everyman routine provide the energy it’s going to take to win banner number 18? Or is he just a stunt driver, taking the bumps and keeping the seat warm while Ainge pieces together a championship machine—and then hires a bigger name to drive it across the finish line?

Talk to Stevens now, and you’ll hear platitudes about selflessness and team play. It wasn’t always that way. In his childhood imagination, Stevens was the one with the ball as the game clock expired at Assembly Hall, home of coach Bob Knight’s Indiana University Hoosiers. In the floodlights of his parents’ suburban Indiana driveway, he’d coordinate daylong pickup games with neighborhood kids. In the unfinished part of his parents’ basement, the only child dribbled around chairs while watching worn-out videos of IU games. He wasn’t dreaming of exerting his egoless mentorship from the sideline. The young Brad Stevens had his heart set on basketball stardom.

Read the rest at Boston magazine

 

Female Drivers Changed The Fortunes of One Racing Company

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Pippa Mann grew up trying to fit into a world that wasn’t made with her in mind. The racing karts she first revved up at age 12 were considered boys’ toys, and the garages, pits and tracks she frequented as a teen in Britain and Italy had been informal fraternities for generations. In 2009, the 26-year-old Mann crossed over to the U.S. to race Indy Lights, a feeder series to IndyCar, whose most coveted prize — the Borg-Warner Trophy, given to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 — is topped by a sterling silver sculpture of a naked man.

And through it all, as Mann strapped on her helmet and climbed behind the wheel, she, like almost all female drivers, was wearing an off-the-rack racing suit that was designed for a man. “I’m a slightly different body shape than most of the other drivers,” she quips. “As a female driver, I have struggled to find suits that fit me throughout my career. Most of the time, I just wore bigger suits.”

Even in the cramped cockpit of an open-wheel race car, Mann learned to steer and shift in the extra padding, and throughout her amateur days and early professional career, a slightly baggy look was a small sacrifice for the safety of a flame-retardant uniform. But in Indy, a league in which companies invest tens of thousands of dollars to put their names on cars and suits, appearances were at a premium. So before her first year in Indy Lights, her team sent her measurements to a company for a custom-made firesuit, which didn’t fit at all. “It was tight in all the wrong places,” she says. “I wasn’t comfortable driving in it.”

They tried again with the same company, this time sending Mann in for a personal fitting — a man wielding the tape measure — and the result was even worse. “It was back to off-the-rack,” she says.

Two years later, having graduated to IndyCar, Mann and her team, Conquest Racing, were scurrying for sponsorships to back the driver’s first ride in the Indy 500. Even though everything was being thrown together in the weeks leading up to the Memorial Day weekend event — as is typical for smaller teams — Conquest didn’t want Mann’s first step onto the sport’s grandest stage to appear haphazard, for both her sake and that of the sponsors. Rather than patching the logos slapdash onto her uniform, Conquest sent the suit to Hinchman Racing Uniforms, a small local shop that had been doing Conquest’s embroidering. When Mann came in to try on the suit, Hinchman’s owner, Nancy Sullivan Chumbley, noticed that the garment hung awkwardly from Mann’s broad shoulders down her athletic 5-foot-5 frame, and offered to tailor it for her.

Hinchman is an old name in Indianapolis racing wear, dating back to the 1920s — so old that, by 2011, it had been practically forgotten. Mann had certainly never heard of the company. It was days away from the biggest race of her life, and given her previous experience with tailor-made suits, she was plenty skeptical. But, as a woman, Chumbley seemed to understand the issues that Mann was bemoaning. Chumbley was willing to work with her, talked things out rather than just relied on the rigid inches of a tape measure, and seemed motivated to find something that fit and looked good, something they both could be proud of. Mann agreed to let Hinchman make the suit.

Days later, despite starting second-to-last in the 33-car field and having mechanical problems with her onboard hydration system during the race, Mann crossed the Brickyard finish line in 20th place, third among Indy rookies. Back in the pits, she climbed out of the cockpit wearing a form-fitting, lightweight, black-and-white firesuit with her name stitched into the belt and the double-checkered-flag logo of Hinchman on the collar. “It was the best suit I’d ever had,” Mann says.

Read the rest at espn.go.com

Forever Bluegrass

20080809_untitled_43448Day 1: Raccoon Mountain

Afternoon shadows stretch across the mountain campgrounds high above the Tennessee River, less than 10 miles west of Chattanooga, when Steve Maxwell emerges from his RV. His graying black hair is still matted down by last night’s ball cap, his mustache uncombed. He squints without his glasses. On the table against the brown and beigeToyota Dolphin, a grimy propane camping stove fires a skillet piled with salted country ham and diced potatoes. Half a dozen biscuits are browning in the toaster oven. Breakfast at 2 p.m. on a Thursday.

If this feast seems like a little much for one 66-year-old man and his girlfriend, Jean, it is. Jean cooks plenty for the campers in the neighboring lots and for any passersby who are feeling peckish after lunch or simply can’t muster the resolve to pass up a warm ham biscuit. And for those who linger for more than a minute beneath the Dolphin’s makeshift tarp awning, Steve will climb inside and return with a Ball jar and a grin that is short one tooth.

“Smoothest you’ll ever taste,” he says.

Maxwell takes a pull to help jump-start the day. He was up until dawn lugging his bass fiddle from camp to camp, joining in to play and sing bluegrass around the fire. He’s known some of the musicians for decades; others he met just last night. But it’s hard to find a stranger at the Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival, where every corner of Raccoon Mountain echoes with the same string-and-descant music and every camper and truck — with license plates from Tennessee to Missouri to California — is plastered with the same white sticker reading Forever Bluegrass beside the silhouette of a man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle.

The sticker on the Dolphin’s rear bumper is practically worn into the chrome. Maxwell first met Boxcar playing the dance halls and fiddler conventions in and around Chattanooga in the late 1960s. Twenty-five years Maxwell’s elder, Boxcar was something of a role model, who loved his cold cans of Pabst almost as much as slapping his pawn-shop bass, “Ole Yeller.” To know Boxcar was to know his three daughters — Inez, Ruth and Cindy — who, even as grade-schoolers, tagged along to every show. Maxwell was especially fond of Cindy.

“She had that long curly blond hair and she was always dancing and grinning at us,” says Maxwell. “I’d say she was flirting, but she wasn’t quite old enough to flirt.”

Just about everyone on this mountain has a Cindy Pinion story. Maxwell has several, but his most mythologized is set in the late 1990s, after Boxcar had died: Maxwell was leaving a late-night picking session at Inez’s house in Flintstone, Ga., down in the valley below Lookout Mountain. Maxwell had left his instrument case at home, so he set his 1950 Kay bass in the back of his pickup and headed home. After turning off of gravel onto the main road, he hit a bump, and caught air. He heard a crash like an empty piano crate being dropped from four stories up, and looked in the rearview to see shards of his bass fiddle scatter across the pavement in the red brake-light glow. He got out to find his precious Kay in dozens of pieces. Disgusted, he threw a couple of the larger chunks in the truck bed and drove off, abandoning the rest.

Once Maxwell got home, he was paralyzed with anger. But his girlfriend at the time called the Pinions. Cindy and Inez grabbed flashlights and trudged through clay mud up to their ankles as they scoured the roadside and gathered every splinter of the old bass. They collected the pieces Maxwell had picked up and shipped a box full of kindling to an Atlanta craftsman.

“That’s just bluegrass people,” Maxwell says today. “That kindness is just such a pervasive thing … you don’t think about it it’s so common.”

Maxwell tosses a paper plate of biscuit crumbs into the trash and climbs back into the Dolphin. He returns with the 1950 plywood Kay bass fiddle, intact, standing strong, a good foot taller and a few inches wider than its owner — and with a worn finish and a few chips in the varnish, in just as good a shape.

A cool summer breeze sweeps across the grounds, carrying the cries of a mandolin and the pings of a banjo from a nearby campsite. Maxwell puts on his ratty brown Boxcar Festival ball cap, cradles the old Kay, and sets off to find the source.

Read the rest at bittersoutherner.com

Down & Away: Leo Mazzone might be the best pitching coach in major league history—and no one will hire him.

It’s the top of the first inning, and Leo Mazzone is already rocking.

Each croak of the springs in Mazzone’s brown leather recliner is punctuated by a knock in the wooden frame, like an old screen door blowing open and shut.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Watching the Braves play the Marlins on the 60-inch flat-screen in the den of his home on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, Mazzone isn’t conscious of the nervous back-and-forth tick that became his accidental trademark during four decades in the dugout. He is focused instead on the mound and Miami right-hander Tom Koehler, who leans in against Atlanta leadoff man Jace Peterson.

First pitch: Fastball down and away. Called strike one.

“Perfect pitch,” says Mazzone. “Aimed for the catcher’s crotch, and he got it there.”

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Fastball at the knees. Strike two.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Curveball inside. Ball one.

The pace of the rocking quickens. Creak-clack-creak-clack-creak-clack. The old pitching coach has spotted something. “Changed his arm slot,” he says. “Tried to overpower him.”

If there is one thing about the game today that will wear out Mazzone’s lounger, it’s the increased emphasis on power in pitching. He’s worked with 12-year-olds, who compete against the radar gun as much as the batter, and tried to get through to high school and college hurlers who’ve been taught that a scholarship or professional contract depends more on M-P-H than E-R-A. In the pros, speed is fetishized by teams and fans alike, the reading on each pitch displayed right alongside the score in the corner of the TV, a CG flame occasionally flaring up when a fastball reaches the high-90s or low-100s.

It makes for great entertainment, sure, but Mazzone says it also leads to pitchers becoming erratic and missing location. More importantly, their release is not as smooth, increasing the risk of arm injury. Mazzone believes the modern game’s infatuation with velocity is one of, if not the primary reason for the recent plague of Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgeries. “Now everybody seems to be getting a pass on all the sore arms,” he says. “I don’t get it. If we’d have had all the breakdowns that are happening now, there would have been a lot of pitching coaches fired.”

Mazzone held that job for more than 27 years, including almost 18 in the big leagues. He attributes his longevity to the success of the pitchers who were indoctrinated with his unorthodox philosophy of actually throwing more often between starts but with decreased intensity, concentrating, instead, on the feel and location of their pitches, controlling the lower outside part of the strike zone — down and away, down and away. The results are well known: In Mazzone’s 15-plus seasons with Atlanta, his staffs led the Braves to 14 straight division championships, combining for four individual ERA titles, nine individual 20-win seasons, six Cy Young Awards, and eventually, three plaques in Cooperstown. Less heralded is the number of careers that were salvaged under Mazzone’s watch and his reputation for taking care of his players — especially the starters, who rarely missed a turn. “Sure he had great pitchers,” says Steve Phillips, who was an executive for the rival New York Mets in the 1990s and early-2000s. “But he kept them on the field. He kept them healthy.” In almost two decades as major league pitching coach, Mazzone only had two starters, John Smoltz and Mike Hampton, play a full season under him and succumb to Tommy John, and they were both approaching their mid-30s.

These days, news of season-ending elbow surgeries is almost a weekly rite (through April there had already been 11 such announcements), and it’s not uncommon for a kid to go under the knife twice before he leaves his 20s. Today’s answer to this scourge is strict innings limits and pitch counts, even shutting down a perfectly healthy starter midseason — things Mazzone believes actually hurt more than help. “It’s pathetic,” he says. “An insult to my intelligence. A pitcher’s greatest teacher is innings pitched.”

This isn’t idle sniping from the rocking chair. Mazzone has made it clear to anyone who’ll listen that he’d love to be back on the bench or advising or even just visit spring camp and help straighten these organizations out. In 2010, he was on Sirius XM lobbying for pitching coach openings with both the Yankees and Mets. After the 2013 season, when Philadelphia’s Rich Dubee was fired, Mazzone took to Twitter: @Phillies I would be very interested in being your pitching coach. #championshipball.

The phone hasn’t rung. This is the eighth season since Baltimore fired Mazzone in 2007 that he watched Opening Day from his den. And here he is today, a 66-year-old man creak-clacking himself into a frenzy, imagining what advice he’d give Tom Kohler once he retired the side and got back to the bench.

After the Braves set down the Marlins in the bottom of the first, the rocking suddenly stops. “I’m pretty much done with this game,” Mazzone says, as he clicks the channel to cable news. These days he rarely sits through an entire game, unless it’s Opening Day, the playoffs, or maybe a marquee pitching matchup. “When you’ve watched from the dugout for 42 years,” he says, “TV is just not the same.”

Read the rest at sbnation.com/longform