Of growing up to be a child again

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and when I search for the moment in my life when I ceased to be a child, this is the one I keep returning to.

I had already been away from my home and my family for two years then, but both of those years — as different from each other as they could possibly be — had structure, had people taking care of me, of my daily schedule, of my duties and my free space. They were the years of the almost unquestioning belief in the system and my place within it. They were the years of doing the same I did my whole childhood – playing games, albeit ever changing ones.

Going to the Land of the Free for a one-year respite from life as a 17-year old is as much fun and games as it sounds. But even the year after that, spent in the secluded corner of the Accursed Mountains, sharing the uninhabited patches of nature with the wolf packs and being taught by those same men in uniform how to kill most efficiently, was but a game back then. The enemy was imaginary, and every repeated fired shot, knife stab, granate throw or neck-breaking grip was as far from its murderous reality as long jumps and hurdles were in the years prior. It was a new game, with new set of rules and new opponents to compete against. It was a strange, exhilarating way to spend a part of my childhood and, when we parted ways a year later, I still, very naively, thought that was the last times our paths would cross.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, but although I ceased to be a child on that day, there would still be a long time until I would start growing up, for there is more to being a grown-up than not being a child anymore.

One cannot grow while shackled to the ponderous ball of self-pity and I didn’t start for many more years until when, on this day twenty years ago, I would finally walk through the doors of a small student dormitory in southern Germany, in an old blue navy coat, wire rim glasses and uncombed hair and say, “Hi. I’m the new guy here”.

It was just a greeting back then, but with time it almost became a mission statement. What was supposed to last six months never ended, and with each passing day and year on the other side there was a little distance gained, a little more clay available to actively shape my life. A little more perspective to acknowledge and appreciate what so many people have done for me over the years. A little sadness that the new, somewhat wiser and more eloquent me will not have the chance to say thank you to all the departed ones. A little strength to look back and remember, both good and bad.

I started my quest for adulthood on that day twenty years ago, and the gods of my voyage have been very kind to me, granting me a good job, a nice place to live and a wonderful partner. But most of all, I was granted the ability to live my life here and now, and not in the yearnings for some time and place that will never come back. I was given so much more life, so many more days than I thought possible for the longest time.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and while they never succeeded, I didn’t quite survive, either.

But for a long time now, I have been reconstructing the pieces of my former life, gluing them together with memories of love. And perhaps the best thing that my adulthood has brought me is that I have some of my childhood back. That the smell of the fresh bread my father used to bake found its way back to me over the one of burnt flesh; that my mother’s soothing voice again echoes in my memory louder than the terrifying roar of the approaching tanks; that when I close my eyes I see and feel my fig trees and blackberry fields and not the exploding entrails being washed into the cold and dark river of death.

On this day twenty years ago I walked not only into a student dormitory, but into the beginning of my adulthood, too. It was a great ride so far, a gift I never thought I would be given. Today, I am drinking to it, literally and quite heavily, but also to my childhood, the one I have again.

Forty Hours Life Detour

I once spent about 40 hours at an airport. It was in Buenos Aires in 2008 and there was some strike going on, the details of which are still not clear to me and were probably never fully clear to anyone. I was able to check in and actually made it to the boarding area, only to spend a day and a half there with no information about my flight until about half an hour before the plane finally took off.

It was not a pleasant experience. To start with, my sailing crew was waiting for me in Ushuaia to embark on our once-in-a-lifetime adventure into Antarctica and I had no idea when I would be able to join them and how much longer they could wait for me before jeopardizing the whole trip. Although I was lucky enough to get stuck at an airport where I spoke the local language, I was still unable to get any useful information. So, I could do nothing but wait and hope, my fears growing by every clueless hour that passed by. There was suddenly a palpable chance that, despite all the hard work I put in preparing and the significant chunk of my savings I dedicated for this journey, I could lose it all with no fault on my part whatsoever. I was starting to freak out and blame the destiny for having it in for me.

There were practical issues, as well. Buenos Aires tends to get rather hot in midsummer and I was wearing only a T-shirt. However, keeping the airport temperature just above the freezing point doesn’t seem to be endemic to North America only, meaning that I was in this ridiculous situation of shivering in the middle of the 40°C city all while having seven layers of clothes in my bag that was probably less than hundred meters away from me. There was no food, but some crisps from the vending machines and we didn’t get a sandwich until the next morning. There was a restaurant in another wing of the airport, but as we never knew when we would take off, it was a risky proposition to go away for an hour. We outnumbered the chairs, so I spent the night crumbled on the floor. Some tried to sleep seated. Some walked around. One guy slept in the X-ray machine.

The airport was slowly evolving from a place of a simple chaos to one of an organized riot. The would-be passengers first got into smaller groups and protested loudly, although there was no one around who would hear them. Then they huddled, tore off the garbage bins from their mounts and used them as drums as they marched through the airport and chanted for their rights, demanding to be heard and assisted at once. Next they started jumping over the abandoned airlines counters, raiding them for whatever they could find, breaking keyboards over their knees or using the telephones to call their family and friends. When the airport spokesperson finally addressed the assembled masses, his unsatisfactory answers were rewarded with a coke can thrown at his head. He bled and fled, and there would be no more visits until I flew out.

All around the airport there were people with lots of questions and no answers. Some had built camp-like structures, a trolley to the left, suitcases to the right, blankets on the floor and stretched over the sides, sweatshirts instead of pillows. There were by far too many people for what the airport buildings were designed for. Some were already starting their third day and have had more than enough of everything and everybody. Some held no currency and were dependent on good will of others to buy water bottles. Those with little kids were hit the worst. They ran out of diapers or baby food, or simply out of the ways to keep their kids from crying. They were supposed to spend only an hour at the airport, yet life, unpredictable as it is, had them stranded and they didn’t know when they would return to the normalcy of their lives, how much more of these sufferings were they supposed to endure.

While I did make it to Ushuaia in time to embark, I still remember this. I am sure that the families with children who spent two nights at the airport with little assistance, not only remember this, but might consider it as one of the more unpleasant experiences of their lives. And frankly, so would most of you. You can relate to their plight, you can imagine yourselves in the similar situation and think of all the problems something like this would cause you. You can understand. If someone tells you a story like this you will nod sympathetically and feel like they got a bad break. Without an exception.

And yet, when you see a similar picture of refugees gathered on a train station, you are divided. And the reason is simple – you cannot relate to it.

Getting stuck at an airport for a day or two is something that could happen to you. Or your brother. Or your neighbor. The danger of missing the next flight, the doctor’s appointment or your grandson’s wedding is palpably real, even if its cost is nothing compared to what refugees have to go through every single day. But you are no more able to fathom what it’s like to have nothing in life but memories and fear than you are to understand what goes into running a marathon in two hours. You know that the neighbor who jogs four times in a week is in great shape. You can recognize the fact that he is much fitter than you, but you also know that if you try hard you can reach that level. But an elite marathon runner? That’s just not the part of your world and you know you will never be one, so why bother thinking about it.

The same is with being a refugee. Yes, it must be tough on them, but hey, it’s another world. These are not the things you need to worry about, because the things like this don’t happen to people like you, right? But only, they do.

I could have told you another story instead of the airport one. I, too, thought that such stories would never be mine to tell, that I would never wake up to find that the world just broke. I was wrong. I could have told you a story of smoke, of bombs, of hunger, of destruction, of pain, of loss, of fear, of desperation, of burnt flesh and of frozen hearts. I could have told you a story of moments in life where nothing, absolutely nothing would ever be the same again. I could have told you a story that would have made you cringe, but then it would have been for naught, because you wouldn’t have related to it. Some stories you have to live through to understand.

But you can relate to what I and the others felt at that airport. And perhaps, just perhaps, you can take it from there and build on it. Imagine that it happened to you. Then imagine that it wasn’t for two days, but for a whole week. Then, for a month. Imagine that while you were there you received a phone call telling you your car had been stolen while you were on a vacation. Imagine you slipped and broke your hand, and there was no doctor at the airport and they wouldn’t let you out to seek one. Or at least you think that is what they were telling you, because you don’t speak a single word of Spanish. Then you receive another phone call telling you that your house burnt to the ground and that there is no insurance policy. Then your child gets sick. We can do this for a long time and you would still be in a much better position than the refugee you see on the news.

If you can, build on it and try to understand how it would be if you were told that there would be no returning home from that airport, ever. If what and who you had with you was all you would take into a new and uncertain life, regardless of how much you were able to build in your old one up to that point. Imagine everybody looking at you and conflating your tragedy with your person, thinking that you must have done something wrong, because these things just don’t happen to normal people. Them snickering that you can’t be that poor off, because, hell, you have a cell phone.

Perhaps it will change the way you look at the refugees just a bit. Perhaps it won’t. But you should really try to imagine it. You owe them that much. And you owe yourself that much, because these things happen to people like you, too. Trust me. So, if nothing else, think about it, then open your well stocked fridge, pop a beer and drink one celebrating the life and the fact that you are not a refugee.

Najbolji nepoznati sportaš svijeta

Ako ne znate tko je Ashton Eaton i ako mislite da je Oregon dio Kanade, niste sami – društvo vam vjerojatno čini i dobar dio žitelja SAD. U medijski najjačoj zemlji svijeta, u zemlji toliko zaljubljenoj u vlastite sportaše da se ligaški pobjednici nazivaju prvacima svijeta, a neamerikanci u izboru za svjetskog sportaša godine pojavljuju rjeđe nego prijenosi Olimpijskih igara uživo na HTV-u, Ashton Eaton je i dalje – nepoznat. Ne pomaže mu niti činjenica da je lako moguće najbolji sportaš u državi, ako ne i na svijetu.

Na dan kada je Usain Bolt osvojio novo zlato, na dan kada je David Rudisha otrčao povijesnu utrku na 800 metara, na dan kada je ženska nogometna reprezentacija SAD u finalu pobijedila Japan, Eaton je ponovo bio relegiran na „u ostalim vijestima: …“. Svjetski rekorder u desetoboju postao je i najmlađi olimpijski pobjednik u posljednjih 20 godina u disciplini u kojoj su dostignuća i hvalospjevi u većem nesrazmjeru no u bilo kojoj drugoj.

Desetoboj, poput skijaške kombinacije, nije televizičan. U doba kada je većini uspjeh zadržati koncentraciju na istoj temi već i pet minuta, višebojci se natječu dva dana. U doba kada našu cijenjenu pažnju zaslužuju samo što noviji i što apstraktniji rekordi, Eaton i ekipa trče sporije od Bolta, skaču niže od Uhova i bacaju kraće od Hartinga. Tko će to gledati? „Ha! 5,20 u skoku s motkom? To ziher mogu i ja, daj pridrži pivu.“

U srpnju je u Rijeci održano Prvenstvo Hrvatske u atletici. S rezultatima s američkih kvalifikacija za Olimpijske igre, Ashton bi bio među pet najboljih u svakoj od 10 disciplina. Uzeo bi sedam medalja, od toga pet zlatnih, i srušio tri državna rekorda. Prije nego što počnete pljuvati po hrvatskoj atletici – sa svojim rezultatima, Eaton bi ušao u polufinale Olimpijskih igara na 100 metara, bio četvrti na 110 prepone i osvojio srebro u skoku u dalj, iako svakoj od tih disciplina posvećuje manje-više desetak posto treninga.

Atletika je kraljica sportova, a najbolji desetobojac je njen kralj. No, već dugo ne živimo u monarhiji, već u svijetu vođenim show businessom i markentinškom propagandom koja je barem toliko važna koliko i sportska dostignuća. Tako će Usain Bolt nakon svoje utrke smireno objasniti svima da je legenda i najveći svih vremena, a američke nogometašice će još na terenu obući sponzorske majice kojima svijetu poručuju da je u njima „pronađena grandioznost“. U nevezanoj vijesti, Nike je u Americi iste sekunde pustio te majice u prodaju za $26,99. Kao što kažu, i hrčak je samo štakor, samo s boljim marketingom.

A Eaton? Nakon pobjede nije bilo niti poza, niti majici, niti velikih izjava. Već zajednička slika sa svim protivnicima, kao uspomena na ono što su postigli. Oni znaju. I svi koji su se ikada bavili ili pokušali baviti atletikom znaju. Zato ćete za vrijeme desetoboja često vidjeti čestitke kojima natjecatelji jedni drugima pokazuju poštovanje. Kada Hans Van Alphen publiku zamoli za podršku prilikom skoka s motkom, prvi će zapljeskati Leonel Suarez, njegov konkurent za medalju. I to neće biti show već pristup sportu u kojem se ne bori protiv protivnika već protiv samoga sebe i svojih granica.

Već danima tražimo najbrže, najviše i najjače. Nitko tom opisu ne odgovara bolje nego desetobojci, kraljevi kraljevske discipline, s Eatonom kao prvim među najboljima. S Eatonom, koji, onako usput, ima i crni pojas u tae-kwon-dou i koji je kao atletičar procvjetao tek kad su mu treneri napokon uspjeli objasniti da je u redu na treninzima biti bolji od ostalih u svakoj disciplini te da to nije znak da se pravi važan. S Eatonom koji živi i trenira u medijski neatraktivnom Oregonu i o kojemu se na Googleu može naći deset puta manje vijesti nego o Hope Solo, vratarki nogometne reprezentacije i 40 puta manje no o Boltu.

Iz polusjene olimpijskih natjecanja desetobojci su se bez pompe povukli u punu sjenu napornih treninga. Sljedeće natjecanje čeka i do onda teba još malo popraviti izdržljivost, snagu, skočnost i brzinu. Još malo poraditi na zaletu za skok u vis, na napadanju prve prepone, na postizanju savršenog slova „C“ pri odskoku skoka s motkom, na pravovremenom otvaranju kukova u bacanju diska ili na koračnoj tehnici skoka u dalj. Valja zaliječiti bolna koljena, laktove i kukove.

Ali, barem mogu u miru trenirati kada se ne moraju brinuti o navali medija, kada se daleko od očiju svijeta moraju, smiju i mogu samo – baviti sportom. Svima im je jasno da bez obzira koliko dobri bili, koliko nevjerojatno dojmljivi bili njihovi rezultati da nikada neće biti zvijezde. Ali, ono za što se bore ionako im ne može donijeti nitko osim njih samih i zato će se i dalje daleko od očiju i slave natjecati za titulu najboljeg nepoznatog sportaša svijeta.

Chasing a dream

A few days after winning the 1994 Amateur Baseball World Series, Jimmy Summers entered the house in Eastern Ohio alone. He was about to negotiate his first baseball contract and all he brought to the meeting was a six-pack of beer, a burning desire to play ball and an open mind.

As he reached the cellar, he saw that Kruno and Damir Karin, the representatives of Baseball Klub Olimpija Karlovac, were already there. The brothers K were standing between the bar and the Ping-Pong table, flashing broad smiles and holding a bottle of vodka.

Jimmy looked at his beer and realized that he had brought a knife to a gun fight.

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Glad you dropped by. Seriously.

What you are looking at is a mixture of a personal archive for works published on various outlets and what just might turn out to be yet another blog. I hope it will.

In the meanwhile, feel free to go through the archived articles. If you care for baseball statistical analysis, there is plenty of that, highlighted by the study I did for The Hardball Times on how efficient the catchers are when blocking pitches in the dirt. If you like baseball, yet couldn’t care less for the numbers, you might enjoy a cool story about Jeff Francoeur or a thorough interview with Mike Piazza.

If you, like me, think that sports is about more than just winning and losing, then the story of Moshi Ants might be for you. Or the one about the right to play.

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Outfield assist of another kind

In a sense, there has been an air of spring training atmosphere around September baseball in Oakland for a while now. Only without the hope part.

The weather is great. The games don’t really decide anything. And not too many watch them to start with.

So, when Jeff Francoeur and his 59-83 Royals rolled into town to take on the 64-77 Athletics last September, the world wasn’t exactly holding its collective breath.

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Of athletes and engineers

He is 15 years old and blessed with such athletic grace that he makes us look like we’re trying to waltz with concrete boots on. His stage is a soccer pitch and in his short and booming career he has competed on local, regional, national and even international level, playing and excelling against kids two years older than himself.

And yet, while Baraka Laizer sometimes dreams of becoming a soccer player, all he dares wishing for is an equally improbable dream – he wants an education.

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Čovjek koji nije znao odustati

Koliko puta ste nakon utakmice ili sezone čuli sportaše kako kažu: “Nije se moglo”? Rukometaši nisu mogli zbog sudaca, nogometaši zbog blatnog terena, košarkaši zbog niskih plaća, atletičari zbog jakog vjetra, jedriličari zbog preslabog. “Mi smo pokušali sve, dali apsolutno sve od sebe. Ali, jednostavno nije išlo.”

 Ne samo sportaši, svi mi. Smršavili bismo, ali susjeda je baš danas ispekla kolač. Naučili bismo strani jezik, ali nam baš to ne ide. Napredovali na poslu, ali nas šef ne voli.

Amerikanci imaju izreku – “Isprike su kao guzice. Svatko ima po jednu i sve smrde”.

Jim Abbott će to sročiti nešto uljudnije, ali bit se ne mijenja. “Najvažnije u životu je ne tražiti ispriku. Ljudi oko vas će vam to dopustiti, prihvatiti ako za neuspjeh okrivite okolnosti. Ali mislim da smo sami sebi dužni izvući maksimum iz našeg potencijala.”

Abbott zna o čemu govori. Kao bacač poveo je američku baseball reprezentaciju do zlata na Olimpijskim igrama 1988. godine. Postao je prvi igrač baseballa koji je izabran za amaterskog sportaša godine u SAD. A kasnije se kao profesionalac u dresu New York Yankeesa upisao i u povijest – odbacao je cijelu utakmicu bez da protivnicima uspije i jedan jedini udarac protiv njega. Impresivna lista uspjeha, kakvom se može pohvaliti tek vrlo mali broj sportaša u povijesti.

Ah da, još nešto. Jim Abbott je rođen bez desne šake.

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Vepar devetobojac

Za razliku od svojih vršnjaka, mali Vincent Edward nije sanjao o karijeri u NFL-u ili MLB-u. Ne, on je želio biti pilot, provodeći spora poslijepodneva svog djetinjstva pod vrućim suncem Alabame, gledajući zrakoplove kako slijeću i polijeću s obližnje zračne luke. Za razliku od svojih vršnjaka, on je postao zvijezda. I u NFL-u i u MLB-u.