Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Real Game

I was nine years old sitting in the first base bleachers at ramshackle old Connie Mack Stadium when the Cardinals visited in the summer of 63. Stan the Man was a few months short of retirement, but the aura of competition was still on him. His team was in a pennant race that year which they ultimately lost to the Dodgers. Many people have written about Musial, but the telling fact is that here was a guy who hit .330 and nearly won the League batting title at the age of 42, and it was just another season for him (his lifetime batting average was an astounding .331). He always played as if his life depended on today’s game, and he did it without performance enhancers.

Like many, I grew up on the lessons learned from sports competition. Between watching the games at Connie Mack, my father managed the Hilltop Lions and the Bluejays, the little league teams on which I played for most of my childhood and adolescent summers. Dad knew when to make us fight and when to ease off and let us be kids. That’s how dads used to raise boys. Competition wasn’t a grueling drill designed to land a seven figure sports contract. The Lions and Bluejays lost a lot of games, but we never felt like losers. Dad wouldn’t allow it. That was the Real Game, where I learned that putting heart into something has its own rewards.

If the heart has gone out of much of our culture, it’s because we believe our rewards must be in the form of tangible things, unrealistic bonuses, easy stock dividends, big contracts or little mail-in rebates. We need to see the carrot on the stick. We're bombarded with promises of payoffs, all of them requiring minimal effort, and none of them ennobling to the spirit of competition.

Our real competition lies within. The contest is against our own apathy, mediocrity and sloth. There is a pill for every normal and abnormal craving, but no pill to make you put your heart into the game. That you must do alone. What we get for putting heart into the game is sometimes just heartache, but oh those sweet returns when it all clicks—there’s nothing like it.

How much heart can we muster? How many knock downs can we rise from? How good can we become at what we do—will we lay it on the line?

Competition is a funny thing. If you give someone a fair chance to compete with heart, there’s nothing so enriching. Corrupt the spirit of competition and suddenly it gets ugly and debases everything it touches. When greed and steroids infected baseball, it declined. When greed and artificial enhancers like pitch tuners and pre-recorded concert tracks infected music, it, too, declined. Technology and its profiteers in both cases. The heart went out of it. The rest of our culture follows suit.

Competition and greed are almost synonymous in America these days, nearly indistinguishable. But what has been won if money can buy the victory? What have you proven if payola got you to the top; if technology fools your audience into thinking you have more talent than you do; if steroids made you hit 70 home runs; if your wealth came at the expense and ruin of the lives of others? Your victory is hollow and we all know it.

Heart and competition on the level playing field will survive in places where the greed and corruption cannot go. The true athlete won’t blow his shot at the Olympics by using banned substances, he’ll just compete the old fashioned way. The true musical talent won’t need artificial things to enhance her performances on American Idol, she’ll just show us her heart underneath that dowdy dress. The true champion will be like my friend Vince who has beaten cancer four times and still has his sense of humor and loves to sing. These are the only true winners. The victory must be real, not concocted.

When I walk away from this game I want it to feel just like it did back on that sunlit diamond. I was only a winner if I gave it my best no matter what the score board said. To you who say winning is everything and losing is just losing, I say if we play the Real Game with heart there’s no shame in losing at all. The only shame comes from winning without honor.

Listen to "The Real Game" (written by Don Schlitz and Craig Bickhardt)

This posting copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt


Tim McMullen said...

Great song and one of your finest, most poetic blogs. Instead of my usual, long tangential meander, I will put my praise this way: I have just discovered the first piece of reading for the first day of the next school year for each of my classes. Your metaphor about how to play this game of life is appropriate for my creative writing class, my video production class, my 11th grade English class, and my American Studies honors class.

Alright! That's one day down, 179 to go....

chromehead said...

Thanks Tim, I'm honored.

Erin said...

okay, so my musings don't sound nearly as intellectual as yours or your other readers', nor does this have anything to do with your latest post, but i just finished reading your "songwriter's journal" (all of it), and i have two things to say about it:

1) thank you...SO MUCH...for letting us in on your journey. WOW. i just felt like i wasn't supposed to be it was too vulnerable for me to be reading it as a stranger.

2) in light of your Nashville experience, i guess my question is "What now?". not for you, i mean, but "what now" for the rest of us, those who are studying the craft of songwriting and writing and writing in hopes of one day creating something that has "hit potential"? (how's THAT for a run-on sentence?!) :) i mean, really, is it so wrong to write the "double entendres" or the reworked cliches? and here's something i have to confess...i really enjoy writing them! i actually enjoy the challenge of finding a way to "twist" a song at the end, or to tell the complete story in 3.5 minutes, etc., and all those other restrictions that the radio and the stuffed shirts put on us. but what now...what do you suggest for the rest of us? is it really all futile? or, as your own journey highlights, should we make sure that the main reason we write is rooted in our love for the music and the songs, out of a desire to truly CONNECT with the listeners, out of a feeling that we have something unique to say and it's something that needs to be said? please know i'm asking this completely out of respect. i'm a little discouraged, i guess, because if someone with your experience and talent is/has struggling(ed) with making ends meet on a songwriter's budget, it's a little defeating to consider how the rest of us will fare. sighhhhhh.

erin venable

chromehead said...

Erin- whatever you love writing is what you should write. Most of my comments here are aimed at the cynicism on Music Row, which in some cases rears its ugly head in the songs in which "rednecks" are a parody of southern folk, "outlaws" are a parody of southern folk, "country" is a parody of southern folk...

Here is a link to a very good blog written by Austin-based alt-country artist Roger Wallace:

In the blog he responds to one of my pieces called "Finding the Reverence". Roger's blog and "Reverence" combine to give a fairly accurate picture of what's happening to the art of songwriting in Nashville. Here's a quote from Roger: "Songwriting, both in Nashville and indie country, is held in nowhere near the reverence that it once was. This isn't just some rehash of the age-old "these damn kids today" argument – it's bigger than that. Songwriting has gone from something that came from the heart, had thought and relevance, and actually added something to the world, to something that exists for the sole purpose of making people go "hell yeah!" It's dumb, it's juvenile, and it's an insult to those who mastered the craft and those of us who strive to do so."

As for "what next", I'm not sure anyone really knows yet. Things are changing rapidly in the world of technology and in web development. The monopoly of the major labels is over, that's for certain. Who will step in to fill the gap? Possibly the best and most motivated DIY-ers, perhaps some savvy Indy labels, perhaps no one. It's possible that we will see exciting new ways to market music. Its also possible there will be more artists and writers struggling to find footing in a more competitive environment-- more sharers of the pie and less pie to go around. Reversing consumer attitudes about "free" is going to take a generation, if it ever happens at all.

Here is another post you might find interesting from Trent Reznor's blog (NIN):,767183

Here's a small quote from Trent that sums up what's happening: “The music business model is broken right now. That means every single job position in the music industry has to re-educate itself and learn / discover / adapt a new way. Change can be painful and hard and scary.” - Trent Reznor