April 11, 2014

There’s No Flying in Baseball?

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Written by: Patrick Smith
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I reckon most airline pilots prefer the NFL gridiron over the baseball diamond. Still though, baseball is adopted as metaphor for just about everything, and there are, in this case, some colorful cultural parallels between baseball and aviation…

Ballplayers tend to look like pilots, for one, and their postgame interviews always seem to ring with the same clichés and regional drawls as those “thanks for flyin’ with us” announcements.

Both pilots and players train hard and face a long, regimented system of step-by-step challenges. Either can see a career wiped out by a single miscue or accident — a fastball in the face, a torn ligament, or a gear-up landing.

When a pilot earns his private license, he’s made it to the bottom of the minor leagues. Building time in a four-seat Piper or Cessna, he’s playing in the equivalent of A-Ball.

With some time under his belt, maybe he gets a job instructing or running weekend charters to Nantucket. He’s broke, with a job or two on the side, but when asked his occupation he answers “pilot” without that annoying twinge of embarrassment. Double-A.

Next comes a job with a regional carrier — a huge step up. Now there are flight attendants, real uniforms, and jets that wear the names and colors of the majors. Clearly this is Triple-A. Those American Eagles and Delta Connections are the Pawtucket Red Sox and Columbus Clippers. You’re almost there, and for the first time you can just about eke out a living. A lucky few will take that final step; most will not. And if this is where it ends, well, heck, you came pretty close.

Finally at the majors, be it Leagues or airlines, the perks and cachet speak for themselves. There’s no higher plateau. You’ve made it to “The Show.” Of course, your first assignment is to the dregs of routes and schedules — on call, reserve status, dragged from home by a phone call at 3 a.m. You are, you might say, a bench player. That 747 captain, he’s the All Star outfielder with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers or Braves. You’re just glad to be here, rubbing elbows with these guys.

Hazards are all around. The economy tanks and the furlough notices go out, it’s back to the minors for a few seasons.

And not everybody makes it to this level. There are only so many Americans, Uniteds and Deltas to go around. A pilot may instead find himself at the likes of AirTran, Spirit Airlines or Frontier. It’s very much the pros, but without that edge of prestige. He is, so to speak, playing in Japan. With one important caveat: The failure of a ballplayer to progress through the ranks, from A ball to the majors, is usually a failure of talent. It doesn’t work that way for pilots. It’s the industry’s relentless hiring cycles, attrition, and plain old luck, more than anything else, that determine a pilot’s destiny, not how good he is.

Now, am I even a sports fan?

No, not really. But it’s true that every year between April and October, I live and die with the Boston Red Sox.

This isn’t about athletics, or even, necessarily, about baseball. If you grew up around here you’ll understand: the Red Sox have transcended sports to become a fixture of psycho-cultural obsession. Like the weather, they are embedded in the New England psyche — an eternal pattern of warm summer promise and, at least until recently, cold autumnal foreboding. We remember our baseball seasons the way we remember famous storms. The Blizzard of ’78; Bucky Dent. To paraphrase Hall of Fame Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk: People don’t merely watch the Red Sox, they live their lives through them.

There’s something unhealthy about that, don’t you think? And although things changed forever in 2004, for many of us the scar tissue of defeat is layered like the rocky crags of the Maine coastline, or the 300-year old grime of a Boston street. The Boston Globe’s Ellen Barry once put it this way: “Over the years, there has been no shortage of self-analysis in Red Sox Nation, whose fan base includes the highest concentration of mental health professionals in the country. On the contrary, the Nation has fingered its past injuries obsessively, like a character out of Dostoyevsky, trapped in a recurring parable of loss. They are, as a group, swamped by their own emotions, suspicious of happiness, and apt to catastrophize.”

Count me in. For example, I spent most of that cataclysmic eighth inning of the final playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees in 2003 curled on the kitchen floor in a semi-fetal position. (At first I’d tried buttressing myself against a wall, bent forward with my arms wrapped over my head, but the tension was too great. So I dropped to the ground and covered my ears, so I wouldn’t hear the crack of the bat if the Yankees, against all odds, tied the game. Which naturally they did.)

Until 2004, Red Sox fans had been pathologically defeatist and well accustomed to pain. We feasted on perennial October failure, served cold and often the result of some preposterously unlikely chain of events. Like a plane crash.

It’s different now, of course, having finally won it all in ’04 (and again in 2007 and just this past season) and good for that. Water under the bridge, as they say.

By the way, when sports teams travel, it’s usually in a chartered commercial aircraft. Players sit it economy class; coaches and managers sit in first. These are game-at-a-time charters. It’s rare for teams to have a single, dedicated aircraft at their disposal for an entire season, and even more uncommon for a team to outright own an airplane.

A version of this article was originally published on AskThePilot.com and is used here with the author’s permission. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and host of AskThePilot.com. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


About the Author

Patrick Smith



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