One Pack. No Turning Back.

Number of miles driven today: 417

Total miles driven on road trip: 8,495

Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? After rattling off a shutout streak that would make Zack Greinke jealous, Dunkin's run has come to an end. In this experiment on finding the tipping point in the country where one iconic coffee shop's dominance ends and the other's begins, I've come to this conclusion: Tampa, Florida and central Ohio. East of these places, American does run on Dunkin'. 

Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 21-16-2.

Dunkin' Donuts' record: 16-21-2

Cheapest gas I saw today: $2.21

Number of states visited overall: 25

Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 11 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana)

Number of blue states visited overall: 14 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois)

Best hot dog on the trip so far: Tony Packo's, today in Toledo, OH

Number of toll booths on drive from Cleveland to Chicago: 26 (OK, no really, but it felt that way. Seriously, what is up with the northeast and north-central states' departments of transportation? I'm big-time spoiled by the West's free and open roads.)



 

I owe insect penises a huge acknowledgement in this book.


That's right, bug dicks.


Two years ago, I finished my PhD in entomology (not to be confused with etymology) at UC Berkeley in which I described 20 new species of insects that I discovered in Tahiti. Yes, I spent much of grad school in Tahiti. Yes, that was on purpose (if you're going to study islands for a living--my undergrad major was island biogeography--you might as well work in Tahiti, right? With apologies to the Outer Hebrides.)


​To identify these particular types of insects (called plant bugs, a gentler, more aromatic version of a stink bug), the most important characteristic is the male genitalia. A longstanding theory in entomology called the "lock and key hypothesis" suggests that the shape and structure of each species' penis (the "key") matches that of the females' genital tract ("the lock"), so that if a randy male plant bug jumps on a female's back and finds that his key doesn't fit, he knows he's trying to bone the wrong species.


We've all been there, right?


And so, I spent countless hours of grad school hunched over a microscope using surgeon's forceps (but making literally 1/20th of a surgeon's salary) to extract bug penises (about 0.1 mm long--and these aren't even Asian bugs (hey I can say that! I'm half Asian)) and then mount them on slides.


I remember many Friday nights when friends would call and say, "Hey Brad, want to grab a beer?" and I would sigh and say, "I am sitting here photographing and tracing images of bug dicks (because remember, shape matters). I can't." 


But in the end it doesn't even matter, right Linkin Park?


​What does matter is that the gauntlet of grad school, without a doubt the hardest challenge I have ever faced in my professional life, made me a better writer and prepared me for this project. 


Now I should clarify--grad school did not help my actual writing improve. If anything, it made it worse. I had previously worked as a magazine editor, and when I started my PhD I had to unlearn every good habit I had ever developed about writing well. Develop and vary strong authorial voice and point of view? Write actively and avoid the passive tense? Focus on scene-setting details and dialogue? All anathema to the scientist. In order to write for scientific publications, I had to force myself to become the driest writer possible. It was like trying to mimic the writers of vacuum cleaner instruction manuals.


I understand why this was necessary--there is no belief or opinion allowed in conducting science, and objectivity, repeatability and clarity are paramount. It's a good thing that science has such stringent standards--it's just not very fun to write.


However, aside from the actual writing, the rest of the process is very similar between doing my PhD and writing this book. In both cases, you start with some big question and work from there. For bugs, it was "What are these species, how are they related to each other, and how did they form?" For baseball, it is "What enabled these 14 guys to make the Major Leagues, and how were they able to cope with the transition of letting go after they retired from the game?" You have some kind of a hypothesis based on your past research, and then you set out to test that hypothesis by collecting lots and lots of data through field work.


For bugs, this meant climbing remote mountains in Tahiti with a mesh net, shaking trees and seeing what fell out. For this book, it meant shaking Rance Mulliniks and Richie Hebner to find out who they are as people, not just cardboard slabs with stats printed on the back. 


Much like the plant bugs, I've had to put each of these guys under a microscope, talking to their old coaches, teammates, family members, scrutinizing their public image and cross-referencing with my experience with them, trying to form the most detailed, honest, and balanced picture I can. In a way, each of these ex-players is like a distinct species, with his own unique combination of morphology (physical characteristics) and ecology (personality and interaction with others). Some have nicer ecology than others, right Vincent Van Go?


Right now I'm in the field work stage, collecting all my specimens and observations. In a week, I'll be back in my lab, sitting in front of this weary Toshiba laptop trying to make sense of it all. 


So thank you, grad school, for showing me how to write a book that has nothing to do with bugs but everything to do with making sense of people and the relationships between them. 


I'm just glad I don't have to trace bug dicks anymore.



For older blog entries, click here.






How doing a PhD on bug penises helps you write a book about  baseball 

Day 40: Cleveland, OH to Chicago, IL, 7.28.15

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