About Gabriel Batistuta, Heroes, and Getting Older

I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.

Our big assignment was to write a report about one of our heroes. I wrote about Gabriel Batistuta—the Jesus-looking striker from the late ’90s and early ’00s who was Argentina’s leading goal scorer until 2014, when he was passed up by Lionel Messi.

Why Batistuta?

I imagine, from birth, our first heroes must be our parents. It only makes sense. They feed us, clothe us. They put a roof over our heads. Every father in history has said when the teenage outbursts come, “If it wasn’t for your mother and I….” 

But there comes a point in all of our lives when something changes. It happens once we come into an understanding of who we are in the world—before we rebel as teenagers or, years later, realize our parents may have actually known more than we thought and find ourselves calling home every week to ask for advice about buying homes, selling cars, and getting babies to sleep. 

My parents watched it happen with me in much the same way I’ll watch it happen with my six-week-old daughter in the years to come. At some point in childhood, we hit a point where our needs extend beyond the immediate. Our parents are left in the dust as we search for heroes who can provide us something they cannot: meaning, ambition, the fulfillment of some intricate longing that we may only be able to untangle years later.

Batistuta was always special to me. For the cover of my eighth-grade report I proudly enlarged his picture—the one that appears here, the same one I naturally chose for my first Facebook cover image six years ago. I must’ve first come into contact with Batistuta during the 1994 World Cup. My grandmother, my nona, taped the games for my grandfather while he was at work, then he’d come home and watch them in the kitchen while he ate dinner. I was five years old. If there was anything I knew about sports back then, it was Argentina and soccer. Although I have always been stocky and of average height, made to play along the backline or in central midfield, I loved watching Batistuta. He was towering and muscular, and he hit the ball so hard it looked like a camera trick where the play was sped up for TV. In 1994, he scored a hat trick in Argentina’s opening game against Greece, then scored once more from the penalty spot as the team was eliminated by Romania in the Round of 16.

Four years later, my obsession peaked. 

At the 1998 World Cup in France, Batistuta scored the winning goal in the opening match against Japan, then added a hat trick in a 5–0 destruction of Jamaica. In that game, his third goal, a penalty kick, was probably the most powerfully hit shot I’ve ever seen. He scored once more in a second-round win over England, a game best remembered for its controversial red card to David Beckham for kicking out at Diego Simeone. Then came the quarterfinal against the Netherlands. I remember exactly where I sat as Argentina was eliminated 2–1 thanks to a 90th-minute Dennis Bergkamp goal scored three minutes after Ariel Ortega was sent off for head-butting goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar after failing to trick the referee into awarding him a penalty kick: I was three feet from the old wood-console television set at our vacation home in the Pocono Mountains where my dad had invited his Portuguese friends to spend the day watching soccer with us. It was July 4, the day we celebrate US independence with fireworks and barbecue. I held my head in my hands and cried. 

It was harder to watch international club soccer games back then. Batistuta had played in Italy, for both Fiorentina and Roma, and I saw him only by luck. For me, it was the Argentinian national team and little else. Because he wore number 9, I always asked for the same number on my recreational and travel soccer teams. My American coaches didn’t care for the traditional numbering system that says 9s are center forwards, so it didn’t matter that I was a defender.

By then I had already been going to the park behind my parents’ house after school to play pick-up with the old Mexican and Central and South American guys. I was shyer then, but when one of the older men—an Ecuadorian named Armando, nicknamed Rossi because he usually wore the legendary Italian striker’s jersey—asked my name, I said, “You can call me Batistuta.” 

The name stuck until I left Bayonne nine years ago for Knoxville. Three years ago, my mom was in an Italian bakery owned by a Mexican named Lupe when she called me and asked if I knew him, because he’d talked about once playing soccer at 16th Street Park with an Argentinian guy, but he couldn’t recall his name. I said, “You have to say Batistuta, mom. No one knew my real name.” The next time, Lupe remembered. (One of my favorite memories of Lupe is when his wife asked him to spend the afternoon with their two kids, so he brought them to the park and made them sit by one of the makeshift goals while we played soccer for two hours. He later gave me his card and asked me to call him if I ever needed a DJ for a party.)

Batistuta’s last game for Argentina was a 1–1 tie with Sweden that eliminated them from the 2002 World Cup in Japan. The game was broadcast at 2:30 a.m. our time. I watched from my grandparents’ spare bedroom as my nono watched from the kitchen. I hated to go to school that day, but I had to. American kids weren’t yet as obsessed with soccer as they’d become eight years later, after Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal against Algeria at Africa’s first World Cup. By then, the English Premier League had made its entrance into most American households, and suddenly nearly every American soccer fan knew Aguero, Tevez, and Coloccini. But for a long time, I felt nearly alone in my obsession.

My book report came a year after Batistuta said goodbye to international soccer. He was preparing to make his last professional move, to a club team in Qatar where he broke the record for most goals scored in a season—25 in 18 games. 

That was 17 years ago. I’ve lived a lifetime since then. I’ve been to college, married, moved away from home, divorced, gone back to college, changed careers, remarried, and become a father. I’ve watched thousands of hours of soccer. I’ve spoken with my grandfather about “El Conejo” Saviola on car rides where he wouldn’t let me listen to the radio, bought custom Argentina jerseys with my last name on the back from a Colombian at the Meadowlands Flea Market, spent $1500 to fly home and watch Argentina lose a goalless Copa America final in penalty kicks to Chile, and spoken face-to-face with Mario Kempes—the player who led Argentina to its first World Cup victory in 1978. 

I’ve watched Argentina crash out of World Cups from TVs in Bayonne, in Bristol, Connecticut, and at a Bolivian friend’s house five minutes down the road from my home in Knoxville. That last time, I wasn’t as angry as I was when I said goodbye to “Batigol.” We ate Spanish paella afterward with others in the neighborhood who popped in for the food and not the soccer. Back in 2009, I had decided Argentina didn’t need me as a fan as much as the US does, and much more of my soccer pain this past decade has been associated with watching the American men fail while being paid millions more than the American women who just won our second consecutive World Cup. Soccer is cruel. 

But even as time keeps passing there is still and will always be Batistuta. I think of him nearly every day—mostly because many of my passwords include some reference to him, but also because I instinctively compare every tall, stone-footed, long-haired striker galloping into the penalty area to crash into a cross or an opponent to him. I even compare female soccer players to him. I loved Abby Wambach because I first loved Batistuta. And I expect it to be this way even as my heroes are replaced by the people I see every day who meet the longings Batistuta did for me as a kid. My wife. My daughter, who one day will hear my stories of Batistuta. And she will ask, “Daddy, is that like Alex Morgan is for me?” or “You mean like Rose Lavelle? She scores some pretty cool goals.” And I’ll say: “Yes, sweetheart. Just like them.”

My Favorite Longform Journalism of 2018

At least since 2016, good journalism has been under attack. Despite what you may have heard, however, there are hardworking reporters at newspapers, magazines, and web outlets across the country who are digging into issues that matter to us: crime, politics, sports, technology, arts and culture, healthcare, nature (and more). These are trained reporters—not television and radio talking heads or bloggers—who use editorial insight, interviews with key figures, weeks and months of in-depth research including scouring material and historical sources, and smooth, accessible writing styles to shed light on things we cannot fully understand without their work.

I read a lot of what is called “longform journalism”: the most in-depth form of journalism, which means articles usually read more like short books than what you’d typically find online. These are some of my favorite stories from 2018, across genres. I highly recommend you read them.

If you enjoy these stories, subscribe to these serious outlets (and simultaneously quit your Facebook scroll and turn off your TV news networks). And use sources like Longform and Longreads to find curated lists of the best reporting happening out there in the world right now.

“Blood Will Tell,” ProPublica/New York Times Magazine

Joe Bryan, convicted of the murder of his wife

This is a multi-part story of a murder in a small Texas town. A quiet fourth grade teacher, Mickey Bryan, was fatally shot in 1985, and the subsequent investigation led to the arrest of her husband, Joe, a beloved high school principal. The crime seemed unbelievable based on the history of their marriage, Joe’s contributions to the community, and the complete lack of forensic evidence tying him to the crime. This incredible report from Pamela Colloff led the Texas criminal justice system to reevaluate Joe’s once (and in many ways still) hopeless case. Highly recommended for those interested in crime and murder controversy (e.g. “Making of a Murderer,” the first season of the Serial podcast).

ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and NY Times Magazine also published other fascinating pieces this year: one about the gang MS-13 and its attacks on fellow Central American and Mexican immigrants and their children in Long Island, New York (you can read “The Disappeared” here), and another about Liberty University Online and Christian fundamentalists connections to the political right and controversial issues, including prosperity gospel teachings (you can read “Billion Dollar Blessings” here)

“Iraq’s Post-ISIS Campaign of Revenge,” The New Yorker

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Issues are rarely, if ever, as simple as we desire them to be. This is the case in the Iraqi criminal justice system’s handling of  law and order in the unraveling of ISIS.

For years, the militant Islamic State has terrorized hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Its crimes are endless and horrifying. Now, as the Iraqi government wrestles back control of the country, thousands of men and boys have been convicted of ISIS affiliation, and hundreds have been hanged. Thousands of families have been sent to camps in the desert, cast out from society.

In this incredible in-depth article by Ben Taub, we learn the full story of how ISIS came to be, the corruption of the Iraqi government, the impacts of ISIS and the government’s campaigns of terror on communities, and how the seeds future militant movements are being planted in what will likely be an endless cycle of violence and tragedy in Iraq.

“The White Darkness,” The New Yorker

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Initially published as a New Yorker cover story last February, “The White Darkness” tells the story of Henry Worsley, a family man and decorated British special forces officer, who spent his life idolizing Ernest Shackleton, the 19th century polar explorer who tried to become the first person to reach the South Pole and later sought to cross Antarctica on foot. Shackleton never completed his journeys, but he repeatedly rescued his men from certain death, and emerged as one of the greatest leaders in history.

In 2008, Worsley set out across Antarctica with two other descendants of Shackleton’s crew, battling the freezing landscape, life-threatening exhaustion, and hidden crevasses. On November 13, 2015, at age 55, Worsley bid farewell to his family and embarked on his most perilous quest: to walk across Antarctica alone.

This story was reported by the incredible David Grann, a longtime New Yorker reporter who wrote The Lost City of Z and The Old Man and the Gun, which eventually became Blockbuster films. Unsurprisingly, this story was also transformed into a book published in October.

“The Country’s First Climate Change Casualties?” The Pacific Standard

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Climate change science remains controversial, despite the overwhelming research by scientists who have measured, among other things, continually rising sea levels. Potentially the first victim of these rising sea levels is Tangier Island, a small island in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, which is predicted to be underwater within 25 years. What is fascinating about the increasingly dire situation is that the island’s inhabitants largely support President Donald Trump and others who cast disbelief on whether the rising waters will destroy the island.

“The story of Tangier has largely been limited to the inevitability of an island going down—the science behind it, the politics around it. And without new infrastructure, fast, Tangier is indeed going down. What’s been left out, however, is why its people are willing to go down with it—and why they’ve risked it all on Trump to keep them afloat.”

The story was reported by Elaina Plott for The Pacific Standard, an American magazine focusing on issues of social and environmental justice.

“Alt-Right Troll To Father Killer: The Unraveling Of Lane Davis,” Buzzfeed News

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This is the incredible, frightening, and tragic story of a father stabbed to death by his live-in son, a far-right, pro-Trump media figure looking for his big break.

Lane Davis, under the name “Seattle4Truth,” was a culture warrior and conspiracy theorist. He left a footprint online as wide and weird as his imprint on the physical world was small and sad: hundreds of YouTube videos, thousands of tweets, hundreds of blog posts, hundreds of Reddit comments. But none of the people who called him Seattle had met Lane in person. None of them knew, nor would most of them know for months, what he had done to his father. And none of them had any idea what this man they spent all day online with was capable of.

This story is a culmination of a nightmare: what happens when online trolls act on their digital threat. It was reported by Joseph Bernstein for Buzzfeed News, founded in 2011 and a winner of national and international reporting and magazine awards for its investigative journalism.

“The Last Days of Blockbuster Video,” The Ringer

I remember with fondness the days of roaming the aisles of my local Blockbuster Video in Bayonne, New Jersey looking for a movie to rent. For many of us, that experience has been gone for nearly a decade. In its place has come Netflix and chill, Redbox rentals, and other steaming services such as Hulu, Amazon Video, and YouTube.

In Alaska, however, three Blockbuster stores remained after all the others closed across the U.S.

This article by Justin Heckert for The Ringer tells of what is lost when a beloved tradition withers and eventually disappears. It talks of the balance between new technologies and keeping alive relics that become essential to our memories. It talks of nostalgia and people (and late fees). Compared with all of the other hard reads, this is a good change of direction and pace.

“The Story of a Face,” National Geographic

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Katie Stubblefield was very much an average teenage girl from Mississippi when, in a moment of horror, she put a shotgun to her face and pulled the trigger. Afterward, she could not remember the suicide attempt. But, she bore the marks of it on her face, which was left utterly disfigured

What comes after  years of recovery is a highly-experimental 31-hour surgery aimed at giving Stubblefield back a semblance of life. At 22 years old, she became the youngest person to successfully receive a face transplant.

The story, reported in incredible detail by Joanna Connors, is terrifyingly relatable. It includes photographs, interviews, and videos done over the course of multiple years as Connors and Nat Geo sought to cover a moment of medical history.

Other highly-recommended stories:

  • “The Redemption of MS-13,” by Danny Gold for Longreads, tells of how the gang allows only three ways out for its members: hospital, jail, and Christian conversion. It follows former members turned pastors and includes interviews with those currently in jail, their family members, their victims, government figures, and members of the community who no longer know what to do about the gangs destroying their countries.
  • “Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out,” by Reginald Dwayne Betts for The New York Times, tells the writer’s story of time spent in jail for a crime committed as a teenager and the difficulty he faced in turning his life around even after attending Yale Law School and finding national acclaim for his poetry and advocacy for youth and juvenile-justice reform.
  • “The FBI of the National Park Service,” by Rachel Monroe for Outside Magazine, tells of the Investigative Services Branch of the National Park Service, a minuscule collection of 33 agents across the United States tasked with investigating crimes that happen in the park. This story spotlights the way the branch comes together in one specific crime in the Rocky Mountains: a murder of a wife by a husband with a hidden past.
  • “Own Goal: The Inside Story of How the USMNT Missed the World Cup,” by Andrew Helms and Matt Pentz for The Ringer, tells the behind-the-scenes story of how nearly a decade of mismanagement by top soccer figures, including directors and coaches, led to the U.S. men’s national soccer team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It also paints a depressing picture of who really controls sports; not players and coaches, but powerful men and women in suits (and pantsuits).
  • “The Nastiest Feud in Science,” by Bianca Bosker for The Atlantic, discusses the debate behind what really killed the dinosaurs. While the story of a giant asteroid crashing into the earth is accepted as fact, Bosker digs into how scientists put together this claim, its still controversial aspects, and how a Princeton geologist and her colleagues  are gathering support for an alternate theory involving volcanic eruptions.

The Most Important Things

“He lay there holding her. It had been hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon in February, and as the hours passed so did the sunlight that peaked through the cracks of the blinds in their bedroom. He did not move from his spot beside her even as darkness filled the house. The minutes passed, evening came, and he did not turn on the light. He only watched her chest rise as it filled with air and she exhaled. And he held her tightly.”


Initially, I hoped to use these lines above in a short story about the most important things in life; not money, possessions, frivolous things that come and go, but people and the relationships we form with them. I think the lines suffice as they are.

I watch many films. Two of the most recent I’ve seen, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, are complements to each other. Both films tell the story of Europe in World War II as Nazi Germany ran over the continent with an ease that borders on unimaginable now in 2018. With the U.S. choosing not to intervene until that point in the war, the United Kingdom was under imminent threat with the majority of its military stranded on Dunkirk beach in northern France. In the end, more than 330,000 soldiers were rescued by a fleet of civilian ships. While the war turned later, tens of millions of young men were dead by the time peace returned in 1945.

I have been thinking about those times, and how fortunate I am to live a peaceful life. It is easy as Westerners living in the 21st century to be lulled into deceptive comfort. But, even in its deceptiveness, many of our lives remain a relief compared to the hard ones lived by those in generations past. I think of the many young men who gave their lives to war and it makes me truly sad.

Oftentimes, I place so much value in things that are, ultimately, unimportant. In the face of death, illness or the many other ways tragedy transcends into our daily experiences, these things are insignificant. What is a new iPhone, an expensive suit, a home in the suburbs compared to people? I imagine the millions who die prematurely in war would give anything to spend a final moment in the arms of their lovers, at a table eating dinner with their family, or telling jokes at a bar with their friends. Yet it seems so often we overlook these most valuable relationships in our pursuit of other, lesser things.

The scene described above is an image of two lovers. It does not matter their location, ethnicity, age. It is what I imagine when I think of an important moment. It is moments like these that I will cherish above any possession, and that I hope to remind myself of when my mind grows tired from unfulfilled longings for what is ultimately fleeting and superfluous.

The Phantom Punch

The punch came from an angle he had never expected. The boxer didn’t actually see it as it landed just above his left cheek. Immediately the thin bone inside the thin layer of his flesh, bruised and cut from a hundred other punches, shattered.

The punch sent off a flash in the boxer’s mind. His mind went blank for a moment, like a big cinema screen before the start of a movie. “This must be what being ‘out on your feet’ feels like,” he thought. But then, vividly, a memory from his past began to play.

The boxer wasn’t a boxer then. He was 17 years old, and he stood in the backyard with her. Golden waves of hair gently splashed the dress straps clinging loosely to the girl’s shoulders. He caught her eyes. They were big, brown eyes and they were fixed on his, too. She smiled a bright, golden smile. The sun was high above the girl and the leafy branches on the tree behind her swayed. She was in the midst of whispering something to him.

Flash.

The boxer was back in the ring, bent over against the ropes, and deafened by the sound of the nearby spectators who cheered and shouted for the knockout. He looked up and caught the eyes of the man in front of him. Sweat poured from his own bruised face as the lights above enveloped him, blacking out everything behind him. Another punch was inches from colliding with the boxer’s chin. He was there, present in mind and body, and at the same time he wasn’t. Because it didn’t make sense. “Why her? Why now?”

The punch landed, the boxer’s knees buckled, and he let the force of his own weight take him down to the canvas. He rolled over onto his back and looked up at the lights above, blinking. He hoped for another flash.

“Goddammit. Come back. Please come back,” he thought.

Part of the motivation behind my blogging again is to share fragments of the short stories I’ve been working on. I don’t get the chance to write fiction as often as I once did. But, there’s something beautiful about it to me. Hemingway was quoted, saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Except the blood, once it coagulates, can’t always be traced back exactly to you. There’s fragments there; pieces of you that you’ve poured out into your fiction. But, you borrow, create, and imagine, too.

In boxing, there was famous fight—the hugely anticipated rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, who Ali had beaten to become the World Heavyweight Champion at the age of 22. Many people were still shocked from Ali’s first win and expected the heavily-muscled, knockout artist that was Liston to pummel the brash Kentuckian. But, that isn’t what happened. Instead, Ali scored a first-round knockout from a punch still debated more than 50 years later. Because much of the audience and television viewership didn’t see it land, it was called “the phantom punch.” After it knocked Liston on his butt, the bigger man rolled around for a few moments and didn’t get up. When the referee called off the fight the crowd immediately booed and yelled “Fix!”

Liston was known for his prior mob connections so naturally many commentators argued he took the fall on purpose to repay debts by losing at almost impossible odds. Others, like former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and Hall of Fame commentator Larry Merchant, reviewed the video of the fight and said the punch, albeit impossible to see for most of the audience, connected perfectly. I’ve watched the video in slow motion and it does look like the punch snapped into Liston’s chin and reverberated through the back of his neck—the typical makings of a knockout blow.

Life has a tendency of smacking a lot of us on the chin unexpectedly. There’s punches you see coming. And then there’s the ones that catch you surprise. The people around you—friends, family, colleagues, teammates, mortal enemies—might say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. Pick yourself up, pal,” or “Don’t make a big deal out of it.”  They don’t always say it, but there’s always the ones who just can’t help themselves.

But, human pain doesn’t work that way. Healing doesn’t work that way. Imagine what was going on in Liston’s mind on that canvas. Imagine the days after when all the newspapers and television channels and people on the street were in shock and hurled criticism and abuse his way. Imagine what he thought the ones he loved might think–his children, his wife, his mother.

Our lives are made up of flashes and moments. They coalesce in the end to create the story of our years on this earth. Some of those flashes are heart-shattering. Others joyful. They all have their significance in the end. I want to say we should watch out better for those phantom punches. But, I don’t know we can. Maybe we shouldn’t. I just know that eventually we do get back up again. And we’re different. Different because of how we handled it all.

The Inconspicuous Return

“I’m starting to get the feeling, more and more, to come back…It’s like a knife that I have to keep sharp just in case I ever decide to jump back in the mix…”

Georges St-Pierre

Most comebacks in professional sports are met with terrific fervor. In boxing, the return of Muhammad Ali and later Mike Tyson attracted global attention. When Fedor Emelianenko — The Last Emperor, as he is known in the world of mixed martial arts — declared his comeback for New Years Eve 2015 after a three-year retirement, there was a frenzy over who he would face and if the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) might sign him. For the past two years, there have been murmurs that another sensation, former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, might finally return to order to make a second run inside the Octagon and regain his belt.

Despite the passion and excitement generated on most of these occasions, the comebacks have been either short-lived or disappointing. Ali was badly beaten by former training partner Larry Holmes and then lost again to Trevor Berbick before finally hanging up the gloves a few months before his 40th birthday. Tyson was knocked out in his final two fights, looking like a shell of himself and admitting after his loss to Kevin McBride that he didn’t have the guts to stay in boxing anymore. Fedor surprised everyone in his choice to fight an MMA nobody in former professional kickboxer Singh Jaideep and beat him up in an expectedly lopsided win. In his second fight since his un-retirement, he was almost knocked out in the first round by faded Brazilian Fabio Maldonado and won a contested majority decision for a Russian promotion for which Fedor himself picked the judges. Fight fans (and ladies) everywhere are still awaiting the comeback of St-Pierre, with his camp and rivals in search of a big paycheck insinuating he might return for Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, or Michael Bisping.

Some returns are less heralded and go almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. After being knocked out for a second time by Chuck Liddell in 2006, Randy Couture retired only to return a year later and challenge Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title. Couture was 46 years old, six inches shorter and more than 40 pounds lighter than Sylvia. But, he dominated the giant man across five rounds to become the oldest UFC champion in history.

With the creation of Dope on the Ropes, I’ve made my fourth or fifth semi-serious run at blogging. The others were as unheralded as it gets. The most popular post on my last blog had 300 reads if I was lucky. But, like a hopeless fighter throwing back wild, blind hooks from the ropes, I’m a relentless one. Join me for the ride. Here goes!

  • Brian Gabriel