Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fire Watch

"Fire Watch", the title story in the 1985 short story collection of the same name, is the departure point for Connie Willis's series of novels featuring time-traveling Oxford historians of the future. For their practicum, the graduate students of the history department are sent back in time to observe and participate in crucial events: in this case, the heroic, yet mundane civil defense efforts by Londoners facing the German firebombing of St. Paul's Cathedral during WWII.

By turns imaginative, speculative, wry, and shocking, "Fire Watch" combines the educational virtues of the historical fiction genre with a futurist's deft treatment of alternative explanations and outcomes. The result is a discourse on the pragmatic role of history and historians and an illustration of the need to overcome the emotional attachment to the one course of events that has actually occurred.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Dog Stars

Globetrotting author Peter Heller writes adventure, travel, and other non-fiction, often involving dangerous situations.  His first novel, The Dog Stars, is a post-apocalyptic Western set in Colorado, with wonderful, lyrical writing about private piloting, mountain stream fishing, and a beloved canine companion.  Replace the commas with slashes and you have an epic survivalist tale in free verse.

The book includes rich explorations on meanings and purposes in a new, harsh reality (i.e., shoot high-caliber weapons first, explore meanings and purposes later).  Heller's protagonist Hig, a Cessna pilot and outdoorsman turned aerial scout and turf-defender by necessity, has a sliver more heart and hope than his physically and emotionally bunkered neighbor, but you wouldn't know it by his lethal actions against both hostile and non-hostile intruders.  Even so, while his partner tends their airfield arsenal, Hig entertains the notion of a life beyond, fueled by a chance radio reception which leads him to a journey of peril and discovery.

(I've got Olivia Wilde as the doctor; that's probably just me.)

My fellow Dartmouth alumni will appreciate Heller's drop-in references -- he also spent four years in Hanover -- including an impassioned, fitting sidebar on Eastern Establishment condescension toward the West.

I look forward with anticipation to reading more of Peter Heller's adventurous works.  While I'm more of a National Geographic than a Field and Stream fan, anyone who can turn the end of civilization into a nature appreciation treatise while his hero dodges bullets is worth a gander.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Maybe If I'd Been a Cage Rat...

When I was 11, I was selected to play for the Niskayuna Rotary Little League team.  I'd hit pretty well at the A and AA levels, and I could catch a fly ball in left field.  I'd been too sick to attend four out of five weeknights of major league tryouts, so unlike my more qualified peers, I had the crucial advantage of not yet having demonstrated my incompetence to the coaches.  I got the call!

(Similar logic by Internet analysts -- buy anything that hasn't publicly failed yet -- explains in large part the NASDAQ tech bubble of the late 1990's.)

That first year in the majors, I batted two hundred points below the Mendoza Line.  (You might say, I had a NASDAQ crash of my own.)  Needless to say, Kevin Long was not my hitting coach.

Fortunately for the New York Yankees, Kevin Long is their hitting coach.  Even better, he's a good coach, the 2012 postseason notwithstanding.  He's written a book, Cage Rat, describing his years as a minor league player and coach, ultimately getting the call to join the Yankees and serve as a second pair of eyes for All-Stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixara, Robinson Cano, and the rest of the Bronx Bombers.

Even more fortunately for Little Leaguers, Cage Rat presents Coach Long's instructions, with photos, on how to stand in, balance, stride, sit "dead red" (assume a fastball is coming), and keep your head still so you can see the pitch without distortion.  For the professional ballplayers, Long spends hours upon hours in the video room and the batting cage (his "office") analyzing, deconstructing, and reconstructing the mechanics of each player's swing.

Imagine a book by an auto mechanic who absolutely loves being an auto mechanic.  He may be a bit shallow, personally, but he knows absolutely everything there is to know about steering linkages.  He also knows how to sweet-talk and persuade the especially balky steering linkages into yielding willingly to his wrench.  The steering linkages love him for it.  That's the tone of this book.

Mostly, however, this is Long's personal and professional story.  He struggled as a minor league player for eight years in the Kansas City organization, never quite achieving a promotion to the majors (maybe he should have feigned illness during tryouts?).  He restarted his career as a minor league coach, working his way up and eventually shifting to the Yankees' organization.  As minor league salaries are less than table scraps, he was supported financially for more than a decade by his wife Marcie, who worked crazy hours at restaurants and bars to support their three children.  The wisest move K-Long made in writing this book (with the assistance of sportswriter Glen Waggoner) was to hand Marcie the pen for a chapter plus several more passages.  The lady more than earned the right to tell her story, and to sport her Yankees-blue playoff scarf proudly.

The behind-the-scenes views of the Yankees' clubhouse and batting cages are limited to various stars' pregame routines.  The limited look through the peephole in the fence that we're allowed isn't nearly as salacious as a true clubhouse exposé -- this is no Ball Four, despite a few personality and work habit descriptions -- but it should satisfy fans who are truly interested in the mechanical aspects of hitting and the detailed work that goes into daily game preparation.

It also serves as an excellent cover letter and resume for one Kevin Long, Professional Hitting Coach, should the need ever arise.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Where the hell is the three-and-a-half stars option?  In this Europeanish relationships fable, Steve Martin's nuanced depictions of his characters' emotions and thought processes and keen eye for decorative detail create from whole cloth a highly credible protagonist, two suitors who could not be more different (rich man, poor man), and a comedically villanous archrival in hot, competitive pursuit of the same affection-givers.

Martin's singular accomplishment in an era of contemporary literary bombast is to depict an introvert as his fully human lead.  Indeed, she's a normal introvert, not someone who's scary, unbalanced, or traumatized, though she does have a depression issue.  A rare, unambitious heroine, Mirabelle is the invisible worker we all pass by daily, in the store or on the street, without stopping to think about their story; Martin provides the story and creates empathy.

Where the book suffers slightly is when he lets his jokey side off the leash and starts to describe bedroom activities to unnecessary degrees of resolution.  Also, I found Mirabelle's source of continuing financial support to stretch credulity; one can almost hear Martin's fellow comedian Judy Tenuta bleating out, "Hey! It could happen!"

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lightning Quick

Lightning: A Novel, a small volume from a new hybrid genre of fictionalized biography, insinuated its way into my towering library borrowings stack.  It was a quick read with an educational payoff.

This is biography as storytelling, a narrative speculation on the life of neurotic, revolutionary inventor Nikola Tesla. The fictionalized specific events, closely based on the history of Tesla's inventions, and the author's speculations into Tesla's emotional state as the picaresque tale of his business dealings unfolds, place the book in the shaded area between historical fiction and popular history; the former is emphasized by the word "novel" on the cover and the use of "Gregor" rather than "Nikola" as the name of the protagonist.

French author Echenoz creates a story arc not through technological developments but through the use of recurring, colorful details as markers: Gregor's fondness for aviary companions; his fastidiousness of dress; his obsessive-compulsive habits. The product is a breezy, accessible introduction to the life of Tesla that could serve as a treatment for a one-man stage play.

My only hesitation in recommending this book, and others from the same author and genre, is that the story framework has the depth of a Wikipedia article; indeed, the sum of the author's background research could have been the Wikipedia article on Tesla.  By calling the book a novel and by emphasizing the subject's mindset over his technological contributions (other than to mention them serially as new examples of his propensity to get cheated), the author seems to be communicating the message: this is a work of narrative art, not history or technology; please don't criticize me for not including citations.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ahhhhhhhhhh...Gotta Go!

Farewell, Nyjer.  Milwaukee just won't be the same.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Goodreads, and My OneNote Wiki Trick

The ol' cut-and-paste maneuver has transformed my life, yet again!

First, I started using the Goodreads web site ( to track my books.  When I say "my" books, I'm not using a strict definition of ownership; my tracking entries include books that have penetrated my gray cells at some point, whether I've owned them, borrowed them from the library, obtained them and later exchanged them at a Little Tiny Library, pre-read and re-gifted them, found them at a yard sale and resold them, donated them in overstuffed bags and collapsing bankers' boxes to some Friends of the Library sale or Goodwill, flung them against the wall after a screamingly bad paragraph and broken their little spines, or used them for fireplace kindling when we've run out of sticks.

The titles, thus entered, are categorized into books I've read, books I'm reading -- several at a time, usually, in various states of perusal --, books I intend to read, and books I've started but set aside, either indefinitely or permanently.  It's way more fun than it sounds; if you include your childhood Dr. Seuss and Hardy Boys treasures, as I do, your personal catalog can be very large indeed.

Why do this?  It's something akin to a line from the movie "Clockwise", spoken by the time-obsessed Headmaster played by John Cleese: "The first step to knowing who you are is to know where you are and when you are!"  To this, I would add: what you've read, seen, listened to, or otherwise experienced.  No doubt, The Baseball Encyclopedia or one of its competitors now has an app where you can track all the games you've attended; recalling and entering that data could keep me occupied for weeks!

Tracking books I've read has been both fun and motivational; I'm eager to recall what I've read and even more eager to finish reading books to expand my list.  It can also be social, if you learn that an acquaintance also has a book-tracking obsession.  (Friends and readers of this blog are welcome to view my collection, such as it is; my current reading list can be found in a sidebar to this blog.)

Still, even with Goodreads, something was missing from this rare instance of semi-obsessive organization on my part: the ability to ascertain at a glance when in a favorite author's career a particular book was written, and in what sequence.  I'm pretty sure Sue Grafton wrote A is for Alibi before B is for Burglar, but I'd have a harder time putting Carl Hiaasen's Sick Puppy, Tourist Season, and Double Whammy in the right order.  This is oddly important when you find a copy of, say, one of John le Carre's George Smiley spy novels on a thrift store shelf and want to know if he already knows what you know he will know.

Enter Microsoft OneNote and Wikipedia.  I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Carl Hiaasen, scrolled down to his bibliography, highlighted it, and cut-and-pasted it into its own page under an Authors tab in OneNote.  Now, rather than doing a Wikipedia search every time, I click into OneNote on my Windows 7 system tray, and with two more clicks I can see that Tourist Season was Hiaasen's first solo novel.  Easy and quick.

This isn't a patentable idea -- is it?  Surely not, but it's made my reading life more enjoyable and organized.  Now, if I could only keep my bookcases as tidy...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

My First Smiley

Call for the Dead, master spywriter John le Carré's first novel (1961), introduces George Smiley, the rumpled, curmudgeonly British operative, to a generation of suspense enthusiasts.  Short and squat, Oxford-educated, shrewd yet scarcely able to defend himself in violent encounters, Smiley is the anti-Bond, a dogged Inaction Hero without a hint of handsome, with only a reluctant, undashing dash of derring-do.

Structured as a simple mystery, with a murder investigation at its core and only tangential reference to geopolitical intrigue, le Carré's story presents Smiley and his surrounding cast in sharp relief, without the shadowy double-crosses and moral murkiness of his later novels.  Accordingly, this book is an easy read, save for a few quid worth of English colloquialisms, with simple exposition, only a handful of characters to follow, and several recapitulations of "what we know" as the unfolding proceeds. 

Invitingly, Call for the Dead draws the reader into the Smiley oeuvre with this initial foray into the world of old-school spycraft.  The beleaguered agent's life will soon become vastly more complicated.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NFL Zebras Not the Only Animals in Owners' Sights

Hey, d'ja see the Packers-Seahawks game last night?  Cool how it ended, huh?

The NFL replacement officials are in way over their heads - so far that the integrity of the entire league is in question.  Evidence of their incompetence arises in every quarter, if not in every set of downs.  But, it's time to refocus: it's their employer, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who planned the current lockout of the regular referees, in collaboration with certain activist owners; it's Goodell who hired the replacement refs, put them on the football field, gave them a whistle, and let them loose with insufficient training and experience; and it's Goodell and this handful of owners who are the only remaining parties to insist that nothing is wrong with the status quo.

There's obviously more to the NFL owners' posture in the current lockout of the regular referees than just the cost savings at stake, a relative pittance; else the league would have ended the lockout unilaterally after Week 1.  That they haven't suggests the following motivations:

(1) PRECEDENT: Not only does a hard-line posture toward the regular referees demonstrate the owners' resolve in the instant dispute; in their minds, it likely also sets a precedent for future contract negotiations with the Players' Association, a much bigger economic opportunity.  It also signals a strategic rigidity with respect to labor unions and salaried workforces in general, both in the owners' non-NFL businesses and in American society at-large.  The message: Negotiation itself is off the table.
(2) IDEOLOGY: The current generation of NFL owners came of age when President Ronald Reagan broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization (PATCO) by hiring and training replacements.  As Paul F. Campos wrote today at, appropriating the contemptuous jargon of ownership-class lionizer Ayn Rand and referencing her avid adherent: "Paul Ryan's beloved Packers were robbed last night -- because the owners are putting the 'moochers' in their place."

(3) PEER PRESSURE: Rigidity in the face of common sense allows the owners to display their boss-class status to and gain the affirmative, personal approval of their fellow sports team owners and business peers, whom they run into at Board meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and country clubs and are, in fact, the only constituencies who actually matter to them.

(4) COMBATIVENESS: The hardened, combative societal attitudes evidenced first in America's so-called culture wars, then in its "red state-blue state" political divide now pervade all walks of life, including the business of sports.  An entire generation has grown up with categorical attitudes that are uninformed by critical thinking.

(5) LOMBARDI-ISM: (I could get exiled from Wisconsin for this.)  Former Packers coach and NFL demigod Vince Lombardi's famous line,"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing [that matters]!" has been inflated to the status of received wisdom throughout American society.  It is, in fact, a sophomoric locker-room slogan, not an organizing principle for the modern world.

(6) VANITY: The owners continue, stubbornly and conceitedly, to deny a gross, strategic error that they have committed in public, as doing so would be an admission of their own fallibility; thereby compounding the problem.

(7) COLLUSION: The consistent pattern of the NFL, NBA, and NHL using nearly identical, hard-line labor tactics suggests that their executives are motivated by and doing the sector-wide bidding for the money-center banks, including Bank of America and Citibank, that serve the sports, media, and entertainment industries.  These financial players are often equity investors as well as the principal lenders to ownership groups.  Their influence in the sports world is an underreported story; whether they are also instigators in the recent spate of lockouts is a matter of speculation.

What troubles me most is that this infestation of hostile tactics toward players and officials could spread further.  In particular, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's vaunted two-decade stretch of labor peace with the Baseball Players' Association, with no strike or lockout since the World Series washout of 1994, is surely threatened unless he and his eventual successor can wrangle MLB owners into a collective posture that does not rely principally upon the threat of work stoppages to achieve economic ends.

  *  *  *

UPDATE: After a 31-hour negotiating session following the Green Bay-Seattle game, the NFL and the NFL Referees Association agreed on the terms of a new, eight-year contract.

Friday, September 21, 2012

50-50 Raffle

It had to come down to the Brewers and Cardinals, didn't it?

Last year (2011), it was a race for the NL Central Division title, won by the Milwaukee Brewers, followed by a rematch in the NL Championship Series, won by the bad guys.  I mean, excuse me, the St. Louis Cardinals.  (Sorry.  Force of habit.)

This year (2012), it's a race for the second NL Wild Card spot.  Doesn't sound quite as compelling, does it?  Sure, the Wild Card teams have made the playoffs, their possibility of a Galactic Championship still alive.  But what have they won, really?

A coin toss.  A lottery ticket.  A 50-50 raffle.

Random chance.

The Brewers sell 50-50 raffle tickets every home game at Miller Park, with 50% of the proceeds going to the raffle winner and 50% going to the Brewers Community Foundation.  That's different.  That's a win-win. That's the Law of Large Numbers, the outcome roughly predictable over a season. 

This is win-lose.  This is playing 162 major league games in order to subject yourself to a coin toss to see if you go home in shock.  Make no mistake, a single play-in game is a coin toss.  You could be eliminated on the basis of an injury, an umpiring call, a bad hop.  Even if you've won 10 more regular season games than your Wild Card opponent, as the Atlanta Braves might this season, you could go home in three hours.  Even if, as the Brewers are hoping, you tunnel your way out of a disappointing first half with a maniacal stretch drive that lasts for weeks, you could lose one ball in the lights and go home.  Even before your fans see a single home playoff game, scalp one triple-priced ticket, wave one terricloth towel for the cameras, you could be done.

The Wild Card round needs to be a Best of Three elimination series.  Even the College World Series, with far fewer regular season games determining the participants, has a loser's bracket.

I hear your objections. "There's no time on the television calendar!" say football-besotten television sports executives, and those who carry their water.  To which I reply: Really?  Two days, not possible?  Two fewer split-squad games in the spring?  You can't drive your Jag back from Florida two days earlier?

"The excitement of a single, sudden-death game trumps all!"  These are the people who think a penalty shoot-out in hockey or penalty kicks to decide a soccer contest make for superior television to a clutch goal with time expiring in overtime.

"Teams play crucial elimination games in every round!"  Yes, but not in Game 1.  Baseball is an ebb and flow, the build-up of a season -- or a playoff series -- to a climax.  It's seeing if a slumping player can pull out of a slump just once in October.  It's needing several members of a starting rotation to succeed, not just a single ace.  It's planning relievers over a multiple-game series in order not to overextend and overuse them.  It's enjoying prolonged excellence and series-long narratives.  The two-team battle leading to a deciding Game 5 or Game 7 enhances the week-long drama.  Those elimination games mean something more, at least to the discerning sports fan, than simply deciding who advances.

Moreover, imagine the lower season-long investment in player payroll that many baseball owners will likely commit to if the most positive result they can foresee from competing is a 50-50 coin toss.  In MBA-speak, that's like slashing the expected value of having a good team by one-half.  Owners like Pittsburgh's Bob Nutting might never invest in an A.J. Burnett on the free agent market again.

Make a deal with you, Major League Baseball executives: if MLB agrees to expand the Wild Card round to Best of Three, I'll agree that you can cut the MLB League Championship Series back to a Best of Five.  Fair enough?  Just keep your hands off the Best of Seven World Series, alright?

We're all reasonable people here.  We all want what's best for the game.  Like everyone else in the game, from the Commissioner's Office to the Player's Association to the networks, we can all choose to honor Major League Baseball's time-honored motto, courtesy of Red Green:

I'm a man, but I can change.  If I have to.  I guess.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How High Can These Orioles Fly?

This morning, as most mornings, I sipped coffee from a garish orange and black coffee mug.  What's different this morning is that it's September, and the cartoon bird logo on the mug is that of a first place ballclub.

Last night, the Baltimore Orioles, plagued by years of terrible ownership, poor attendance, and the presumption of being the doormat in the AL East, the most difficult division in Major League Baseball, delivered a 12-0, 18-hit pounding on Toronto and moved into a first place tie with the New York Yankees at 76-59.

My Beloved Spousal Unit and I were frequent denizens at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore during our East Coast incarnation in the 1980's and early 1990's.  We'd drive up I-95 from Suburban D.C. through the streets of Baltimore, up Charles Street and down St. Paul, and perch in our seats like Shoe and The Perfessor from the Treetops Tattler-Tribune.  Whether alone or road-tripping with friends, we'd usually get lost in the city trying to make our way home -- especially at 1:00 a.m. on a Sunday night after a 12-inning game!

I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Frank Robinson, the Orioles manager from 1988 through 1991.  His Hall of Famer's self-confident bearing and shrewd managerial tactics taught my perceptive wife the intricacies of the game and turned her into a baseball fan for life.  (Thank you, Frank!)

After the high ceremony of the home plate relocation at the end of 1991, the grounds crew dressed in tux and tails, a new era for the Birds began near Baltimore's Inner Harbor in the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  We attended just a couple of games in April 1992; the beautiful, new ballpark with the throwback architecture was jam-packed both times.  But, as it happens, we moved away from the Free State of Maryland that season, just as the craze began.  The Orioles mug, a parting gift from our road-tripping friends, became a reminder of our good times. We followed the denouement of Cal Ripken's consecutive games streak and cheered Eddie Murray's 500th home run from afar.

A long, dark age for the Orioles followed, with fan frustration growing, contending teams rare, and the economics of Major League Baseball working against Eastern Division teams not in the Yankees-Red Sox and Mets-Phillies axes.  During those years, I thought Washington Post baseball writer Tom Boswell would suffer a stroke fuming over whatever was the latest cheapskate move by Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, before D.C. gained its franchise and diverted him.

But this year, somehow, some way, through draft choices and propitious signings, aided and abetted by a Yankees swoon and a Red Sox collapse, this flock of crazy birds has overcome its franchise-specific disadvantages and competed its way into a contending season.  Led by the team's three All-Stars, outfielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, and 41-save closer Jim Johnson, and bolstered by a supporting cast of -- oh, who am I kidding!  I don't know who these guys are, and neither do most fans.  Faced with low television ratings and disappointing attendance, upstaged recently by the Washington Nationals to the south, it's been far too long since the national spotlight has shined on the O's, the cameras trained on the Baltimore skyline, the announcers eager to call B&O Warehouse home run shots.

I don't know much about these Birds, but I'm learning.  So is the rest of the baseball world.  I'm yearning once again to hear the fans yell "O's!" during the National Anthem.  I'd like to see how high this flock can fly.  It's time to sit back, enjoy a tasty beverage, and watch them earn their wings -- or try.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ron Roenicke: Take My Wolf — Please!

Has any baseball manager in recent memory collaborated so willingly -- and publicly -- in a general manager's wholesale marketing of his team's veteran pitching staff at the trade deadline as has the Milwaukee Brewers' Ron Roenicke in recent days?  Based on his vocal sales pitch to the other clubs, you'd think he were in the business of reselling high-mileage used cars.

Typically, a manager tries to keep the 9 players on the field, and the 25 players on the roster, most likely to produce a winning record in the current season, thereby saving his own neck.  In baseball, as in other sports, there's often a GM vs. Manager/Head Coach conflict of interest which manifests as "build for the future" and "play the guys I drafted and traded for" (GM) vs. "win now" and "play the best players every day" (Manager).  Not so, apparently, with Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke.

The Brewers are trying to jettison high-priced set-up man and former Angels and Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, a.k.a. K-Rod, who until two weeks ago looked utterly lost on the mound in 2012.  Just in time, K-Rod seems to have turned his season around with eight hitless appearances.  Other clubs may be wary, but Roenicke thinks they should look at Rodriguez:

"All I know is if I'm another team and I'm a contender, and I want a guy who's a big-game pitcher, I would certainly come after Frankie," Roenicke said. "I told you guys all along -- I have tons of confidence in Frankie, even when he was going bad, I had lots of confidence in him. Now he's back throwing [well]. Somebody should grab him." [1]

(Zero percent financing to qualified buyers.)

Veteran left-hander Randy Wolf was recently released by the Brewers during a substandard season.  Roenicke's comments, hoping to induce another ballclub to hire Wolf:

"I think he's going to have a good year for somebody. ... I like him as a player, and I like him as a person. He prepares himself as well as anybody I've ever been around. He's a great teammate. He helps out the young guys. ... He worked as hard as you could possibly work to get things turned around." [2]

(Did I mention that he throws 50 mph curveballs? and gets 35 miles to the gallon?)

Now come reports that starter Shaun Marcum has been put on waivers and is on the trading block. This from the Skipper:

"Why wouldn't you [consider him]?  The guy can flat-out pitch." [3]

(Hurry down to your Volkswagen dealer!  Tax and title extra.)

It's noteworthy that Roenicke's comments are entirely truthful, valid, and as beneficient toward the named players and their playoff goals as they are helpful to the Brewers' future.  It just strikes me as extraordinary that a field manager would participate in what has traditionally been a front-office function.

Either Roenicke and Melvin have a closely coordinated marketing strategy to entice their trading partners to act, and are carrying it out as planned; or, beneath his stoic exterior, Roenicke is a bit of a loose cannon, talking to the press to push trades forward when he thinks Melvin isn't proceeding with enough urgency.  It wouldn't be the first time; Roenicke recently openly expressed a preference for keeping newly repositioned Corey Hart at first base for the long term, possibly putting Melvin in an awkward spot and costing the Brewers some money in Hart's upcoming contract negotiations.

No matter who makes the pitch to the other clubs, one thing's for sure: if you want to sell a used car, it can't hurt to toot the horn!

* * *

UPDATE:'s Brittany Ghiroli has reported on Twitter that Randy Wolf is close to signing with the Baltimore Orioles. [4]  Presume it's just a matter of completing dealer prep before the deal is announced.

UPDATE #2: Randy Wolf signed with the Orioles.  His first appearance in the orange and black was a scoreless inning against the Yankees.  Francisco Rodriguez and Shaun Marcum were not claimed on waivers before the September 1 post-season trading deadline and remain on the Brewers' roster.

* * *

[1] "Marcum activated off DL, to start Saturday", Adam McCalvy/, 08/24/12 7:10 PM ET.
[2] "Randy Wolf released by Brewers", Associated Press, 08/22/12, 5:27 PM ET.
[3] McCalvy/, Ibid.
[4] Brittany Ghiroli/, on Twitter (@Britt_Ghiroli), 08/28/12 2:14 PM ET.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Whither the Bee?

I finished a book last night!  And the crowd goes crazy!

This is not news, but you should see my reading pile.  My backlog has grown to a height that would cause my mountain-climbing sister to pause before considering a summit attempt.  Parental pass-alongs, estate sales, library sales, and Goodwill stores are all my undoing, as is that evil American Council of the Blind thrift store in West Allis.  Boswell Book Company on N. Downer Street suckers me in with author talks by the likes of Craig Thompson and John Scalzi; I may sneak out without a $24.95 autographed hardcover in hand, but the pesky bargain shelf ambushes me on the way to the door.  Curiosity killed the cat, but it's burying me alive.

You'd think, then, that when I finish an amiable read like Samantha Bee's I Know I Am, But What Are You, I would instantly fling it back through the portal into the ocean of resale print whence it came, the better to make room for its successors.  However, I'm a cheapskate.  If I've spent 50 or 89 cents on a volume of inspirationally snarky personal essays for which, in an earlier, pre-abundance era, I might have shelled out $2.98 plus $3.49 shipping from the Edward R. Hamilton catalog, it feels like I've turned a profit.

What to do, then, with this exemplar of the epistolary, this Woodstock of wit?  I resell some medium-priced books on, but few popular titles sell for more than a literal penny.  Giving the book to my sister-in-law, who earlier had giggle-snorted her way through David Sedaris despite her Christian upbringing, would be an option; but with Ms. Bee's chapter on rude characters who expose themselves to the author on a recurring basis as if she were a perv magnet, this seems unwise.  That's before we even get to her confession of releasing a psychopathic, rapist guinea pig into her basement with the cats.

I decided at last to stage a ninja attack under cover of darkness and donate the book to one of the Little Free Libraries that have sprouted in our city, and many others, in recent months.  As my Beloved Spousal Unit has described in her blog, Dante's Wardrobe, the Little Free Library movement is a casually organized community resource provided by private citizens for the benefit of their neighbors and neighborhood.  It's a friendly sharing of books over the back fence, only the back fence is now on a prominent street corner.  The collection is a bit spotty, but you've got to love the due date.  It is possible, Dear Reader, that one or two items from our local giveaway spots may have found their way back into our home, adding to my personal Magic Mountain.  Oh, what foul cruelty Fortuna has spun to me today!

Samantha Bee, her guinea pig, and her murderous cats are now lurking inside the box at N. 52nd and W. Vine, waiting to pounce on a curious, bypassing pedestrian.  Neighbors, be forewarned!

Friday, July 27, 2012

American Pentathlon

With the London Olympics underway, the time's arrived to send our sportsmen and sportswomen into pitched battle and bring the hardware back to the good ol' U.S. of A.  Now that Baseball and Softball have been swift-kicked out of the Olympics, the better to avoid all that spittin' and cussin', that's at least thirty well-trained athletes, plus a couple of designated hitters, who won't get to hang a shiny, gold object on the moosehead over their fireplace.  As Americans, you and me and Ethel, we desperately need a new sport to dominate so we can once again feel good about our drive-through cheese fries.

We at My Two Innings have considered various possibilities for a new Olympic competition at a recent offsite retreat.  We have brainstormed, conceptualized, and imagineered.  We have used Kaizen techniques and Powerpoint slides.  And flipcharts.  Don't ever forget the flipcharts.  We have come up with ideas and suggestions and thought about them for about eight minutes, tops.  We have tested the final recommendation with our focus group, and she agrees with us.

The new Olympic sport: American Pentathlon.  Five days, five events:
  • Day 1: Punt.
  • Day 2: Pass.
  • Day 3: Kick.
  • Day 4: Home Run Derby.
  • Day 5: NASCAR.
Brilliant, right?

I hear what you're saying: the stodgy, old-guard Europeans may balk at this innovation.  But never forget, my friends, we have the U.S. Dollar, God, and Liberty on our side.  And the Penske racing team.

I think you'll agree, it's imperative that we get American Pentathlon approved by the IOC as an Olympic sport in time for the 2020 Summer Games.  A strong proposal and a few key bribes should do it.  We can vote in one of their favorite sports at the same time: Rescuing Greece.

It's the least we can do in the Olympic Spirit.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Clearer Vision

As a public service, My Two Innings today announces a revolutionary, five-step process for glasses-wearers to increase vision, reduce headaches and eyestrain, and improve personal disposition -- all in less than one minute, all without a prescription.

No, this is not a LASIK testimonial. Rather, after 45 years as a card-carrying, prescription-packing myopic, I've finally figured out how to clean my glasses. Really, really clean them. Listen, children, to my story.

Bane is not a Batman villain but the irritation that arises when one attempts to focus on the world through greasy, gritty, grubby, sweaty spectacles. Summertime is the worst.

Especially for those who look at computer screens for a living, the quest for a truly reliable cleaning method is endless. I've constantly yearned to restore my glasses to their original refractive clarity. I've dreamed of viewing the world through pristine, crystalline lenses, the way they come from the optician shop with the Magic Cloth.

I've tried the Magic Cloth. The Magic Cloth is pretty good. My way is better.

It's a five-step process. Skip any one step, and you condemn yourself to a lifetime of a heartache far worse than psoriasis. I might be exaggerating, but only a little. I might be a little OCD about this. Whatever.

1. The Application

Grasping your specs by the frame lightly, from the top and bottom edges, spritz your favorite glasses-cleaning solvent on each side of each lens. Windex, Glass Plus, or that clear stuff that the receptionist with the bad haircut sells you when you go in to get your new glasses prescription will all work well. You don't have to spray on a living room-window dose until it's dripping; a light mist that covers the lenses evenly is what you're after.

2. The Wipe

After waiting a few seconds, use your clean-ish thumb and forefinger to rub each lens lightly, smearing the solvent around the front and back of each lens with a light pinching motion.

3. The Rinse

Rinse the solvent off all lens surfaces at a convenient, nearby sink under a stream of regular tapwater from the faucet.

4. The Re-application

Here's the kicker: respray your lenses, front and back. Granted, it seems wasteful to use two doses of solvent per cleaning, but if you follow this procedure exactly, I promise you'll make it back in career earnings and reduced aggravation. Besides, wash-rinse-repeat is as American as Uncle Fester.

5. The Cloth

It can be the Magic Cloth. It can be a clean handkerchief. It can be a tissue from the box. It can be the back of a clean t-shirt from the pile of laundry that you brought up from the basement and dumped in your office because your Beloved Spousal Unit has already gone to bed. The beauty of the five-step process is that it doesn't much matter what cloth you use to perform the Final Lens Rubdown [note to self: new band name?], so long as it's not slathered with motor oil or sunscreen.

That's it. That's all there is to it. You're no longer looking at the world through factory windows. You've got your vision back. You can see!

Go forth and enjoy your new life. You can thank me later.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mystery at Mortlake Mansion

Having become inexplicably hooked on simple "hidden object" computer games recently, I played "Mystery at Mortlake Mansion" by Stella Games this weekend as a free download via  Doing it this way entails frequent interruptions in gameplay for 30-second commercials from ad service MetaCafe.  That's not a criticism of this specific title; just a factor to be aware of when you play a "free" downloadable game from Pogo.

The visual art concept and renderings of "Mortlake Mansion" are terrific, especially the wide-shot scenes of the various rooms in the mansion house (each one duplicated in a darkly magical "shadow world").  This is the strongest feature of the game.  The music lends to the cartoonishly gothic atmosphere without becoming overly intrusive or repetitive.  The puzzles are entertaining and at the right level of difficulty.  Several are more challenging than they appear at first glance, and the degree of difficulty increases slightly as you proceed through the game.

I appreciated the map function which indicates in which rooms you have active puzzles waiting for you to solve or objects to retrieve that are necessary to complete the required actions in other rooms.  The flow of gameplay is well thought out.

The occasional speaking parts (protagonist; raven; spirits) did not live up to the rest of the game, and I found myself impatiently waiting while bits of dialogue loaded and finished.  I would sometimes read ahead and click out of them.

I experienced just one technical glitch: the large game cursor was sometimes accompanied by a smaller, regular-sized cursor on the screen.  The large cursor controlled the action; the small one was an annoying distraction.

In summary, the visual art, music, storyline, and puzzles in this Poe-like production are best in class.  I merely came to wish the raven would speak nevermore.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Zack Attack

In a mid-season game yesterday against the lowly Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers' ace starter Zack Greinke was ejected after four pitches in the first inning.  He spiked the baseball into the infield dirt after a close play at first base.  First-base umpire Sam Holbrook, apparently utilizing eyes in the back of his head like the lava lizards of the Galapagos Islands, found in his infinite wisdom and frocked authority that the stoic, silent Greinke, who had said a grand total of no angry words after the play, not to the umpire nor to anyone else on the field, nor faced nor confronted the ump, nor argued the call with vehemence, nor with an air of sophisticated insouciance, nor gestured at the ump, who wouldn't have seen him do so anyway, nor so much as glanced sideways with a stony, hollow eyeball at the man in blue, had nevertheless said one word too many.

Greinke's ejection -- "unprecedented," according to Brewers' television announcer Bill Schroeder, inasmuch as the non-celebratory touchdown spike was spectacularly and notoriously unwitnessed by Holbrook, who nevertheless was evidently convinced it was the deed of a villainous scofflaw rather than the self-scolding of a Gold Glove-caliber pitcher angry at himself for being late to break to first base -- was followed closely by the pro forma ejection of the manager, Ron Roenicke; the Brewers proceeded to lose to the AAAstros, 6-3.

This being the Brewers' penultimate game before the All-Star break, and with Greinke connected to mid-season trade rumors, there's naturally more to the story.  Major League scouts from several teams interested in Greinke were reportedly in attendance, although they probably left to tour NASA's Johnson Space Center with their kids after Roenicke replaced Zack on the mound with 76-year-old Livan Hernandez (spoiler alert: not a prospect).  Unfortunately, the scouts still need receipts in order to write off the space junket, which means they can't return from a suborbital voyage to Houston without filling out their TSP reports, which in turn means they still need to see Zack pitch.  Instantly upon his departure, as he headed up the tunnel to play Three Card Wenceslas with Roenicke in the clubhouse for three hours, the hue and cry on Twitter and the game broadcast rose as one voice, voicing a potentially Nobel-winning concept: could Zack Greinke start for the Brewers in Sunday's first half-closing contest, his last opportunity before the All-Star break and conceivably his last as a Milwaukee Brewer, after throwing only four pitches on Saturday?

If the Brewers want to pitch Greinke today in order to compete and win, that's fine. If, however, the Brewers are considering risking Greinke's arm just to showcase him for the visiting scouts, that's risky and distorts the purpose of playing a Major League ballgame.  Woe to the organization if he gets injured after his every-five-day preparatory routine is thrown off.  Besides, Marco Estrada has been pitching quite well in his spot starts.

To me, the answer is simple: give Zack a cold drink and a lounge chair.  What more can the scouts possibly need to see that isn't already on game film?  He's a former Cy Young Award winner who would be the ace of most staffs and has had an excellent first half.  Either sign him to a new contract extension or start the bidding.

Then, when Estrada is ejected by Holbrook for glancing suggestively at second base, the Zack Attack will be tanned, rested, and ready.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Camelot, North Carolina

Re: Huler, Scott, "NC Considers Making Sea Level Rise Illegal," Scientific American Blogs, May 30, 2012, accessed May 30, 2012, 9:00 p.m. CDT (


                  (Lyrics by Allen Jay Lerner)

          It's true! It's true! The crown has made it clear.
          The climate must be perfect all the year.

          A law was made a distant moon ago here:
          July and August cannot be too hot.
          And there's a legal limit to the snow here
          In Camelot.
          The winter is forbidden till December
          And exits March the second on the dot.
          By order, summer lingers through September
          In Camelot.

          Camelot! Camelot!
          I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
          But in Camelot, Camelot
          That's how conditions are.
          The rain may never fall till after sundown.
          By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
          In short, there's simply not
          A more congenial spot
          For happily-ever-aftering than here
          In Camelot.

          Camelot! Camelot!
          I know it gives a person pause,
          But in Camelot, Camelot
          Those are the legal laws.
          The snow may never slush upon the hillside.
          By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.
          In short, there's simply not
          A more congenial spot
          For happily-ever-aftering than here
          In Camelot.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The 2012 Milwaukee Brewers: .404 (Not Found)

Did it have to happen so soon?

It's only Memorial Day, and already the defending National League Central Division Champion Milwaukee Brewers are being talked about as sellers at the trading deadline.  They've hobbled and wheezed their way to an unimpressive Memorial Day record of 19-28 (.404), nine games below .500 and eight games behind the division-leading [who knows; they're too many games below to see who's above].  Barring a hot streak in the first half of June -- which, frankly, would be amazing with the current roster full of injuries -- it's hard to see how this Crew can climb back into division contention.

Here's the 4-1-1 on the .404:

The Brewers' training room and associated rehab facilities have been jammed full in 2012.  The infield has been decimated; Mat Gamel (1b) and Alex Gonzalez (ss) are out for the season.  Backups-promoted-to-starters Travis Ishikawa (1b) and Cesar Izturis (ss) are on the DL.  Aramis Ramirez (3b) has been held out for a few games after a HBP turned his elbow into a grapefruit.  With Prince Fielder gone to free agency and Rickie Weeks scuffling at the plate, a starting four of Cody Ransom (3b), Edwin Maysonet (ss), Brooks Conrad (2b), and Taylor Green (1b) could be coming soon to a ballpark near you.

Fifth starter Chris Narveson is gone for the year, and effective spot-starter/long-reliever Marco Estrada is on the DL.  The Brewers haven't been using reliever Kameron Loe in recent games due to elbow soreness.

The catching crew, a rare beacon of light in a dismal offense, just took a potential hit as back-up George Kottaras was pulled from yesterday's game after he tweaked a hamstring.  He's only back in today because All-Star candidate Jonathan Lucroy is sitting out today's game with a bruised hand.  The outfield by comparison has escaped relatively unscathed, with Carlos Gomez recently reactivated from the DL despite running at half his usual breakneck speed.  That's not insignificant, as speed is 80% of his game, offensively and defensively.  However, he's back, which is good.

It goes without saying that the Brewers, not to mention metro Milwaukee's 1,751,316 denizens (2010 U.S. Census), held their collective breath when franchise player Ryan Braun suffered achilles tendon pain.  It's not clear that he's back to 100%.

Add to this roll-call of injuries a spate of inconsistent starting pitching, awful situational hitting by all but Braun and Lucroy, and creative blunders on the bases and you have the story of the Brewers' early season.  Corey Hart hasn't yet seen a grounder to shortstop that would keep him from running into an unforced out at third.  Yesterday, batter Nyjer Morgan slowed down to watch the play at the plate en route to being thrown out at first in a 6-2-3 double-play.

What made the 2011 Brew Crew strong from the outset was a staff anchored by three starting aces, a back-to-back Braun-Fielder tandem in the 3-4 slots, solid hitting from Weeks and Hart, an unanticipated, high energy shot in the arm from Morgan and Gomez, and two front line closers in Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford -- plus a clubhouse chemistry that worked.  This year, Fielder's gone, and not just the heart of the order but much of the Brewers' heart with it.

It's come to this: there are, perhaps, two to four weeks to persuade 2013 free agents Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum on the one hand and Brewers' owner Mark Attanasio and GM Doug Melvin on the other that the 2013 Brewers will be different and are worth a contract commitment.  Dollars will talk, but the prospect of a winning performance has to match the promise.  Otherwise, the Brew Crew will be truly blue, unanticipated sellers at the trading deadline.

In short, if the Brewers cannot improve from .404 to .504 by 7/4, the 4-1-1 in the 414 will become a full-fledged 9-1-1.

* * *

UPDATE: After a narrow win on Memorial Day against the Dodgers, the Brewers broke glass and pulled the alarm, placing Jonathan Lucroy (c) on the 15-day DL.  The story of his injury is too outrageous not to be true: his wife shifted a suitcase on their hotel bed; it fell on his right hand, fracturing it, while he was reaching under the bed for a sock.  (You mean to say that hasn't ever happened to you?)  Nashville Sounds catcher Martin Maldonado, batting .198 for the season in AAA, will join the Brew Crew to serve as understudy to the hobbled George Kottaras.

The good news is that Miller Park has a roof so they always play the game.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Uncle Rickie

The conundrum that is the Milwaukee Brewers' starting second baseman Rickie Weeks continues. Weeks, a National League All-Star in 2011 after a red-hot start at the plate, is ice cold in 2012. Through May 17th, Weeks has a .156 batting average, 7 RBI's (4 of which are accounted for by his 4 home runs), and a league-leading 49 strikeouts. Watching him struggle at the plate is as painful as watching Casey McGehee face his season-long slump last year.

By all accounts, Weeks is tough as nails. His work ethic, his recovery from numerous injuries, including a severe ankle sprain after last year's All-Star break, and his ability to shake off a nasty hit-by-pitch are all legendary. He seems to have a league-leading pain threshhold. It's possible that his body is finally breaking down after all that abuse, though he's still capable of hitting a tape measure home run. That's the first, most obvious explanation for his troubles.

Baseball's relentless grind is a second possible theory. Minor league call-ups notwithstanding, there's rarely a better alternative for Brewers' Manager Ron Roenicke than to keep Rickie in the line-up daily and hope he works it out. For some players -- Roenicke cites himself during his playing days -- a day on the bench is a chance to refresh, regroup, observe. He says Weeks is different, which seems entirely plausible; keep him out, and you might miss the spark of a three-hit game that would break the slump. Through his dedicated effort, Rickie's also earned the chance to keep playing and find his swing again, but one wonders how much more patience his manager will have.

Roenicke has suggested, directly and indirectly, that some of Weeks' struggles by now might be partly mental as well as physical, a not uncommon observation about slumping players. That's a good third explanation, as far as it goes, but it's insufficiently precise. Here I think we have the key, and it might be more involved than a simple performance issue.

Consider last year's Milwaukee Brewers, a division championship team that bowled over all comers until the St. Louis Cardinals asserted themselves in September and October. Last year represented a confluence of good fortune for the Brew Crew. Ryan Braun, bolstered by Prince Fielder's booming clean-up presence in the batting order, compiled an MVP season. Nyjer Morgan came on board and took Milwaukee by storm, his Tony Plush act winning over the crowd and his hustling play eventually winning over Roenicke and most if not all of his teammates. Following Zack Greinke's return from a basketball injury incurred during spring training, the five-man starting rotation stayed effective, at least until Sean Marcum's arm ran out of gas, and away from the DL for the season. Both in 2008 and 2011, GM Doug Melvin pulled off amazing mid-season trades for star pitchers, C.C. Sabathia and Francisco Rodriguez respectively.

The clubhouse chemistry also seemed tight last year -- in the good sense of the word. Upbeat energy-guys Morgan and Carlos Gomez and pranksters like Marcum and McGehee -- who once did a hilarious, bogus translation job of Spanish-speaking teammate Yuni Betancourt's interview comments for the camera -- kept the team loose. Odd ducks like Morgan and Greinke and struggling players like McGehee were actively supported by their manager and teammates. Most pertinently, family man Prince Fielder and his best buddy Rickie Weeks anchored the locker room, with Prince's kids a constant, welcome presence. When Weeks incurred his injury and was sitting in the trainer's room, discouraged, Prince told his kids to "go see Uncle Rickie." They goofed with him, laughed with him, and cheered him up, as only kids can do.

Prince isn't here this year. His kids aren't here. Nyjer is having his own offensive struggles. Ace starter Yovani Gallardo can't seem to perform well against the archrival Cardinals. Yuni B.'s successor Alex Gonzales and Prince's successor Mat Gamel have gone down with season-ending injuries, as has starting pitcher Chris Narveson. Greinke and Marcum are in the last years of their contracts. Corey Hart seems lost defensively as the Brewers try to decide his best position on the field. Ryan Braun, while hitting his way out of an early slump, still faces travails in the aftermath of his tumultuous off-season. Former coach Dale Sveum is now picking apart the Brewers' swings as the Cubs' manager instead of bolstering their approaches in the batting cage. At least in comparison to last year, this team seems to be a collection of individuals dealing with their individual woes. There's no one around to cheer up Uncle Rickie.

The Brewers desperately need Weeks to step up as both an offensive threat and a leader in order to salvage the 2012 season. Whether he can do that is an open question. What this season has proven, though, is that ballplayers are human, as susceptible to pain, doubts, and the insecurities that come from organizational change as anyone else. They expose their struggles very publicly before fickle, impatient crowds; their every move is observed, catalogued, and amplified.

The cause of Rickie Weeks' batting slump may be physical or it may be mental, but it's surely also an accumulation of these surrounding factors. Call it the Gestalt Theory of Baseball. Last year's Brewers were a unique bunch; this year, they've become unique individuals. If I were Ron Roenicke, I'd do everything in my power to chop off their individual heads and restore the unruly classroom of 2011.

I'd start by giving Uncle Rickie a new phone -- one with Prince Fielder's kids on speed-dial.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Probably Worth Only a Tweet, Part II

If a motion picture is called a "movie", shouldn't a photograph be called a "stillie"?

Friday, April 6, 2012

I See What He Did There

I'm through page 73 of For the Win, Cory Doctorow's 21st Century novel of multi-player virtual reality games and their intersection with bands of far-flung, carbon-based humans facing real, increasingly precarious predicaments.

Already, in fewer than 15% of the novel's rapidly readable pages, FTW has called to mind George Orwell's 1984, Norman Jewison's pithy short story, "Rollerball Murder" (later made into the violent future-sports movie, "Rollerball"), and Thomas Friedman's breathless economic globalism treatise, The World is Flat.

Then, without warning, Doctorow executes a perfect educational ambush and explains how financial arbitrage led to the mortgage and banking crisis of 2008, without ever using the words mortgage, banking, or collateralized debt obligations -- without even mentioning the historical events of 2008, in fact. He accomplishes this in only four pages, written at an eighth grade level, using vorpal blades, gaming gold, and other virtual treasure as currency to illustrate.

I'm now fully convinced of the author's powers. I'm hopeful that if I keep reading, I'll learn how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without using the word Jerusalem. I'm pretty sure a vorpal blade will be involved.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Late Night Theme

When NBC started airing Late Night with David Letterman, I didn't get it. I thought the whole production, from intro theme to monologue to B-list guests to closing credits was a parody of a late night show rather than an actual show itself. I thought that Musical Director Paul Shaffer was this weird, little person whose weird, little jam music used chord progressions I couldn't understand and an alphabet I couldn't pronounce. The Johnny, Ed, and Doc format had needed an update, a fresh successor, but whatever this show was, it wasn't it.

Man, was I wrong -- especially about the music. What changed my mind? Familiarity over time, for one thing. Youthful sounds of new bands often seem like simplistic, trashy noise in the moment of their creation but later stand as era-specific anthems.

Take Paul Shaffer's composition, "Late Night Theme", which opened every Letterman show in the show's NBC era. Nominated for a Grammy Award, this lead-in fanfare initially struck me as overwrought bombast, a carnival barker's catcall that oversold the host's deadpan visage, comedic gestures, and camera mugging. That was the joke. Everything was amplified as a promise of extraordinary wonderfulness; everything thereafter was a letdown from the promise, and that letdown was played to humorous effect.

So much for pathos; but then...

I attended a Milwaukee Bucks NBA game sometime in the late 1990s. The house band entertaining the crowd during the pregame warm-ups was local jazz saxaphonist Warren Wiegratz and Streetlife, his feel-good party band. What did I hear cranking up slowly but the intro strains of "Late Night Theme". Its funky, slouching, cakewalk rhythms slowly took hold of the arena, and me with it. With its street-shuffling beat and ample set-up for instrumental solos, I heard the music on its own terms for the first time -- and this was the full 4-minute version, not the 90-second, TV-length intro. It astonished me how elated I felt; rarely do I grin when listening to what I previously would have called filler music, but Wiegratz and company absolutely nailed it.

I learned later that Paul Shaffer also served as Musical Director for The Blues Brothers movie, which between comedic passages presented an ecstatically devoted tribute to rhythm and blues music as a uniquely American art form. High-profile, brilliant musicians, from James Brown to Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles to John Lee Hooker, and many more, carried the movie alongside Belushi's and Ackroyd's stylized low-lifes on their "mission from God." The real mission was that they'd brought this wealth of All-Star talent together to play a Hall of Fame performance for a new audience -- and as Musical Director, Shaffer had everything to do with that, from recruitment to song selection to arrangements to control of diva eruptions. He's not just a weird little man, it seems; he only plays one on TV.

Three decades or so later, I look back with admiration on the musical guests Letterman and Shaffer have brought onstage to jam with the stage band, both at NBC and CBS. Some nights they strike out, but other times they have iconic players and acts -- the late Warren Zevon, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, and David Sanborn are three that come to mind immediately.

I've learned not to judge the musical gifts that are placed before me on the screen; if Letterman, or Conan, or Austin City Limits puts on a strange new performer or band of indeterminate genre, I might well turn it down -- or I might also listen a bit more closely. What sounds like noise today could keep me bopping down the street, at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, or in the doctor's waiting room, in a very few years. Bring it on!

*  *  *
CORRECTION (May 20, 2015): This blog's fact-checker (me) failed to depict Paul Shaffer's short tenure as Musical Director for The Blues Brothers movie accurately. Shaffer was let go from the film early on due to scheduling conflicts during production, reportedly at the behest of comedic star John Belushi. I've let this essay stand as originally written, but note the factual error for the benefit of this blog's several readers.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Win for the Buccos, At Last

I have often, repeatedly, and ruefully lamented the lowly exploits of the Pittsburgh Pirates, The Team That Would Be My Other Team, in this space.

Yesterday, March 4, 2012, Pittsburgh's days as a perennially cellar-dwelling National League franchise unworthy of the Steel City's 1970s moniker "City of Champions" finally came to an end. Yesterday, the Pirates agreed to a high-value, six-year contract extension, with a club option for a seventh year, with its franchise player, All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Yesterday, the Pirates set themselves up to achieve a winning record in 2012 and win the N.L. Central Division within four years.

You could say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

It's impossible to overstate the break with the past that the McCutchen long-term signing represents. Here's the past: starting with Barry Bonds, the post-Willie Stargell Pirates had lost to free agency, or traded for budgetary reasons prior to free agency, the Killer B's -- Bonds and Bonilla -- along with most other letters of the alphabet. Ex-Bucs stars squeezed out of Pittsburgh's plans for having the temerity to move up the MLB salary scale have included Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Freddie Sanchez, Aramis Ramirez, Adam LaRoche, Andy LaRoche, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm. Jose Bautista just smacked 54 and 43 home runs for the Blue Jays in consecutive seasons; how did your right fielder do?

Fast-forward to the present (Q: Do MP3 shuffles "fast-forward"? I need a new cliche!). The proof of concept, on the field and at the gate, was Pittsburgh's extraordinary first half of the 2011 season. Excitement was up, attendance was up, the buzz around baseball was up. Clint Hurdle's suddenly fearsome 25-some was, for once, the talk of the town in a city that also sports the Steelers and Penguins. The Bucs' epic second-half regression to the mean of their prior performance doesn't obscure the startling conclusion that if you win more, you attract more fans; if you attract more fans, you can sign more players and win more games -- sometimes, almost immediately.

Now, in preparation for the 2012 season, the Pirates are making their move. Atop the earlier Jose Tabata signing, the A. J. Burnett free agent acquisition, the return of veteran Nate McLouth, and the inexpensive trade for former 100 RBI man and comeback candidate Casey McGehee, the McCutchen deal sets in place a multiple-year core around which the Buccos' front office can attract talent and manager Hurdle can develop young players and win ballgames.

As with the Milwaukee Brewers during the past four years, when the youthful core of Fielder, Weeks, Hart, Braun and Gallardo remained intact, the Pirates can be seen as a choice destination for free agents and first-round picks for the first time in decades. Or at least an acceptable one. Upon his retirement, National Leaguer Jim Edmonds recommended Milwaukee as a free agent destination with a lot to offer veteran players; the Pirates have now put themselves in a comparable position to compete in the market for scarce talent, and maybe even avoid inclusion on some All-Stars' no-trade clauses.

Time will tell if Owner Bob Nutting, President Frank Coonelly, and General Manager Neal Huntington truly mean it; will they put forth a half line-up of stars with a limited supporting cast to try to overcome twenty years of losing, or will they now, finally, provide the resources to give the Steel City a full roster worthy of its long-ago winning history?

Of course, if the Pirates' notoriously stingy ownership reverts to its pattern of recent years, McCutchen might not play the full length of his contract in a black and gold uniform. He could be traded, as McLouth was at the peak of his value, to a savvy organization with deeper pockets. Perhaps Theo Epstein will covet an outfield asset for the Cubs, or the Steinbrenner family or the new Dodgers owners will make the Pirates an offer that they can't refuse -- which historically has been far less than what other teams couldn't refuse. Or, heaven forbid, McCutchen could be injured and follow another Pittsburgh sports legend, Sidney Crosby, onto the long-term disabled list.

But for now, the benefit of the doubt is in order. This shot in the arm for the Pirates is a shot across the bow of every team in the National League. The pregame pyrotechnics on the PNC Park scoreboard can finally be matched by its tally of Pirates' runs during the game. The polarity of free agent transactions can be reversed.

Once again, at long last, you can raise the Jolly Roger. It's shredded and tattered after years of neglect, but if you look closely, you can still see a hint of a wild skeleton grin. It's a Renaissance at Three Rivers, Yo Ho!

You in?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ryan Braun Story

The Ryan Braun story is a writers' workshop in disguise. Collectively, the media reports of the scandal read like an unfinished novel.

Ever since the confidentiality breach that spilled (leaked? sorry...) Braun's allegedly positive drug test into the public sphere and his appeal that stirred it into an full-blown controversy, sports fans have followed events of the case obsessively. Both prior to and following Braun's successful challenge of the result, we've continued to absorb, scrutinize, and dissect each new report with the fascinated attention usually reserved for NFL replays.

What has been a nightmare for both the player and Major League Baseball officials has become a wonderful exercise for budding writers. Here's your assignment: irrespective of your personal conclusions about Braun's veracity and the test's reliability, take the scenario in toto and create from it a cleverly crafted, multi-threaded work of popular fiction.

Do you choose a wry, comedic tone that divides the characters into good guys and bad guys, mocking the bad guys' motivations while still allowing them a certain integrity of purpose and conviction, à la Carl Hiassen's South Florida novels?

Do you fashion the story as a Stieg Larsson-meets-Patricia Cornwell medical suspense novel, choosing as your protagonist a smart, dragon-tattooed test lab assistant, alone in the world, who fends off dangerous challenges from powerful forces beyond her ken?

Are we witnessing a John le Carré entanglement of morally compromised operatives, their bosses' cynical public proclamations providing a nervous public with a reassuring cover story while concealing organizational machinations of dubious legality?

Is the Braun saga at its core an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, a workplace legal drama leading up to the conclusive scene in which the arbitrator rules for Braun, Tom Cruise receives a salute, and the fuming Marine colonel is taken away in handcuffs?

Is this a Shakespearean tragedy, a King Lear tale in which a powerful Commissioner, nearing the end of his reign, is undone in the end by a confluence of factors of his own devising?

Or is it a Dickensian redemption tale in which Ryan Braun is visited on the bases by three spirits -- the Ghosts of Princes Past, Rickies Present, and Aramises Future -- before being waved home by Ed Sedar?

Of course, you can always ditch the assignment, write a nine-minute beat poem, and major in Interdisciplinary Studies. The choice is yours!

One last tip to conclude our writer's workshop: as in reality, leaving certain details unsaid only heightens the suspense. In the wise words of Mark Harris' fictional pitching ace, Henry "Author" Wiggen, "Half the fight is knowing, and the other half is not telling."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gary Carter, Former Expo

[Originally posted June 2, 2011]

The sad news of Harmon Killebrew's passing and the happy posthumous celebration of his admirable life in and out of baseball is now followed by a discouraging report about Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter's medical prospects. This has not been a good season for legends.

Gary Carter, of course, led the famously rowdy 1986 New York Mets, World Series champions and touchstone heroes for a half-generation of Mets fans, from behind the plate. Not since the 1969 Miracle Mets had New York's second squad ridden in the ticker-tape parade; not since 1973 had they won a National League pennant. His larger-than-life, charismatic grin and in-charge demeanor served as tonic for a pitching staff as diverse as New York itself; four Mets starting pitchers received Cy Young Award votes in 1986. That Carter was also the best hitting catcher in baseball since Johnny Bench was more than a bonus; it was essential to the Mets' success. When Mets' closer Jesse Orosco struck out the last batter, photographers captured Carter's exuberance as he charged the mound and embraced the pitcher. They and the rest of the Mets became the toast of New York.

Following the 1986 championship, Carter was named Mets co-captain, along with Keith Hernandez. They were chosen ahead of New York icons Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and the youthful phenom, Dwight Gooden. The role suited Carter perfectly; the catcher is and has always been the de facto field captain in baseball, and Carter's baseball talents, leadership qualities, and charisma made him an exceptional choice. By 1986, Gary Carter had cemented his role as a Mets team leader and his status as a New York sports hero for the ages.

And yet...and yet. When I saw the online articles reporting Carter's terrible illness, I was taken aback at the prevalence of three words in their headlines: "Former Mets Catcher". It's true, but it's far from the whole story.

The year is 1969, or perhaps 1970. New baseball curtains are purchased for my bedroom, the same room in which a 2-D Bob Gibson pitched to a 2-D Harmon Killebrew in perpetuity. The colorful team logos of the expansion Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, and Seattle Pilots adorn the cotton-poly fabric along with those of the twenty legacy teams. Montreal, in particular, was special for several reasons: it was almost as close to the Capital District of Upstate New York as were New York City and Boston; it was the first Canadian team in Major League Baseball history; and it had just come off a World Exposition in 1967 that inspired the team's name and lent a cosmopolitan air to the franchise. The expansion drafts prior to the 1969 season were events of fascination for Little Leaguers and adult sports fans alike -- how could you cobble together a major league team out of cast-off players, unprotected from the draft by their respective franchises?

How indeed. Just as the expansion Mets had set a modern era record for futility in 1962, the expansion teams of 1969, playing in six-team divisions, finished 4th (Royals) and 6th (Expos, Padres, Pilots). Yet by the mid-1970's, the Expos had outgrown their l'enfant terrible phase, along with their expansion roster full of Coco Laboy's, and approached respectable .500 season records. A few team stars had emerged: Rusty Staub ("Le Grand Orange"), Bob Bailey, and Ron Fairly at the plate; Steve Renko, Bill Stoneman, and Mike Marshall on the mound.

Into this mix of rag-tag irregulars arrived Gary Carter as a rookie call-up, in 1974. From 1975 to 1984, Carter became a recognizable face of the Montreal Expos: a seven-time All-Star; second in the 1980 National League MVP balloting; the league's RBI champion in 1984. But Carter was far from the Expos' only star player in franchise history; Andre Dawson, Larry Walker, Dennis Martinez, and Randy Johnson all played large portions of their All-Star careers in tiny Jarry Park or the oversized Olympic Stadium. You may have heard of one or two of them. Montreal career lifer Steve Rogers won the NL ERA crown in 1982. Tim Raines led the National League in steals four times and led the league in batting in 1986. Vlad Guerrero is still driving bad pitches into the corners. Maury Wills, Tony Perez, Al Oliver, "Mudcat" Grant, "Spaceman" Bill Lee, "Oil Can" Boyd, and Jeff Reardon were all hailed by the Expos' French-Canadian P.A. announcer at one time or another. Even Pete Rose spent a season in his 40's hustling out singles at "The O". Reaching a bittersweet pinnacle for the franchise, outfielders Walker, Moises Alou, and Marquis Grissom led the Expos to a surprising first place in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

So, yes, Gary Carter is a "Former Mets Catcher", and that great part of his career and 1986 World Series ring are worthy of celebration. He also played briefly with the Dodgers and Giants in his later years. But when Carter returned to Montreal for a ceremonial end to his 19-season career in 1992 and entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 as a Montreal Expo, that, mesdames et messieurs, was as it should be. Like the storied Expos franchise itself, it's a part of baseball history that should never be forgotten.

* * *
Epilogue: Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher and World Champion Gary Edmund Carter of the Montreal Expos, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers died peaceably from cancer on February 16, 2012. Here's a link to an Expos-themed montage of photos and videos from Gary Carter's illustrious career and retirement ceremony, set to a hokey but fitting tribute song (tip of the script-M cap to Annakin Slayd). Here's looking at you, Kid!


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