Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hitting the sharp thing on the flat part

Matt Taibbi writes about politics for Rolling Stone (the converse of my dream job, writing about music for The Economist, but I digress). He gained fame (or infamy, depending on your ideological leanings) in 2004 for his harsh, but honest, depiction of life on the road with the bumbling John Kerry campaign.

But Taibbi is no fan of the neocons and their hellspawn, a point he illustrated brilliantly in a recent article, "Giuliani: Worse Than Bush." In the piece, he portrays the former mayor of New York City as a conniving opportunist who got rich off 9-11, hopped into bed with anybody willing to write a check, and is now planning a Swift-Boat-style attack on Hillary Clinton, hiding behind a PAC ominously named "Stop Her Now" and funded by the same shadowy forces who so successfully smeared Kerry's military record.

Aside from his conclusions, however, I particularly enjoyed his ability to turn a phrase and distill an otherwise complex point down to a level that could be understood by anybody with better than a 3rd-grade reading aptitude. For example, here's his analysis of the secret to Bush's two-term existence in the White House, and how Giuliani is the perfect candidate to tap into that success:

"Yes, Rudy is smarter than Bush. But his political strength -- and he knows it -- comes from America's unrelenting passion for never bothering to take that extra step to figure shit out. If you think you know it all already, Rudy agrees with you. And if anyone tries to tell you differently, they're probably traitors, and Rudy, well, he'll keep an eye on 'em for you. Just like Bush, Rudy appeals to the couch-bound bully in all of us, and part of the allure of his campaign is the promise to put the Pentagon and the power of the White House at that bully's disposal."

Obviously, we live in a very superficial world, where style trumps substance at every turn and elections are decided by positing which candidate would be a more affable drinking buddy. That's not to say there are no legitimate reasons for voting for a Republican -- but millions of people who lined up behind Bush did so against their own economic and even social self-interests (hello, Log Cabin dwellers!). To use Taibbi's words, if they'd taken that extra step to figure shit out, they might have decided faux swagger and flag-waving make for good soundbites and 30-second TV ads, but comprehensive health care and a tax policy that doesn't favor the richest 10 percent of the country would actually improve their lives.

Thomas Frank addressed the issue thoroughly in his book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" But that's the point. It took Frank an entire book to state his case. Taibbi summed it up in a paragraph. That's hitting the nail on the head.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My contribution to Timberwolves' history

All the KG talk has me recalling fondly my biggest contribution to Timberwolves history. It's really more of a KFAN history thing, since PA and Dubay play the clip constantly. When you hear Kevin Garnett say, "I'm not a stat guy. I'm a win ... I'm a win kinda guy," think of me and smile, because that was in response to one of my questions.

I was covering a game for the AP a couple of years back when KG had some kind of freakish statistical streak come to an end -- something like 34 straight games with a double-double and five assists or some quirky thing that the NBA tracks. After the game, the Big Ticket made the media wait while he took his customary 45-to-60 minutes to shower and dress and tether those softball-sized rocks to his earlobes.

Once the horde had asked their questions and moved on, it was down to me and a KFAN intern with a tape recorder. I asked Da Kid about the streak, if he was aware of it and if he was conscious of his numbers during the game (which, as I recall, was a comfortable Wolves victory, meaning he could have padded his stats if he wanted to). That's when he uttered his memorable quote, which Intern Guy captured for the annals of history.

So there you go. It's not quite as memorable as being the guy who stepped on Wally Szczerbiak's already-injured bare toes, but as locker-room stories go, it's all I've got. And whenever I hear that clip, it puts a little hop in my step.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Whither KG?

Once again, we've reached that magical moment in the NBA calendar when crazed wannabe personnel directors spend their waking hours positing trade possibilities and drooling over the idea of Star A playing with Star B on Team C. In other words, it's NBA Draft Week!

(BTW, baseball calls its offseason the Hot-Stove League, conjuring up images of the days when people huddled around pot-bellied boilers dreaming of baseball to stay warm in the winter. The NBA needs a similar name. How about "The AC League"? Sure, that would pretty much encompass all 12 months here in Satan's Tool Shed, but the rest of the country probably could relate.)

The local media out here, and the national talking heads on ESPN Radio, have filled the airwaves with KG trade talk in the past week. And the overwhelming sentiment I'm hearing is that the Wolves not only should trade KG to the Lakers, but they must make the trade, no matter what the Lakers are offering in return. I heard one loudmouth on ESPN Radio last night braying that the Timberwolves owe it to the NBA to ship Garnett to LA. He actually said they owe it to the league to make a deal, because the league was nice enough to grant them an expansion franchise in the first place.

Now, I realize talking heads are paid to be controversial, and I'm guessing this opinion was offered to stir up some chatter. But the Wolves would be foolish -- borderline criminal -- if they trade KG to the Lakers for the most recent reported offer: Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Kwame Brown, and the No. 19 pick in the first round of this year's draft.

Take a look at that package. Odom: has shown signs of being a serviceable second banana (coming to a team without a first banana, or even a first papaya), and he's one strike away from a one-year suspension for substance abuse. Bynum: completely unproven, quite possibly overrated. Brown: completely proven, in the sense that he's proven he is not an NBA player. No. 19 pick: does anybody have confidence that McHale would do any better with that pick than he's done in the past with the likes of Paul Grant, William Avery, or Ndudi Ebi?

Not to mention the fact that the Wolves wouldn't be unloading any of their rotten long-term contracts in the deal. I'd say this deal represents a far worse alternative to standing pat and losing KG as a free agent -- at least they're not taking on another team's problems.

I'd be fine with a deal that brings them a proven player (or at least a high-ceiling guy who's got a little experience under his belt), an expiring contract, and a top-10 pick -- something like Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff and the No. 5 pick in the reported Boston deal (which would have to include another team because KG doesn't like chow-dah). But anything less -- and I mean anything less -- would be an insult to the few fans remaining at Target Center.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Twins' next great slugger

He hit his first career double on Tuesday. He hit his first career triple on Sunday. His OPS (the trendy new stat, which measures on-base plus slugging percentage) is a hefty 1.089, easily the best on the team. And he's driving in a run every seven at-bats this year.

Is it time for the Twins to start using Johan Santana as their new designated hitter? Granted, we're looking at a pretty small sample size (seven at-bats) this year, but he's shown enough confidence and bat control to at least merit consideration as a pinch hitter in certain situations.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Searching for John Doe

"A Year in the Wilderness" is probably an apt title for a CD by a guy named John Doe, but if you're wandering through your local music store and you stumble across a copy of it, I heartily encourage you to give it a listen.

There's some good Replacements-era barroom rock, some dusty, soul-searching, Springsteenish acoustic grit, and a few other tasty licks, including "Darling Underdog," which features a quirky organ interlude that, coupled with Doe's rich baritone, echoes the Doors.

Which sort of makes sense, given the shared LA roots of the Doors and Doe's seminal punk quartet, X. In fact, X covered the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" and "The Crystal Ship," and Manzarek produced their first album, "Los Angeles." So maybe I'm not imagining things.

Anyway, here's my official review, so check it out.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ball Four: still relevant

I recently picked up a copy of "Ball Four" to fill out my baseball library. I hadn't read it since high school, and I remembered enjoying it immensely then, so I figured I'd see how well it's aged.

The verdict? It's aged as well as Sophia Loren. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it the second time around. It's got to be the best writing ever done by a professional athlete. Jim Bouton is gut-wrenchingly honest, not only about the inner workings of a baseball club (which was terribly controversial at the time), but about his own shortcomings as well. I'm guessing that at this stage of my life, I'm better equipped to relate to his lamentations about the loss of his fastball and the throb in his shoulder than I was at 16. I found it touching, even painful at times, but always brutally honest.

I also can't believe how much of a controversy the book stirred up when it was published in 1970. I realize that before "Ball Four" hit the streets, the typical sports book was little more than a sugar-coated fable about a ballplayer performing heroic deeds, then telling kids to drink their milk and study hard in school.

But Bouton's revelations about what went on behind closed doors during his time with the Yankees, Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros are incredibly tame compared to today's standards. (Well, with the possible exception of the anecdote about Joe Pepitone and the piece of popcorn. I don't think that's ever going to be topped.) We learned that ballplayers could be crude, egotistical, selfish, funny, and -- gasp! -- human. We learned that they're not much different from the rest of us (even their salaries weren't so out of whack back then).

Perhaps that's what upset baseball insiders so much. Perhaps most of them loved being mythological figures, gazing down with disdain from their pedestals as we peons worshiped their heroism and bravery. When Bouton pulled back the curtain and revealed the honest truth about pro athletes -- that deep down, they're human beings like the rest of us -- that myth came crashing down. And the ballplayers and mythmakers (i.e. old-time sportswriters) didn't like it one bit.

So, to anybody looking for a good summer read, I say give "Ball Four" a shot. It's funny, it's human, and it's a great snapshot of many social and political aspects of our country in 1969. Plus, it's got the best closing line in a book that I've ever read:

"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time. -- Jim Bouton"

Thursday, June 7, 2007

More than just sunflower seeds and porn

This is pretty cool. The Twins' wives are sponsoring a charity auction on baskets of goodies put together by the team's players and coaches -- their favorite things, so to speak. Scroll through the contents of the various baskets to learn what the players are into.

Some of the finds aren't that surprising -- I say "Lord of the Rings DVDs" and you say "Lew Ford" -- but it was nice to see that Justin Morneau is a fan of The Tragically Hip, and Matt Guerrier is a fellow crossword fan.

Biggest surprise, however? Had to be Johan Santana including a DVD of "A Night at the Roxbury."

Ummmmm ... okaaaaay ...

Ocean of fun

Last night, Kris and I got to enjoy one of the perks of her job that is uniquely Vegas -- we attended the premiere of "Ocean's Thirteen." Sure, the "real" premiere was in L.A. on Sunday night, but this was still the Vegas premiere on the opening night of the Cinevegas film festival, and the rest of you schlubs still can't see the movie until Friday. So there.

All the big names were there, too. We skipped the red carpet because that sort of thing is just creepy to observe in person (we observed the giddiness surrounding the premiere of "Strangers With Candy," of all movies, at last year's Cinevegas, so picturing that hysteria times about a billion, we opted to pass). But once in our seats (it was showing on two screens at the Brenden Theaters at The Palms), we were treated to a 30-second appearance by Pitt, Clooney, Damon, Cheadle, Barkin and producer Jerry Weintraub, who thanked the Cinevegas sponsors (which include the company my wife works for, which is why we were there) for the $1 million raised for Not On Our Watch, a humanitarian group currently working to end the genocide in Darfur.

I guess it was sort of cool to be breathing the same air as those celebs, but it's just not a life-changing event for me. I'll never understand why people lined up outside The Palms four hours early to catch a glimpse of the limos shuttling these stars to the premiere. But whatever floats your boat ...

As for the movie, I liked it. Damon and Carl Reiner stole the show, in my mind, as well as the scenes with Casey Affleck in Mexico (you'll understand if/when you see it). Great cast, good script, well executed. I'd give it four stars out of five.

We also had passes to an "exclusive" party at one of the clubs high atop The Palms after the movie. I say "exclusive" because the cast was rumored to be headed there, but of course we didn't see any of them. We did have a drink out on the balcony and enjoy a very cool view of Vegas from 53 stories up, however.

The only downer of the night? Well, it was a little embarrassing with all those women coming up to me saying, "Mr. Clooney, we just loved your movie!" Heh.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Steady as she goes

It's been a little while since I've posted. Lotta work going on right now. If ever I worried that I wouldn't have anything to do out here, I can put those fears to rest. Once this crush ends, I'll have written in the span of about five weeks:
  • three articles for Viking Update
  • three CD reviews for the Las Vegas Weekly
  • four team previews (at about 5,000 words apiece) for the Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook
  • four articles for Las Vegas Life
  • three articles for Las Vegas Magazine
  • four articles for the Minnesota Vikings yearbook
AND ... I launched this blog in that period as well. Whew! No wonder I'm so stressed out lately.

However, I have had a little time to have fun, and I finally got to see one of my favorite bands live and in person. The Hold Steady made its Las Vegas debut on Sunday night, playing a free show to celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the opening of the Beauty Bar in the fabulous downtown region of Las Vegas.

For the uninitiated, the Hold Steady is a band from Brooklyn with serious Minnesota ties -- at least two of the members hail from the Twin Cities, and the lyrics of singer/songwriter Craig Finn namecheck Mary Tyler Moore, the Golden Gophers, the Northtown Mall, Lake and Chicago, the Thunderbird, Osseo, Stillwater, former Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Berryman (who taught at the U and committed suicide by leaping from the Washington Ave. bridge), and Rainbow Foods. And they're big Twins fans, as you could probably guess by the t-shirts on sale at the show (left).

Musically, they're a fun mix of the very best of highbrow and lowbrow rock. To wit: hyper-literate lyrics that reference Jack Kerouac (his buddy, Sal Paradise, actually) and Beverly Sills and William Butler Yeats and the Bible tell stories of inked-up characters who partake in every drug known to man, use Pringles cans for pipes, and hook up in the "chillout tent," where wasted concertgoers are taken to sober up with "oranges and cigarettes." All set against a wall of guitars that wail through muscular solos over a throbbing rhythm section.

(Check out some of their mp3s here.)

I enjoyed the show on Sunday -- one of the very few that I've seen in my almost two years here in Vegas, because bands I like don't usually play here. It was pretty much what I expected, based on what I've read. The band was tight, and Finn is a showman -- a twitchy, manic, frantic showman. But his phrasing was all off -- he'd cling to some lyrics like a drunk to a lightpost, then rush through others in order to keep up with the beat.

All in all, it was fun and I'd go see them again in a heartbeat, but their CDs will hold steady in my heart long after memories of this show have faded.