Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Depends on the definition

Republicans and their media backers love to bring up former President Bill Clinton's "depends on what the definition of 'is' is" prevarication from his civil suit testimony, which led of course to his impeachment. Now one of their favorite sons might be playing the same game.

Of course, you remember Roger Clemens' testimony on Capitol Hill regarding his HGH/steroid use, and how the Republican lawmakers fawned over the multiple-time Cy Young winner, while Democrats seemed to back skeevy trainer Brian McNamee. Now, it's come to light that Clemens apparently has been diddling the fiddle of country singer Mindy McCready, and the relationship may or may not have started when she was a lass of 15.

Clemens, through his well-compensated mouthpiece Rusty Hardin, has categorically denied all charges ... or has he? Here's the salient sentence in the statement Hardin released in support of his client: "At no time did Roger engage in any kind of inappropriate or improper relationship with her."

Of course, that depends on what your definition of "inappropriate" is. Clemens left himself some wiggle room here (much more than he's left in his 42-waist trousers these days). One could argue that if Clemens and his wife Debbie have an "open" relationship, then having sex with McCready wasn't inappropriate in that sense. And given Clemens' demonstrated gift of self-delusion, it's not a big leap to suggest that he's convinced himself that he thought McCready was 18 when they met (she was singing karaoke in a bar, after all), thus she was the one who engaged in an inappropriate relationship and he did nothing wrong.

It's the same kind of logic he's used to avoid taking responsibility for his gargantuan head and roid-rage outbursts that have marked his last 10 years or so -- i.e., I thought McNamee was putting B-12 in my butt, so if he put steroids in those needles, it's not my responsibility.

Thus continues the sad, comical, and all-too-predictable fall from grace of one of the game's best pitchers. Give Barry Bonds some credit here -- at least he knew when to shut up.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Book review: The Devil in the White City

Just wrapped up Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City," a look back at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the heinous crimes of America's first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes.

My wife read it first and highly recommended it, so that might have established unrealistic expectations, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the pace of the book. First of all, it's hard to categorize it, because it's neither fish nor fowl. It's a novelization of the actual events surrounding the World's Fair, including tremendous detail (even excruciating detail) on the process the fatcats of Chicago went through to gain the rights to host the fair and the construction of the buildings and preparation of the grounds.

I say excruciating, because unless you're an architecture wonk, the first 200 or so pages are going to be a bit of a bore. I love history and true crime stories, so I thought this would be a great fit for me, but instead much of it read like the minutes from a series of committee meetings. Larson tried like hell to get me interested in the lives of the various architects and barons of the Chicago business community at the turn of the century, especially Daniel Burnham, the man he describes as most responsible for the fair's success.

But the problem is, this was really two books. The story of the fair takes up about 75% of the text, while the rest centers on the fascinatingly creepy Dr. Holmes. Larson generally alternates chapters, with one focusing on Burnham and the fair and the next on Holmes, with the pacing of the story leading me to expect some kind of great intersection of the two plots.

Alas, there's precious little payoff there. I was hoping there would be a big chase scene through the fair, or an American version of Sherlock Holmes tracking the devious killer through the "White City," but it just didn't happen that way. The murders took place at the same time as the fair, and many of the victims were lured to Chicago by the fair, but they really didn't have anything to do with the fair.

In the end, I realized that I learned a lot about what made the 1893 Chicago World's Fair such a historically significant event, but I wanted to know even more about the killer and his evil deeds. I guess I'll have to wait for the movie, which is supposed to be coming out next year. If it focuses as much on the architects as Larson did, it will make "Ishtar" look like "The Matrix."

MMM: Shout-out to my frozen homies

This week's Meltdown is a call for an actual meltdown of a sort -- consider it a plea to the weather gods for some relief in the Upper Midwest. They've been having a "spring" like none I can ever remember. The StarTribune of Minneapolis reports today that if the flurries that are forecast for today actually arrive, it will be the first time in almost 100 years that the Land O' Lakes has seen four straight days of snow this late in the season.

My in-laws live in the beautiful lakes region in the north-central part of the state, and they've thrilled the Little Gophers with e-mailed photos of fresh snow drifts piled up on their property throughout April. The images thrilled me too, in the sense that I'm not there having to deal with that snow.

Minnesotans are a hardy sort, of course, and most of this snow will melt quickly -- the forecast calls for sunny and 63 by Wednesday in Minneapolis -- so I'm not worried that suicide hotline calls will spike in the Twin Cities the way they did, say, in Green Bay when Breffarve sort-of retired last month.

But this kind of late snow can have a debilitating short-term affect on the psyche of the citizens. I only recall one brutal April snowstorm -- 1982, the year the Metrodome opened, and the Twins were patting themselves on the back for their good fortune as the Teflon bubble protected them from a nasty squall about 10 days into the season. But by the time that March rolls around, every Minnesotan worth his or her road salt is sick to death of the white stuff and is ready to get outside and play baseball, hit the links, or just dig around in the garden and get some dirt under his or her nails.

So to be faced with this kind of extended brutality in the last week of April is nothing short of cruel. I mean, a number of high schools from northern Minnesota have yet to play their first baseball game, outdoors at least. St. Cloud State had to cancel its spring football game because of the latest snowstorm. Schools are still closing early or starting late due to inclement weather. Bring on spring, once and for all, in the Upper Midwest!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why televised debates suck

Bashing Political Punditry Week continues with this astounding op-ed piece by the New York Times' Frank Rich, decrying the performance of ABC debate moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos in the latest Clinton-Obama jawfest last week in Philadelphia.

By all accounts, the questions asked by ABC's tag-team tandem fell woefully shy of probing the issues that actually matter to most Americans. Or should matter to most Americans. Instead of addressing bottom-line issues like the economy, the war in Iraq, or health care, we got more of the usual schtick, with breathless questions about "Bittergate," Serbian snipers and tenuous connections to long-forgotten controversial figures.

Here's the money shot:

"In this one-size-fits-all analysis, Mr. Obama must be the new Dukakis, sure to be rejected by white guys easily manipulated by Lee Atwater-style campaigns exploiting race and class. But some voters who lived through 1988 have changed, and quite a few others are dead. In 2008, they are supplanted in part by an energized African-American electorate and the young voters of all economic strata who fueled the Obama movement that many pundits didn’t take seriously before Iowa. And that some still don’t. Cokie Roberts of ABC predicted in February that young voters probably won’t show up in November because 'they never have before' and 'they’ll be tired.'"

Read on ...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Why political coverage sucks

From Glen Greenwald of Salon.com:

"Our elections are dominated by the same tired personality script, trotted out over and over and over. Democrats and liberals -- no matter how poor their upbringing, no matter how self-made they are, no matter how egalitarian their policies -- are the freakish, out-of-touch elitists who despise the values of the Regular Americans. Right-wing leaders -- no matter how extravagantly rich they are by virtue of other people's money, no matter how insulated their lives are, no matter how indifferent their policies are to the vast rich/poor gap -- are the normal, salt-of-the-earth Regular Folk. These petty, cliched storylines drown out every meaningful consideration and dictate our election outcomes, and they are deployed automatically.

"It doesn't matter what the candidates actually say or do. The establishment press just waits for the right episode and then reflexively and eagerly fills in the gaps in the shallow script -- the script with which they are intimately familiar and which serves as their only framework for talking about and understanding political disputes."

Read on ...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Twins breakdown: Go-Go Gomez

My first post of the year dedicated solely to the Twins will focus on their new center fielder, Carlos "Go-Go" Gomez. I think he has the potential to be the most exciting player on the team since the young Cristian Guzman, or the most infuriating player on the team since Pat Mears. Or both, probably.

The good: I love the way the kid handles himself on the field. He just looks comfortable -- even a little cocky, but isn't it about time the Twins had a player who held his head up high and didn't play the whole "I'm just happy to be here" game with his body language? He's got amazing speed, and despite his role as their leadoff hitter, I kinda like the fact that he'll swing from his heels from time to time (OK, always). He's got power potential, so all of the idiots who think he should be chopping at the ball like Guzman always did need to grab a clue. He's got 20-HR potential, and lots of power to the gaps.

The bad: He seems to be operating under the mistaken impression that Twins center fielders are contractually obligated to swing at every slider in the dirt over the outside corner, or even in the left-handed batters box. Torii Hunter eventually figured out how to lay off those -- perhaps Gomez will catch on more quickly. Somebody needs to get through to him that when you're asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt, you lay down a sacrifice bunt -- you don't try to drag bunt three times in a row. And he needs to be a bit less carefree with his drag bunts. Bunt at strikes, and find a baseline -- with his wheels, the only way he'll fail is if he bunts it right back at the pitcher or pops it up, both of which have been happening far too frequently for my taste. Take the extra half-second to get down a good bunt, Go-Go, because you've got the speed to beat out any throw from a third baseman or pitcher covering the line.

The ugly: We heard all through spring training that he's got an amazing arm, and I agree, there's some power behind his throws, but I can't remember a Twins outfielder with a less accurate arm than Gomez. Everything he throws seems to veer to the right (his left) -- the opposite of a tail, so I guess you'd say it's a hook. I haven't watched his form that closely, but that kind of throw happens when a player is throwing across his body. Let's hope Jerry White is working with him on throwing more overhand. Cuddyer had to make that transition when he moved from the infield to right field. Gomez has always been an outfielder, so he's got no excuse. I just hope he doesn't start thinking about footwork and release points, because then we could have the second coming of Jacque "Worm Burner" Jones on our hands.

The verdict: Future all-star, atypical leadoff hitter who will drive the ball, could wind up like Ichiro but hitting about 70 points lower at his ceiling.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Looking ahead (waaaaaay ahead)

I know, we're two weeks into the baseball season and I haven't written about the Twins yet. I was going to say something about the two-game series against Detroit, but I discovered there aren't enough expletives in the English language to accurately describe my feelings.

However, fear not -- the NFL released its 2008 schedule yesterday, an annual gift to football-starved geeks like me, and given that it's almost five months before the season begins in earnest, we might as well take a long, hard look at the Vikings' schedule and see how the season will play out. Sure, it's early, and we don't really know who's going to be good next year and who's going to suck, but that doesn't stop the NFL from holding a draft every spring either, does it?

And away we go ...

Sept. 8, at Green Bay -- Opening on Monday Night Football in the first Breffarveless game in Lambeau since 1991 (maybe). Tough draw. LOSS (0-1)

Sept. 14, Indianapolis -- Peyton Manning avenges his kid brother's ignominious defeat to the Purple Horde last fall. LOSS (0-2)

Sept. 21, Carolina -- Probably an ugly game, probably an ugly win. WIN (1-2)

Sept. 28, at Tennessee -- T-Jax is a poor man's Vince Young. A very poor man, indeed. LOSS (1-3)

Oct. 6, at New Orleans -- Another Monday night game, as Adrian Peterson runs wild on the Saints' D while struggling Reggie surpasses George as the least popular Bush in town. WIN (2-3)

Oct. 12, Detroit -- Come on, they're still the Lions. WIN (3-3)

Oct. 19, at Chicago -- Peterson still a Viking? Check. Rex Grossman still a Bear? Check. WIN (4-3)

Oct. 26 Bye

Nov. 2, Houston -- Kailee Wong's revenge. LOSS (4-4)

Nov. 9, Green Bay -- Scores of forlorn Cheesheads wander the Metrodome plaza in No. 4 jerseys, too drunk and sad to make it inside to witness the carnage. WIN (5-4)

Nov. 16, at Tampa Bay -- Local strip club owners rejoiced, until they realized Dwight Smith no longer plays for the Vikings. LOSS (5-5)

Nov. 23, at Jacksonville -- Pat Williams loses 23 pounds chasing Maurice Jones-Drew in the Florida humidity. LOSS (5-6)

Nov. 30, Chicago -- Sunday night, NBC, John Madden makes 14 tortured analogies trying to compare Grossman and Breffarve. WIN (6-6)

Dec. 7, at Detroit -- The three words that describe the Lions are as follows, and I quote: "Stink. Stank. Millen." WIN (7-6)

Dec. 14, at Arizona -- Vikings bring cheerleaders on the road to distract Leinart. It works. WIN (8-6)

Dec. 21, Atlanta -- Bobby Petrino shocks the world by announcing that he's quitting on the Arkansas Razorbacks to coach the prison football team in Leavenworth, Kan. WIN (9-6)

Dec. 28, New York -- Needing a win to clinch a playoff berth, the Vikings import 50,000 New Yorkers to boo the crap out of Eli "Yeah, But What Have You Done For Me Lately?" Manning. WIN (10-6)

So there you have it -- 10-6, and given the general crapitude of the NFC North, good enough for a division crown. Remember, you heard it here first.

Monday, April 14, 2008

MMM: Already sick of it

I don't know about you, but I am already sick of the national attention given to the Yankees and Red Sox this year. They just played a three-game series at Fenway over the weekend, and lo and behold, all three games were nationally televised: Friday night, an ESPN special; Saturday, the FOX game of the week; Sunday, the ESPN Sunday night game of the week.

It's a pattern that played out multiple times last year, and it's got to stop. Is there any storyline left that hasn't been played out to death? We know, the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and there was supposedly a curse placed on the Boston franchise. In 2004, the Red Sox ended that supposed curse by rallying from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Yankees in the ALCS. And they've won two of the last four World Series, while the Yankees remain the franchise with the most world championships under their belts.


I suppose I am lucky in that I've got the MLB Extra Innings package, so I can watch pretty much any other game that's on (unless it involves the Angels, Dodgers, Giants, A's, Diamondbacks or Rockies -- more on that another time). But that's the rub -- I can only watch another game if it's on. And on the weekend, FOX and ESPN have exclusive windows on Saturday afternoon and Sunday night, respectively, meaning that no other games can be televised when their national games are on.

And get this -- when there actually was some legitimate drama involved (Saturday, Papelbon to face A-Rod with two runners on, two outs and the Sox leading by a run in the eighth inning), an extended rain delay ended the FOX telecast, so when the game resumed, I was treated to an infomercial or some lame movie of the week on my local FOX affiliate.

The two storied franchises hook up for a two-gamer at "the Stadium" (as if there's no other) this week, and guess what? The Wednesday night game is on ESPN! Thursday's game is not nationally televised, however, leading to much strife among members of Red Sox Nation and Yankees ... whatever they're called.

A couple of notes on Sunday night's game -- I flipped it on for about five minutes at about 6:30 p.m., a full 90 minutes after the first pitch, and the game was in the bottom of the third. I don't know if ESPN sneaks in extra commercials, or if the games just drag because every at-bat is so packed with drama, but these Yankees-Red Sox tilts are interminable.

And during the brief span in which I was watching, Jon Miller pointed out that a Red Sox batter had hit a ball to the deepest part of right field at Fenway, then mentioned that his broadcast partner, Joe Morgan, knew all about that part of the park. The camera cut to the booth as Miller related the story of Morgan hitting a drive to right field in the 1975 World Series, only to see Dwight Evans make a great catch and turn it into a double play.

The look on Morgan's face was priceless, and his reaction entirely predictable. Morgan -- who used to play in the major leagues, just ask him -- looked like he'd swallowed a live rat, then pointed out that the Reds went on to win that World Series. I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that booth during the next commercial break. Classic stuff.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Van the Man is back

My latest review is posted on the Weekly's web site -- scroll down through the other fine examples of musical criticism to read my thoughts on Van Morrison's 33rd (thirty-third!) studio album, Keep it Simple.

I haven't been truly enthralled with a Van album since probably The Healing Game, although I also liked Back on Top two years later. Since then, the Man has been focusing on what I consider kinda gimmicky efforts -- teaming with Jerry Lee Lewis' sister or John Lee Hooker or recording an album of country standards -- and not really letting his own poetic vision shine through.

Keep it Simple gets back to some basic Van -- bluesy pop, a little bit of white-man's soul, and some gauzy arrangements that will put you in a chill frame of mind no matter how bad your day is going. I'm afraid the days of the brassy bard cranking out toe-tapping, finger-snapping ditties like "Wild Night" or even "Rough God Goes Riding" are long since over, but for the time being, at least, Van is the Man again.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I try to keep the "my kid is so cute" stories to a minimum here, because everybody's kids are cute and I could waste a lot of space here chronicling the cute things they do and say, but I couldn't resist passing this one along.

The Littlest Gopher is 4 years old and has begun joining us inside the main church on Sunday mornings, rather than spending an hour in the nursery. She's noticed that the other three members of her family receive Holy Communion each week, a gift that she's thus far been denied because of her age.

So out of the blue the other day, the Littlest Gopher says to Mrs. G, "Mommy, you know those little turkey circles that you get to eat at halftime in church? I think I'm ready to have them, too."

I'm not sure if it was her notion of the wafer as turkey or her concept of "halftime" at church, but regardless, that killed me.

And on a related note, the Bigger Little Gopher scored her first goal of the season in Game No. 3 for the U11 Fusion of the Henderson United Youth Soccer League on Saturday. And it was a thing of beauty.

BLG (that's her, far right, with her friend Taylor) isn't a big scorer -- she's outstanding at setting up her teammates, but doesn't look to shoot that much. But on Saturday, she put a Pele-esque move on a defender to get open, then ripped a shot through the goalie's fingers and into the net from about 20 feet out. It tied the game at 2 early in the second half, and a late tally lifted the undefeated Fusion to their third straight win.

Afterwards, we had juice boxes and mini Oreos and wished we'd bought that damn video camera.

MMM: Shut up and pay your taxes

This week's meltdown was triggered by an op-ed column I read over the weekend in the Las Vegas Sun. It was a syndicated deal, penned by some guy named Walter Rodgers (apparently he's a former international correspondent at CNN), and it struck a nerve.

Usually when that happens, it stems from an opinion that ruffles my feathers, that gets my knickers in a proverbial twist. But this time, my ire was raised because I agreed with this guy 100 percent.

The topic of the column is taxes, which of course is timely given the month we've just entered. And the gist of the column was this: "Shut up and pay your taxes."

Like anybody who pays attention to political punditry, I've been inundated over the last decade or so with anti-tax opinions. From right-wing radio to reactionary newspaper columnists to conservative think tanks, the drumbeat has been consistent -- we're all shelling out too much of our income to fund a government that doesn't fulfill its obligations to society.

OK, that's probably putting to fine of a shine on it. The more common reaction has actually been more like, "I've got mine -- get your grubby hands out of my pockets and get your own!" And it's been successful, because as a basic, gut-level, common-sense response, it passes the smell test -- you know, the whole American dream, pull yourself up by your bootstraps thing.

But Rodgers put a different spin on taxes, one I hadn't heard much before, and one that makes perfect sense to me. As he says, "I'm happy to pay my fair share to the government. It's part of my patriotic duty – and it's a heckuva bargain."

What a novel approach -- viewing taxes as your contribution to society, your share of the costs of the services that you can't provide for yourself. If you don't want to pay taxes, fine -- just don't drive on the roads, don't use any electricity, don't use your plumbing, don't watch TV, don't send your kids to public schools, etc.

Of course, the comeback from right-wing types would be something along the lines of, "I'm more than happy to pay for those services I use. I just don't want to pay for anything that doesn't help me, and I don't want anybody to get away with not carrying their own water. There's just too much fat in the government, and we need to slash their budgets before it gets any further out of hand."

Which is fine -- up to a point. But here's another way of looking at it. Let's say you pay your 16-year-old son an allowance of $20 a week. And let's say you find out the kid is using this money, along with other funds he has available, to purchase crystal meth. If you're following the starve-the-government logic, you'd say to the kid, "That's it -- no more allowance for you. If you want to buy crystal meth, you'll have to get a paper route or to flip burgers to pay for it."

But wouldn't it make more sense to try and get the kid some help and solve the problem? Instead of cutting off funds, get him into rehab and keep him away from his friends who use meth. Don't just kick and scream and cut his allowance -- get active and solve the problem.

So to further stretch this analogy, don't just kick and scream and whine about paying your taxes -- if you truly believe that your tax dollars are going to fund plasma TVs and Gucci handbags for Ronald Reagan's legendary "welfare queens," then get active, try to address specific problems. Get off your butt and investigate the circumstances, rather than just believing what you hear on the radio or read on PowerLine. Get some first-hand experience, then go to work for a political candidate who shares your views. Or better yet, run for office yourself.

Otherwise, shut up and pay your taxes.

Friday, April 4, 2008

National Felons League strikes again

After a woeful 2007 offseason that featured the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal, Pacman Jones' strip club antics, and the ongoing shenanigans of the Cincinnati Bengals, NFL officials had to be hoping that the league's players would steer clear of the police blotter a year later.

And to some extent, they have to be happy with the results. At least nothing involving an NFL player has risen to the level of a star quarterback electrocuting dogs or a posse member leaving a strip club employee paralyzed for life.

But today, I was checking out the NFL news widget on my My Yahoo! page, and lo and behold, three of the top four headlines focused on players in legal trouble. You've got troubled receiver Chris Henry back on the streets, albeit without a contract from the Bengals; domestic violence charges against Steelers linebacker James Harrison being dropped, because, you know, I'm sure he was an innocent bystander in the incident; and the coup de grace, former Viking defensive back Kenny Wright, now playing for the Cleveland Browns, arrested after a quarter-mile chase on foot, which began in the police station parking lot.

Wright was charged with resisting arrest, unlawful restraint and possession of marijuana. And one look at his mug shot should tell you that the last charge might be tough to beat.

Ladies and gentlemen, your National Football League!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Book review: Now I Can Die in Peace

We're back from the dirty south, where Mrs. Gopher finished the half-marathon with a personal best time of 2:13:10. That shaves more than nine minutes off her previous PB. Of course, two races is an admittedly small sample size, but she was thrilled with the result, and I remain inspired by her ability and willingness to push herself beyond what she ever thought she could accomplish. May some of that drive rub off on me.

While in Atlanta, I finished reading "Now I Can Die in Peace: How ESPN's Sports Guy Found Salvation, With A Little Help From Nomar, Pedro, Shawshank, And The 2004 Red Sox." I was a little hesitant to dive into the book because I feared that 370 pages of Red Sox-centric writing might just drive me to the brink of mass homicide. But I trusted Bill Simmons. I like his writing on ESPN.com, and I figured he'd find a way to make this tome interesting to all baseball fans, not just those raised on Yaz, Fisk, and Freddy Lynn.

(An aside: I realize that Simmons-bashing has become something of a sport on a variety of popular blogs these days. Whether it's the Deadspin crowd (mostly their commenters, not Leitch himself), Awful Announcing or the various knockoffs of those sites, there's a lot of anti-Simmons angst out there on the net. Curiously, it echoes the backlash against Chuck Klosterman, who's been the target of an insane amount of vitriol from the hipsters at Gawker. Both crowds come across as wannabe journalists/celebrities who are taking out their frustrations on a couple of successful writers whose considerable talents are often masked by their "regular-guy" schtick, leading to criticism that -- when reading between the lines -- basically says, "I wish I'd thought of that first, but since I didn't, I'm gonna knock them down a peg or two so I won't be so lonely down here." But I digress...)

The Simmons book is about what you'd think -- a collection of columns you've probably already read, if you're a fan, but with footnotes added to further explore salient points and digressions. He does a nice job of capturing the pathos of Red Sox Nation pre-2004, which I can particularly relate to as a lifelong fan of the Minnesota Vikings. From what I could glean, 1986 was to Simmons what 1998 was to me, so I could relate to a lot of what he was going through.

My only complaint, and it's a light one at that, is that in the afterword (written in the summer of 2006) he didn't really touch on the much-deserved backlash against Red Sox fans, who quickly became as insufferable as Yankees fans thanks to the East Coast focus of ESPN and the rest of the national sports media. He's acknowledged it in columns, but to make this book stand up against the ravages of time, it's a point he could have explored in just a bit more depth.

Otherwise, a solid read for all fans of baseball, pop culture and breezy sportswriting, and a great way to kick off the 2008 MLB season.

Everything is for sale

Just heard a spot on the radio today -- apparently, Werner Ladders are the official ladder of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. That's right, when the boys are cutting down the nets on Monday night (and please, let it be UCLA!), they'll only climb up to the rim on a Werner ladder!

Actually, now that I think about it, that's not such a bad endorsement. Any ladder that can hold Kevin Love's fat ass is probably sturdy enough even for me.