Friday, April 24, 2009

TBBBC: Book 1 review

The end of April is upon us, and I've finished The Last Real Season, Mike Shropshire's account of the 1975 MLB season, gathered from his notes and stories he collected on the Texas Rangers beat for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The book offers up an extremely jaded view of MLB, which doesn't surprise me given that baseball writers are an extremely jaded bunch, as far as journalists go. Anybody who has to spend seven months with the same group of people, day in and day out, is going to find more than his share of warts and foibles and idiosyncrasies to write about. And there are plenty here, from Billy Martin's various psychoses to Willie Davis' "dude from another planet" act to the writer's own press box debauchery.

The problem is, we've pretty much heard all of this before. If the book had been released on the heels of the 1975 season -- after Ball Four, but before The Bronx Zoo -- it would have been a revelation. At the time, Jim Bouton was basically the only insider who had pulled back the curtain and revealed the seedier side of professional sports. Prior to the mid-70s, sportswriters were to athletes as the White House press corps were to the Bush administration. Their relationship was cozy, their secrets were safe, and all the power was on one side of the table.

But once Bouton -- and later Lyle -- exposed the American public to the travails of their heroes, nothing was taboo. Now, you can't swing a broken fungo at Barnes and Noble without smacking into a tell-all tome from the likes of players (Jose Canseco), managers (Joe Torre), umpires (Ron Luciano), sportswriters (Jeff Pearlman), minor leaguers (Matt McCarthy) and even baseball groupies (Alyssa Milano).

Thus, Shropshire isn't telling us anything we don't already know. There's little shock value here, even though it kind of feels like that's what he's going for. The most enlightening aspect of the book is its discussion of how the baseball world differed pre-free agency. The season is question fell on the cusp of a sea change in MLB -- Charlie Finley had begun to dismantle his Oakland A's dynasty, Catfish Hunter had signed a five-year, $3.5 million contract with the New York Yankees, and in a few months the whole financial structure of the game would be forever changed by wholesale free agency.

I'd have preferred to read a more detailed look at the roots of the free agency movement and how it changed the game, rather than more anecdotes about how many beers or how much tequila Shropshire swilled in the press box while banging out stories about the Rangers. For instance, he pointed out that after the A's failed to reach their fourth straight World Series, pitcher Paul Lindblad said he'd have to work on a Christmas tree lot that winter to make up for the $25,000 World Series bonus that he was counting on as part of his salary. These days, the postseason bonus is mere pocket change to most players, and certainly doesn't have a make-or-break impact on their financial bottom line.

If you're looking for a book filled with fun, surprising, even shocking stories from behind the scenes of a baseball season, check out Shropshire's first go-round, Seasons in Hell. If you've already read that, then I guess The Last Real Season might be the way to go. But don't expect much beyond a fluffy beach book that you'll forget the minute you set it down.Link

TBBBC rating: Two fungoes (out of five)

Now batting: The Entitled: A Tale of Modern Baseball by Frank Deford

On deck: Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Strange bedfellows

I find myself feeling oddly sympathetic toward Miss California in the latest Miss USA kerfuffle. Not because I agree with her stand on same-sex marriage -- I don't -- but because I have no idea what that issue has to do with one's qualifications to serve as Miss USA.

Perez Hilton is gay. And he wants to see people like him have the same civil rights as the rest of the planet. I get that. But there comes a point where you have to pick your battles. And the Miss USA contest is not the place for this battle to play out. I understand that it's important to get this issue on the front burner, but this kind of attitude is just going to alienate people who have yet to form a concrete opinion on the issue.

Beauty contests attract a pretty traditional audience, so I guess Hilton figured he'd be reaching a group of people who hadn't thought much about same-sex marriage. But to basically admit that he wouldn't vote for Miss California because of her answer to his question about the issue sends the wrong message. Hilton comes off as just as intolerant as the Yes on 8 crowd in California.

Now, Hilton has given the right-wing bloggers, radio hosts and pundits all kinds of fodder for their fake-outrage cannons. Nicely done, you old queen.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Where Pulitzer happens

Huge kudos to the Las Vegas Sun for winning a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of unsafe working conditions at Strip construction projects. Man, a friggin' Pulitzer! That's huge, people. Only one other Nevada newspaper has ever won a Pulitzer, and that was in Reno back in 1977.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Isn't it ironic? No, it just sucks

By my conservative estimate, there are perhaps four nights a year when a band I want to see actually comes to play a show here in the greater Las Vegas area. I've been here three and a half years, and here's who I've seen so far:
  • The Decemberists at the House of Blues
  • The Hold Steady at the Beauty Bar
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at Jillian's
  • Beck at Vegoose I
  • Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins at Vegoose II
  • The Drams at some cool theater downtown that's now closed
I also missed a Rilo Kiley show at the HoB because I was out of town, and skipped a couple of shows that I might have enjoyed -- Morrissey, Reverend Horton Heat, and a few arena tours by bands like U2 and the Dixie Chicks.

But that's it. Six shows and maybe six more missed opportunities in three and a half years. So naturally, when the Hold Steady makes its triumphant return to Vegas tonight to play again at the Beauty Bar, I've got an ocean of mucus flowing from my cranial orifices.

Alannis Morissette might call it ironic. I just think it sucks.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ah, the Grand Canyon!

What a ... grand ... ... canyon ...

I've always loved these WPA-era signs. They remind me that there once was a time in this country when people cared about something bigger than their own self-interest. How quaint.

Nice view from the South Rim.

Afternoon shadows.

Mesas and plateaus as far as the eye can see -- a geography teacher's dream.

The happy family pauses for their moment in the sun.

Kris and her parents.

Mom and Nora, hand-in-hand.

Dinner in Williams at a cool, Route 66-themed brewpub.

The day ended with ice cream, as usual.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Baseball Bunch Book Club

Do you remember The Baseball Bunch? It was a syndicated show that ran (in our market) on Saturday mornings during the summer, often as the lead-in to This Week in Baseball, followed by the NBC Game of the Week. Johnny Bench and a weekly special guest star offered instructional tips to apple-cheeked Little Leaguers, highlights and bloopers got their share of airtime, and Bench tried to hone his acting chops in some amazingly awkward skits with the San Diego Chicken.

Ah ... memory lane. Anyway, I thought I'd spend the summer of 2009 resurrecting the spirit of The Baseball Bunch right here on WHIH. Of course, now that I'm an adult, the idea of laying about on a Saturday morning watching aging Hall of Fame catchers and grown men in mascot suits doesn't really appeal to me. But reading baseball books does. So I'm starting The Baseball Bunch Book Club.

I've picked out six titles for the inaugural TBBBC, and I welcome anybody to join me in this pursuit. I'll read one book per month and discuss it here on WHIH. Or on your web site. Or on Facebook. Or in a bar. Or on a train. Or in a plane. Or on a boat, with a goat. Just not on Twitter -- we're going to get a little deeper than 140 characters will allow.

Here's what's on tap for TBBBC this summer:

April -- The Last Real Season by Mike Shropshire -- I absolutely loved his book Seasons in Hell, which chronicled his time covering the Texas Rangers in the early 70s, back when Ted Williams and Billy Martin made for more interesting copy off the field than Mike Hargrove and Toby Harrah made on the field. The Last Real Season is a look at the 1975 baseball season, so dubbed because it was the final year before free agency blew up the entire economic structure of the game. I started it today and the intro, by Earl Weaver, is a great read. I hope the rest of the book follows suit.

May -- The Entitled: A Tale of Modern Baseball by Frank Deford -- Hard to go wrong with Deford, and I wanted to mix a little fiction into the syllabus. The Entitled is the story of a Tom Kelly-like manager (minor league lifer who gets his shot at managing in the bigs, although much later in life than TK) who has to handle a superstar who sounds like a mix of A-Rod, Barry Bonds and Albert Belle. Don't know much about it, but it's gotten good reviews.

June -- Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History by Cait Murphy -- This book got crazy-good reviews when it came out a year ago, and I suppose I should have read it last summer as it was the 100th anniversary of this seminal season in baseball lore. From the World Series champion Chicago Cubs (!) of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance fame to the New York (!) Giants of Christy Mathewson and John McGraw and beyond, this is a book every baseball historian should enjoy sinking his or her teeth into.

July -- The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski -- Again, if Posnanski's name is attached, you know it's going to be a good read. And Buck O'Neil has always fascinated me, because if anybody had a right to be a bitter, angry, sour old man, it was O'Neil, who missed out on fame and fortune because of the color of his skin. But he was always the classiest, most gracious ambassador the game has ever had, so when he and Posnanski spent the summer of 2005 traveling the country together, exploring and ruminating on baseball, it had to produce a compelling narrative.

August -- The Dixie Association (Voice of the South) by David Hays -- I don't know much about this one either. I was looking for another novel and since I've read most of the big ones (I did my senior thesis on baseball fiction back in my salad days at the U of M), I'm taking a flier on this, based on Amazon's description: "Meet the Arkansas Reds, the oddest, craziest, wildest bunch of sluggers ever to step out of a dugout. An ex-con first baseman named Hog chronicles a season with the Reds as they travel from one seedy southern ballpark to another--always one step ahead of the small-town sheriffs and right-wing evangelists who think the Reds are an insult to 'America's game.'" Sign me up!

September -- October 1964 by David Halberstam -- A true literary lion, Halberstam looks at the dying days of the Yankees dynasty as the Bombers battle the upstart St. Louis Cardinals, the first team with led predominantly by African-American stars. I love books that look at sports within the context of society, and nobody was more up to the task than Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize winner who got elbow-deep in every major news story from Vietnam through Iraq. I think I'm saving the best for last, plus it will be a good teaser for the World Series.

So there you have it: the inaugural TBBBC syllabus. Please let me know if you're interested in reading and discussing any or all of these books with me. If you're not, too bad -- you're going to get my unexpurgated thoughts and opinions whether you like it or not. Or you won't, if you ignore my posts. But that's not what WHIH is all about, right?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dance like no one's watching

That's Nora's philosophy. Actually, she does crave an audience, but has absolutely no qualms about breaking and popping, shucking and jiving, and shaking her booty anywhere, any time, in front of anyone. Some of our fondest memories are of sneaking up to Nora's doorway and peeking into her room while she's dancing, entirely oblivious to our presence. The pure joy in her face and in her movements is one of the highlights of parenting.

So, with that said, check out these videos of Nora's first school dance performance. They've met once a week for two months and came up with these two routines -- High School Musical and some hip-hop number. It was a gas. (She's the kid in the UNLV jersey, for those who haven't met her.)

#1 High School Musical

#2 Some hip-hop thing

Friday, April 3, 2009

Go Iowa!

Never thought I'd say that. Then again, I never thought I'd see such clear, uncompromising support for civil rights in the heartland. Here's hoping this is a movement that spreads.