Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Almost perfect

From ESPN's Buster Olney:

"There are still weeks to go in the pennant race, there are pennant races and World Series games to come, but there will not be a better moment this year thanks to Mark Buehrle and the good folks in the Metrodome on Tuesday night."

Tip of the hat to Buehrle, and to Twins fans who, like the rest of their Minnesota brethren, can often be a provincial bunch. Last night, they showed that they get it and can be classy when they want to be. Kudos all around.

Monday, July 27, 2009

TBBBC Book 4 review

We're four months into the baseball season, and I'm four books into my summer-long one-man book club. July's book of the month was The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski.

Most baseball fans know the story of O'Neil, a former Negro Leagues player and manager who was the first black man to coach in the Major Leagues. Of course, he could have played in the bigs if not for the rampant racism that stained the game through the late 1940s when Jackie Robinson broke the color barier, and he could have managed in the bigs if not for the still problematic racism that stained the game through the mid-1970s when Frank Robinson shattered that glass ceiling.

But O'Neil carried on and became one of baseball's greatest ambassadors and the most notable historian of the Negro Leagues. He came to national prominence when his commentary was featured heavily in Ken Burns' baseball documentary that aired on PBS in 1994.

Posnanski, a Kansas City Star columnist, got to know O'Neil over the years and always thought there was a book waiting to be written about O'Neil and the Negro Leagues, but he never could figure out just how to approach it. Finally, he came to the realization that spending a year traveling the country with the great story-teller would be the best way to capture the essence of the man.

And I'd have to say, he was right. There are so many lessons to learn from Buck O'Neil. I've always been amazed that he wasn't bitter, because he had so many reasons to be. He was kept from doing the one thing that he most loved to do because of "my beautiful tan," as he liked to put it. But O'Neil lived his life 180 degrees from bitter. I think this book gets to the heart of that question.

I won't spoil it for those who want to read the book, but basically, O'Neil wasn't bitter because he got to play baseball, travel the countryside and befriend literally thousands of people whom he wouldn't have met if not for the Negro Leagues. He didn't view the league as sub-standard or a lower level of the game. It was different, yes, and the accommodations weren't as nice, but he also was given the opportunity to experience joys he wouldn't have likely seen in the bigs. For example, he tells the story of the time he and Duke Ellington entered a jazz club on 18th and Vine in Kansas City (now the home of the Negro Leagues museum, his great passion in his post-retirement life) and stumbled upon a kid playing the saxophone like he'd never heard it played before. Turns out the kid was Charlie "Bird" Parker, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

"People feel sorry for me," he said. "Man, I heard Charlie Parker!"

O'Neil's life is an object lesson in appreciating what you have, which is different than just blind optimism. O'Neil was no pollyanna. He saw the dark side of life and understood it for what it was -- hatred. That's a word that comes up a lot in this book. O'Neil often said racism comes directly from hatred, and bitterness comes from the same source.

"Where does bitterness take you?" he said when asked about how he can avoid being bitter. "To a broken heart? To an early grave? When I die, I want to die from natural causes, not from hate eating me up from the inside."

O'Neil approached the changes in the game the same way. Throughout their journey, he and Posnanski ran into many people who said they were disillusioned by the big salaries and ticket prices, the steroids, the superstar attitudes that they say have changed the game. But his response was always the same: "It hasn't changed," he told an older fan who said he hadn't been to a game in years. "We've changed. We got older. You ought to go see a game. You're a baseball fan, man. Do your heart good. Help you get young."

The point being, there's always an upside, and the game is bigger than all the petty problems that crop up in every era. The game survives. The human race survives. And life is good.

One of the blurbs in the book compares it to Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie, and I'll admit that when I read that blurb I shuddered a bit. But then I remembered my initial reaction to Tuesdays. I loved it. I blubbered like a baby. It changed my attitude about life, for a while at least. It stayed with me. I think the backlash came only after Albom's succeeding books proved him to be something of a one-trick pony. You couldn't hlep but wonder how much he gilded the lily in his story of Morrie, given that the rest of his books were couched in so much overwrought schlock.

So I guess if Posnanski follows The Soul of Baseball with a string of books about one-eyed Olympic archers who run three marathons a month to raise money for Costa Rican orphans, maybe I'll re-think this review. But The Soul of Baseball hit me hard, right where I needed it. It'll stay with me. And the lesson of Buck O'Neil will help me the next time I'm feeling sorry for myself.

TBBBC rating: 5 fungoes (out of 5)

Now batting: The Dixie Association (Voice of the South) by David Hays

On deck: October 1964 by David Halberstam

See also:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 3: Boogie wonderland

We're here. The cross-country trek, or at least the first half of it, is over. Will I have the energy to blog the return trip in late August? Hard to say, but this has been a pretty fun way of capturing some memories.

Today we awoke in Council Bluffs, packed up and headed out for some brunch. Naturally, my Midwestern instincts kicked in and brought us to the nearest Perkins, where we feasted on omelets, pancakes, french toast, fresh fruit and so-so coffee. Needing a stronger caffeine kick for the final leg of our relay, we began a search for a coffee shop.

Well, here in the heartland, or at least in Iowa, you won't find a Starbucks on every street corner like you might in a major metropolitan area. In fact, Fiona related the hard lesson she'd learned as we cruised along the highway near the river: "They've got all these casinos here but no Starbucks?"

Eventually I spotted a sign for Western Iowa Community College, and we quickly did the math: college students = need for caffeine. We still didn't find a Starbucks, but we did come across a quaint mom-and-pop-and-dog joint called the Coffee Stop that had everything we wanted: coffee and wi-fi. Plus Nora got to play with the dog while Fiona and I checked e-mail, so everybody won.

Later on the road, Nora notified me that a pit stop for bathroom-related reasons was relatively urgent, so we pulled off at the next exit in search of a gas station. Five minutes later, as we were nearing the lavatorial oasis, came the Backseat Exchange of the Day:

Nora: "Dad, I really have to go. I'm dancing back here!"
Dad: "I know, I know. We're almost there."
Nora: "Well, can I at least have some music to go with my dancing?"

Stifling my laughter, I turned off the audiobook I was enjoying and cranked up a CD for my dancing daughter.

North of Des Moines, Fiona surveyed the landscape and let loose a contented sigh. "I know we're not in Minnesota yet, but this just looks like home to me."

Amen, sister. And here we are.

Day 2: A logical progression

Sorry today's update is late -- the hotel in Council Bluffs last night had a crappy wifi setup -- pay $6.95 for 24 hours of access and the web site granting said access didn't work. So here we are.

Also, I misplaced the cord that connects the camera to the computer, so I can't upload today's photos. Some pretty good shots of Nora in there -- she put on an Austin Powers-type show with a series of wacky facial expressions on camera. Not funny faces, mind you -- these were complex, well-planned visages on her part.

We covered the second half of Colorado (Vail to the border) and all of Nebraska today, hitting Council Bluffs at 11 p.m. local time. I have to say, Colorado is a big state. Once you get past Denver you think you're through with it, and then you're driving for about another week. Everything east of Denver should just be named Coloraska, because it's virtually indistinguishable from the Great Plains. I can only imagine what the first Anglo settlers in the region must have thought once they saw the Rockies for the first time. "They told me the earth wasn't flat but I was starting to doubt it until now."

That stretch of the drive did produce the Day 2 Backseat Exchange of the Day:

Fiona: "Ugh, what stinks? It smells like poop!"
Dad: "Well, we are in farm country now ..."
Nora: "I tooted."
Dad: "... or there's that."

We got more than our share of foul farmland odors on the drive through Nebraska, but I'm not complaining -- it's just good to be back in the Midwest.

Also, I saw quite possibly the stupidest sign ever on the side of the road in eastern Colorado: "Gov. Ritter Welcomes You to TAXORADO"

This is an epic FAIL for a couple of reasons. One, it was in eastern Colorado, but faced an eastbound road, meaning everybody who could read it was actually leaving Colorado, not being "welcomed" into it. Turn your sign around, genius.

And two, you can't just throw "TAX" into any word and make the pun work. "Taxachusetts" works because "tax" and "mass" sort of rhyme, and of course Massachusetts has a long tradition of liberal politics, which naturally means "big tax bill" in the minds of most conservatives, whether it's true or not.

I'm not up to speed on the tax policies of the Colorado governor or how much impact he's had on the bottom line of Joe Colorado, but after living in the West for the last four years, I've got a pretty good idea of who the sign guy is: He calls himself a Libertarian, wants the damn gummint to get out of his life and let him keep everything that's his, but is the first guy to bitch when any government service doesn't work efficiently enough to suit his needs -- i.e., there's a pothole in front of his house so the DOT is corrupt, his kid's school didn't fare well in national testing so they're incompetent, not underfunded, etc.

I know our country has a rich history of tax protest, but if you bother to read your U.S. history, the colonists were protesting taxation without representation. These newfangled "tea parties" are filled with right-wing miscreants who have plenty of say in how their tax money is spent, via their elected officials. But go ahead and think you're a 21st Century Paul Revere when you call into Rush's show and call the President a monkey.

Wow, not sure how we got from here to there, but I promise to lighten things up the rest of the trip. Day 3 takes us through Iowa and into God's Country, so a trio of happy campers will report back tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Day 1: A sight for sore butts

Well, Day 1 of our journey back to Minnesota is in the books, but before I lay me down to sleep here in Avon, Colo., let's quickly review our big day.

We got off to a rousing start when I had to lock up my brakes no more than 10 minutes into the trip as some guy in front of me decided to nearly stop in the left lane of I-15 near the Strip. At least I know the brakes work fine.

We actually made it three blocks from home before Nora fired up the DVD player. She is a big fan of the Johnny Depp/Willie Wonka remake, so on Monday I picked up a copy of the original version for her, and she couldn't wait to watch it. She spent two hours calling out differences between the two movies ("This Violet Beauregard isn't as big as the other one!" -- which led to a discussion of CGI vs. old-fashioned special effects), and she enjoyed it so much that when she got the DVD player back two hours later, she watched Gene Wilder and the orange-faced Oompa-Loompas again.

Fiona watched a Harry Potter movie during her turn with the DVD player and mostly read or texted with one of her friends the rest of the way. She was also such a big help, volunteering to take Nora to the restroom at lunch and patiently helping her get set up with coloring or adjusting the blanket just so in the back seat. I was very proud of her positive, can-do attitude.

The highlight of the trip was this backseat exchange, about four hours into our drive.

Fiona: "Ugh, my butt hurts!"
Nora: "Everybody's butt hurts. Lift your butt up!"

I also enjoyed paying $2.84 a gallon at the Sinclair station in Salina, Utah. That's 20 cents more than I paid in Vegas before we left, mostly due to the fact that Salina is literally the last place you can buy gas for the next 111 miles. Luckily I drove the extra 300 feet to the Sinclair, rather than paying an extra nickel per gallon at the Shell station, which is literally the first thing you see after you get off the freeway exit. You won't catch me complaining too much though -- last year on the same trip we paid $4.59 a gallon at the same station. (Yes, I'm one of those nerds who jots down that kind of thing in a notebook that I keep in the glove box. So sue me.)

As evening fell, the full moon was our constant companion in the southern sky, and the temperature dipped a bit, too. When we left Vegas, the car's thermometer read 100. When we parked for the night here in Avon, it was 55. Crazy, but blissful as well.

See you tomorrow with more Tales of the Road from lovely Council Bluffs!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Words of wisdom

I've had the occasion to meet Matt Birk a number of times. I wrote a couple of lengthy profiles on him for Viking Update and interviewed him for countless smaller stories, and I always walked away impressed with his compassion. He's smart, yes -- a Harvard grad and all -- and obviously a great athlete, or at least he gets paid to play a game and he plays it very well.

But Birk has always stood out for his desire to help other people. Some guys come across as phonies (hi, A-Rod!), while others talk a good game but if you do a little digging, there's no there there. Not Birk. Whether it's his HIKE Scholars program or his dedication to the Boys and Girls Club, Birk is the real deal. He walks the walk.

This week, Birk pinch-hit for Peter King on SI's Monday Morning Quarterback column, and it's nice to know that football fans around the country now know what I've known for the past seven or eight years, that Matt Birk is, once again, the real deal. He writes at length about the need for current players to stick up for retired NFL veterans who are struggling to make ends meet due to the catastrophic physical toll their bodies absorb during a life of football.

He also shows his sharp wit, common sense and even some family values that only a fellow father of young daughters can fully appreciate: "I am blessed to have three daughters. However, the older they get the less thrilled I am about cheerleaders at football games."

Check out the rest of the column, and check out the Baltimore Ravens' games this fall when Birk is showing the Vikings what a mistake they made by letting him go. And even if his body falls apart and Birk's best days are a distant memory, he's still got a lot to offer the game. I don't think he's particularly a political sort, but if he can stomach the in-fighting and back-stabbing, he'd make a great NFLPA president.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Review: Wilco (The Album)

"Since Wilco unceremoniously dumped Jay Bennett after the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, frontman Jeff Tweedy has continued in his attempt to carve out a unique identity for the band."

Click here to read the rest of my review of Wilco (The Album) in the latest issue of Las Vegas Weekly.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

TBBBC Book 3 review

Here comes your long-awaited TBBBC Book 3 review. In June, I read Crazy '08 -- How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History by Cait Murphy. I don't know too much about Murphy -- her bio in the book indicates that she's a big baseball fan, a trait passed down by her father, and she's an editor at a financial magazine. She's also obviously a history buff and she's created one of the finest odes to baseball that I've ever read.

Those rare baseball fans who are aware of the 1908 season most likely know of it because of the famed "Bonehead Merkle game," in which the New York Giants were denied a crucial late-season victory over the Chicago Cubs when rookie Fred Merkle failed to touch second base after what appeared to be a game-winning hit.

But as Murphy points out, 1908 was about so, so much more than that one game. As the subtitle indicates, she introduces us to quite the cast of characters along the way, and in doing so she brings to life old ballplayers who were to me little more than a list of names in the record book. Among the central figures of the 1908 season were John McGraw, Christy Matthewson, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance, Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Addie Joss, Napoleon Lajoie, and even Cy Young himself.

The best part of this book was how she illustrated the story of the season with the backstories of these players' lives, their significance not only to 1908 but their entire careers. I also loved how she examined how baseball fit into the fabric of society at the time, why it captured the imagination of the post-industrial revolution country that was still coming to grips with the emergence of city life as the norm.

Murphy spins yarns about baseball, of course, but she also manages to educate the reader about the nascent labor movement, corrupt Chicago politics, race relations, anarchists, and why it's ludicrous to believe that Abner Doubleday invented baseball. And though she writes from the position of the studious academic -- the book includes a 21-page bibliography and 38 pages of citations and endnotes -- Murphy's voice is clear, lively and anything but stuffy. Anybody who wonders how baseball became the game we're watching in 2009 should give Crazy '08 a read.

TBBBC rating: 5 fungoes (out of 5)

Now batting: The Soul of Baseball by Joe Posnanski

On deck: The Dixie Association (Voice of the South) by David Hays

See also:

It's here

My validation has arrived, in the form of a CBS Late Show mousepad.