Friday, June 29, 2007

Goin' On Vacation

To all my readers: I'll be on vacation with my vivacious fiancee Angelina until after the 4th of July. I'll be back bloggin' like a fool then. See ya later!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

No Beef for Koby this Year

The competitive world of eating is already gnawing on this morsel of tasty news: The hot dog eating champion isn’t feeling all that hot.

Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, the six-time champion of the annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest, could possibly be sidelined for next week's event due to an arthritic jaw.Last year, the 165-pound Kobayashi won his sixth straight Yellow Mustard Belt at the Independence Day competition in Coney Island, N.Y., by devouring a then-world record 53 3/4 frankfurters in 12 minutes.

That mark was surpassed earlier this month by Joey Chestnut of San Jose, Calif., who gobbled up 59 1/2 hot dogs and buns at the Southwest Regional Hot Dog Eating Championship at the Arizona Mills Mall in suburban Tempe, Ariz., -- one of the qualifying events for Coney Island.Chestnut almost defeated Kobayashi last year, gobbling down 52 hot dogs and buns at the contest, which is sponsored by Nathan's Famous Inc.
Chestnut must feel the same way that NFL QB Steve Young felt when he learned that Joe Montana, the 49ers first-stringer, was injured, allowing Young to seize his moment in the sun. Chestnut has been eating in the shadow of Kobayashi for a long time, and he has to be ecstatic over the fact that now he will finally get a chance to assume his spot in the winner’s circle atop competitive eating’s center stage.
"Already I can't open my jaws more than just a little bit," Kobayashi wrote. "There's no pain only if I open my mouth about enough for one finger. More than that is painful and I can't open it."A specialist diagnosed him with arthritis of the jaw, he wrote."To tell the truth, I'm desperate about healing completely before the July 4 contest," he said, adding that he had begun receiving treatment at a hospital and from a chiropractor.

On Tuesday, his United Food Fighters Organization said on their Web site that Kobayashi has found a doctor he can trust and was "creating an environment in which he can dedicate himself to healing.""The contest is coming up soon, and we'd happy if everyone kept him in their thoughts," the group wrote.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Should Barry Bonds Play in the All-Star Game?

With the All-Star game at AT&T Park only two weeks away, the debate over whether or not Barry Bonds belongs on the field for the Midsummer Classic is gaining momentum. People in this town are buying into the all-star hype. There hasn’t been this much baseball-related excitement around here since the 1989 Bay Bridge World Series between the Giants and the A’s.

As Barry nears the record for career home runs, the local media is pushing for fans to vote for Bonds. But, it doesn’t look good. The voting closes on Thursday and Bonds is currently in fourth place among NL outfielders, trailing Alfonso Soriano of the Chicago Cubs by more than 120,000 votes. It would take a ballot stuffing frenzy of Jeb Bush-like proportions to get Bonds elected now.

So, the question at hand is – should he be selected by the NL manager (Tony LaRussa) to be on the squad? How can MLB keep the greatest hitter of the last 50 years out of a game being played in his own stadium? Doesn’t Barry deserve to be there based solely on his career stats?

The arguments are strong from both sides. From the opposition’s point of view, Bonds isn’t having the kind of season that warrants a spot on the team. has him rated as the 10th best right fielder in the National League. He hasn’t fielded well, his batting average is less than spectacular and he’s playing for a last place team. If you also take into account that the guy is strongly disliked by many non-SF fans and part of the whole steroid controversy, it makes sense to keep him off the team.

Bonds supporters are saying that he needs to be an all-star because he’s a baseball legend, regardless of what he’s doing this year. In addition, they’re asking this question -- who else on the SF Giants deserves to be on the team if not Bonds? It’s a good point.

Every team has to be represented in the game. It’s a rule. Even Tampa Bay gets one representative. So, the next question is -- who is more qualified than Bonds to be the Giants’ lone all-star? Barry Zito surely doesn’t belong there. The only other player worthy enough to merit consideration might be starting pitcher Matt Morris (7-4, 3.38 ERA).

There’s little doubt that Bonds is by far the best player on a bad team. He’s played in 69 of the Giants’ 75 games and has made some decent defensive plays on occasion; including a great catch up against the wall recently against the Oakland A’s in interleague play. He also leads the league in intentional walks, which shows that he’s still one of the most feared batters in baseball.

I think the people of San Francisco deserve to see Bonds in the all-star lineup on July 10. Let him enter the game after the third inning and pinch hit. It will be the man’s final moment in the spotlight. With all the controversy and bad karma that surrounds Barry Bonds, he’s still entitled to be there when The City by the Bay is watched by the entire professional baseball world. It’s just the right thing to do.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

Hey there, sports fans!

Wow, there’s so much going on in baseball right now, it’s hard to even care about other sports, though I know some guys (the TRUE meatheads) who are already pining for the gridiron game. I’ve still got too much baseball left in my tank to think about football for long—who wants to hear about how many crimes Adam “Pacman” Jones has committed before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally gets up the chutzpah to ban him from the league once and for all?

In the AL East, the Yankees have finally stumbled a bit again, and as of this writing, even though they beat San Francisco last night, they are still 10.5 games behind the Red Sox for first place. So much for those arrogant, cocky New York fans who insisted that the Bronx Bombers would overtake the Sox by mid-July. I don’t think so! Sure, A-Rod has had an incredible month, but then the Yanks went and got swept by the God Squad in Denver this past week. The Rockies must have started eating their Wheaties, because even though they just lost a pair to the Blue Jays, they are hot, hot, hot! Colorado is actually in contention, only 4.5 games off the pace of the Dodgers, who are also playing thumbs-up ball.

While the Red Sox have started playing better again, the Yanks also have the distraction of one Jason “Juice” Giambi, who isn’t even on the field these days due to a foot injury. Juice has bowed to the pressure put on him by Commissioner Bud Selig, and will discuss his past steroid use with Senator George Mitchell, who is heading a congressional investigation into baseball players and steroid use. Even though Juice has sworn not implicate other players, any guys who have used and abused steroids in Giambi’s presence must be shaking in their boots. In addition, so many Yankees players are asked their opinion of the situation by the New York feeding frenzy—er, media—every day, they must be very tired of it by now and wishing that Giambi would get suspended or thrown off the team or something. Poor Juice—isn’t he just an upstanding example of what steroid users can expect when they get caught? Couldn’t have happened to a nicer sellout—um, guy.

In the AL Central, I’m not too surprised the Tigers have passed the Indians for first place. I’m not even that surprised the Twins are only a game over .500. I’m most surprised at how truly bad the White Sox are turning out to be this year, losing 21 of their last 26. They struck out 12 times on Friday against Carlos Zambrano and the other Chicago team. I know the Sox had injury issues, but who hasn’t at this point in the season? Today, they were beaten in the ninth inning on a suicide squeeze by the Cubs. The Cubs! Even though the Cubbies are in second place in the NL Central, they are still 8 games behind the Brewers for first. That Brew Crew looks pretty solid this year! (Wow, can you believe I just wrote that?)

In the AL West, the Angels are keeping up their incredible pace, and everyone else is falling by the wayside. The A’s, who dumped Milton Bradley this week due to a glut of outfielders, are playing terrific ball now, and they’re still losing ground to Anaheim! There may not even be hope for the wild card in Oakland, unless the Athletics can keep up their streak from the last few years of being the hottest team in baseball after the All-Star break. The only way they might gain on the Angels is if they win a bunch of the head-to-head contests—13 of them!—the teams have yet to play.

Over in the NL, it is absolutely Amazin’ that the Mets are still (barely!) in first place in the East after suffering a spell of bad baseball in which they’ve lost 15 out of 19. They may be feeling a little better about themselves after routing the A’s in New York last night, 9–1, and helping Tom Glavine to his 296th win. Meanwhile, the Braves were shut out for three games in a row for the first time in 19 years, and as of this writing, have scored just one run so far against Detroit today. They’ve only won 8 of their last 22, and while that’s better than the Mets, it hasn’t been good enough to overtake them. The Phillies are actually playing better than both the Mets and the Braves, but they put themselves in such a hole to start the season that they are only tied with the Braves for second, still 2.5 games behind New York.

Since I’ve already mentioned Milwaukee’s impressive lead in the Central, we’ll skip right over to the West, where the biggest story is commanding as little attention as it deserves. Sure, the Dodgers are going great. Sure, there are three other teams within striking distance. But the team that stinks the worst, San Francisco, is floundering 11.5 games behind L.A., and is not even worth watching anymore, even as Bighead Barry Bonds, juicemaster extraordinaire, has come within six of tying Hank Aaron’s home run record. Boy, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were hitting ’em out in 1998, the coverage was nonstop. Now, even here in the Bay Area, it’s rare that I see more than a cursory report of Bonds’s home run chase. Perhaps the Giants’ poor campaign this year is divine justice for owner Peter Magowan and General Manager Brian Sabean signing Bonds to a one-year contract in the past off-season. If things continue the way they are, Bonds will set the record not with a big bang, but with a tiny whimper, and hopefully he will be out of baseball next year.

SEASONINGS: Too bad for Miguel Tejada, who had the longest active streak of consecutive games played before fracturing his wrist last Wednesday when he was hit by a pitch. Miggy had played 1,152 games in a row—the fifth-longest streak in baseball history. (Just for some perspective, however, he was not even halfway to the record of 2,632 by another Orioles infielder, Cal Ripken, Jr.)

By the way, did you hear about the disharmony in the Atlanta clubhouse? And it’s not because Andruw Jones is only batting .199. Chipper Jones complained that he felt pressure to come back from a groin injury when he appeared in the lineup today after sitting out on Friday, saying that some people didn’t believe that he was injured. Wow! Of course, isn’t it fishy that Jones, who was a fearsome slugger just a few years back, has spent time on the disabled list the last four years in a row? Not that I’m one to start rumors, but did anyone think that maybe something else was involved besides bad luck? Several players who have been known to pump themselves up with substances have also had frequent, nagging injuries as they age. What is one to think about poor ol’ Larry? (I know, I know, innocent until proven guilty….)

Friday, June 22, 2007

It's a Monster Problem Called Monster Park

After a recent series of meetings between the NFL and San Francisco 49er officials, it looks like wherever the Niners finally decide to move, it’s going to be at least a decade before a new stadium is a reality. Whether it’s in Santa Clara or at Hunters Point, the team’s fans are going to have to be satisfied with clunky, unappealing Monster Park for a long, long time.

The whole affair is a travesty and a disgrace. Monster Park is old and should be put out of its misery. The bathrooms stink with flooding toilets, the seats are uncomfortable and the entire place looks like a mall from the '70s. They should put a dome over it and make it into a prison. The Giants were smart and got out of there a long time ago. They've been playing better ever since.

San Francisco is the only city in the NFL with a sub-par facility. Ten years ago, former 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo and General Manager Carmen Policy had a very workable plan for a new stadium. Then, DeBartolo got caught up in a Louisiana gambling scandal and was forced to sell his share in the team. Policy saw the writing on the wall and fled to Cleveland to become part owner of the Browns.

Everything has gone downhill for the Niners since then. Eddie DeBartolo won a ton of Super Bowls and built a legendary dynasty. He ran a first-class operation and his players loved playing for him. Now the team is owned by Eddie’s sister Denise and run by her husband, John York.

The Niners have spent the last decade being less than mediocre and the fans are getting antsy. With a new coach and a young promising quarterback, last season was a positive one for the team and the future looks fairly bright -- except for the stadium situation, which is looking bleaker all the time.

The major dilemma here is that it’s basically impossible to get public money for a sports facility in California. We have 15 professional teams in this state and not one of them plays in a stadium or arena that was built using state money. California can’t even build proper roads, so how the heck is it going to come up with the cash to build a stadium?

Cities aren’t any better. After three unsuccessful ballot measures, the SF Giants finally built a park with their own money. AT&T Park is the only new stadium in the Bay Areas since the Oakland Coliseum opened in 1966.

So, it’s pretty evident that any new stadium for the 49ers is going to have to be funded with private money. Anyone who knows Denise DeBartolo and John York is convinced that they’re way too cheap to kick down.

So, until the planets line up perfectly, the fans will have to sit in the cold and wind – stuck with a stadium that is outdated and unacceptable by NFL standards.

It’s a monster problem and it’s called Monster Park.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Tiger is Human After All!

All of the great golf legends throughout history can breathe a sigh of relief. No matter how great you are at this game, it always has the potential to jump up and bite you on the ass. Tiger Woods has spanked the golf world for a very long time. He wins major tournaments as effortlessly as John Daly downs beers.
Woods has continually made a mockery of a very difficult and demanding game. He’s snubbed his nose at the golf gods as if to say, “What’s all the fuss about?” Well, after this weekend the whole world knows – Tiger Woods is human after all. He’s not invincible. He’s capable of choking like anyone else. The man is infallible. Woods can get rattled. He can be had.
Angel Cabrera hit all the perfect shots when he needed them most to hold off Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk by a stroke on Sunday at the U.S. Open, shooting a 1-under-par 69 at an unforgiving Oakmont and giving Argentina its first major championship in 40 years.
For the second straight time in a major, Woods played in the final group and couldn't get the job done.
Woods squandered birdie chances with his wedge and his putter, and Furyk paid for a questionable choice of driver on the 306-yard 17th hole and fell out of the lead with a bogey.
That left Cabrera all alone at the end.
The only other Argentine to win a major was Roberto de Vicenzo in the 1967 British Open at Hoylake. He was equally famous for signing for the wrong score a year later at the Masters, keeping him out of a playoff.
"It is very difficult to describe at the moment," an elated Cabrera said. "Probably tomorrow, when I wake up with this trophy beside me, I will realize I won the U.S. Open."
Cabrera made his share of mistakes – no one played spectacular golf on this brutally tough course outside Pittsburgh - but he overcame late bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes with a perfect tee shot and a par that gave him the victory.
Woods, a runner-up to unheralded Zach Johnson at the Masters, played the final 32 holes at Oakmont with only one birdie. He missed a birdie putt from 6 feet on the 13th, and the only clutch putts he made on the back nine were for par.
"He put a lot of pressure on Jim and I, and we didn't get it done," said Woods, who closed with a 72 and extended his dubious streak of never winning a major when he wasn't leading going into the final round.
Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, ran off three straight birdies on the back nine and was tied for the lead when he opted to hit driver on the 17th, where the tees were moved up. He hit so far and enough left that he had no angle to the pin, and the lie was so deep that he didn't even reach the green. His 8-foot par putt caught the lip and spun away.
Needing birdie on the final hole, Furyk dropped the club after contact, and his long putt never had a chance.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

Whoa, whoa, what the heck happened in baseball while I was away? I leave town for a few days and everything goes all topsy-turvy! Well, maybe not everything, but certainly the AL and NL East are changing. Naturally, a lot of the current trends go against my own feeble predictions from earlier in the season—but I always said I would really have no idea who was good until after the All-Star break! As we all know “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” (how many freakin’ times have you heard THAT before?) so we’ll see who has the last laugh come October.

Now in the heart of interleague play, Mets-Yankees is a tale of two teams moving in opposite directions, much to my disappointment. As I write, the Yankees have won nine in a row and have closed the gap with the Red Sox in the AL East to 7 1/2 games. Meanwhile, the Sox continue to play mediocre ball at best, and are in danger of losing their division lead by mid-July at this pace. The Mets have lost 9 out of 10 as they head into the Bronx tonight, and fortunately for them, the Braves have been playing almost as poorly. Unfortunately for them, the Phillies, who I ridiculed earlier this season, are red hot and have passed Atlanta for second place. They now sit just 2 games behind the Mets. Craziness!

In the AL West, the Angels, A’s, and Mariners are all winning—Oakland and Seattle remain neck in neck for second place, but they just can’t seem to gain any ground on the Angels. Oakland has won 10 out of 12 but still sits 5 games back of Anaheim and tied with the Mariners. The Rangers have become the whipping boy of the West and are now the worst team in baseball. They can’t seem to find a way to win on the road, so they’ll stay in the basement this year.

In the NL West, the Dodgers, Padres, and Diamondbacks are all inconsistent, and they are all lumped up at the top of the division. L.A. has won 3 in a row by sweeping the Mets, and now the Dodgers will try to cool off the Angels in a crosstown series. The God Squad in Colorado is actually making a move in the division, and after an awful start, the Rockies are just 5 games behind the pack. The Giants are last—this is one prediction I’ve been right about up to this point.

The Central Divisions haven’t changed too much, though the Cubs and Tigers are playing good ball and the White Sox are suffering. The Indians and Brewers maintain their division leads, though Detroit is still right there in the AL. The Twins are showing some fight, and they will not go away. They scored 3 in the ninth last night to sweep Atlanta and have won 4 in a row.

I’m looking forward to seeing how some of the weekend interleague series play out. Then I’ll get a chance to go to an interleague game myself, as my wife and I will be seeing Reds-A’s on Monday night. Although I will of course be rooting for Oakland, I respect Ken Griffey, Jr., immensely, and it will be the first time I’ve seen him live since his days with Seattle.

SEASONINGS: By the way, many thanx to Ed for keeping the site going while I was away. Hope you all are reading his articles, which are masterful, as always. While I might question whether or not poker really qualifies as a sport, Ed does trash Phil Helmuth, which I can always appreciate. I definitely agree with Ed about LeBron James. While I applaud his efforts in leading the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, I don’t think he or his team had much of a chance against the Spurs, who swept Cleveland for their fourth championship with Tim Duncan. James has started to show flashes of real greatness, but the Spurs have a well-rounded, mature team around Duncan who simply overpowered the Cavs with their poise and experience.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Poker Pro Phil Hellmuth: Winner or Whiner?

Poker pro Phil Hellmuth has once again proven that he's truly the undisputed king of the poker table after winning the World Series of Poker’s Event #15 and his 11th WSOP golden bracelet.

Hellmuth is now the sole owner of the most WSOP bracelets won by a single player, moving ahead of poker legends Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson, who have both won ten bracelets each.

Playing nearly perfect poker from start to finish, Hellmuth was never out of contention and finished off an experienced final table with a focused, error-free quest for the win and the record. In addition to the elusive gold hardware Phil received $637,254 in cash. Andy Philacheck finished second, winning $369,594.

Congratulations to Phil Hellmuth for a great WSOP record-setting win. He also holds the record for most WSOP cashes at 60.

Phil Hellmuth was born in 1964 in Madison, Wisconsin, and has won 11 World Series of Poker Bracelets, more than any other player, including a main event win in 1989.
Hellmuth has been at over 20 final tables at the World Series of Poker and has won over 4 million dollars there. At age 24, He was the youngest player to ever win the championship no-limit event at the WSOP.

When not at the tables, Hellmuth lives in Palo Alto, California with his wife, who is a psychologist, and his two sons. In 2006, he was chosen to replace Phil Gordon as the new co-host of Celebrity Poker Showdown.

At the 2002 World Series, after getting knocked out by Robert Varkonyi, Hellmuth swore Varkonyi could shave his head if he won. Varkonyi did indeed win, and Hellmuth did indeed his opponent to shave his head.
"I said the other day that I'd pay a million dollars to win another bracelet, but (I) had to win it. I didn't know if I'd get there because I came close three times this trip. I'm just so, so happy."

If you’re not familiar with Phil Hellmuth, he’s known throughout the professional poker world as a brat, a whiner, a gloater, a blowhard and a poor sport. Many people call him the John McEnroe of poker. That’s an insult to McEnroe, in my opinion.

Hellmuth is a sore loser and a worse winner. Every time he loses a hand, he calls his opponent lucky and questions their poker skills. He is arrogant and acts like he invented the game. The man has made a fortune producing how-to poker DVD’s and through his web site. He’s the guy poker fans love to hate.

And now, he’s the best in the history of the game. There is no one else out there who has achieved what Phil Hellmuth has in professional poker. But, he’s also one of the most despised men in the sport.

What can I say, results talk and everything else can walk. The man is the best and there’s no denying it. I just wish Chan or Brunson had set the record, because they display a lot more class and are probably better spokesmen for the game.

It just proves that Leo Durocher was correct when he said that “nice guys finish last.” Or in this case, they end up in second place.

Monday, June 11, 2007

It's Time to Flip the House that LeBron Built

Tony Parker scored 30 points, Manu Ginobili had 25 and Tim Duncan added 23 as the Spurs showed the Cleveland Cavs how championship basketball is played for 3½ quarters, overpowering the young Cavaliers 103-92 in Game 2 on Sunday night to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.

San Antonio clearly illustrated just how superior they are in almost every way conceivable -- building a 29-point lead and then cruising in the fourth quarter -- when the Cavaliers stormed back within eight points before the Spurs finally put them away late in the game.

"That's why sometimes I don't like to have a 20-point lead," Parker said. "I'm not going to complain. I'll take it." The Spurs, playing team offense and stepping up on defense, were up by 28 in the first half and were embarrassing the Cavaliers, who are in their first finals but didn't show up until it was too late.

"I think they just took their foot off the gas pedal," Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said.
The Spurs' Big 3 of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili combined for 43 points -- 10 more than the Cavs -- in the first half. From that point on, it was academic. Those in the know are now predicting a sweep.

One sign in San Antonio said, “Bring out LeBroom!”

The bottom line is that the Cavaliers are not yet a championship caliber team. They have LeBron James, arguable the best player in the NBA, but the rest of their squad consists of players who are washed-up, slightly injured, completely inexperienced or just plain mediocre.

Drew Gooden is a promising player and will continue to improve for the Cavs. Larry Hughes (who didn’t make one field goal last night) has a foot injury, but even when he’s healthy he’s no solution. After that, it’s a cast of pretenders and wannabes who are either several years away or past their prime. Some of these guys never even had a prime, at least not in the NBA.

Until the powers-that-be get a supporting cast for LeBron, this team will never get closer to an NBA championship than they are right now. The good news is that King James is the best building block any team can have. He’s the foundation, but right now the rest of the House That LeBron built is falling apart.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A Renewed Passion for Sports Cards

Here's a great article I read about sports cards by Richard Bilarion:

As a child, when I had what might be called a serious baseball card habit, I looked forward to a new year of Topps baseball cards in a way I looked forward to nothing else. In the way things happen when you're a kid, baseball, basketball, and football cards took on an outsized importance in my life. And then, in the way things happen when you're a slightly older kid, cards just stopped mattering to me. I forgot about them for 15 years.
Topps became real to me again thanks to some basketball cards my roommate left around the apartment. Deep in the doldrums of underemployment, I started flipping through them while enjoying an afternoon beer. Inspired by the text on Vitaly Potapenko's 2001 Topps card (his teammates had nicknamed him "Eddie Munster") and with a courage assist from Miller High Life, I sent Topps my résumé. I figured that would be the end of it, but I got an e-mail in response. They asked how I would describe my interest in and knowledge of sports; I answered "freakish/obsessive." I got an interview, and then I got the job.
Starting a job at Topps was stressful. I was about to enter, as an adult, a place I'd always imagined as a gum-scented, Willy Wonkafied dream palace. Before my first day of work, I pictured packs piled in leaning towers, slides from long-ago Darryl Strawberry photo shoots, game-worn Mickey Tettleton jerseys. When I showed up, I found a standard corporate office: cubicles, recycled air, bad carpeting, worse lighting. There was plenty of candy—Topps makes Ring Pops, Push Pops, and Bazooka bubble gum—but few cards in sight. There was little indication that this place churned out baseball cards and not, say, bath mats.
My job was to edit the text and statistics for the card backs. These came from a Virginia-based head writer named Bruce Herman (author of the Potapenko card that led me to Topps) and a Quebecois statistician named Nicolas Chabot, respectively. I did ordinary editor things—assigned text, edited it for accuracy and aesthetics, drew elaborate geometric doodles at meetings—but was buoyed by the fact that I was doing these in a not-so-ordinary environment.
While the text was inescapably repetitive, the stuff I edited was certainly better than the "Hector's hobbies are eating and sleeping" non sequiturs that made up the Topps backs of my youth. Today's cards top out at 400 characters (including spaces), or about 70 words, and usually take the shape of punchy feature articles. My favorite was a card for the St. Louis Rams' Harvard-educated backup quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The back text dealt with a question posed to him by his offensive line. Figuring that perhaps he'd covered this in Cambridge, they asked Fitzpatrick what would hurt more: getting kicked by a donkey or whipped in the face by an elephant's trunk. Fitzpatrick went with the elephant slap. Bruce provided a source, and I checked it. All true. At times like that, the job was something very close to fun.
Tight deadlines created tension, but it's hard to stay stressed when your bosses are pestering you for 50 words about some punt returner's hobbies. Sadly, though, the same things that bothered me about previous corporate gigs were easy to find at Topps. Upper management was a distant, nepotistic network descending from a mysterious, largely invisible septuagenarian CEO. Below that, departments feuded with other departments. Middle managers skirmished in snarky, caps-locked e-mails CC'd to higher-ups. "Good mornings" seethed with passive aggression.
My co-workers and I shared a sense that our contributions were undervalued. My job's irrelevance—I worked on the less glamorous back half of the card, you see—was confirmed through my absence from the card-distribution rolls. At Topps, the haves receive free boxes of each new product. The have-nots, like me, do not. When I asked for boxes of the products I'd worked on, I got brushed off. Eventually, I gave in and queued up at the company store along with copy editors from the quality-assurance department.
I was frustrated not only because this wasn't what I'd expected—who even has company stores anymore?—but because a myth from my childhood got sullied. Baseball cards, it turned out, are not made in a card-cluttered candy land. Rather, they are created by ordinary men and women who are generally unawed by their proximity to a central part of American boyhood.
Neither trading cards nor "novelty candies" have been breaking any sales records recently. Consequently, Topps has banked increasingly on ultra-high-end trading cards. The company's most expensive "pack," the beautiful, autograph-laden Topps Sterling, comes in a cherry-wood box and costs $250 for five cards. While those cards make money—as, it should be said, do the basic $1.50 packs—the trading-card business has been more or less moribund for a decade. So, it wasn't a total surprise when I was laid off in July, effective mid-September.
I'm glad I got the chance to work at Topps, if only because it was fun to tell people at parties that "I'm in the baseball card business." My Topps experience also helped me remember why collectors collect. It's the hunt for what the brand managers call "white whale" cards. I know it's awfully literal, but mine is the Herman Melville card I wrote for Topps' Allen and Ginter set. That's a new product—scarce around the office, not sold in the company store, $5 a pack in card shops—in which Gilded Age cultural figures mingle with the A-Rods and Nick Puntos. Odd, I know, but I love the set.
Before I left for good, I found what I'd been searching for. It was behind a locked door, which was itself behind an ordinary-looking backroom. I flipped the switch, and lights flickered on overhead, revealing a back-backroom awash in cards. Binders lined the walls, filled with every card in every Topps baseball and football set from the 1950s through the 1990s, all pasted—why?—to white three-hole-punch paper. To get to those shelves, I had to step on and over boxes brimming with loose cards and cards in bricklike 500-count vending boxes. And that was just the cards. A box fell off a shelf and baseballs autographed by Frank Robinson rolled out. Jerseys that were to have been cut up and inserted into "relic" cards gave one dusty corner the look of a chaotic locker room. A box of bats inscribed with the names of journeymen such as Geronimo Berroa and Ron Coomer sat in another.
This back-backroom would not have looked like much to most people. I was relieved, though, to discover that the baseball card wonderland I'd dreamed of was somewhere in that office after all.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

He Wrote "Bang the Drum Slowly"

Mark Harris died recently. He was a great writer and a good friend. I met him through my membership with The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). His most famous book was “Bang the Drum Slowly,” which was later made into a wonderful film starring Robert De Niro. Here is his obit. The man will be greatly missed.

Mark Harris, author of the acclaimed baseball novel "Bang the Drum Slowly," which he adapted for the 1973 movie starring Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro, has died. He was 84.Harris, a retired Arizona State University professor of English who lived in Goleta, Calif., died of complications related to Alzheimer's disease Wednesday at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, said his son, Henry Harris.The author of 13 novels and five nonfiction books, Harris was best known for his four baseball novels narrated by Henry Wiggen, the ace left-handed pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths: "The Southpaw" (1953), "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956), "A Ticket for a Seamstitch" (1957) and "It Looked Like For Ever" (1979)."Bang the Drum Slowly," named one of the top 100 sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated, was the most popular of the four.The tragicomic tale of Wiggen and catcher Bruce Pearson, who is dying of Hodgkin's disease, "Bang the Drum Slowly" was adapted for a live 1956 segment of "The U.S. Steel Hour," starring Paul Newman as Wiggen and Albert Salmi as Pearson. In the movie version, Moriarty played Wiggen and De Niro played Pearson. The novel also was adapted as a stage play."Bang the Drum Slowly" has been praised for succeeding on two levels."Henry's deadpan vernacular account of life in the dugout is refreshing, lively, and often uproariously funny," a critic for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review wrote. At the same time, "his reactions to his doomed friend are poignant and profoundly touching."Cordelia Candelaria, the author of "Seeking the Perfect Game: Baseball in American Literature," has rated Harris' "The Southpaw" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" among the top five baseball novels ever written.Candelaria, who taught creative writing at Arizona State University at Tempe, said that Harris' contribution to American literature was not limited to his baseball writing, though his greatest influence, she said, was through the character of Wiggen."He's every bit as permanent and important as Huckleberry Finn, as Ishmael and Ahab in 'Moby Dick,' and as Nick Adams in Hemingway's short stories," Candelaria said. "Henry Wiggen struggles with his individuality, his place in society and the moral dilemmas he faces. All of those struggles are as much about him as an American character as they are about baseball."Harris, who played baseball as a boy and often wrote nonfiction pieces about baseball, was known for writing realistically about the sport in his novels."I can't stand fantasy, especially in baseball," he told The Times in 1994."It has to be real for me. I think people make fantasy of it who don't know how it works realistically. That is a demand I made when I was a kid — that baseball has to be done right.""Diamond," a collection of Harris' baseball essays written between 1946 and 1993, was published in 1994.Although his father was "most widely recognized for his baseball literature," Henry Harris said Thursday, "there are other novels in his canon that he felt were equally validating of what was important to him: He was a lifelong pacifist and proponent of racial justice."Harris' first novel, "Trumpet to the World," about a young black man who marries a well-to-do white girl, was published in 1946.Added Henry Harris: "I think he expressed his pacifism in a uniquely dark way through a novel called 'Killing Everybody' in 1973, which was about the suffering of parents who had lost a child in a war."Born Mark Harris Finkelstein in Mount Vernon, N.Y. on Nov. 19, 1922, Harris legally changed his name in the 1940s when, his son said, "he was advised that his career as a writer would take better root if he did not go by a Jewish name." After serving in the Army during World War II, Harris worked as a newspaper and wire service reporter and as a writer for Negro Digest and Ebony magazines. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Denver in 1950, followed by a master's in English a year later. He received his doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 1956.He taught in the English departments at the University of Minnesota, San Francisco State University, Purdue University, California Institute of the Arts, USC and the University of Pittsburgh, among others.Among his nonfiction books are "City of Discontent: An Interpretive Biography of Vachel Lindsay," "Mark the Glove Boy, or The Last Days of Richard Nixon," and "Saul Bellow: Drumlin Woodchuck."Harris was a professor of English at Arizona State University at Tempe, where he also taught creative writing, from 1980 to 2001.In addition to his son Henry, Harris is survived by his wife of 61 years, Josephine Horen; his daughter, Hester Harris; another son, Anthony; a sister, Martha Harris; and three grandchildren.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

This will be my last post until mid-June, since I am going away to Florida. My wife is speaking at a conference in Orlando, and we’re going to visit Mickey Mouse while we’re there. As luck would have it, this is the second year in a row that I am missing the Red Sox–A’s series due to travel—I guess the obnoxious Sox fans that show their mugs at the games will be free from my heckling this time….

I’m sure my esteemed colleague, Ed, can hold down the fort while I’m away. Before I go, let’s have a look at what’s going on in sports today.

SEASONINGS: I am blown away by the fact that the Yankees are tied for last place and 13.5 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East! I just cannot remember the last time that happened—surely not in the Joe Torre/Derek Jeter era. It looks as if GM Brian Cashman’s strategy of hiring aging veteran superstars who have no sense of community with one another is finally starting to smell. In years past since the Bronx Bombers last won it all, this strategy has been enough for them to make it to the playoffs, but this was mostly on the strength of Torre’s brilliant managing and the play of the old guard who still remained—Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera. While these guys still produce (albeit Mo is a little shaky at times), there is no one else in the lineup who is putting up numbers. Bobby Abreu? Please. With his .228 batting average, no one has shrunk from the spotlight more. Jason Giambi? Right. The Juice Man is back on the DL, this time with torn tissue in his foot. Didn’t Giambi get the memo that steroid use can cause more injuries as players age?

A-Rod? What a joke. This guy can’t seem to avoid controversy, whether on the field or off. When is he going to realize that most people actually DON’T CARE what he has to say? He has to grab more attention, first by being seen in Toronto going to a restaurant, strip club, and hotel with a blonde woman who is not his wife, and then with his low-class actions in a game Wednesday where he shouted to distract Blue Jays third baseman Howie Clark so that he dropped a popup instead of making a critical out, and the Yankees won the game. Why am I not surprised that Rodriguez is unapologetic? His head is so far up his own behind that he has no idea what the line is between classy play and boorish play. Just goes to show that no amount of money can buy classiness. Of course, what he did is not technically illegal, and the Yanks did snap a five-game losing streak that night, but Yankee fans should be hanging their heads in embarrassment. This guy makes more money than anyone else to hit and field a baseball, and his cheesy maneuver is the only way he can think to help his team win on this night? Yeesh!

The Indians are still in control in the Central, although Detroit is still right there, and it’s way too soon to count out the Twins. I’m hoping the A’s can take Minnesota down a few notches in a series that begins tonight in Oaktown.

And the Athletics will have to start winning soon if they want to compete for a playoff spot. The Angels sit comfortably on top of the AL West at 11 games over .500, with Seattle in second and the A’s 5.5 games out and in third. I really hope that the Rangers don’t take their lousy 19–35 record out on new manager Ron Washington and fire him too soon. Wash will be a good manager, but he’ll need a year or two to settle in, especially with this club. Roster changes next year can only help. It was nice to see him in the opposing dugout on Tuesday when I attended the Rangers–A’s game—his first series back in town after he left the A’s third base coach position to take the manager’s job in Arlington.

Over in the National League East, the Mets are starting to pull away a bit from the Braves, even though they can’t beat Atlanta in a series. While I’d like nothing more than to see the Mets stomp all over the Braves, it may not matter at the end of the season if Atlanta can’t even get into the playoffs. Meanwhile the Amazin’s are actually on a better pace than last year and they haven’t even been fully healthy yet. We’ll see if they can keep up their stride—a bunch of guys are returning from the DL, but they have lost a few outfielders over the last couple games. If Carlos Beltran misses any significant time (he was pulled from the Giants–Mets game yesterday after a collision at first), the Mets’ offense may slow down. Of course, with Carlos Delgado and David Wright hitting well again, it may not!

I still chuckle to see the Brewers in first in the NL Central. The rest of the division is a bunch of sad sacks. While it’s an achievement for the Pirates and Cubs to be tied with the Cards for second at this point of the season, the other teams are only coming down to their level. The Cardinals look nothing like the team that won the Big Dance last year, and Houston just ended a 10-game losing streak. Cincinnati is plain bad again. This could be Milwaukee’s year to make the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

In the West, the Dodgers, Padres, and D-backs are in a virtual tie for first, and all are playing pretty well. The Giants are fading, at 5.5 games back—the Barry Freak Show will be the only big story coming from the city side of the bay this year—and the God Squad from Colorado is 6.5 behind. Speaking of the Giants, GM Brian Sabean must have read Ed’s column from May 30 on this page. Two days after he had another meltdown on the mound, closer Armando Benitez was traded away to the Florida Marlins for Randy Messenger. Bye-bye, Armando!

Over in the NBA, you’ve got to hand it to LeBron James. After the Detroit Pistons won the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, King James led Cleveland to three straight wins, including James’s 48-point, double-overtime masterpiece in Game Five. Even if the Cavaliers don’t advance, LeBron has finally shown what he’s got in the playoffs, and expectations will be higher from here on. He deserves credit for raising his game and carrying the team like the truly great ones can do.

Lastly, to all those who call Tim Duncan boring, I wish my team was that boring! After beating the Utah Jazz to advance to the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs have the chance for a fourth championship with Duncan, and for any who say he has no personality, I say, who cares? Duncan wins games, and off the court, he never gets into trouble. He is a surefire Hall of Famer, even if he retires right now. What difference does it make if he is lousy in front of the cameras, as long as he stays out of trouble and brings the trophy home?