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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Guest Blogger: Tom Gaines (ballparks, part 2)

A few weeks ago, Tom kindly posted to me his list of five favorite baseball stadia in the majors. (You'll find it in the July archives.) Here are his five worst big-league ballparks. Thanks, Tom!

In not-so-horrible to horrible order:

5) Oakland/Network Associates/MacAfee -whatever it is:
Going here actually was a nice time, just not as nice as about 14 other parks. What makes it not as nice is the "concrete circle" feel of the place, and the neighborhood. You get off the train and you're surrounded by junkyards and barbed wire. But the fans get very into the game, and they have a great fireworks show. I love the green and yellow, forever linked in my mind to those "non-coformist" teams of the 1970's.

4) Citizen's Bank Park, Philadelphia:
I had high hopes for this place because I went on a beautiful spring afternoon, about a month after it opened. I was very let down. Our seats were way up in the bleachers right next to the big-high-tech scoreboard. (At least I THINK it was high-tech. I couldn't see it.) And the neighborhood was a pile of rubble from the former Veterans Stadium, about four other stadiums, and a train station. I would give this place another chance, as long as I didn't have to stay in town too long. Philly is right up there with Detroit as my least favorite big city.

3) Yankee Stadium:
SURPRISE! I had a great time here in '78 as a kid, then a terrible time as an adult in '99. Sitting along the lines out in the outfield is taking your life in your own hands. There's NO foul territory. The woman in front of us got plunked, and had a huge bruise. Rude employees, very surly when I asked about the hours of the famous Momument Park. And not enough entrances or exits. This place is the product of the bankrupt and crime-ridden NYC of the 1970's. The myths and legends are all attached to the pre-1974 Yankee Stadium. There's no charm here. Unless your name is Giuliani or Trump.

2) Shea Stadium - New York, New York:'s a hell of a town...and the ballparks are kinda hellish, too. Nothing says "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" more than rude employees, overpriced tickets, a mascot with a baseball for a head, AND an airport runway next door. But the subway ride from Midtown isn't as bad as John Rocker says it is. It's just long. Go early, and get the #7 train at Times Square, not Grand Central, to beat the crowds!

1) The Metrodome, Minneapolis:
Baseball in a barn. Or a warehouse. No summer atmosphere. This place was built for football. (Sorry, Coach Ditka, I meant roller skating.) Actually, it probably wouldn't be good for that either. Here's hoping they get a retractable roof park up there soon. And that the taxpayers DON'T have to pay for it!

Monday, July 25, 2005

10 People Who Are Screwing Up America

My apologies in advance to those not included due to space considerations. List is not all-inclusive.

Bernard Goldberg (rat-faced, agenda-addled conservative "news critic")
Tucker Carlson (bow-tied talk-show rotten egg)
Donald Rumsfeld (war criminal)
Alan Keyes (self-deluded blowhard)
Ralph Reed (God's little hit man)
Mark Mays (CEO, Clear Channel)
Stephen Johnson (anti-environmentalist, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
George W. Bush
Ann Coulter (politically outspoken crack whore)
Karl Rove (traitor and threat to national security)

Additions welcome.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Ten Amplitude Modulations

Several records that have been on my mind.

Paul Simon, "Loves Me Like a Rock," 1973

Sounds a bit like the Five Blind Boys of Alabama stumbling into a Kingston Trio session-and transcending it. Essentially, that's not too far from what Paul Simon is about. He was a 50s rocker who ended up, like many of his generation, besotted by folk music. Unlike many of his peers, though, Simon also was besotted with the notion of having hit records, as well as being creative, and worked all sorts of different types of non-white-folk-or-English-rock influences into what he did. Not all of these "influences" were procured, shall we say, completely ethically (ask Los Lobos 'bout it).

Ohio Players, "Fire," 1974

I'm so thankful I heard this song when I was 11. If what's on this record--the out-there, hypersexual insanity of P-Funk injected with an extra dose of Midwest grit--was made accessible to impressionable kids like me, maybe the world wasn't a completely ridiculous place in which to grow up.

Robert Palmer, "Bad Case of Loving You," 1978

Back in 1978, there was this revolutionary idea that you could make stripped-down, driving rock and roll that just might get played on the radio. Every time something like "Bad Case of Loving You" came on the AM dial, it was riveting. Regrettable steps (bimbos in black dresses, cocaine, The Power Station) aside, Robert Palmer did some good sides. He had something going on.

Shadows of Knight, "Shake," 1968

After the formerly bluesy ("Gloria") Shadows of Knight, Chicago's teen kings of raunch, fell on some hard times, singer Jimy Sohns--one of the true wild men of the era--signed on with bubblegum producers Kasenetz & Katz and sang this piece penned by veteran pop/rock songsters Levine & Resnick. "Shake" has a solid punk-rock guitar tone, funky drumming, two-finger Farfisa-style organ, and a growling vocal. Solid all around, a really unique pop-punk hybrid. Some Hollywood movie needs to license this song (which was a top 40 hit in '68) and make Jimy Sohns a star again, even for just a little while.

Chase, "Get It On," 1971

Quite simply one of the most jaw-droppingly over-the-top records to make the charts anywhere. In this day and age, it's amazing to hear music this passionate and unconcerned with reserve; some new bands either adopt glum-faced monotony or just wink at you to show they're not really uncool enough to actually believe in what they profess to be passionate about.

Listening to this brass-section-fronted rock/latin/jazz band throw every last bit of sweat-dripping, masculine brio into the recording, one is reminded that John Lennon, Little Richard, James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Kurt Cobain were entertainers as much as anything-and played with passion.

All that being said, this record is also as funny as hell.

Les McCann, "Kathleen's Theme," 1963

Despite repeated exposure over the years, I know almost nothing about classical music. Sure, I've retained some of the great melodies of Beethoven, and the grand settings of Bach, and I think maybe some Mozart and maybe Debussy. (You see my point?)

Which is a strange way of getting to this haunting, gorgeous record. I think it owes something to Flamenco, or some other Spanish classical form. But it's also got something of a chamber-jazz approach, as well as a major-key upbeat piano solo in the middle. I know about as much of jazz as I do of classical, occasional exceptions ("In a Silent Way," Django Reinhardt, Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz) aside, so I can't say where this comes from or led to. But as its own thing, it's special. Strings arranged by Jimmy Haskell, who later did some work with Steely Dan.

Slim Jacobs, "That's Truckdrivin," 1965

Talking country blues concerning the ups and downs of a fascinating occupation, featuring a singer not particularly competent either at singing or playing his guitar, but who knew how to write and sell a damn funny song.

The Flares, "Foot Stomping," 1961

Only recently did I get a hold of this. It's certainly more of an R&B record than a soul record; what I mean by that in this case is that "Foot Stomping," a simple dance number, has a touch of the lowdown, the driving "oomph," rather than the smoother production values of much soul. It's music meant for grinding and shaking on wooden dance floors until your stylish clothes get soaked. This record--oddly enough, done in Los Angeles--is going into my DJ set.

Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, "Treat Her Like a Lady," 1971

The guitars have a classic funky, rock-styled click to them, the rhythm section (tambourine too!) are solid, and the vocals glide over the track as if they were also instruments. The hilarious machismo, masquerading as sensitivity, expressed in the lyrics is special, too. If you can resist taking the singer's sentiments seriously, you might find it a fantastic, driving uptempo record with as much garage rock in it as soul.

Shangri-La's, "Sophisticated Boom Boom," 1965

The Shangri-La's, a quartet of high-school girls from New Jersey, were marketed as tough biker chicks, but they were capable of singing rock, ballads, and uptempo girl-group pop. They sounded "street" and were totally charming.

Dave Marsh got this one wrong, just as he got a lot of things wrong in his Heart of Rock and Soul book (a listing of his 1,001 favorite 45s). His misreading of this song says that the character in this song is a tough chick unhappy to be at a party full of wallflowers.

I don't know where Marsh's interpretation comes from. The song begins with the lead singer having been ditched by her date. Walking sadly down the street, she hears music coming from "over there." "Over there?" one of the other girls asks. "No, there."

When our heroine walks into the party, she sees that the "girls [are] wearing formals and the guys [are] wearing ties." Everyone's keeping their cool but dancing to the sophisticated music: "Take two steps forward, then shake your hips." Marsh paints this record as depressing, which couldn't be farther from the truth! It's funny and sexy, a rallying cry for sharp dressers who like to dance while looking good.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Too Much Cream?

The Cubs pounded the Pirates today 11-1 at Wrigley Field. Jerry Hairston, the Cubs' newly installed center fielder, had an interesting game.

Hairston went hitless in his first three at-bats. With the bases filled and the Cubs up 7-1 in the sixth, he lined a Brian Meadows pitch down the left field line for a grand slam home run, the first of his career.

With two out in the top of the eighth, Hairston--who plays a very shallow center field--misjudged a ball hit by Michael Restovich, then broke back and outran his mistake, sticking his glove high in the air to snag the line drive.

Hairston made a show of his play, rolling over, getting up slowly, then tossing the ball into the stands before trotting in to the dugout.

Jose Mesa was the Pirates' new pitcher, and Hairston came up with nobody out and a man on first. Mesa threw a 94-mph fastball behind him, sending baserunner Ben Grieve to second on a very wild pitch.

Plate umpire Larry Poncino immediately hit Mesa and manager Lloyd McClendon with a warning.

Three pitches later, Hairston popped up to third base. On his way back to the dugout, he cut toward the mound and said to Mesa, "I'm gonna get your ass." (The TV cameras picked up Hairston's words very well.) Mesa walked off the mound toward Hairston and said something in response. Hairston scurried into his dugout, but Mesa continued to gesture toward him. The umpires moved toward the mound, and first base ump Gary Darling ejected Mesa.

This decision, possibly premature, inflamed an already bad situation. Mesa was furious and had to be restrained. Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon put on a lengthy and entertaining argument, gesturing at the mound, then at the Cubs dugout, then drawing a line with his hands to show the path that Hairston had taken.

Oddly enough, considering his role in the fray, Hairston remained in the game, playing center field in the top of the ninth. He did an ESPN postgame interview on the field, which was also strange, because he had only a minor role in the Cubs' victory.

Speaking of the incident in a post-game press conference, Hairston said, "It was two guys letting testosterone take over," and admitted surprise that Mesa would have thrown a pitch at him.

Hairston has called by scouts a very competitive player, perhaps overconfident and hard-assed. There's a great phrase in Spanish, meant to convey a person's sense of self, that would seem to fit what we saw of Hairston today. Translated, the phrase comes out something like "he has a little too much cream in his taco."

Maybe that's one reason why Dusty Baker has been reluctant to play him too much before Corey Patterson's demotion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Rockies Avalanche

The Colorado Rockies were busy on Wednesday, making trades with the Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics.

Colorado sent outfielder Preston Wilson (and a chunk of change) to Washington in exchange for right-handed pitcher Zach Day and outfielder J.J. Davis. Following this, the Rox acquired a new outfielder, Eric Byrnes, from Oakland, sending left-handed starting pitcher Joe Kennedy and right-handed reliever Jay Witasick to the bay. The Athletics also threw in infield prospect Adam Quintanilla.

The Rockies, currently in last place in the NL West and sporting the league's worst record, traded nearly all of their valuable, or even semi-valuable, chips. (Todd Helton was pretty much taken off the table six weeks ago when he said he wanted to stick around.) Wilson, as a proven hitter and center fielder in the final year of his contract, was bound to go, having drawn interest from the Cubs and some other clubs. Kennedy, a lefty who has been effective in the past, had value, and Witasick, an up-and-down middle/setup guy, is having something of a renaissance.

Getting rid of Wilson was a no-brainer. He's 31, coming off serious knee problems, and overrated even if healthy. It's not that he's a bad player, but Wilson isn't anyone to build a franchise around. His perceived value is higher than his actual value. Of course, since he's playing out his contract, his value to another team isn't too high, either, so the Rockies had to pay a good portion of his salary.

What did Colorado get in return? Zach Day is a 27-year-old finesse pitcher with his fourth organization. He lacks strikeout stuff, and as a result can't afford his frequent control problems. If he continues to develop his change-up, Day should be a #3 or #4 starter. His sinker/slider repertoire makes him seemingly a good fit for Denver (if any pitcher can be a good fit for Denver), but Day does tend to give up the occasional home run.

J.J. Davis, Pittsburgh's first-round draft pick in 1997, couldn't crack the Nats' lineup and has been assigned from Washington's Triple-A club to Colorado's. A classic tools player without good strike zone judgement, Davis will never hit major league pitching.

It's rather amazing to see the Rockies get so little for Wilson, who led the NL in RBI in 2003. Everyone knows, of course, that an injured player in the last year of his contract playing in a ballpark that's inflated his numbers has little trade value. Colorado was in a real bind: they had to play Wilson to show other clubs that he was healthy, but the longer the Rockies waited, the less they'd get in return. Making trades isn't an easy job, especially when your team has to deal and possesses few options. (It makes you wonder just what the Cubs were offering for him that the Rockies wouldn't take.)

The Nationals get, in Wilson, a veteran center fielder who plays hard and has some speed and power. Of course, RFK Stadium in Washington has been an offensive graveyard this year, and I doubt whether Wilson can cover the ground he'll need to. With the fragile condition of Wilson's knees, I'm not sure he's much of an upgrade defensively over Brad Wilkerson, who spent a big chunk of the first half in center.

Wilson, Jose Guillen, and just-activated Ryan Church (hitting .325 before he was disabled) will form the Nats' outfield. With Nick Johnson out indefinitely with a bad heel, Wilkerson will play first.

The trade with Oakland is fascinating. Overachieving outfielder Eric Byrnes, a fan favorite due to his all-out style of play, goes to Colorado. He does a lot of things well at the plate, and has speed, but doesn't excel in any area. A fine left fielder, Byrnes is already 29, and so he won't be getting much better. His aggressiveness is out of control at times, but if he runs into enough fastballs, Byrnes could hit 25 homers in 500 at-bats for the Rockies.

Perhaps the key to the trade for the Rox is infielder Adam Quintanilla, a former star at the University of Texas. He's got the range of a second baseman but a good throwing arm. He was hitting .296 with four homers this year at Double-A; his bat has not come around the way that the Athletics thought it would when they made him the 33rd player overall taken in the 2003 draft.

To get Byrnes and Quintanilla, Colorado traded arms. Joe Kennedy is just the kind of pitcher who could do a fantastic job in a bigger park--like Oakland's. He throws four pitches (sinker, slider, curve, change); none of them are oustanding, but Kennedy is a competitor and his quality change-up has deception. He'll run the fastball in on hitters and has little fear.

He can throw with a little more confidence in Oakland. Working at Coors Field tends to mess up a lot of pitchers, especially those whose game can be destroyed by being just a little bit off their mark. Kennedy, that kind of finesse guy, could easily win ten games down the stretch for the Athletics. Oakland also got Jay Witasick, who's a decent middle-late reliever. He'll help out but is not a big player.

The A's get two arms to help them vie for the playoffs. Byrnes is replaced by Jay Payton, acquired from Boston earlier in the day after wearing out his welcome with the Red Sox (Payton had a hissy fit after finding out he was flip-flopped in the batting order after coming in for a double switch). The Red Sox got submarining righty Chad Bradford in return for Payton.

One would assume that rookie righty Joe Blanton, who's been brutal for the A's so far as a starter, will end up in the bullpen or back at Sacramento.

So here's how it shakes out:

Gains: Eric Byrnes, Adam Quintanilla, Zach Day, and J.J. Davis
Loses: Preston Wilson, a lot of money, Joe Kennedy, and Jay Witasick
Summary: The only guys who could make these trades work for Colorado are Quintanilla and Day, and those are two big gambles.

Gains: Preston Wilson, nearly for free
Loses: Zach Day, J.J. Davis, and "future considerations," likely to be a low-level prospect or some cash
Summary: Great deal for Washington.

Gains: Joe Kennedy, Jay Witasick, Jay Payton
Loses: Eric Byrnes, Adam Quintanilla, Chad Bradford
Summary: Kennedy could be an impact player for the A's. That alone makes it a good day for Billy Beane.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Never Can Say Goodbye

I first heard Gloria Gaynor's "Never Can Say Goodbye" when it came out, in 1974. I was eleven years old, and despite having listened to pop music--on the radio and on 45s--for only a few months, I already knew that music transported me to another universe.

The image that a lot of people have of disco music really began, at least to the public consciousness, in this song. The insistent, fast, swooshy backbeat; that sometimes harshly-voiced, sometimes flowing string arrangement. The female chorus, the speed-freak bongo playing, the slightly phased guitar playing a reggae backbeat, and trumpets filched either from Motown, the "This Is Tom Jones" show band, or Richard Wagner.

But all these parts work together so well that even if these musical statments are overdrawn, and now cliched, objectively, they're FANTASTIC. There's a reason "Never Can Say Goodbye" was such a big hit: it was thrilling, it excited the hell out of people. This was not music played on your local lite-rock radio station that the receptionist had on as white noise at the office. This was exciting music that people danced to, something that felt like nothing they'd heard.

A few records in 1974 really helped create a public context for disco: "Never Can Say Goodbye," the amazing "Rock the Boat," George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby," and a few others just as important. And almost without exception, they're fantastic records, blending various rock, show tune, and even classical sensibilities with danceable, soul-influenced backgrounds.

And "Never Can Say Goodbye" was also just a great song, initially recorded (in 1971) by a loveable and vulnerable Michael Jackson, then later on by the Communards, who recast the song (and, by the very nature of publicly gay men singing it, recontextualizing it--and justifiably, I say, since without gay men disco would hardly exist) as a sort of gay anthem. And then there's Gloria Gaynor's performance: big, brassy, tough but sensitive, and even artful in spots, yet frantic and panicked about the emotional torment still to come. And still making one great sexy noise against a groovy, and the word fits, musical background.

(Now at least if you don't love this record, I hope you have gained at least some understanding of why someone might. Some of it, I'm pretty sure, has to do with one's attitude toward dancing.)

Goofily, one of the record's producers was Meco, who years later would record a ri-disco-lus cantina-band-playing-Astaire-and-Rogers-music-on-DMT version of the theme music from "Star Wars." I don't really hold that against him.

This record reached #9 on the Billboard charts in December, 1974 and, like so many other great songs, has helped open me to the world in ways I never thought possible.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Outfield Out

The Cubs lost their eighth straight game last night, 9-4 at Atlanta, then shipped outfielders Corey Patterson and Jason Dubois to Triple-A Iowa.

Patterson had been in a horrible slide for several weeks, batting .168 since June 1, while Dubois was striking out once every three times up and played defense as badly as his biggest detractors could have predicted. Both are talented players who couldn't handle the load of being major contributors right now. They should ultimately be back in the majors, but neither are guaranteed starting roles unless they show significant improvement.

The Cubs have purchased two outfielders, 24-year-old Adam Greenberg and 23-year-old Matt Murton, from Double-A West Tenn to replace Patterson and Dubois on the roster.

Greenberg, less than a year out of Class A ball, is a speedy left-handed line-drive hitter who hits singles, takes walks, and can make things happen on the bases. The Cubs drafted him in 2002 out of North Carolina in the ninth round. He has been playing right field at West Tenn.

It's unclear who will play center field for the Cubs with Patterson gone. Jerry Hairston, who is really the only man on the Cubs to show any aptitude for leading off this season, could take over on an everyday basis, but Dusty Baker has so far been hesitant to use the former Orioles swingman. Hairston will certainly play either center or second base against lefties. Against right-handed pitchers, Jeromy Burnitz could see some time in center with Greenberg in right field.

Murton, Boston's first-round draft choice in 2003, came over in last year's Nomar Garciaparra deal. He's a left fielder exclusively, and as a righthanded batter, will probably platoon with Todd Hollandsworth. Murton is an impressive hitter, combining excellent on-base skills and a developing power swing that scouts feel will produce 20 homers a year.

These roster moves do not preclude the possibility of further deals, but with the Cubs now eight games out of the wild-card spot, and in third place in the NL Central, it's difficult to see the front office pulling off a major deal to put the club "over the top." They need help just getting their heads above water.

My only question now is, "why did this take so long"? Not just to send out Patterson and Dubois, who were struggling, but to make SOME sort of substantive changes to a lineup that now ranks 13th in the National League in runs. All year the Cubs have been trying to get someone on base at the top of the order, and while Hairston and Todd Walker either rode the bench or batted sixth in Dusty Baker's convoluted notion of a lineup, Patterson and Neifi Perez did immeasurable harm to the offense with their inability to reach base even 30 percent of the time.

Let's see if the Cubs can get it right. Eight games behind Atlanta for the wild card, and four games under .500, the pressure's certainly off.

Terror, Again

Woke up this morning to the news that terrorist attacks in London have killed dozens and injured hundreds. Is trying to make some sense out of this just a fool’s errand?

The first feeling that comes to my mind is that taking innocent human lives for any reason—whether it be fear, anger, hatred, or even to address a legitimate grievance—is sick, reprehensible, morally indefensible. There is simply NO WAY to defend terrorism; the slippery slope of justifying killing of others for some “greater goal” is one I don’t feel comfortable endorsing.

Most, if not all, terrorists, and this goes for Al-Qaeda, Timothy McVeigh, John Brown, the IRA, the PLO, the SLA, Hamas, or any other group you’d care to name, act out of some combination of fear, hatred, and a vainglorious sense of mission to destroy some evil or another. It’s hard to say you killed someone out of love, although some wretches claim to be doing just that.

What’s really happening is that terrorists are saying, “your Western-style democracy sucks.” And terrorist attacks point out the true division between representative democracy, as we practice it here, and much of the rest of the world.

Most of us in America don’t really believe in killing people to get what we want; those of us who didn’t vote for George Bush are often driven to furious, nearly apoplectic mania by the continued assault on the people of Iraq and the pathetic justifications of our presence there.

Many of the people who did vote for Bush are suffering from a collective cognitive dissonance, engaged in a constant and futile attempt to pretend that we’re not guilty of terrorism ourselves. Or they’re hyper-religious Christian freaks, just as crazy as the most insane Muslim you’d care to find, who think that God’s only message was that it’s really cool to smite all the bad guys.

We, as a culture, prefer to leave the killing up to our governments, who in Korea, Vietnam, and increasingly in the Mideast, wage war on shadow organizations that can’t be easily defeated.

And terrorists, who don’t necessarily really care about the people they claim to be acting for, love these kinds of situations; many insurgent groups can drum up plenty of support against an attacking country. Why should we think it’s so odd that millions of those in the Mideast would rejoice at the killing of Americans or British citizens? Plenty of Americans don’t seem to have a problem with torturing people we think might be guilty of terrorist acts. We were glad to bomb the shit out of the Japanese at Hiroshima or, even less defensibly (if that's possible), Nagasaki, to help us win the war.

We here in the United States think that God is on our side, that he’s (and it’s always he, isn’t it?) has blessed us, that our self-appointed responsibility as the most powerful and important country in the world gives us license to do whatever we want. And it’s that myopia that gives terrorists power to play the underdog—a role they have mastered perfectly.

What the terrorists are doing is a challenge, not only to the sanctity of life, but also to the entire notion of democracy. And it’s one that bears considering.

When we elect our officials, we give much of our collective power to them, but we ask very little in return. We tolerate being lied to, cheated, swindled, and used by our trusted officials, who use our money and effort to make their friends wealthy. We send our lower-middle-class men and women off to fight battles initiated to protect “our way of life”—cheap oil and high profits for people in the energy business.

As always, then, the terrorists assume that democracy sucks, that the only option is “direct action” intended to force rival governments out of their country. And killing innocent people certainly is a statement of some sort, but it’s one that does nothing to win anyone’s hearts and minds in the country they’re trying to change.

All that happened today in London is that a bunch of innocent people died, painfully and horribly, in an affront to humanity and God, and life got just a little bit harder for Tony Blair. So Blair, and Bush, will wag their fingers at the evil terrorists, go on fighting a stupid and wasteful war that is also an affront to humanity and God, and the cauldron keeps getting hotter.

God help us all.