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Sunday, August 19, 2012

An Open Letter to the Houston Astros

It all started innocently enough.  Having grown up in West Jersey the neighborhood kids all took decidedly different directions when it came to following a professional sports team.  It's a weird area, about an hour from Philly and about an hour from New York City.

There were a handful of kids that gravitated toward the Phillies, Eagles and their cheese steak eating brethren.   Others were Yankee/NY Giants devotees.  And, since it was the late 70s, early 80s, America's teams were sprinkled in.  The Dallas Cowboys, Dolphins, Steelers all come to mind.  You know, the teams that won Championships.

In 1980 the Philadelphia Phillies were the team to beat.  Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, and, ick, Pete Rose were the talk of baseball.  Their disgusting players were topped only by their disgusting excuse for a stadium, the now mercifully demolished Veterans Stadium.   A few kids on the block ate this nonsense up.  They wanted to throw lefty during wiffle ball games emulating Carlton.  They shook their hips like Schmidt when they stepped in the batters box.  They annoyed the living hell out of a certain 8 year old.

But how could you root for the Yankees?  We weren't really near NYC.    I can count on one hand the times our family visited New York.  That was as foreign a place to me as Texas

Right, Texas.  Where everything is bigger.  Everything is better.  Don't mess with it.

And in 1980 the Houston Astros were the other toast of the National League.  This is back when two teams won divisions.  Two teams played for the pennant.  Kids could watch a Championship game at 4pm.  Oh, and those bright rainbow jerseys.  And the Astrodome.  And Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl and Cesar Cedeno.

Saturday afternoons were spent in basements playing Strat-o-Matic and waiting for Mel Allen to show highlights of the week that was and utter his famous "How about That?"  Salaries were low and intensity was high.  Sideburns and afros ruled the day and steroids were nowhere to be found.  Beer guts and chewing tobacco were pretty darn prevalent though.  Polyester uniforms and players who stayed with teams for more than 1 or 2 years too.

If the Phillies, and more importantly their loud mouth fans thought they were going to convert me, they had another thing coming.  The hell with that!!  If kids can root for Roger Staubach and Joe Montana why can't I root for a baseball team from out of the area??  It was that season my heart headed to the southwest.

Houston lost that Championship series to the Phillies in what is now considered a classic.  4 of the 5 games went into extra innings.  The Astros blew a 3 run lead late in Game 5 and the Phillies eventually went on to beat the KC Royals and win the World Series.  It was heartbreaking.  But, there was some measure of satisfaction.  This team was a fun group to root for.  They played small ball and pitched well.  They used speed and the cavernous Dome to execute their plan.  They out-hustled you.  They out willed you.  And they never gave up.  That year they were just a hair short.

And the year after that...  and after that...  and here today, some 32 years later, they stand 39-82.  Without question the worst franchise in baseball.  Perhaps, the worst franchise in sports.

This after the 1986 NLCS against the Mets.  Another brutal and devastating series loss that included the 16 inning classic that clinched it for the Mets.  I remember wrapping up my own practice and racing home to catch Billy Hatcher hit the huge home run off Jesse Orosco in the 14th to tie up the game.  It was minutes later the Mets would be celebrating on our turf.  It was days later Bill Buckner booted a ball and the Mets magical run culminated with a title.

Couldn't Houston lose a big series to a team further away???

Of course they could.  Atlanta, several times in the 90s.  The Bagwell and Biggio days.  Mike Hampton and Lima time.  Teams that would roll through the regular season and then get swept away in the (snore) Wildcard round.  Chipper Jones and Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine and that insufferable Tomahawk Chop would ruin many an October.

But how could I give up now??  They were a legitimate franchise with a new stadium.  Enron!!  A can't miss gem in the center of town!!  A buddy of mine and I flew there to catch the opening series.  They opened with the Yankees for an exhibition just like they did with the Dome in 1962.  What a weekend!!!  "This is going to be the decade!!"

Needless to say Enron does not have the naming rights anymore.  And that gem in the middle of Houston is empty as my hopes of an Astros Championship these days.  Oh, and the team in Arlington, Texas has had all the success lately.  The Rangers have an ex-junkie superstar and a coke sniffing manager.  Yet all they do is get to the World Series every year with Nolan Ryan (He's the friggin Principal Owner!) watching from behind the plate.  Kick me when I'm down Nolan!!

Now, just hours after the Astros fired their manager and a couple of coaches, the harsh realization that things will never be the same.

I haven't watched a game all year.  They have been made a pawn in the larger game that is MLB ownership and the chase for the television dollar.  Next year my beloved team moves to the American League.  The league where pitchers keep their jackets on when it's their turn to hit.  The league where Evil Empires are littered in every division.  The league where my team has no bloody chance.

The AL West with Albert Pujols.  Ya know the guy who hit broke my heart with a bomb off closer Brad Lidge in 2005.  I swear that ball is still moving.  The AL West and Nolan Ryan's Rangers.  The AL West...  a division that does not include New York or Philly.  It was always fun to know I had a chance to see my boys head East for a series.  That series will be less and less frequent.

The Astros may have rallied from Pujols dagger in 2005 and made their only World Series (it goes without saying that they were swept...  by the Chicago White Sox.)  They showed a toughness for getting off the mat and, thanks to Carlos Beltran, they gave their fans a hell of a ride.

But how much can a fan take?  If you grow up despising a league and its rules can you now accept your team moving there?

MLB Commish Bud Selig had the Milwaukee franchise in Houston's NL division.  When I grew up that team was in the AL!!  Robin Yount and Paul Molitor were legends from that City.  Why couldn't he just move them back?

Right.  The mighty dollar.  And the Brewers were Selig's old team.  Turns out since they joined the NL a few years back the Brew Crew has done pretty well.

So as the new owners bought Houston he lowered the selling price if Houston took the move.

What would you do?  Owner Jim Craig spent $610 million rather than $680.  That's a lot of leather boots and bar-b-q.

And it's a real shame.

Championship games are no longer be televised a 4pm.  Players are now suspended for performance enhancing drugs during the middle of a pennant race.  Beers are $10 and parking is far more for a day at the park.  And the DH still exists.

Me?  I'm looking to disengage like more and more kids these days.  Maybe the NFL is really the answer.  Games one day a week at 1 and 4pm EST.  There are primetime events but all the important events are easily accessible.  They have the fan, and more importantly the young fan, compelled and eager to see the next game.  Every year there is a renewed hope that his or her team can make a playoff run.  There are class organizations with rabid fan bases.

Oh wait, I like the Seattle Seahawks.  Good grief.  Guess I will catch up on the DVR.  Project Runway and Chopped sounds about right.  Fare thee well Houston.  Dare I say "Thanks for the Memories?"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Act Like You've Been There

It's happening again.  Well, it's been happening forever and shows no signs of letting up.  In Bristol, CT this evening Par-Hills, NJ faced Newark, DE for the Boys Mid-Atlantic Little League Championship.  It was a classic pitchers duel and NJ held a 1-0 lead in the final inning.   Delaware found itself down to their final out quickly.  And with two outs a young man got a hold of a hanging curve ball and sent it to the wall.  Note, it did not go over the wall.  Did that prevent the young man from raising his arms in joy before he touched first base?  Did his over jubilance send the outfielders into disarray?  Nope, he wasn't hustling and the defense played the ball correctly.  The batter barely made it to second and soon thereafter the game was over.  1-0 NJ wins.

Now, since the boy who followed the double made an out you might say much adieu about nothing.  It's a kid showing some enthusiasm.  It's a kid having fun.  Wrong.  It's a kid playing the game the wrong way.  Hit the ball, put your head down, and run until your coaches tell you to stop.  He should have been on third base.  There, a passed ball or wild pitch ties the game.

That's not how things are done anymore.  And as both the Olympics wind down and the NFL gets ready to start up it is high time we address some glaring issues in the sporting life.

First, let's examine Jamaican sprinter and World's fastest man, Usain Bolt.  On one hand his brilliance on the track can not be ignored.  But at the same time his arrogance and ego present issues.  One, his posing at the end of each race shows up his fellow racers.   Crossing the line first and the gold medal that comes with it are reward enough.  The fellow competitors made every effort too Mr. Bolt.   They do not need, nor deserve your showboating and rubbing their collective faces in it?  And you need not say you are "the greatest athlete of all time" in post race interviews either.  Same goes with NBC or the countless other talking heads bestowing such praise to the walking fish called Michael Phelps.  They are all amazing.  They are all worthy of recognition.  They are not, one, or all, the greatest ever.  Really, how on Earth could you figure that out??  They are the best right now, in their respective fields.  Kobe and LeBron are different than MJ and Bird.  Peyton Manning is different from Johnny Unitas.  Stop comparing and enjoy the moment.  And when the moment is here keep your mouth shut and respect the game.

But how can we do that these days when ESPN rules the airwaves and our kids are emulating highlight reel whores?  Recently arrested Miami Dolphins receiver is a gifted athlete capable of remarkable things on the field.  Unfortunately when his name comes up more often than not you think of over the top touchdown celebrations (in addition to rap sheets.)  Quick, name his last great sporting accomplishment.  Ok, name the last 3 (yes, 3!!) reality shows he has appeared on/in.

Slam dunks are valued more than a crisp bounce pass.  Bone jarring hits on the ice get as much time as a defenseman laying out to block a slap shot.  The major networks are content (read: over the top giddy) showing Tiger Woods play his weekend round even is he is out of contention.  Will he swear?  Spit?  Freak out on a cameraman??

We shouldn't care!  The game should be the event.  And the game should be played the right way and without any ego.

Fat chance?  Maybe.  But as the summer winds down and many of us head to the sporting field to coach or volunteer the opportunity is there to make real change.

Tell your kids to play hard, fair and with above board sportsmanship.  It's not the end of the world if they tell an opponent "nice play."  There should never be taunting or teasing of the foe.  Kids should hustle through each base and never show up a pitcher, or goalie, or opposing coach.  Act like you've been there and do it with a smile on your face.  Take a look here folks...  This is how it is done. Where have you gone Barry Sanders?

PS:  What will NBC do now that the Games are over?  Can a monkey show and Matthew Perry be the answer?  What on Earth are Rhythmic Gymnastics and how is that an Olympic event and baseball/softball is not?  Will Tiger ever win another Major?  The Yankees will NOT win the World Series this year!  The Newsroom turned out to be a terrific show.  The Romney/Ryan ticket is compelling and will make a formidable foe for the current administration.  Have a great week folks!  Summer is winding down...  go get some.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

I Fell Off The Wagon

When I started this blog I was on a "News Fast" (Initial News Fast Post Here...) from politics, political news, and the day to day political horse race. I crowed about my farewell to The New York Times. I was going to be above it all....

But I've fallen off the wagon.

First, I started with my "high minded thoughts on politics " blogs, attempting a non-partisan take on some basic political structural fault lines, like our federalist system and the presidency. Next, I dipped a few toes into gay marriage and the Sandusky debate.

Soon,  I found excuses to start reading political news. At first,  just skimming (only for important issues, so I told myself) and then limiting myself to only foreign press coverage of the US presidential race. Then Salon. Then Slate. Then The Nation. Then The New Republic, Then Talking Points Memo. Then, finally, I hit rock bottom, to my deep shame, with The New York Times....

Why do I have this monkey on my back? Why am I so easily drawn in?

Why am I so obsessed? Do I need a manly hobby? Do I need to start watching sports? Playing cards? Golfing? A sports car?

Is it the impending presidential election?

Its not because I am undecided. And I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything.

I voted for Obama in 2008 and I will be voting for Obama again and that's never really been at issue. I consistently vote for the Democrats. 

Why the Democrats?

I'm socially very libertarian and, while being rather boring and middle-class myself, have a high personal tolerance for freaks, weirdos and alternative lifestyles.  On the fiscal side, while I am all for energetic commerce, I think the government has a role to play in providing a hedge against the inequities of the marketplace and a check on some of our more greedy impulses, and we do have a moral responsibility to help bear each others burdens, many of which burdens are so urgent that they cannot wait until the "voluntary" spirit moves us to do something about it.

Now some say that they "vote for the person, not the party".  I can respect that, and we can all come up with examples where one person can make a huge difference, and perhaps the presidency is one of those examples. But for me, in a system where national political power is split among three different branches, and at least two different levels (state and federal), I choose to play the averages and vote by party for the Democrats, figuring that the more folks in office that align with my values, the more likely it is that I will see those values enacted.

Also, in my view, compared to the GOP, the Democrats are open to a broader range of ideas and policy options. And in a constantly changing world with instantaneous communication and a dynamic global economy, openness to new ideas is essential. A good idea, backed up by some facts and data, is a good idea regardless of its source, whether from the left, the right, or even (gasp!) from outside of the United States.

In fact, the Democrats have even stolen some of their better ideas (welfare reform, health insurance reform, reinventing government using business principles, and drone strikes) from the GOP --- the GOP of the pre-Tea Party Era, that is. Remember back in the 1990s and early 2000s when the GOP was the party of new ideas, and the Dems were stuck in the 1960s? Remember when folks on the right like Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich (sometimes), William Weld, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Orrin Hatch, Tom Kean, and Pete Wilson respected intellect, education and innovation?

Mitt Romney, Harvard Law School grad, fell into this category as well, before he shamelessly sold his soul to the anti-intellectual, anti-science, superstition-filled, tri-corner hat wearing, dog-whistle racism spouting, birth certificate demanding, every paranoid internet-rumor believing Tea Party to run for president. His recent selection of Tea Party favorite Paul Ryan as his running mate is the icing on the cake.

Alright, I got all of that out of me.

I have gone on this political news binge, thrown up in the gutter with my thoughts above, and now time to get back on the wagon of my News Fast. 

One day at a time.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Summer School

How much is too much in terms of summer homework for school age kids?  For instance, is three books and corresponding reports in addition to the 25 computer math assignments (which include approx. 10 questions each) too much?  Or is it not enough?  As a proponent of longer school days, and years, it's hard to argue against the pursuit of higher knowledge.

But you can't have it both ways, can you?  If you are going to give a kid (here a 10 year old kid) a few months off, let them take off.  Now, if your kid is a gamer or tv crack head this does not apply to you.  Get your kid active and engaged or suffer the consequences.  Oh, and if your kid goes the other way and is an avid reader and/or real brainy like, tell them to keep doing what they are doing.

This question applies to the middle of the road kid.  An active kid with a strong personality who does well, but not great.  Can they take this time to make social connections?  Use this time to forget about the horror that was 4th grade?   Should these assignments hang over her head during camps, pool days, and family vacations?

Probably.  But the reality is they hang over the parents head more than the students.

Suppose that is the plight of today's parents.  The responsibilities are endless.  The thought of my parents asking me to do homework in August is downright absurd.

But that's the point right?  We are better off now with all this new and advanced schooling.  Our parents who worked two jobs and had no time to help with the homework we didn't have were so flawed right?

Not exactly.  We cannot adequately do the math yet (and not simply because we can't do math.)  But are we certain that children raised by Gen X'ers are going to be more successful than their parents?  All indications are they will not, right?  Where will the jobs come from?  Is it on Mars exploration?  Maybe if we all head up there we can start anew?

Wait, how are we all going to get there?  Our recent manned trips have not been stellar.  Let's be honest, NASA has been a colossal waste of money over the past few decades.  OK, it gives us some important technologies and teaches us about climate, the Earth and countless other things.  Frankly, the money could be better spent down here.  Perhaps we can scrap the program for a decade and cultivate our schools and universities best scientific minds with a real eye toward the future.

Then, we hold a giant job fair/science convention in an effort to remedy some key issues.  After we tackle global warming and alternative fuels the scientists left over can go start a privately run space firm.  Richard Branson should still be alive to finance the thing.

We can't exactly rely on the government to operate our National budget.  Why do we expect them to find out what's going on a galaxy away?

If the public transportation system that carries NJ commuters in and out of NYC is any indication...  we are all in for a long wait.

It's simple really.  If we want to get ahead our children need to be in school far longer, both in days and hours.  The time of half assed solutions is over.

Go 10 hours a day, 10 months a year.  Go hard on math and science with an emphasis on written and verbal communication.  We like to talk, and more honestly, hear ourselves talk (i.e.: all of this egocentric blog.)  Let's be the best at talking.  We are producing more customer service folks than any other country...  let's be the best at that too!  Serve with a confident smile and lose the smirk.

Oh, and when kids have 2 months off...  it's simply 2 months off.  There will be plenty of time to work during summers and be, generally annoyed with the process.  Let them breathe a bit before it all gets too real.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Much Adieu About Chicken?

Look, the Chik-Fil-A thing comes down to a few simple things, right?

A private company, owner, etc...  can think or believe anyway they want, right?  And the Bill of Rights guarantees he or she can express those thoughts, however bigoted, anyway they choose?

The same freedoms can be expressed by the masses of fast food lovers we call Americans.  You don't like the message and want to boycott the fried goodness?  Then go right ahead.  No one is forcing you to eat this stuff!  Throw a rock in Anytown, USA and chances are you will hit a fried chicken store.

The other, bigger issue, is would you want your opinions known if you were the head of a company?  That is, you run the risk of alienating a large customer base should they not agree with your views.

At first glance you would think keeping things close to the vest might be more appropriate.  But watching the turnout of fast food loving, queer hating chicken mongers one can argue this methodology is pretty sound.

After all, we have divided this Country in half in every imaginable way, why not with our greatest passion, fried food.  Tell the World your view, even if it is narrow, and let the chips(potato, not poker) fall where they may.

There are two parties.  There are two viewpoints.  There are two opinions.

Left and right.  Conservative and liberal.  Right and Wrong.  Well, the last one is clearly up for debate, if we knew how to do that anymore.

We have become so fixated on separating one another rather than embracing each others differences.  It's crazy.  Worse, it's counterproductive.

If we cannot work together, or understand each others viewpoints, how on Earth will we start digging ourselves out of the financial ruin we find ourselves in?

Let the Chicken man hate and let the gay folks marry.  If there is room for so many fast food chains there has to be room for all this nonsense to coexist.

Now, tell me, when do we start talking about alternative fuel sources, gun violence, the importance of math and science in schools, how Ryan Lochte is overrated...  ya know, the important stuff?

Oh wait, I think the creepy Burger King mascot is having a press conference regarding immigration reform.  That promises to be a Whopper.


If we are going to be outraged about anything Chik Fil A does shouldn't it be their weird ass commercials with the cows who can't spell?  Who are the ad wizards that came up with that?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Finally On the Stage That Suits Her, Brandi Carlile at The Wellmont

Brandi Carlile, 7.31.12 Wellmont Theatre, Montclair

A few songs into last night's well attended concert at Montclair's Wellmont Theatre, the diminutive singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile recounted how she got her start as an opening act for artists like Ray LaMontagne  and Tori Amos.  She said it was great to share the stage with them, but when she was done it was "like, 6pm."   The sun was still shining.  And it wasn't easy playing in that blistering sun.  One day, she hoped, she would play when the sun goes down.  You know, the "mystical" time when the lights go down, smoke fills the stage and the crowd goes wild.

Ms. Carlile will never be an opening act again.  In fact, there is no telling what her future holds and what venues she can play.  Arenas?  Stadiums?  Ok, that might be pushing it.  But make no mistake, this little firecracker from the Pacific Northwest is a genuine force on stage.  And that voice?  It's a pure natural wonder.

Out promoting her 4th LP, Bear Creek, Carlile, opened the set with that album's first track, "Hard Way Home."  It is a toe tapping diddy show that was quick to engage the enthusiastic crowd.  She was joined, like she has been for the past 10 years, with identical twins and key collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth.  Picture fedora wearing giants flanking a tiny, but kick ass pixie.  It looks odd...  but sounds so right.

Big, bruising guitars and bass lines joined with mandolins, violins, and that voice.  Oh, was the voice mentioned before?

Well, it soars.  And she knows it.  Who else can cover Freddie Mercury "Bohemian Rhapsody" from last night's show. and Paul McCartney/Beatles "Oh Darling" and make it look so effortless?  This is a confident performer, unafraid to take a chance.

It's one thing to have the damn gift that pours from her mouth reciting the wonderful story songs she pens.  Add the boundless energy and joy she brings to the live event and you have got yourself something special.

And sure, there are obvious comparisons that come to mind.  Bonnie Raitt meets Melissa Etheridge.  Shawn Colvin meets Sheryl Crow.  Ingrid Michaelson meets Miranda Lambert.

Leave that nonsense to other folks.

Brandi Carlile is an American original.  Is it a hootenanny?  A lesbian convention?  Rock show?  Pop show?  Alt show?


Early on in the set she expressed her appreciation to the crowd, and explained how they too were part of the night's proceedings.  Then she and her mates dismissed the microphones and amps and played a song acapella.  It was sweet, sincere and downright moving.  She was sure to reach the rafters with her angelic voice and did it all with a smile on her face.

Much like the smile she put on the faces of all those witness to her performance.

She hits the road for more shows and this column urges you to take a look.  For more:

Highlights from last night include, but are not limited to:

"The Story"  Her signature song.  An epic track and haunting tale of love and yearning.  She could have rode into the sunset after writing this and still be considered legendary.  As timely today as it was when it was written several years ago.  Brilliant.

"Raise Hell"  From the new record, and here live from the studio where she recorded it.  This is a country song, and a good one.  Sweet violin work!

"Dreams"  The group played a nice instrumental interlude between choruses on this one.  More toe tapping goodness that will certainly get you humming along.

It is easy to understand why she dropped out of high school and followed her passion at 16.  That is precisely what someone this talented should do.  It is why athletes turn pro as early as they can.  You can count on one hand folks with talent like Brandi Carlile.  Because she is also wise beyond her years, at age 30 she has a catalog of gems to choose from...  and, we can all hope, many more to come.