Monday, April 27, 2009

That Rare Quality of Greatness

A former mayor of Cooperstown tells an anecdote about when his belief was shaken that no one moves to Cooperstown just for baseball. He was talking to a prospective candidate for Village Trustee and the ex-mayor said, "Cooperstownians have no greater love for baseball than the average citizen in any other community." He then stated his aforementioned point.

Turns out that one person, and only one, has ever refuted that. That would be me, during that conversation.

Yes, the only small town I could ever envision myself living in has been, and always will be, Cooperstown. Certainly, since moving here six years ago, the experience of being a full-year resident is different than I thought and, it must be said, much better. There is still the Hall of Fame which looms large every time I pass it, which is every day. It's still a thrill to see.

When I met Tom Seaver at the Hall in October of 2003, that was huge. For me, Tom Terrific is a life changing figure. When he was traded by the Mets to the Reds in June of '77, it made me realize that my love of baseball was rooted in its players, not in its team names and uniforms. The owners control the branding; the players control the game. It altered irrevocably my view of the sport and, to this day, I rarely, if ever, root for a team. I stick to the men on the field as individuals. And I got to tell Seaver that face to face, and he liked what I said. It resulted in the warm connection pictured at left.

So, what could be better than that? How about Hank Aaron, here in the village, to open the Hall's new exhibit on his life, Chasing the Dream. It's wonderful. Unlike Babe Ruth, who gets an over-sized room mirroring the larger than life nature of the man and the myth, the Aaron exhibit is a very human story of a good man achieving extraordinary things. Read Aaron's autobiography, I Had a Hammer. It is one of the best - not just of sports autobiographies, but of the genre.

Aaron in the flesh is humble, self-deprecating ("The home runs were good.") and genuine. But it was impossible to get out of my mind, "Holy crap, that's Hank Aaron." Let's face it, he is in another echelon, which he shares only with Willie Mays, of living legends. Even Seaver would fess up to that, Tom being a long time worshipper of Aaron. From 1974 through the early 1990's, I carried with me from my teenage room to college to my first house, a 4 foot tall cardboard stand up of Aaron watching the flight of an imaginary ball as he finished his swing. I even had a Styrofoam ball labelled "715" which hung from my ceiling by a string, directly in his sight. I still have it, folded up where I can see it. So you know where I stand on Hank Aaron.

A Jackie Robinson model bat was placed on the table. It served as the conduit to a truly magical moment. Hank picked up the bat and gave it a soft, slow swing.

"It's heavy! I don't think Jackie used a bat this heavy." With that, Aaron launched into an explanation of the differences between his thinner handled bat and Jackie's "bottle" bat. He explained how Jackie held the bat with his fingertips, while Hank had it nestled in the crook of his hand (picture at right). The audience of nearly 200 was eerily silent and transfixed as they watched this god of a hitter explain, in his friendly Alabama drawl, one of the tools of his trade.

Had Hank just walked out, waved and turned his heels to go, it would have been enough. This story, among many, was more than any of us bargained for. How often do any of us achieve a level of such heights, even for a fleeting moment? There he was, a man who hit that mark over and over again for 23 seasons, and he was sitting 15 feet from me.

Oh Henry! Thanks for an unforgettable hour.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wrong Reasoning

Lately talk of torture has turned, on the conservative/Republican side to the efficacy of the "program.' Ex-Veep Dick Cheney says, "release all the documents to show that 'enhanced interrogation' produced results." Others have echoed that - Mukasey and Hayden in an op-ed.

Does it matter? Does effectiveness rule the day? Do the "ends justify the means?"

Know what else works - date rape drugs.

Know what was most effective tool to get people to convert to Christianity - the Spanish Inquisition.

Mull that over as you think on whether torture "works" or not. Then decide if that matters one bit.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Not So Funny Sunday

Nothing I like better than The Munsters, and WGN's Munster-thon was a welcome surprise. Except for a switch over to The Simpsons at 8 PM, we resided at 1313 Mockingbird Lane all night.

But my second favorite family couldn't top the day's laughs. That was left to our political leaders.

John Boehner, explained the climate crisis to George Stephanopolous on This Week. Like Professor Irwin Corey, Boehner explained the real science of global warming.

"George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide. And so I think it's clear..."

It's this kind of brain power that has led the GOP to its recent heights. To further his theory, I suggest Rep. Boehner step into a vacuum sealed room and breath. Let's see if his theory on the harmful effects of carbon dioxide holds as he exhales, inhales, passes out and dies.

The darkly comic highlight of the day was reserved for Rahm Emanuel, also on This Week. Clarifying the President's stance on torture, Emauel said that field officers should not be prosecuted for torturing prisoners as they were just following policy decisions made by higher ups (the always successful Nuremberg defense). Senior policy makers should also be kept far away from justice. Here's Emanuel, ironically pictured at right in front of the American flag, a symbol of equal justice under the law. Once again, we all had to hear that not "looking backward, have to look forward" argument as the reason to turn a blind eye toward the law.

Not everything is politics. Neglecting to pursue proper legal avenues on torture is not the same as reversing Bush's abstinence program. It is not, in any way, just bad judgment by the previous administation. To treat it like another Washington issue is abhorrent. There is a moral truth here - the US does not torture and it is a nation of laws. To ignore that is to ignore a fundamental part of what this country is about.

While fools like Boehner are easy to laugh at, it's not so easy with Rahm. He is smart and doesn't stumble on his position like a blind man in a cluttered room. That' s what make his comments ridiculous and terrifying. Like Spot, The Munsters pet dragon who lives under the stairs, Obama's position is a ridiculous concept. But when you think about it, a fire-breathing monster under the stairs is nothing to laugh at at all.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Check Out Who's Batting Leadoff

The Baseball Page,, one of the oldest and best baseball sites on the web, posted my "On the Passing of The Bird" post from Monday.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Forget It, Jake. It's Chinatown"

A dip back into real-world waters.

It's always odd to be in and out of the moment. When I was on the CBOE trading floor in October 1987, there was nobody saying, "This is a buying opportunity." There was just chaos and fear. Once the market rebounded, everyone was a genius. "I knew that was the bottom." Yeah, right.

With the market staging an impressive rally in these last weeks, it is clearly a head fake that most people are ignoring. CBS Marketwatch headline at the end of March cited the biggest rally since 1933. I had forgotten that that was the exact moment the Depression ended. No, wait, it got worse from there. As if that banner wasn't enough to make you sell, then the story below the imaginary fold, that people should consider cashing out retirement money (or what's left of it) to buy real estate, should be enough to scream "Get out of the market."

So, what will I do. Nothing. I'm not going to sell out my 15% exposure to the market even though everything tells me I should. I'll wait until the end of summer, when the market is back down and say, "Check out my post on April 15, I knew it was the top."

All of that gets me to Obama. He's fine, threading the needle on optimism and skepticism, which is the same as taking no position at all. In the long run, the "stress tests" which are shams will mean nothing for the walking dead among the banks. The structured bankruptcy of GM, so abhorrent a few months back when we lent them billions, is now seen as optimal. There's no real guiding principle there.

There is a guiding principle in Obama's stand on state secrets and wiretapping. That principle is that expanded executive power, even unconstitutionally so, is only bad when an opponent or an idiot is wielding it. That Obama is carrying on Bush/Cheney's imperial presidency in these areas is horrific, especially when dispensed by a constitutional scholar. At least W. was a moron. Obama is supposed to know better. And don't get me started on the lack of prosecution of torture culprits. Frank Gaffney, Republican stooge, pointed out the difference between American officials "doing their jobs" and Nuremberg Nazis who were "following orders." Do you see that difference? Waiting...waiting... That's because THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. That the new administration, this beacon of light and justice, is consciously stiff arming the law of the land is tragic.

But, what are you gonna do? This happens all the time. Either Washington corrupts, or the corrupt are drawn to D.C. Either way, there's nothing to do about it. After all, it's just Chinatown.

Monday, April 13, 2009

On the Passing of The Bird

I sent away for Al Kaline's autograph in the summer of '73 and got a black and white photo with a fake auto-penned signature. The Tigers clearly had their marketing act together because I subsequently would get souvenir catalogs from the team. To me, it was very exotic to have among my Mets yearbooks those of the Detroit Tigers, yearbooks being all I wanted and the highest amount of money I could bring myself to ask my parents for.

As a result, I was very familiar with Mark (The Bird) Fidrych before his stellar 1976 season even began. His pleasantly goofy face appeared in the 1976 Tigers annual and I felt like an insider as he streaked through the American League that year. It wasn't just his famous Monday Night Baseball effort against the resurgent Yankees. I followed him all year in The Sporting News.

After that Rookie of the Year campaign, The Bird suffered from arm injuries. I'll never forget his Sport magazine cover in 1977, swearing he'd comeback. It was a close up of a sad, sad boy, who saw that maybe all his dreams were over after hardly just beginning. As Fidrych tried to comeback, first with Detroit and then with the Red Sox, his quirky antics - talking to the ball, jumping up and down, hitting the mound on all fours to smooth out the holes with his bare hands - became tragic, the act of an unhappy clown. Then it was all over.

Every once and a while he'd be back, seemingly with sense of humor intact, but always with a hint of tragedy. And now he's dead at 54, apparently from an accident while working under his dump truck.

Is it better to burn out than it is to rust? I don't know. Mark Fidrych did both, not an easy trick. While I never wax nostalgic, I will for The Bird. For one summer he truly did represent all that was good and innocent about our national game.

Lance Rentzel - Coda

So why did Lance Rentzel expose himself to little girls?

The reason for the first incident was he felt desolate after reading 1984.

The reason for the second, was he felt hopeless after watching 2001.Perhaps his exhibitionist tendencies were caused by works of science fiction. Or maybe he was aroused by calendars.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Culture, Low and High (You Decide)

One of my favorite movies of all-time is Shoot the Piano Player. It's a mini-history of film genres - gangster flick, love story, musician's triumph, hooker with a heart of gold, comedy. Truffaut is at his best, showing off his Cahiers du Cinema background, but never letting the film critic in him stand in the way of making an enjoyable picture. (Think Roger Ebert and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Watching it again two nights ago only confirmed its brilliance.

Doubt. Wow! Interestingly, in this AM's New York Times Mike Nichols talks about how a great film leaves an audience in silence. That's exactly how I felt last night watching this movie. The performances are riveting. In the world of actors, it can be tough to arrive at the number one. It's almost certainly Brando, but others come close - DeNiro at his best, Norton, Hoffman, Dustin. But Streep is unapproachable. The ease in which she inhabits characters is uncomfortably real. Her accent is subtle and true. Hoffman, Philip is deep, as always, and when he puts on Streep's voice in his sermon on gossip it hearkens to one of my favorite film moments, when Anthony Hopkins nails Jodie Foster's voice in Silence of the Lambs, a moment which caught Foster by surprise, and it shows. Doubt is thrillingly smart, and each and every character from the leads to the bit players, has a depth that shows.

Flipping through the $1 albums at Last Vestige in Albany, I was struck dumb by the sight of the Dark Shadows album. I was a big fan of the show. It was must see viewing upon returning home from school. 4 PM on Channel 7, Monday through Friday. I had the trading cards, the olive green covered paperbacks, maybe even a lunchbox. Sadly, none of those remain, but the 45 RPM "Quentin's Theme" does. To have my hands on the LP was a beautiful thing. On the cover, the tantalizing offer of a Barnabas Collins and Quentin poster was too much to fathom. Usually, those kinds of things never stick inside the cover. A recent repurchase of a Partridge Family album left me sadly without the promised book cover. Oh well. But wait, is that a poster folded up inside? Why yes it is! The poster has Jonathan Frid in a casual shot and then as the vampire Barnabas. David Selby is shown as the normal actor and the zombie Quentin. There is very little apparent difference between the two pictures of each man. Perfect casting!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My First Bookstore

Moving from Brooklyn to the middle of Suffolk County mid-fourth grade was a shock to the system. For me, it was all good - a single family house, my own room, grass. All of this was brand-new to me, but nothing more so than entering mall culture.

(interior photo, with a Calder, found by fellow maller James W. Keller)

In Brooklyn, Kings Plaza had opened a year before our December 1971 move, but it wasn't that close to our apartment and was infrequently visited, by us at least. But the Smith Haven Mall, virtually around the corner from our Lake Grove home, was a giant complex and social hub. (Remarkably I could not find a 1970's shot of the mall, including a Calder, not Caldor, ). It was here that I encountered my first real book store, Walden Books.

Walden Books was the Taco Bell of bookstores. It was great until you encountered the real thing. I wouldn't encounter a "real" bookstore until years later, when I would find myself at The Strand or the original Barnes & Noble. For my teen years, Walden was the mecca.

A visit to the mall would always include certain sure spots - Herman's Sporting Goods, Sam Goody's, Orange Julius and, of course, Spencer Gifts, for the sneaked look at their risque jokes section (Horny the Snowman pictured on left), to the right of the black light posters and head shop gear. Walden was number one, though, and to be surrounded by hard covers was like ascending to paradise. In fact, one of the markers of true success in my worldview was when I started to buy hardcover books. It is still as fresh a thrill as getting the mail.

I have always had a not so secret weakness for sports books. Everyone has their junk reading - mysteries, romance, et al. Mine is sports. The sports section was my main haunt and rarely, maybe for a birthday or Hannukah, would I get a hard cover. My favorite from the early '70's: The Brothers Esposito. Sault Ste. Marie still seems like an exotic place for me. One book I always had my eye on was the melodramatically titled When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow, by Lance Rentzel.

Speaking of Horny the Snowman, Rentzel had become infamous in 1970 when he exposed himself before a 10-year old girl in Dallas. It was a headline grabbing case and resulted in his autobiographical expose. I finally got the book at the Cooperstown Library Book Sale last summer, in hardcover, and while I'm about 1/3 of the way through it, I already have some thoughts.

It's a fairly typical 1970's sports book, with standard self-reflection. There are plenty from that era - Johnny Sample's Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer, even Joe Namath's I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow fits the genre, although Namath's high profile lifestyle makes his story way more interesting.

Rentzel's book explores his life in an attempt to figure out why he found himself whipping it out. He was also married at the time to my favorite Vegas minx, Joey Heatherton, which makes one wonder even further about this fetish. I'm 100 pages into the story and I still see no path explaining why he felt the need to wave his weiner at a schoolgirl. Granted, Rentzel had issues. He was a thin-skinned rich kid, moody with occasional fits of rage. Add to this an obsessive mother that puts Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate to shame, and you could see Rentzel had lots of problems. Nothing seems to point to flashing. We'll see how it turns out.

Most interesting to me, having written about A-Rod and 1960's users of "greenies" is Rentzel's offhand comment that during college he used steroids under the guidance of teammate and nut job, the aptly named Joe Don Looney. That's it. Nothing more. No sturm und drang about the evils of medication. Just a plain statement of fact. If a medium talent like Rentzel was doing it, who else was? And will we look back on 1960's football as a dark time? Yeah, we know that's not going to happen. After all those were the glory days of pure athletic achievement, right?

(The dreaded paperback, at left).

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Drivin' and a-Rockin'

While heading up the hill to the county dump and recycling collection center, Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" began. My weekly trip to drop off the latest pile of newspaper and plastic, accompanied by my weekly musing, "Why am I using gas to drive my recycling in? Isn't the environmentally a zero-sum game?" was happily intruded upon by two signature car and driving moments.

My first car, a 1979 blue Chevy Monza hatchback (mine didn't have that growth on the hood below), was a fairly unreliable vehicle, although it was a finely tuned machine compared to friend Jimmy's "Blue Pig" which, through a glaring lack of oil, caused us to be stranded on the New York State Thruway outside Poughkeepsie on our way to college orientation.

Driving around in my automobile, I found that whenever Ringo's drum solo from Side 2 of Abbey Road came on, I slammed out the beats on my steering wheel. Though Ringo's shining moment couldn't hold a candle to any Keith Moon track, it is in the pantheon of drum solos and, pretty easy to play along with as you drive. The solo was repeated countless times in the six years I owned the car, enough times that when it was sold the mechanic who checked it out asked, "Why is the steering wheel completely out of shape?" I was innocently unaware of how such a thing could occur.

That pounding is a relic of times gone by. Now, if the mood strikes, I batter the much sturdier dashboard. Lesson learned. The other rockin' while rollin' moment brings us back to Robbie and me and "Heartbreaker."

As we pulled out from the dump, I gave Rob warning.
"Want a glimpse into teenage me?"
"There's something I always do during this song."
"What is it?"
"Be patient"
A pause. "You're nervous and excited, aren't you?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied hesitantly.
"I kill everyone in the car whenever I hear this song."
"Oh no!"
"No, not really. Just wait for it."
In the split second before Jimmy Page's solo begins, I turned the volume up to full. The sound blasted right on cue and sounded as perfect as ever, so clear and so very loud.
When it was over, Robbie said, "I loved that. I'm going to do that every time I hear this too."
And so, a tradition is born.