Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Car That Got No Respect

No man treats a motor car as foolishly as he treats another human being. When the car will not go, he does not attribute its annoying behavior to sin, he does not say, "You are a wicked motorcar, and I shall not give you any more petrol until you go." He attempts to find out what is wrong and set it right. ~Bertrand Russell

A lot of people, especially male people, will wax nostalgic about the cars they owned when they were young. Not me. I survived the cars I owned as a young man, particularly my Corvair Monza (no relation to a Monza model brought out many years later). The Monza is not to be confused with the Corvair that starred in Ralph Nader's “Unsafe At Any Speed.” Nader was writing about the “box”, an ugly car with a tendency to turn over easily. The Monza was a sporty little number that was sufficiently low-slung that it handled reasonably well. Well, that is, unless it was raining or windy or icy. With the engine in the rear, the front wheel contact with the road was tenuous at best. A slight haze of water on the highway or a gust of wind (better yet, a combination of the two) could send you pinwheeling down the road, much to the consternation of people coming toward you from either direction.

Definitely a thrill to drive.

Of course, I had four-on-the-floor standard transmission. This allowed me to be able to actually accelerate with some degree of efficiency. It also gave me a clutch to burn out, which I did in a snow bank. My friendly local Chevy dealer replaced the clutch, apparently with some rubber bands, because the first time I drove the car after that the transmission committed suicide as I tried to merge onto the freeway. It is very exciting to have your rear wheels lock up at 60 MPH.

After some, ah, discussions with the local Chevy dealer, it turned out that they had “accidentally” used rebuilt parts while charging us for new ones. So, when all was said and done, I got a new clutch and a new transmission. But, I came to realize that my car just wasn't going to get any respect.

To make matters worse, it seemed to have the automotive equivalent of a “kick me” sign on it somewhere. I was clobbered not once but twice in the rear. Which, of course, is where the engine was. Luckily there were no serious injuries either time. Fortunately, because of the unibody frame construction, the rear area was the most solid part of the car. One of the collisions was caused by someone driving a Corvair box. After I recovered from the shock of being hit, I jumped out of the car, determined that the perpetrator should not drive away. When I looked at his front end, I knew he wasn't going anywhere. No car drives well when the front wheels are touching each other.

The front end of a Corvair was not nearly as well-protected as the rear.

All this getting belted in the rear resulted in the car being a little shorter than when it came from the factory. This point was brought home to me when I had to have the fan belt changed. The fan belt in a Corvair did something that no other fan belt in automotive history (to my knowledge) has ever done. It had to function while running at a right angle. There was a fan on top of the engine, but the flywheel was on the front of the engine (which faced to the rear of the car). When the mechanic tried to put the new belt on, it wouldn't fit between the engine and the frame. It took two burly guys, a large crowbar, and considerable muscle to get the belt on.

Needless to say, there came a point when I decided I wanted to be rid of the thing. I considered abandoning it, but with my luck, I'd get hit with a littering fine. So the car sat in the driveway while I borrowed my dad's car when I needed one.

My old high school buddy came by one day and asked me why the car was just sitting around. I explained that I was tired of getting hit, tired of belts breaking, and tired of doing the skater's waltz down the freeway every time it rained. Despite my complaints, he asked me if he could buy it from me. It seemed that he was always borrowing wheels from his sisters or his mother, and, despite making good money at construction jobs during the summer, he never could bring himself to buy a car from the used car lot.

I reminded him about the accidents, the incident of the transmission, and the fact that the brakes were squealing like a stuck pig. No big deal, he said. His brother-in-law was a genius with cars and could make it run like new.

Personally, I didn't think that would be much of an improvement over how it ran now, but I finally gave in and sold it to him for 100 bucks and a couple of stereo speakers. He took it over to his brother-in-law, who promptly put it on blocks. Every now and then, we'd do some housesitting for his sister and brother-in-law (they had a well-stocked liquor cabinet), and I'd see the car still sitting on blocks. After a while, I forgot about it.

Flash forward a few years. We had graduated college; he had gone on to graduate school, while I joined the wage-slave force. We were sitting and watching a ball game one evening, having a few drinks, and reminiscing about some of the neat cars he used to borrow from his sister. I asked how she was getting on, and he said she had divorced her automotive genius. "Really," I said. "Did he ever fix up that old Corvair?"

He paused for a moment, then his eyes grew large. “That son of a [bleep] must have sold it!” How exactly his brother-in-law could have sold it without a title was beyond me. The thing wouldn't even be worth anything to a chop shop. Even more amazing was how my friend could forget that he owned a car, no matter how cheap it was.

I guess the Monza got the last laugh after all.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Knuckling Under

There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them work. ~Charlie Lau

I think Tim Wakefield is the only full time knuckleball pitcher around any more, and I think that's a shame. There have been many great knuckleballers, like Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm. Knuckleball pitchers can pitch until they're about 100 because the pitch requires no arm strength. And it is next to impossible to hit.

Contrary to its name, the knuckleball is thrown with the finger nails, not the knuckles. Pitchers like Niekro and Wilhelm would let the appropriate nails grow long, then cut them very square. People joke about how modern athletes can't play if they have a hangnail. One year, Wilhelm broke a nail and had to go on the disabled list for two weeks until it grew back. No one questioned him because everyone knew that without the fingernail, he couldn't throw his sinature pitch.

Fans are used to the power pitchers. There's something exciting about a 95 mph fastball popping into a catcher's mitt or whistling by a hitter's chin. But watching a 40 mph knuckleball dance for the entire 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher's hand to the plate is one of the wonders of sport.

Knuckleball catchers have huge mitts. Years ago, when Wilhelm was with the Baltimore Orioles, the catcher got tired of flailing away at his pitches, so he had a special glove made that was about the size of a large pizza. It had little padding, because it wasn't necessary. He didn't catch the ball most of the time; he smothered it. Other catchers struggling with pitchers like Eddie Fisher got the idea, and the mitts started turning up on other teams. They got bigger and bigger, so big, in fact, the Major Leagues had to pass a rule limiting the size of a catcher's mitt.

At one time, the Cleveland Indians, my team, unfortunately, when I was growing up, picked up a knuckleball pitcher. After watching catchers swatting at his pitches like they were drunken butterflies, a local sportswriter, Bob Sudyk, decided he'd like to take a try at snagging one.

He made arrangements with the team and dutifully showed up with his photographer. The first thing he was told was that he'd have to wear the full catcher's rig: Mask, chest protector, and shin guards. He protested that he surely wouldn't be hurt trying to catch a pitch that ran slower than the downtown buses, but the team insisted. So, Sudyk suited up, got behind the plate in the bullpen, and started flailing.

The pictures in the newspaper were some of the funniest I've ever seen. In one, Sudyk's glove is extended fully to his right side as the ball hits him in the left shoulder. In another, he's reaching up, but the ball is bouncing off his shin guard. In the last, he's reaching down and to the right, but the ball is glancing off his catcher's mask. He wondered how anyone ever hit the damn thing and how the pitcher every got the ball into the strike zone.

Well, as to the first, once in a while the ball doesn't knuckle, in which case it will be hit. Because it's so slow, though, the batter has to impart more force to hit it hard. As a result, knucklerballers don't give up a lot of home runs. But when the ball isn't ducking and darting, he is going to give up a lot of hits. On the second point, if the ball was in the strike zone, that was pure luck. To a man, knuckleball pitchers all say they have no idea where the crazy thing is going.

In bygone days, pitchers had an arsenal of pitches that depended on doctoring the ball. The spit ball and the emery ball (so called because an emery stick was used to rough up the ball) would dive right at the plate, leaving the batter screwing himself into the ground as he whiffed at it. Anything that a pitcher could do to doctor a ball was pretty much allowed. A story is told of a catcher in the 1910's or thereabouts who would roll the ball back to the pitcher rather than throw it. When the umpire asked him why was doing that, the catcher said, “It's the only way I can get the @#$%*!^ gum off the ball.”

All of this sort of chicanery was made illegal by the 1930's. Of course, such tricks have never completely gone away. Gaylord Perry (whose autobiography was called “Me and the Spitter”) used spit, Vaseline, and KY Jelly regularly in key situations. In one game, he unveiled his “puff ball.” There is a small bag of rosin on every pitcher's mound, which pitchers are allowed to use to enhance their grip. When Perry went out to the mound, he brought out a rather large version of the bag with him. As he bounced it on his hand, clouds of white something rose into the air. When he threw the ball, a huge puff of white came off his hand, making it hard for the hitter to pick up the ball in flight. After about three or four of these, the umpire went out to the mound. On examination of Perry's “rosin” bag, he found it filled with flour. Because there was no rule that exactly covered using a flour bag instead of a rosin bag, the ump didn't eject Perry,
but he did eject the bag.

Thus endeth the puff ball.

And then there was the pitcher, one Joe Niekro, brother of the aforementioned Phil, who was accused of roughing up the ball. When the umpire went to the mound to search him, the pitcher turned out his pockets. As he did so, he flipped an emery board behind him where he though the ump wouldn't see it. The ump, in this case, was not blind (nor were the TV cameras; this was an ESPN highlight for weeks). He picked up the board with one hand and shot his other hand into the air, thumb raised, sending the pitcher to an early shower.

The knuckleball is perfectly legal, thankfully, and will remain so, no doubt. I hope somewhere there are some young pitchers letting their fingernails grow and filing them square. There's nothing funnier than a batter who can't decide whether to laugh, scream or cry.

Rick Monday, speaking of Phil Niekro's knuckleball, probably put it best: "It actually giggles at you as it goes by."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Mineralogy

I'm never quite so stupid as when I'm being smart. ~ Linus Van Pelt, quoted by Charles Schulz

A couple of years or so ago, we had our kitchen redone. It wasn't a major overhaul; we moved one wall, had new cabinets done, and had new flooring installed. This ending up taking four months. In undertaking this, I learned a couple of valuable lessons. First, pay attention to the time frames on the projects on all those fixit shows. Everything takes months, whether it's a bedroom remodel or putting on a new addition (actually I saw one show where adding a bedroom took over a year). Second, never hire a contractor whose first name is “Cash.”

However, I will leave the discussion of that particular piece of agony for another day. When the job was finished, we had some additional counter space. Because Bob Vila wasn't doing the job and providing endless discounts as long I made sure to mention the sponsor frequently, I had to be somewhat economical. In particular, the counters were just ordinary counter covering (whatever it is). What I wanted was butcher block, but that stuff is rather pricey. So the only wooden work surface I had was an ancient large cutting board that I had inherited from my mother.

It struck me that I could get a similar sized butcher block cutting board and set it in my working space. That way, I'd a have a little slice of butcher block heaven while retaining some of my paycheck. I could even set the new board next to the old one and have a decent sized work surface. So, I thought, all I had to do was go to the home fixup superstore, have them cut me off a hunk of butcher block.

Yeah, right.

The only kind of butcher block the megastores had was pre-fabbed counter tops. So the wood already had a rolled edge. To have them cut off a piece, I would have had to buy a large section, and it would have three unfinished edges. And it would cost a bundle.

So I went to the local restaurant supply store, a place I had frequented before. They sold all manner of cutting boards – all plastic. Surely, they would have access to some butcher block, because I knew restaurants often had a block table for meat cutting.

Evidently, times have changed, and health departments had gotten more strict. Restaurants were using plastic boards on steel tables. In fact, the nice folks at the store didn't even know what butcher block was.

So I turned to the Internet and, miracle of miracles, found a place that sold all sorts of sizes of butcher block, standard and cut-to-order. With joy, I placed an order, which arrived promptly (and shipped economicallly, considering it weighed about 30 pounds). I unwrapped it and found the care instructions. Number one on the “extend the life of your butcher block” was to rub it down with mineral oil.

Great. What's mineral oil?

Now, those of you who know what mineral oil is will no doubt be chuckling at my naivety. Those of you who don't have a lot of company. Mineral oil is not a commonly used commodity these days. 


My first thought was that they meant mineral spirits. I had some of those. But somehow, a liquid that smelled very strong and had numerous warnings about how evil and poisonous it is didn't seem like the kind of thing to be smearing all over a food preparation surface.

Okay, I thought, I'm a pretty smart cookie, so if I'm logical I can figure out where to get some mineral oil. Butcher block is wood; it's also kind of like furniture. So it's like wood furniture. Therefore, mineral oil ought to be found in the furniture polish section of the store.

Nope.

After fruitless searches in megastores, I went to a wonderful local hardware store, the kind of place where they don't mind selling you one wingnut. A kindly clerk asked me what I was looking for. I explained that I needed mineral oil to treat my butcher block (which, given the nature of mineral oil, is actually a pretty funny pun). He looked at me with a funny sort of smile and suggested that I go to a grocery store or a drug store. Well, I guess they sell everything in food marts and drug stores any more, so what the heck.

I had already tried the grocery store, so I went to the drug store. I searched the furniture care section and still couldn't find any of the stuff, so I went to the counter and asked the clerk where the mineral oil was. She smiled and said, “Aisle 8.”

So I went to aisle 8 and thought she must surely be mistaken, because this aisle had nothing but various stomach remedies, anti-acids,--and laxatives.

Guess what mineral oil is? I guess before there was Ex-Lax and friends, there was mineral oil. Now you know why I said “treat my butcher block” was a good pun. Well, I thought it was, anyway.

I laughed all the way to the checkout counter. Of course, I told the clerk the whole silly story of what I thought mineral oil was. She gave me a “it must be terrible to get senile” look and rang up the stuff.

So my butcher block gets it regular treatment of laxative every couple of months or so, with no ill effects to any of us. We make bread, cut meat, and do all sorts of food preparation on that lovely board.

Of course, we do seem to be marvelously regular.

Monday, May 22, 2006

DaVinci Debacle

A plausible fiction has much longer legs than any truth. ~ Zoltan

I really did not want to write this piece. When something is as overdone as the sound and fury surrounding The DaVinci Code, I get so ill with it that I'd rather not be accused of participating. But a number of factors have driven me to break down and spend a page on it.

Firstly, I am sick of seeing programs about Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail.

Second, I am appalled at how people are unable to tell a work of fiction from actual history.

Third, I am equally appalled at an author who blurs the line between fact and fiction.

Fourth, someone who has actually read my blog asked why I hadn't written about the DaVinci code, and I am not about to disappoint one of my tiny readership.

I am not about to go into a detailed discussion of the Mary-married-Jesus controversy. It's an intriguing theory, but it has precious little to support it. The biggest clue seems to come from an apocryphal gospel (James, I think). The ancient manuscript was in pretty poor shape, with entire words missing. The “evidence” for Jesus' deep relationship with Mary was this line: “Jesus would [word missing] Mary on the [word missing].” Now a few imaginative researchers have decided that the missing words must be “kiss” and “mouth”. They could just as easily be “pat” and “head” or “kick” and “shins.”

What all this worry about the Jesus-Mary relationship has done is cause a much more interesting discussion to be overlooked: Mary's role, and that of women in general, in the early church. Women evidently played a significant role in the early church. St. Paul says as much in one of his epistles when he lists important church personages. But, in others, he downplays the role of women. The latter viewpoint ultimately held sway for centuries.

It is amazing, though, how great a furor has been generated over The DaVinci Code movie. Personally, I couldn't get through the book. I didn't like Brown's writing style for one thing. In addition, I really don't care for pot-boiler stories. I had thought the novel would be a little more cerebral, more of an historian's search for truth rather than hero and heroine trying to beat the evil assassins to the prize.

But what really chapped my behind was Brown's characterization of a real organization, Opus Dei, as a bunch of Mutant Ninja Catholics. Opus Dei is an archconservative Catholic group, but there is no evidence that they ever have killed people to reach their goals. Yet the book opens with a self-flagellating semi-moron shooting someone. Brown might have well called the Knights of Columbus Mafia hit men.

I didn't know at the time I tried to read this turgid book, but Brown also played fast and loose with some of the “facts” he lists at the beginning of the novel. Specifically, the “Priory of Scion”, which is apparently a very important item in The DaVinci Code, was a hoax created 30 or 40 years ago by some guy who was trying to establish himself as a descendant of the Merovingians, the royal line of France. He subsequently confessed the fraud, but Grail fans have grimly held onto the mythical existence of the group.

However, prior to the release of the movie, there was little reaction that I could see to the whole shebang. Oh, there were dozens of programs generated on the science and history channels, spinning the premises of the book in some cases, and merely borrowing the title in others. Some of these programs were quite good, while others were pretty poor, about par for the course. By following my guide to documentaries, I managed to avoid the dross and enjoyed the rest.

But, unbeknownst to me, there were people who actually believed that the events in The DaVinci Code had a basis in truth. These people actually traveled to sites mentioned in the book looking for, among other things, blood stains of the Opus Dei victims. Matters weren't help by Brown being coy in interviews, implying that there was more truth than fiction to his story, until he got sued by some non-fiction authors who said he stole his plot from their research. Then, by golly, Brown said it was a complete work of fiction. Still, the matter didn't seem to spark much attention until the movie version was about to be released.

There are two factions that are upset. One group, like me, is upset that any real Catholic Church group should be labeled as fanatical murderers. Brown could have invented some group, or he could have used the Priory of Scion as his killers, since they don't really exist anyway. I'm surprised he didn't use the Masons, since people have been accusing them of all sorts of secret rituals for centuries. Why not pick on someone that already raises suspicions in some small-minded people?

(That's a joke, by the way. I'm glad he didn't use the Masons; they've taken enough guff.)

The other group that's upset is made up of Catholics who don't want to think about Jesus having been married. I don't know why this is so upsetting, since Jesus lived His life on earth as a Jewish preacher, spreading his gospel to all who would hear it. It would have been perfectly normal for Him to be married. I guess the concept of descendants of Jesus walking around today is something people don't want to face.

The Church, of course, is not happy for both reasons. Church-sanctioned murder is not a good thing (unless you're talking about the Crusades). As to Mary, the Church went out of its way centuries ago to brand her as the “good prostitute” (a position they have since reversed), even though a careful reading of the new testament doesn't support this.

The ultimate irony is the strange bedfellows that are coming together in this mess. In India, Muslims are supporting Catholics in their opposition to having the film shown. Muslims have a high regard for Jesus, which a lot of Christians don't know, so putting forth what might be considered a heretical viewpoint in a film that has an aura of non-fiction about it is something they would also find offensive.

Ironically, the movie is being panned by critics in early reviews. To keep viewers coming to the theaters, then, the producers are, no doubt, going to try to capitalize on all the controversy by drumming up even more hype, which will, of course, upset the faithful even more.

People, the solution to this is so easy. Don't go to the movie. Don't stage protests at the cineplex. Ignore it. The more noise you make, the bigger will be the audience at the theater. And in that large audience will be gullible people who will believe that they're seeing history, not histrionics. As The Beatles said, “Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”

Which Mary was that, do you suppose?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Keeping Our Collegiate Heads on Straight

You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry. Most people do. ~Norman Juster

I love college sports. I'll watch a football game almost every night during the college season; I follow March madness as though I were Lewis Carroll's Hatter; I even enjoy women's softball. I say this just so you understand that I am not anti-sports. I am, however, pro-education, and I become ever more disturbed by people's priorties when it comes to colleges and sports.

The personalities on the afternoon drive time program on the radio station I wrote of the other day seem to have the attitude that colleges are in the sports business. They can't understand the NCAA setting standards for academic performance. They're ticked off because some high school ace isn't going to have the grades to get into uniform this year. Worst of all, they can't even understand the fundamental purpose of an educational institution.

As if I needed to have this brought home to me, the other day these ignoramuses began to complain because Birmingham Southern was considering going from Division I athletics to Division III. The Internet is a big place, so perhaps I'd better explain what that is.
College sports have various levels. Division I is where the big dogs play, normally. There are allowed to give out a lot of athletic scholarships and have big budgets for football and basketball. Division II has smaller schools, with lesser budgets and fewer athletic scholarships. Division III has no athletic scholarships and small athletic budgets.

In football, there is also a Division I-AA, which has schools that can't compete with the big guys but want to spend more money than the other divisions. In addition, they get to play Division I schools more often than than Division II schools. Division III schools almost never play outside their level (most of this is done with Division II schools). Division I-AA and Division II schools that play the likes of Alabama and Ohio State are also known as “cupcakes.”

“Cupcakes” are willing to go to the big school's stadium and get beaten up in front of 80,000 fans because the big school will pay them anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 per game. The “cupcake” gets, essentially, its entire athletic budget paid for. The big school gets an easy win.

Birmingham Southern has about 1500 students. I can't imagine what it's doing in Division I, aside from getting beaten up. They do complete well in basketball and baseball, but with a small student body, many of whom are not from the area, they have little local alumni support at games, giving them small crowds. So here they are, shelling out big bucks in the form of scholarships, which they pay for by getting bombed by bigger schools. Apparently someone has seen the light, because their recently hired president is from a Division III school. Presumably, he has an idea of what the school's actual purpose should be.

He can also read a budget report. The school is losing money, in part due to increased expenditures for athletics. Division I, even for a potential cupcake, is not cheap. His logic is that, being an educational institution, the school's focus should be on staying in the education business, not to act as a breeding ground for future NFL players.

It's not like Division III has no athletics. Division III is what collegiate sports use to be about. Sports are an extra-curricular activity, a way to have fun and take a break from studying. The crowds are small and mostly made up of students. Years ago, when I attended a Division III school, students got into athletic events for free. I went to a lot of football games, even getting to go down to the sideline and take pictures of the teams during the game. A friend of mine went to Ohio State. He got to pay a fee to have the right to buy a ticket to Buckeyes games. The closest he ever got to be able to take a picture of the players was from a med-school dorm that was at one end of the stadium. You can't do that any more, because OSU closed off that end to ensure there were no free views of games.

Division I is business sports. Division III is fun sports.

And it's often very good athletics. These guys (and girls) are playing because they love playing the game. There are rivalries just as intense as Auburn-Alabama. No one wants to lose, so they give their best shot all the time. That's more than I can say for, say, Auburn when they're matched up against The Citadel.

Yet, the sports talk geniuses can't understand how a school would think of leaving the mansions of Division I to slum with the little guys of Division III. Apparently, the potential loss of a punching-bag opponent for Alabama is more than they can stand. All they could talk about was the poor coaching staff and how they were getting so screwed. Well, they're still getting paid, and they can always get other jobs (Division I coaches are all gypsies anyway).

The important thing is that Birmingham Southern, if they go this route, is affirming their role as an educational institution, not fodder for the football factories. One of the canards of major college athletics is that the money schools are pouring into football programs helps pay for all the other sports. Big-time college football does generate tons of money, but it also spends huge sums. Auburn is paying so many former coaches that could start another set of teams in each major sport, if they wanted to. The big schools are always raising money for state-of-the-art weight rooms, new practice facilities, and new stadiums. What if some of that money was raised for academic scholarships instead?

Despite all this money pouring in from football, Auburn and Alabama plead poverty to the legislature every year. A few years ago, when the legislature had the gall to suggest that more money needed to be spent on elementary and high school education, the big A's lost their collective little minds. Despite having spent vast sums to increase the seating of their stadiums in recent times (being sure to add high-priced sky boxes), they screamed they could not live without additional state funding. Educational funds couldn't be shifted downward without doing their programs irreparable harm.

These are schools with million-dollar (or close to it) head coaches in at least two sports and some assistant coaches making six figures. They extort money from their fans by making them make contributions (to the athletic program, of course) for the right to be able to buy better seats. And, tuitions are through the roof.

Schools need to get their priorities in order. The college system was not created to act as a farm system for the NFL and NBA. It's supposed to be there to provide us with leaders who have received the kind of education that will help them make good decisions.

If the college leaders can't make good decisions, though, how can they give us graduates who will?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sports Talk, Talk, Talk

Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off. ~Bill Veeck

Most of what follows won't make a heck of a lot of sense to people outside of Birmingham, Alabama, but I've got to get this off my chest. And, it's my blog. So there.

I have a long commute in my little hybrid each day. For most of it, I listen to my MP3 player playing through the radio stereo. In the city, though, I want to catch a traffic report, so I tune in to WJOX, a Birmingham sports talk station. Now, for years, I listened to sports talk on Cleveland, Ohio radio stations. They had call-ins, but mostly they had guys who really knew sports talking about what was going on at the moment in the wide world of sports (TM). Pete Franklin, a legend in his own mind, was the dean of sports talk figures in Cleveland.

People used to take some sort of masochistic pleasure in calling this guy and suggesting off-the-wall trades. “Hey, Pete, I think the Indians should trade Sonny Siebert for Nolan Ryan!” Pete would then rip them into tiny pieces for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. I liked Franklin because not only was he critical of Indians management but he also could tell you cogently why they were a bunch of cheap so-and-so's. Of course, when he actually interviewed the Indians president, Gabe Paul, he tossed him softball questions and praised him effusively. But, the next night, with ol' Gabe out of the studio, Pete let him have it again.

The point was that he gave Paul a chance to speak his side of the issue. Franklin could then give him hell with impunity.

Franklin had a desk covered with all the historical stat books and current team information. He could quote stats accurately on a moment's notice. And he knew what was going on with every team in professional baseball, football, and basketball. He also covered college sports reasonably well.

So I know what a good sports talk show should sound like.

WJOX used to be pretty good. The focus down here, of course, is college sports, particularly football, so pro sports sometimes get shorted a little, but that's not too bad considering that pro sports discussions tend to sound like economics seminars these days. A few months ago, though, they changed program directors. The new guy has put his stamp on the station. And, to me, he's squashed it flat.

I listen to the AM drive time show and the PM drive time show. He fiddled with the afternoon show first, adding a woman to the two men who were already there. I have nothing against women reporting or commenting on sports. ESPN has shown, from Gayle Gardner to Robin Roberts and others, that there are many excellent female sports reporters. Unfortunately, the woman WJOX brought in had one job: to disagree with anything anyone says.

Now, a little conflict is necessary on shows like this, or they get dull. But, at some point, it would be nice if she would agree with somebody, anybody. She'll change her point of view in the middle of an argument if necessary. It's a pity, really, because she's the only one of the three who really knows anything about baseball. (She's improved some lately, but not much.)

In the mornings, the station had two guys, one of whom was Jay Barker. Barker had a stellar career at Alabama, followed by a less illustrious stint as a career backup quarterback in the NFL. Barker has a great radio voice, but, as I've recorded before, he can be a babbling idiot at times. Generally, though, the show was pretty good and stayed on the subject of sports, with only occasional forays into TV shows or family matters. Even those digressions were normally brief.

Well, the new program director decided he needed to liven things up. First, he gets rid of Barker's partner, replacing him with an FM rock jock. The jock does know a thing or two about sports, but you'd hardly know it from his constant babbling about anything but sports. To complete the team, they added a former Auburn placekicker, Al Del Greco, who actually was a front-line NFL player (and probably got more minutes on the field than Barker did).

They started out okay, much to my surprise. Del Greco seldom could get a word in edgewise between the motormouth jock and the babbling quarterback, but they did talk sports. That didn't last. Now, each show seems to begin with twenty minutes about anything but sports. American Idiot, er, Idol seems to be a popular topic. Failing that the FM jock will talk about female anatomy, disgusting bodily functions, and boozing, all while seeing how many times he can say “friggin” in any give two minute period. Barker, who purports to be a religious-type who frequently speaks at churches, giggles like a junior high school adolescent. The Del Greco normally doesn't say much.

(The jock, who continually reminds us that he's Catholic, for reasons that are mysterious to me, bragged that he gave up saying the “f-bomb” for Lent. Sounds to me like he wasn't paying attention to the meaning of giving up things for Lent in CCD class.)

I guess I'm just old-fashioned. I figure if you bill yourself as a sports talk radio station, you'll talk mostly about sports. And it may be that some other folks have voiced similar opinions because in the the last week, I've noticed that the AM boys have started to talk more sports at the beginning of the show. However, I'm writing this the day after American Idol. This morning, after rattling off a few headlines, they spent the next 15 minutes blithering about that show.

Okay, I realize this is Alabama, and, for some strange reason, there always seems to be an Alabama guy in the finals for the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, excuse me, American Idol show. But, guys, it's a sports talk station. There are playoffs going in two sports, and baseall is in full swing. Couldn't you find your way clear to start with sports then talk about other stuff when you run out of steam?

Let me make this clearer to the folks at WJOX. I don't care about the FM jock going out drinking and oogling girls the night before; I don't care about Jay's wife and kids; and I'm sick of hearing about American Idol everywhere I turn.

Let's get focused here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Some Can't Hear, Some Won't Listen

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. ~ William Shakespeare

A couple of items related to the human ear struck me over the last few days.

Gallaudet University is the only liberal arts college expressly for the deaf in the country. It's been around since 1864 and has a long record of providing higher education to the deaf while helping them prepare to cope in a hearing world. Oddly enough, the university has only had two presidents in its history who were deaf. The first came in 1988 when students conducted protests to have a non-hearing president to run the school. The second is his successor, Ms. Jane Fernandes.

Unfortunately for her, according to the students, she is not deaf enough .

Okay, I freely admit that I am not deaf. I have known only one profoundly deaf person, and he was an expert lipreader. He was so good, in fact, that one would forget he couldn't hear. That would be good, except that I'd forget that he needed to see my lips and turn my head when talking to him. He had a quaint way of letting me know that this annoyed him. He'd grab my chin a la Milton Berle and whip my face back into position.

Therefore I don't pretend to understand all the concerns of the hearing-impaired.

But, Ms. Fernandes was born deaf yet grew up speaking. She didn't learn American Sign Language until she was 23. She is married to a hearing person, ironically a retired Gallaudet professor, and has two children who can hear. Apparently those are her sins. One of the professors opposing her said, “She does not represent truly our deaf community.”

I'm confused. What is their “deaf community?” Is it solely made up of deaf children of deaf parents? Do those children grow up and marry only other deaf people? Do they bear only deaf children? Do none of them speak?

(I know learning to speak is difficult for the deaf, but, as Ms. Fernandes shows, many do learn.)

What it seems to boil down to, if one reads the article, is that Ms. Fernandes is not very popular among teachers and students at
Gallaudet. Why is not clear. But, the students and faculty seem to be finding any excuse they can think of to have her removed. They have even raised race as an issue, complaining that there were no non-whites among the finalists.

Maybe Ms. Fernandes isn't the right person for the job, but it would be nice if people were more honest about why. “Not deaf enough” and “too white” are hokey reasons.

In other news, Ben Bova, noted science fiction author, wrote a little opinion piece
the other day lamenting the decline of music. I myself have commented on this topic before here and here. Mr. Bova does it better, but, hey, that's why he gets paid to write stuff, while I just blog away on my own nickel (and cheap at half the price, it is). At any rate, Mr. Bova is even older than I am, I guess, based on his favorite music, but I agree with him for the most part (except for the group Bread; lordy, they were dull). What really caught my eye was his discussion of how listening to classical music has declined. I couldn't agree more (I can't figure out how I didn't blog that at some time). What raised my ire was the comments posted in response to his article.

There were four or five of them, and they all essentially called Bova an old fogy. One, though, revealed just how pathetic people have begun. This would-be pundit announced that classical music didn't “speak” to young people today.

What a load of crap. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its Ode to Joy, doesn't speak to anyone? Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor doesn't reach out and grab you by the scruff of the neck? Codswallop. This music is sending its messages as well as it ever did. The problem is that people have turned their ears off. You can't appreciate Copeland's Third Symphony while playing a video game. You don't feel the sea's surge in Sibelius' Second if you're surfing the web.

 
The fact is that great music, like great literature, takes time to hear and appreciate. And it takes your full attention. The same society that can scream about “your busy schedule” when peddling hair restorers has no time for restoring the mind.

There is no requirement that everyone like every great piece ever written. Clarinet sonatas give me the hives; opera and ballet are not on top of my list; and chamber music is simply too soothing. But, hearing Gershwin on the solo piano or a cello concerto will transport me, as well a powerful symphony. And people are missing this more and more.

Serious music (“classical” refers to a particular period) has been doing fine for 300 years or more. We can be thankful for the large number of recordings that have been made, because symphony orchestras are a dying breed. The people who will take an evening to sit and listen to them are literally dying off. But there's one hope.

I've noticed that many fine musicians are coming out of Asia. Some of the best young violinists in the world are Asian women. So, evidently, it will take Asians to save the traditions of Western music. If that what it takes, then I hope they continue. Because the music will continue to speak until there are those who have the sense to listen to the message.

There are those who cannot hear and those who won't. The latter are the ones deserving pity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Bonds, Aaron, Maris, and the Ghost of Babe Ruth

I don't know why people like the home run so much. A home run is over as soon as it starts.... The triple is the most exciting play of the game. A triple is like meeting a woman who excites you, spending the evening talking and getting more excited, then taking her home. It drags on and on. You're never sure how it's going to turn out. ~George Foster (a pretty fair home run hitter himself)

As I write this, Barry Bonds is one home run away from tying Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs. When Bonds hits number 715, he won't be the all-time leader, he'll be in second place behind Hank Aaron (at 756, I believe). Yet a lot of discussion, some of it rather heated, is being generated over Bonds passing Ruth. It's not the first time the ghost of the Babe and his homers has loomed large over the game, but the situations have differences.

In 1961, Roger Maris, who had bounced from Cleveland to Kansas City to New York, suddenly found himself under pressure no player had ever seen before. Maris had shown power in his young career but was not much of hitter for average. He was also a mediocre outfielder (although he improved considerably over the years). In his second season with the Yankees, Maris suddenly began hitting home runs in clusters. Also, Mickey Mantle was hitting them right along with him. Suddenly, baseball fans were treated to not one but two players going for one of the most sacred records in baseball.

The public, of course, was rooting for Mantle, the boyish rogue, with the brilliant talent and oft-injured legs. But as the season progressed, Maris moved ahead of Mantle and stayed there. The media focus shifted to a young player who was not ready for it. Mantle could have handled it easily; Maris barely could.

Then as the season wound down, the question of the length of the season came up. Ruth played when the season was 154 games long; baseball now played 162 games. What would happen if Maris beat the record after game 154? Would it count? Well, in any other sport, changes of equipment, lengths of seasons, and other externalities have never entered into the discussion. But, the Lords of Baseball can make hamburger out of filet mignon any time they try. It was announced that there would be an asterisk after Maris' record should he break it after game 154 (the asterisk has since been removed).

So here's poor Roger Maris, being chased by reporters daily, having to answer the same questions over and over. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, the hate mail started.

I've never understood what prompts people to send hate mail. Okay, I wasn't thrilled about a .260 hitter beating Ruth's record, but I couldn't conceive of writing, as some people did, death threats to Maris. People told him he had no right to break Ruth's record. Of course, he had a right to, and he beat the odds and did it. But the furor surrounding chase for the record with all the attendant stress and emotional pain dogged him for years.

Hank Aaron's situation wasn't quite as bad, but it wasn't pretty. Aaron's pursuit of Ruth's career record was a tribute to longevity and consistency. Aaron was a blue collar ball player; he showed up every day and did his job to the best of his ability. And suddenly, after years of people expecting Willie Mays or Mantle to challenge the Babe, here was a good man who had just done his job challenging an immortal.

What a great story. And, for most of us, it was just that. But, once again, Aaron was the center of attention. The media, both sports and non-sports, followed him everywhere, reported his every move. A black man getting this kind of adulation was more than some white bigots could take. Once again came death threats and obscene mail. Like Maris, Aaron's enjoyment had to have been dulled by this sort of nonsense. But, unlike Maris, Aaron had the support of the vast majority of baseball fans.

And then there's Barry Bonds. Frankly, I'm no fan of his. He's been surly and not fan-friendly though much of his career. To me his attitude is typified by his refusing to sign home run ball 713 for a U. S. service man. He was willing to take a picture with the man, as long as the service man signed a release allowing the whole schmear to be used on Bonds' reality show. Bonds doesn't want the guy to make a mint selling the ball on E-bay, but he doesn't mind using the guy and his military status to hype his own show (and pad his own bank account). That's churlish.

Then there's the cloud of enhancement drug use floating over him. In spite of that, I do admire his athletic ability. It takes more than human growth hormone or steroids to enable you to hit a ball. The fact is that hitting a baseball is generally regarded as one of the most difficult tasks in sports. As Ted Williams once noted, hitting is difficult that someone who fails only seven times out of ten is considered pretty darn good. But the stigma lingers.

It is strange that no one has suggested taking Mark McGuire's single-season home run title away from him, even though he admitted taking human growth hormone, which was not against the rules at the time. Yet now, there are already suggestions that Bonds' records (those he has and those he might yet get) should be expunged because he may or may not have been taking steroids at the time.

(Yes, I know about the book that claims he did. But, what he took, when he took it, and who gave it to him seems to be rather up in the air, especially since the Balco boys who supposedly served up the drugs have publicly denied doing so.)

There are those who are trying to rehabilitate Bonds' image, portraying him as well-liked by his teammates and a quiet guy who just won't surrender to the hoopla. Well, nice try, all you well-meaning people. It doesn't change his actions over the years, nor does it change his status as a player. He's a great all-around player, who happens to be something of a jerk. He isn't the first athlete to be like that, and, regrettably, he won't be the last.

So I don't like Barry Bonds, but if he hits 715 home runs, good for him. He'll be the number two all-time home run hitter. I wont' be rooting for him to break Hammerin' Hank's record, but I won't be making little Barry Bonds images to stick pins into, either. And, I won't be writing letters to the Commissioner's office demanding his records be expunged.

Baseball did the right thing by banning steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Don't try to rewrite history. And, if you're not removing the records of Palmero or McGuire, just leave Bonds along. In fact, just leave them all alone.

Besides, if you guys hadn't juiced up the ball and made the strike zone minuscule, we wouldn't be having these arguments now.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Solid Gold Records

The invention of basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play "Drop the Handkerchief." ~James Naismith

A site had a very interesting piece on what they considered to be the 10 most unbreakable sports records. It did not include Joe Dimaggio's 56 hitting streak, although they paid it tribute in their introduction. I've got my own comments on some of them; you can get the full list at the site.

Their number 10 is Rocky Marciano's 49-0 record as a heavyweight boxer. What makes this record amazing is that not that Marciano had 49 straight wins; Larry Holmes got to 48. No, what's remarkable is that Marciano retired at that point with his brains in tact (unlike the brains of many of his opponents). He quit on top after demolishing the division. Marciano must also hold the record for being one of the smartest boxers of all time.

I really don't know why Wilt Chamberlin's 100 point game hasn't been eclipsed. I think it's because no other team has ever made a conscious decision to feed a single player at the expense of embarrassing another team. Kobe Bryant had an 80 point game this season; Michael Jordan, who had several games over 50 poins, could have done it. It's a long season, with a long playoff season. There's no reason to tick anyone off that much. Sooner or later, though, someone is going to decide to beat up a cupcake team and beat Chamberlin's record.

One record that amazed me was Jerry Rice's lifetime reception yardage. It's not that he had so much, because the man played brilliantly for years and had the good fortune to play with a couple of pretty fair quarterbacks. It's the margin he has on the next guy on the active list. Tim Brown, who is no slouch himself, is 8000 yards behind. When you're looking for the definition of domination as it applies to a sport, you'll find Jerry Rice's picture there.

Then there were three interesting baseball records: Ty Cobb's .366 lifetime batting average, Cy Young's 511 wins, and Nolan Ryan's 7 no-hitters. Forget about breaking Young's record; ol' Cy played in the days when two day's rest between starts was considered loafing. Not only that, starters finished. Young also has over 700 complete games. He was a great pitcher, but always being around at the end means a decision. Great pitchers like Warren Spahn pitched a lot of their career in the relief pitcher era. So starters don't get some decisions the old-timers got, and they don't get nearly as many starts. This record is going to stay unless someone pitches for 30 seasons.

It's the same thing for Ryan's no-hitters. Ryan planned to go 9 innings every time he went out. A pitcher today figures on going six or seven innings, so he doesn't pace himself the way pitchers used to. If he fatigues sooner, he's more likely to give up a hit. So Ryan's record, while far more attainable than Young's, will stand unless the nature of the game changes.

That being said, why can't anyone hit like Ty Cobb did? In his day, there were lots of incredible hitters. Now seasons come along with relatively few .300 hitters. Yet, team ERA's are higher now than they were in Cobb's day. One reason given is, again, the relief pitcher. No doubt hitters collected cheap hits late in games by a tiring starter. But I suspect the home run also figures in. Consider that the greatest all-time hitters all came in the dead-ball era. Bat control, bunting, hitting them “where they ain't” (as Willie Keeler once said), all were part of a good hitter's repertoire. I don't think hitting is studied the way it was in those days. You can see the fading of the great hitters after the ball got juiced up. Oh, sure, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, and Ted Williams all were great hitters, but with each year there were fewer.

Perhaps we'll see the return of the hitter some day, but it won't be soon.

And then there's Cal Ripken's consecutive games streak of 2632. I grew up hearing how Lou Gehrig's record would never be beaten, and I believed it. Even though athletes were bigger and stronger and sports medicine had made great strides, it just didn't seem that anyone would ever have the kind of dedication combined with great talent to ever touch Gehrig. You need the dedication to play with minor hurts or when the team just stinks. And you need talent to get written into the lineup every day.

What about Dimaggio's 56-game streak? Should it be on the list? Personally, I don't think this one will get beaten either, mostly due to the hitting factors I mentioned above. But there's one more thing about Dimaggio's run that's worth telling.

Dimaggio's streak was broken by the Cleveland Indians. It took three brilliant infield plays, two by Ken Keltner and one by Lou Boudreau to stop him. Had he hit those shots against a lesser infield, the Yankee Clipper's streak would have continued. How long? Well, after being stopped in Cleveland, Dimaggio went on a 16-game streak.

A 73-game hitting streak. I do believe that would have made number one their list.