Friday, March 18, 2005

Living Past Their Sell-By Date.

It seems that there was a brief couple-year period in the early 1980s when most of the best British rock acts who emerged in the '60s released their last good work before completely giving up the ghost creatively. The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, David Bowie, Elton John -- they all released their "good" albums in a rapid burst between 1981 and 1983 before descending into uninspired drivel. (Only Bowie and Elton John have managed to redeem themselves in recent years with a return to form after a long drought.) It's as if an entire generation of musicians just lost their creative drive all at once. Maybe the murder of John Lennon had something to do with it, or maybe they all just got old at the same time. (However, it's especially odd to me that there doesn't seem to be a similar phenomenon among the same generation of American artists.)

Anyway, the only reason I bring this up is that U2's latest album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," seems to demonstrate that they're at the same point now that their elders were 20 years ago. The new release is a descent into drivel, making their last one, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," seem like a parting shot at greatness. And that perception is only heightened by three recent events -- their election into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Bono's nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, and (most improbably) Bono's further nomination to be the new head of the World Bank. These are all old people's activities. And while I have to admit that Bono would make a better World Bank president than that stooge Paul Wolfowitz, it's still not something that a credible rock star should have his name attached to.

More and more, U2 is looking like this generation's Rolling Stones, and we'll probably still see them touring 20 years from now, even after their music stops being the least bit interesting.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Random Thoughts on Congress vs. Baseball.

I spent the better part of the day watching the Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball, and while work kept me from staying to the end (I wound up missing the fireworks featuring Bud Selig, Donald Fehr and Rob Manfred), it was interesting viewing for me, being the quasi-wonk that I am. Anyway, some random reactions....

It was a nice touch having Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky) be the first witness. Before going into politics, he put together a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher with the Tigers and Phillies, so when he advocates Congress to step in and take action, his colleagues can't help but to sit up and listen. Plus, he brings that cranky-old-man, "we didn't have it as good as these kids" perspective those old-time ballplayers do so well.

My favorite observation of his: "Mr. Chairman, maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I remembered that players didn't get any better as they got older. We all got worse. When I played with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn't put on 40 pounds and bulk up in their careers, and they didn't hit more home runs in their late 30s than they did in their late 20s. What is happening in baseball now isn't natural and it isn't right." (Gee, Mr. Bonds -- I wonder who he's referring to?)

The second panel featured the parents to two young ballplayers who killed themselves following steroid-related depression, and several medical experts. There were two telling moments for me. The first came from parent Ray Garibaldi, who claimed that some of the steroids his son used were supplied by a scout for the Angels. (Holy schnikes! Now, why wasn't this allegation followed up on? This is the first mention I've ever heard of a team official supplying the drug, rather than the players procuring it on their own.) The second came from parent and activist Donald Hooton (brother of former Dodger hurler Burt Hooton, BTW) who said that most of the steroids used by high school kids not only come from illegal labs in Mexico, but are also veterinary grade, meaning they were only manufactured to be used on livestock, not by humans.

As if the harsh words in the Congressmen's opening statements weren't indication enough, their grilling of MLB medical adviser Eliot Pellman showed what they had in store for the other executives later in the day. Basically, they tore him a new asshole and confronted him with glaring loopholes in MLB's drug testing policy that he had to admit he never knew existed. Ouch! Not a happy time for ol' Doc Pellman.

Then came the third panel, which is what everyone was waiting for. Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling sat side-by-side at the witness table while Frank Thomas testified via a video conference hook-up. Six potential Hall of Famers on the hot seat, all with at least 15 years major league experience. Well, actually only four of them were on the hot seat, in an interesting development -- Schilling and Thomas, both outspoken in the past on the steroid problem, were introduced separately and named to co-chair a Congressional committee on steroid use. This was clearly a move by the committee to separate the "good guys" from the "bad guys." It will be interesting to see how this eventually plays out in clubhouses across the league as players are forced to take sides.

Thomas, who got to testify from training camp because of his ankle rehabilitation, clearly got the best deal of all the player witnesses, since the balky video conferencing technology allowed everyone to just forget about him and concentrate their ire on the guys in the room. (All those tax dollars, and Congress can't get a good video conferencing system and competent people to run it? Sheesh.)

Predictably, in their opening statements, everyone ripped into Canseco and his book, but McGwire was the only one who wouldn't explicitly deny ever using steroids. Of course, we all knew he wasn't clean once that andro was found in his locker back in '98, but I'm convinced his usage went deeper than that. His reputation and his legacy are going to be the hardest hit over this whole ordeal. But will it be enough to jeopardize his Hall of Fame election chances next year? Maybe. But the emotion he showed surprised me. Obviously, there's a whole going on there that he's not telling us -- not just in a legalistic sense, but in a psychological sense. One can only hope that a tearful confession and some genuine contrition are forthcoming in the near future, but I have a feeling his lawyers won't allow that.

Palmiero's emotion surprised me, too. Leave to a Cuban to yell and point an angry finger at Congress. (Besides, we all know that his power comes from Viagra, not from steroids....) But his begging to be on the Schilling/Thomas anti-steroid task force seemed awfully pathetic.

Also predictably, Sosa brought along an interpreter and a lawyer to read his opening statement. This is the same thing he did when he got caught with a corked bat. Seems that he manages to conveniently forget the English language when it suits him.

Like I said, work kept me from watching the executives testify, but all the recaps I've read seem to indicate it was quite a throw-down. But, frankly, they deserved it. Especially the weasely Don Fehr, who is showing the world what an obstructionist he really is.

Although no one's mentioned any concrete legislation yet, it's obvious to me that something is going to come out of these hearings beyond the Schilling/Thomas Bad Ankle Brigade and Anti-Steroid Crusade. It may not be immediate, but I have a feeling we'll see some sort of action by Congress, since this seems to be one of the few issues left with any sort of broad bipartisan support. It may be the stiff criminal penalties for any pro athletes caught using (which someone suggested at the hearing) or it may just be the revocation of baseball's anti-trust protection. Keep an eye out for that.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Intern Idol.

Bill Simmons, the great Page 2 columnist over at is currently running an "American Idol" style search for his new intern. This involves the contestants writing short columns on given topics with some being eliminated in each round. Anyway, the Round 3 entries are up and I thought "getting to know you sports-wise" questions asked this round were interesting enough for me to try my hand at it, too. So here goes...

1. What was your favorite sports moment that you've seen in person?
While I've accumulated a number of favorite moments over the years, the only one I've seen in person is somewhat bittersweet to me because it involved my favorite team on the losing end. But it was in the summer of 1991 when I was interning as a photojournalist at the local rag and I got to cover a Dodgers game in which they hosted the Expos. Dennis Martinez was pitching for Montreal that day, and from the photographer's well on the third base side I got to watch El Presidente hurl his perfect game. And immediately after the game, I got to see him sitting in the dugout, surrounded by hordes of reporters, and crying tears of joy. What a rare and wonderful moment.

2. What's your favorite sports movie ever and why?
Hands down, it's "Bull Durham" because it so perfectly captures the beauty of baseball and the passion of athletes who compete for the love of the game, not for fame or riches. Not even the presence of Kevin Costner can spoil it.

3. Who's your favorite athlete ever and why?
Oh, lordy. My answer to this has changed so much over the years. To narrow it down to one for the purposes of this question, I'd have to go back to an early childhood favorite and say Pete Rose. Despite all the disgrace he's brought down upon himself in the years since, he appealed to me even at an early age because of his fierce drive and relentless work ethic. He wasn't the best natural hitter, or the fastest runner, or even the prettiest face, but he worked his ass off to make himself one of the best of all time. He even ran out every walk he drew just because he couldn't tolerate slacking on anything. As I grew up, I began to realize what the dark side to that type of personality can do, but as a kid that made a huge impression on me.

4. What do you think was the funniest moment in sports history and why?
So many of the intern contestants picked the old Knicks/Heat brawl that featured Alonzo Mourning mixing it up with Jeff Van Gundy, but I've never seen the clips of that, so I can't pick it. This is another question that's hard to narrow down to one answer, but I'll have to say it's that clip I've seen so much of that minor leaguer (I forget his name) who literally ran through the outfield wall chasing a fly ball.

So, do I get the job?

When the World is Running Down...

Spotted on a church sign/message board in Pomona this morning:

"Pray until something happens"

What a bizarre little piece of advice. And so wonderfully non-specific.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Talkin' Baseball.

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
—"Centerfield," John Fogerty

Next to Christmas, March has to be my favorite time of year. Spring Training is in full swing and the first exhibition games finally start. We observed this momentous occasion this morning by watching the first televised game of the year, which also happened to be the first-ever game for the "new" Washington Nationals as they beat the Mets on ESPN.

We'll have to see what happens with the Nationals this year. After the sad death of baseball in Montreal (a travesty carried out by MLB which never should have happened, but that's another rant), I'd love to see the franchise bounce back and be successful. However, with the dismal track record of baseball in Washington, I'm not holding my breath. Plus, I do have to say that I'm a little disappointed with their new name. It would have been much cooler for them to resurrect the old Senators name (especially since they seem to have resurrected the old '60s-era Senators uniforms), I can see MLB's logic of wanting to differentiate this National League franchise from the two American League franchises that preceded it. Doesn't mean I agree with it, though.

But that's all beside the point. The reason I'm here now is to give you all my fearless (and probably wrong) predictions for the upcoming season, division by division...

National League

1. San Francisco Giants
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. San Diego Padres
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
5. Colorado Rockies

This will probably be the closest division race in the Majors this year – a four-team battle right up to the end. And while it pains me to pick my Dodgers to finish behind the hated Giants, those top four teams can finish in just about any order. The only sure thing is another season in the cellar for the pitiful Rockies. (Am I alone in thinking that they had the worst off-season, by far, of any team this year? The made no significant moves and still managed to get worse. But at least they don't have that whore-lovin' Denny Neagle to kick around more...)

1. Cincinnati Reds
2. Chicago Cubs
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Houston Astros
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Milwaukee Brewers

Yeah, I know I'm going out on a limb here, but I think this is the year for the Reds to surprise a lot of people. They'll have a tough fight with the Cubbies, though.

1. Atlanta Braves
2. New York Mets
3. Florida Marlins
4. Philadelphia Phillies
5. Washington Nationals

The Mets have made a lot of splashy signings this winter, but it won't be enough to overcome the strengthened pitching of the Braves. But expect a closer race if John Smoltz' arm can't deal with the rigors of starting. And as far as I'm concerned, as long as Atlanta has the braintrust of Scheurholz, Cox and Mazone, they'll always be the team to beat. The Nationals will be bringing up the rear, just like they were used to doing in Montreal, but it shouldn't be quite so bad this year.

Wild Card
It'll be a dogfight between the Cubs and the Mets, but the Cubs will squeak by.

Pennant: Chicago Cubs

American League

1. Angels
2. Seattle Mariners
3. Texas Rangers
4. Oakland Athletics

Forget the Sox and the Yanks – the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Orange County California U.S.A. (or whatever they'll eventually wind up calling themselves) are now the strongest team in baseball, thanks to a series of savvy off-season moves. And while the Mariners made some flashing signings with Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexton, they didn't do anything to improve their pathetic pitching, so this won't be a very close race.

1. Minnesota Twins
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Kansas City Royals

The Twins are just getting better and better, which will allow them to hold off the also improving Tigers and Indians. And look for the Royals to be this year's big 100-game loser.

1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Baltimore Orioles
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
5. Toronto Blue Jays

As usual, this will be another two-team race, but look for the Orioles to at least close the gap a little. Frankly, the Yanks and Sox are pretty much interchangeable atop the standings, but I'm giving Boston the edge because they won't have Jason Giambi and Kevin Brown weighing them down.

Wild Card
It'll be the Yankees, easily. Unless, of course, they wind up winning their division, in which case it'll be the Sox again. Same ol', same ol'...

Pennant: The Angels

World Champions: The Angels

Feel free to check back with me in six months to see how badly I messed this up...