Time’s Man of the Year

21 12 2007

We have now an occasion — one of the extremely rare condition — where it’s ok to agree with Mitt Romney. The Republican presidential hopeful spoke out yesterday, alongside John McCain, against Time Magazine’s choice for Man of the Year.

The choice? Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Putin has indeed overseen a number of positive changes in the Motherland. His approval rating, though suspect in a system that is notoriously liberal with its fact-getting, is near 80 percent. But at what cost?

The Economist summed up his platte-cold, lead-fisted, authoritarian approach to governance in two ascerbic sentences: one topic, one jugular-seeking. “Mr Putin has moved progressively to snuff out even the faintest flickers of democracy that he inherited from Boris Yeltsin. He has crushe dopponents, emasculated the courts and parliament, eliminated independent broadcast media, scrapped the autonomy of Russia’s regions and blatantly fixed elections.”

Eighty percent seems a bit more suspect now. He’s also brought a huge number of Russia’s industries under state control and consolidated the political system into a single-party program again.

He’s also tabbed to be the next prime minister, a demotion only nominally, because presidents can only serve a maximum of two terms in Russia. But the man he’s suggested to succeed him, deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, is a fervent loyalist, and would seem to run the country from the shotgun seat. “Mr Medvedev,” The Economist writes, “has depended entirely on Mr Putin’s patronage throughout his short career.” Putin would remain in charge.

He’s not a tyrant, no. But neither is he a man to be glorified.


The Say it Ain’t So Test

20 12 2007

For 14 years, a baseball has sat in a fractured plastic case in my room. It is, aside from a light shell of dirt, without adornment.

From its humble beginnings on a wooded Caribbean island to the States, it found its way to Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, finally cracking into The Show on Oct. 6, 1993. It came out from the dugout, bounded out to home plate with a ballboy and eventually into the hands of the Atlanta Braves’ Kent Mercker, who threw an outside fastball to the Phillies’ Lenny Dykstra, which Dykstra sprayed into the seats along the third-base-line, right into the waiting hands of Carl Scheitrum, who gave it to his eight-year-old son, Kevin, who still regards Dykstra as his all-time favorite player.

The Phillies won that game, Game 1 of that year’s NLCS, on a Kim Batiste walk-off single in the 10th after a Batiste error allowed the Braves to tie the game in the 9th. It almost didn’t matter. The Phils could have put on tutus and started dancing to the Nutcracker and I wouldn’t have noticed. Life and time and light were all sucked into that ball.

I didn’t register a noise on the ride home, not the engine or the peel of the road or the horns of riled-up Philadelphians. I remember just rolling the ball around, feeling each seam with my fingertips, mystified that Dykstra and my respective fates had crossed, that his corporeal electricity transferred to me. And although Dykstra had distributed balls into every park in the major leagues, I was sure that Nails had chosen to send one me-ward.

This is Dykstra, a man who was called both Dude and Nails during his time in the Bigs. He’s a man who played for the No. 1 and 2 scumbag shows in the history of baseball, the ’86 Mets and the ’93 Phillies, respectively. My parents’ task of parenting was abetted by Dykstra’s style of play — which made him resemble a left-handed mortar blast — and also complicated by his style of play off the field, which involved a steady stream of donations to Atlantic City, piles of blow into his sinuses with the rest of the 86 Mets and general, all-American depravity.

In 1993, when baseball took me in, Nails represented the game. That season, he led the league in walks, runs, hits and at-bats, finishing second in the MVP voting to Barry Bonds, who was yet to morph into a Sherman tank. And after showing up to spring training with an extra 20 pounds on him, Dykstra told reporters he had ‘real good vitamins.’

He was one of the 86 ballplayers mentioned as steroid users in last week’s Mitchell Report. In retrospect, you had to assume he was juicing. But with Dykstra, I’m finding it impossible to care.

I’ll call it the Say it Ain’t So Test.

There’s this anecdote that’s swimming in poignancy, although probably has the factual accuracy of Washington’s cherry tree, that a kid walked up to Shoeless Joe Jackson after the Black Sox scandal came out, stared up at him and said ‘say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.’ The Test is simple: if an allegation isn’t enough to ruin your childhood idol, it can’t be all that bad across the board.

The Test is held back by the facts that it’s entirely subjective and that it was conceived by a person who once drank jungle juice from a trash can. But try to follow me.

Our childhood idols often represent irreplaceable pillars in whose images we once tried to shape our own personalities. They give to us portions of our superegoes. Without them, we’d lack direction, to some degree. It would be like driving without road signs. (These people need not be athletes, of course. Parents, musicians, astronauts, cosmonauts, golden retrievers, they all qualify — your choice)

Fixing games, playing to lose — those marks are damning. But using steroids in a time when they were, after all, not illegal — no way. 

Dykstra thus remains the same in my eyes. Maybe it’s current me protecting the psyche of pre-pubescent me, trying to keep my developmental mythologies alive. But steroids don’t make you leave every game covered in more dirt than an Iowa farmhand. Steroids don’t make you fly into each base head-first and go horizontal on The Vet’s Astroturf, which was harder than parquet, harder than pain itself.

We need to realize, too, that ballplayers from yore would have gladly taken steroids. They weren’t angels, just men restricted by the scientific horizon. Ty Cobb was mean enough for a century of ballplayers. Legend had it that Cobb used to sharpen his spikes to make them better for impaling middle infielders, hated northerners and minorities — an aversion that led him to get in a fight with a black groundskeeper about field conditions, then choke the man’s wife when she jumped in — (it’s all here in this ESPN.com story).

Maybe I don’t think less of Dykstra because his alleged usage didn’t allow him to break any records. Yeah, he had a season in ’93 in which he almost doubled the amount of homers that he’d ever had in any season before. But that total was 19.

Steroids should be banned, in the efforts to keep the playing field level and keep kids from growing man-boobs at 14. But to villify people for using them as we have seems Salem-esque, reminiscent of a group of incensed farmers toting pitchforks and malicious superstition out for blood. The use of them was obviously not intended to cheapen the games. And we’re crazy to think that we were cheated when our entertainment got stronger and faster and the games got more explosive.

Instead, we witnessed a time when men went too far and the action on the field benefitted from it. Yeah, it was money-driven. Longer home runs mean an extra ‘0’ in the contract. Faster, stronger, richer. But nobody tried to cheat the game. The game remained intact. The bodies playing it just changed.

Two Girls, One Kermit

19 12 2007

I think I like this clip so much because it signifies the merging of youthful innocence and, well, Two Girls and One Cup. One of the most famous clips on the internet, acclaimed for its restraint and nuance, Two Girls represents a whole lot of debauched nihilism.

But the video itself isn’t the main attraction anymore. In a postmodern turn of events, it’s the clips of people reacting to the video that are garnering more hits. Hundreds of people have recorded themselves acting out ostensibly authentic reactions to the film, and some are reasonably entertaining.

For a few other choice reactions, check these out:

Joe Rogan gives us his comedic best.

Robert Kelly on Opie & Anthony

A dad.

A Bitter Turn

17 12 2007

Envision this period, perhaps, as high school. A time of sweeping, turbulent formation, not unlike the head creeping up along the sides of a thick glass in a rashly-poured drink. Watch as the blooming (or wilting) occurs.

American small-scale brewing, since 2000, has experienced a faster growth than virtually any other segment of the food and drink market. Across America, from the Edenic Northwest to the skeptical New York, local breweries and ‘beer bars’ abound as people demand more from their beer. Really inspiring stuff.

But over the next few years, it will experience a challenge that could either stop the craft brewing world in its tracks or help prove that it’s here to stay. In other words, craft brewing just got its locker and homeroom assignment. It’s about to get its most unforgiving test yet.

Over the past few months, there have been murmurs that an international hop shortage is upon us. One of the main ingredients in beer, hops are the bittering agents that keep beer from being an undrinkable, sweet syrup. And because of a variety of factors, from a devastating hail storm in the Slovenia to a bad year in the Czech Republic to limited hop fields across the globe (the 123,000 acres of hop fields in 2006 is almost half of 1986’s total acreage), the results could decimate the craft beer world.

First, prices will shoot up. Cascade hops have gone from $7 to $10/lb, an increase that doesn’t seem like a whole lot until you try to mass-produce this stuff. Suddenly, a 6-pack that cost a manageable $9 could jump to $11-12, possibly repelling potential new customers and even making existing ones reconsider over the long term. Simple supply and demand.

But more importantly, big breweries can afford to weather these prices. The Big 3 (soon to be the Big 2), with their hulking margins, won’t be affected as acutely. Also, because it’s the policy of these breweries to buy hops higher in alpha acid (making them more bitter), thus allowing them to add fewer hops in the beer, the shortage is a small hurdle.

More, if this becomes a bidding war, Big Beer could go so far as to buy up a good deal of hops, further driving up prices. That’s a little conspiracy-theory for me, though.

Not that price is the only variable here; that flavor thing is a big deal, too.

Beer is all chemistry and precision. Of the variety of ways in which professional brewers separate themselves from homebrewers, outside of beards and bankroll, record-keeping is one of them. A recipe is followed down to the 1/100th ounce.

But if a beer calls for a certain type of hop and it’s unavailable, the recipe changes dramatically. There are scores of hops used in professional brewing, certainly, but each one has a distinct character. So brewmasters may have to settle for approximation, a compromise that will not be easy to hide in the American brew market, where extreme, uber-bitter beers are standard.

People who drink beers by Dogfish Head, Rogue, Stone, Bear Republic, Victory and hundreds of others have come to appreciate the harmony of the hops crammed into each pint. A change in recipe would be akin to New Coke, or Toyoto overhauling the Camry. The breweries might never recover.

A number of sources have said that this challenge offers a chance for brewmasters to be creative, that they’re forced to find new ways to make their beers exciting. And if there’s one thing brewmasters are, it’s creative. And well-bearded.

The solution would be logical — just grow more hops — if it didn’t take three years for a vine to reach its maturity.

So this period, these three years, will reveal to us the constitution of a movement that has thus move more or less consistently upward since the late 1980s, with a slight mid-90s hitch before the recent thrust. The shortage doesn’t signify crisis if navigated deftly. By the time this is done, craft brewing could have proven itself more than a fad, able to withstand a direct challenge to its existence. It will have grown up.

Let’s just hope it can make it ’til senior year.

Hiding Steroids in the Sox?

14 12 2007

According to the Times, the bombshell Mitchell Report — the expose, named after Senator George Mitchell, which named 86 ballplayers involved in steroid usage over the past 15 years — may have been written with a bit of a bias.

Mitchell, evidently a steadfast investigator with a history of impartiality, named 20 past or current Yankees in the report. Only two of the people (Eric Gagne, Mo Vaughn) were Red Sox. Turns out that Mitchell sits on the Board of Directors for the Sawks, a corporation that has placed a great deal of focus on its image since the John Henry administration began.

Mitchell argues quite competently that his main source, former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, had more links to New York than he did Boston. But for a project of this magnitude, it seems like deadlines made for some unfinished reporting. Maybe the Sox are, indeed, cleaner. Probably not.

I’ll reserve judgement on this tiny, little earth-shaker of a report until the first furious waves settle (give it til next week). But in the meantime, check out the full list and feel free to post any thoughts on why the Yanks have 10 times the representation on the list that the Sawks have.

The Sweet Science

13 12 2007

We spent the autumn of 1998 watching baseball come back to life. Its resurrection was borne on the granite shoulders and old-growth redwood legs of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, whose ability to jolt baseballs heavenward captured the American psyche, reminding the citizenry of why, precisely, this game was once called Our Pastime.

When McGwire broke Maris’ record, there arose very few questions — strangely few, considering the bottle of adrostenedione a member of the media found in his locker during the summer. And any lingering skepticism was silenced by the din of millions of American lungs bursting with vibration as the 62nd home run of that season sped along a slight arc, cutting through the buggy Missouri night just over the left field fence.

Eight years later, they sat in front of Congress, a bespectacled, denying McGwire and a slightly pathetic Sosa feigning a lack of fluency in the language he had spoken more or less fluently for a decade. The allegations against them, that they were both rather enthusiastic steroid users, have tarnished their individual reputations. A good chunk of the country claims that steroid use has sullied baseball altogether. These people are liars.

Undeniably, that summer saved baseball.  A game that suffered mightily from the 1994 strike, which curtailed a season that could have ended majesterially (Matt Williams was on pace to break Maris’ record, Tony Gwynn was just a few hundreths shy of .400 and the Expos had the best record in baseball) could not recover without a shock. Record-low attendance, by modern standards, plagued the seasons succeeding 1994. Baseball was in the ICU.

In 1998, it received its shock, its defibrillation. And although the pulses were administered by two men who allegedly were, themselves, administering a great deal of chemicals upon themselves, the pulses worked nonetheless. The home run — still one of the more electric moments in sports — revived baseball.

I’m not advocating steroids. I’m of the mindset that they should be banned. An unfair advantage is an unfair advantage. But there is a device in chemical reactions known as a catalyst, a process that provides a little extra ooomph in a reaction that needs it. Back then, baseball needed a boost.

The Game hasn’t looked back. Its parks fill up once again, its ratings climb. A surge in power, speed and precision has sent the game into a new era.

Not that baseball’s the only game affected. And steroids certainly aren’t the only reason that athletes have grown stronger, faster, more capable of decimation. They have helped, yes. But even without them, our athletes would be better today than their predecessors. Much better. Advancements in training and the knowledge of the human body have changed sports into spectator science, as bodies routinely find ways to crack paradigms.

But there’s one sport that has not benefitted from scientific advances in human physiology and the refinement of technique. Whereas in all other arenas, from baseball to football, soccer to cricket, sports have generally improved in dramatic manners in terms of their watchability as a result of those advances, one has regressed: Boxing.

It has fallen from a sort of epic status that, in mid-century, made it able to cleave society into halves. When Ali fought Frazier, The Champ made sure to play the race card hard, boasting that he was the one representing black folk, that Frazier was nothing but a dirty Uncle Tom. In every major fight, there were two distinct factions, a good and a bad. When Joe Lewis knocked out Schmeling, it was a win over the Nazis. When Rocky knocked out Drago, well, that just ended the damn Cold War.

Blame for the decline in boxing’s popularity circulates around widely. Certainly, the transfer of telecasts from networks to premium and pay-per-view channels did not help the sport in retaining a mass audience; however, such a trend could represent a symptom, not a cause. Why waste precious airtime with a sport that’s attracting less of an audience than the streetfight on 4th street?

Lots of fingers point to scandal, to fixed events and people’s ears being bitten off. But scandal’s been around in boxing as long as the two trades have concurrently existed. The backstory for On the Waterfront is that Brando’s character had to take a fall for the dockworker’s union, of which Brando’s brother was a big shot. A Senate investigation in the 1960s revealed the Cossa Nostra’s hand in the sport, according to this story from 2000. And crazy sells. It always has.

I blame the over-professionalizing of the sport. In Rocky III, Mick tells Rock that ‘the worst thing happened that could happen to any fighter — you got civilized.” Boxing got, in many ways, civilized. Its mean streak, its rawness, has been lost.

A sports cliche holds that playing games like baseball, football, soccer, hockey, basketball, they’re MIen playing a boys’ game. Nobody, well, nobody sane, ever made that claim about boxing. It was two hulking men, occasionally gentlemen, finding the best way to coerce the other into a state of altered consciousness.

In boxing’s prime, it was a clash of two men whom the audience assumed to be more or less superhuman. The allure was the primal nature of the whole thing, the way that the punches seemed to stem from history, rising up volcanically from man’s past. There was an art to it, a sweet science, as A.J. Liebling wrote. But it was a different art, one that was less planned than improvised, sort of like jazz. If only jazz involved bruises, blood, swelling, blurred vision, faltering muscles, failing wills and the absolute, utter basic battle of one man versus another.

Wrote Arthur Daley in a Times story from 1955, “Heavy hitters carry an instant and irresistible appeal, be the sport baseball or boxing. Carmen Basilio and Tony DeMarco, two artists with the left hook, will dabble on canvas for the entertainment of a vast television audience tonight and the color motif undoubtedly will be red, blood red. … [Last time they fought] it was one of those old-fashioned slugfests such as grandfather used to talk about with dreamy wistfulness. … They fought like street fighters.”

The language conveys a sense of wonder at the figures in the ring. Today, we have little of this vaunted language — boxers are perceived as over-hyped anyway. A lot of this derives from the fact that we see freaks of science (not nature; remember, modern training undermines nature a little bit by amplifying it) in all of our Big 3 sports. Boxers were once larger than life because they were, in short, larger than most people you see in life. Watching them slug it out was akin to watching two cars drive into each other over and over again. So what we’re dealing with here is the pernicious effects of scientific advancements in removing the mythological greatness of these figures (as science tends to do) because they look just like other athletes.

Tyson, Bowe and Holyfield were really the last of the straight sluggers it seems, with the former being the least refined and thus most exciting. He seemed to be an extraordinarily distilled id and thanatos, the incarnation of energy and rage. He swung because he knew that by doing so, he’d cause carnage. And people watched. As he descended, so did boxing.

The sport is now an overwritten script. Boxers admit no fear, no reservation, not the slightest whisper of trepidation at the pugilistic prowess of the men across the ring from them. But, in truth, the sport is now one of defense. Today, it’s mutually assured destruction. Boxers never want to let their guard down, because they know that the other is capable of some horrible things. Today, they never seem to want to open up. Just like the trap kills the pace of hockey, so does technically sound, overly defensive boxing.

It’s thus become a sport of isolation, two heavily defended forts lobbing occasional shots at each other. We paid for the De La Hoya/Mayweather fight last Cinco de Mayo, and I’ve never been more frustrated with an investment — including a run of CD purchases in 8th grade that included Vertical Horizon, Harvey Danger and The New Radicals. It involved the two men dancing around each other for a dozen rounds, with less than a handful of actual volleys of punches.

Is it salvagable? Perhaps. Without great storylines, the sport will still languish; however, this is another one of those symptom-or-cause things. The media won’t craft storylines if they’re not interested.

And the only way to get people interested is, well, to bring the fights back to the old-fashioned slugfests that grandfather used to talk about with such dreamy wistfulness.

Christmas Movie Spin-Offs

12 12 2007

We watched Home Alone last night, and the relentless pressures of blog deadlines (waaaaaaah) inspired me to this hasty post. There’s this old trick I learned circa 8th grade that adding the phrase ‘with no pants on’ to the end of a title makes titles more fun. Well, there’s also the old trick of how doing anything with no pants on makes everything more fun, although possibly less so in the winter time.

Possible movies improved by the addition:

It’s a Wonderful Life

Home Alone

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Jingle All the Way

Ernest Saves Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Holiday Affair (1949)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

You Better Watch Out (1980)

…and finally, even though it wasn’t a Christmas movie, it was set during the holidays:

Die Hard