Monday, June 26, 2000

Oblique Nostalgia

I see them bobbin heads a-noddin. I know they know. They know what I'm afraid others suspect. And I know you see them too. I should have known when I saw her washing her rocks (or were they marbles?) in the sink. We all know what we have to do. The hard part is doing it.

It's not as though I actually think that the porcelain Harmon Killebrew or Kent Hrbek are for real, but the constant noddin of their noggins suggests that they ain't merely inanimate objects. They know. I know they do. Beauty is baseball. Beyond a mere game it's a unifying thread in the fabric of our historical culture. Significant- Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier- or simply impressive- Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak- the game is a slow simmering sport best enjoyed by those who appreciate the allure of prolonged tension; it's not a game for the ever growing majority looking for instant gratification.

Baseball heroes are statuesque. An error at a crucial moment, a flaw in an otherwise stellar performance often catches us by surprise and thus is more disappointing than normally would be. "Baseball players don't cry," Tom Hanks said in one of the best baseball movies, A League of Their Own. He was right. We expect our baseball idols to be heroic, we don't expect them to be human. An even greater mystic than Hanks is the legendary Yogi Berra who once said, "Ninety percent of this game is half mental." And that probably explains the appeal of the game to me more than anything else. Players are expected to perform with such pristine consistency that every once and awhile something goes amuck and a crack appears. That's when things get understandable for me, and that makes the game even more intriguing.

My Mom was the one that got started me watching baseball and she also was the one who started me watching baseball movies. I remember one of the first baseball movies we watched was Fear Strikes Out- the Jimmy Piersall story. Piersall is a hall of fame Boston Red Sox centerfielder who was a bit high strung. Portrayed in the movie by the quirky Anthony Perkins, Piersall's eventual nervous breakdown was best demonstrated cinematically by a scene in which Perkins loses it and ends up climbing up the backstop.

One of my all-time favorite Twins (and one that would be a natural for the next round of bobbleheads) was Jim Eisenreich who was among that talented group of 1982 rookies that eventually became the nucleus for the world championship teams. Eisenreich was better than Hrbek, better than Gaetti, better than Randy Bush. His swing was classic and he had all the tools to be a very good centerfielder. Less than a quarter into that season his facial and body tics became so severe that he had to take himself out of a couple games. No one was quite sure what was wrong. There was a dreadful game in which the "nervousness" got so bad that Eisenreich had to be restrained, unable to breath. He tried to comeback several times with the Twins but had to give up with what the club said was a severe case of stage fright. Eventually he was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome and had a somewhat successful career.

Now comes the news that another of my favorite former Twins has taken a bit of a stumble. Chuck Knoblauch who hasn't been nearly the same player for the Yankees as he was here, reached a point last week where his teammates were afraid for his personal safety. Knoblauch (whose square mug would fit nicely on top of a bobble head doll) has contracted a severe case of an affliction that ended the careers of Steve Blass, Joe Decker, Dave Engle and Steve Sax- an inability to throw the ball. After a three error game a distraught Knoblauch yanked himself out of the lineup. A few games later one of his errant throws sailed into the first base stands and nailed an elderly woman (who happened to be broadcaster Keith Obermann's mother) right in the face. One of the simplest parts of the game, one that most players take for granted has somehow eluded the once steady Knoblauch.

And he's not alone. Last week it was announced that Boston Red Sox outfielder Troy O'Leary was going on the disabled list due to "divorce." Seems Mr. O'Leary is taking his domestic problems so hard that he needs time off away from his job. And to top them all this item from a recent issue of "Sports Illustrated":

It's Rickey Henderson's world; everyone else is just living in it. Last month Henderson, having signed with the Mariners after the Mets released him, was taking his first batting practice with his new teammates when he encountered Seattle first baseman John Olerud wearing a batting helmet. "What's up with the helmet?" Henderson reportedly inquired.

"I wear it all the time," said Olerud, who has worn a helmet whenever he has been on a baseball field since suffering a brain aneurysm in 1989.

"I'll be damned," said Henderson. "I used to play with a guy in New York who did the same thing."

"That," said Olerud, who was a teammate of Henderson's on the Mets for all of 1999, as well as on the Blue Jays for part of the 1993 season, "was me."

Yup, keep noddin' boys, you know what it's like. Yogi may have underestimated the percentages.

Monday, June 19, 2000

Bobbin' for a Million Dollars

My life is one big party. I'm such a lively guy that I don't even have to plan my excitement. It just happens.

This summer I was going to lay low, trying to recuperate from my wild and wacky ride through winter and spring. The only thing on my docket was a possible trip to Salt Lake City to see the Buzz (featuring Doug Mientkiewicz, Chad Allen, Javier Valentin, Torii Hunter, Dan Perkins, and Todd Walker) play AAA baseball. Other than that I intended on tending to my garden and patterning my life after the mellow Mr. Max as much as possible.

But you never know what's up ahead. Just these past few weeks a couple of vital unforeseen ingredients have popped into my life quicker than the weeds have spread through my garden.

Last Friday I zipped right from work down to downtown Minneapolis to try and get my Harmon Killebrew bobble head doll. The Twins were giving them out to the first 5,000 fans in attendance at that night's game. I parked and saw a great number of people already lined up around the dome. I met my friend and together we stood in line. The gates weren't supposed to open until 5:30 but they decided to open them up shortly after five. Luckily we both got our bobble head dolls. It was one of the few times in my life I was glad to be one of 5,000 people.

Being a season ticket holder sometimes I have wondered over the past few seasons if I'm getting my money's worth. When I looked over the schedule and the promotions this year I actually looked forward to the four bobble head nights. My plan was to get four nice marble stands, collect the dolls, put the stands in the corners of my living room, and voila, have a festive decorative conversation starter. Having gotten my first piece I must say it really is a nice item. Made out of porcelain and hand painted, Harmon's little bobbin' head has entertained me for days. I noticed later in the week people began putting up the dolls for auction on Ebay. There are bids up to $147.50 though I wouldn't think of selling my little guy for anything in the world. He's just too darn fun.

In addition to being a proud roommate to a bobble head doll I also met another who made my heart pitter patter in excitement over her inspiring presence. Along with tens of millions other Americans I have become hooked on CBS's Survivor show. There's no need for a deep analysis here- all that has been written about the fascinating look at group dynamics and the disturbing growth in our collective voyeurism- is probably true. The premise of the show- sticking 16 people on an island, putting them through the trenches, and having them vote each other off the island until one person remains (and wins a million bucks) is probably as stupid as it sounds. Yet it is spellbinding TV. Better than MTV's The Real World, Survivor certainly has been the talk of my office (and has gotten superlative ratings throughout the country). It's the most exciting show since Savannah.

Of course from week one I was rooting for one particular member, a young attorney from San Francisco, Stacey Stillman. Stacey, who specializes in environmental law, seems to be the type of person who I could walk up to and ask why the St. Paul air smelled like toast most of last week. If this was Gilligan's island, Stacy would be an acidic Mary Ann, immediately mesmerizing with her sarcastic allure. Her feud with Rudy, the ex-Navy Seal has been the most entertaining part of the first three shows.

Unfortunately this week that feud came to a head and it became apparent that one of the two would be the next voted off the island. As the Tagi tribe made their way through a pouring rain to the Tribal Council to make the fatal decision- Stacey's time as a surviving member was sadly numbered. When the final vote was tallied and she indeed had been voted off, a look of defiance and disappointment crossed her pretty face. She was sure they had made the wrong decision and darn it, so was I. I don't even know if I can continue to watch the show with her spunky charisma missing.

If you would have approached me only a month ago (and why didn't you?) and told me that shortly my life would revolve around a nodding porcelain doll, with my heart smitten with a 27-year old San Francisco survivor who didn't survive on a silly little TV show, and that I'd be so entertained by watching people eat beetle larvae and rats, I would have bet my house that wouldn't be the case. Oh life can be strange.

Monday, June 12, 2000

This Was Then, When is Now Again

The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter was in his first year of an under appreciated presidency. Taxi Driver was showing in a theater near you. Barry Manilow's "Weekend in New England" worked its magic to the top of the charts. And at Central Park Elementary School in sleepy Roseville Minnesota, the kindly school librarian, Mrs. Ripke, had all of us kids in grades 4-6 in a game playing frenzy, competing with each other in a quest for knowledge.

The name of the game was "Calendar Clue." At the beginning of the week Mrs. Ripke would begin by posting the topic- "famous person," "historical event," "dairy food product" etc. Then each day a single clue would be unveiled. Each participant got two guesses per week (that were turned in on a form listing our name and homeroom number- we'd place our guesses in a little shoebox at the reference area's window). At the end of the week Mrs. Ripke would display the top ten winners- the kids who had gotten the correct answer quickest.

Inevitably my best friend, John Oleson, and I would finish number one and two. Sometimes John would beat me. Other times I would figure out the puzzle just before him. The competition was fierce- even to the point of trying to get to school earliest so as to see the clue before the other even arrived (for that John had an unfair advantage- he lived within walking distance of the school).

But I had an even more unfair advantage. My mom was my assistant. Mom loved puzzles and she loved trivia. Every day I would go home and tell mom the clue and she would point me toward our encyclopedias and with a gentle hint here and an educated guess there she would help me find the solution. Mom never just gave me the answer but instead directed me in the right route to do the research. Besides having a lot of fun working with mom on a weekly project, I think I ended up learning even more than Mrs. Ripke hoped any of us would.

Somewhere toward the end of the school year John and I had a painful falling out. He had been my first best friend (not counting my brother) and to this day it makes me sad that we didn't remain so. John was as mischievous as he was bright, and he loosened up my rather strict adherence for always doing as I was told. When our friendship began I was somewhat a social outcast, generally liked by my classmates but not really understood. Through John's friendship I became the most popular kid in my class. I won all the popularity contests. I ruled the four-square and hopscotch courts.

It was through this skyrocketing popularity that my friendship with John ended. Essentially whenever we would have an argument I didn't care whether I was wrong or not. I was Mr. Popular and if he didn't agree with me then I had many other friends who would.

As the final weeks of Calendar Clue were playing out, a fraction of percentage points separated John and I in the yearly standings. I led him by just a little bit having finished in first place less times but in the top ten every week whereas he had finished outside the top ten once or twice. (There had been a mid-year scandal when I was rightfully accused of tipping off some other classmates thus denying John the opportunity to finish in the top ten that week.)

The topic for the week was "animal kingdom." I don't remember all the clues but it was a tough puzzle. Even mom was stumped. It was apparent the animal in question had something to do with the desert. So my first guess (with little basis) was "camel." The next day's clue eliminated any possibility that the guess was correct. Late Thursday I thought I knew the answer. My guess this time was "llama." Unfortunately Friday's clue didn't fit. I was doomed. John still had a guess remaining. That morning we both had free time in the library and for some reason we began talking. He told me he didn't know the answer and he probably wasn't even going to try and guess. For an instant weeks of hard feelings dissipated and I offered him my assistance. Together we spent hours scouring through the library to find the answer. And our collaboration proved fruitful. We found the animal we were looking for- "a vicuna."

John didn't finish in first place that week but was in the top ten thus moving him ahead in the year's standings. (I honestly don't remember who ultimately won the top prize for the year.)

For the first time I felt a feeling I have since tried my best to duplicate. It felt better helping John out, honoring our friendship than it would have to get the glory myself. Ultimately I didn't get what I wanted but there was a palatable sense of purpose assisting someone else reach their goal. John and I were indeed finished as friends (we barely spoke ever again) but to this day I'm glad our friendship ended on such a triumphant note.

Monday, June 5, 2000


(10 shows that would run on my network)

10) M*A*S*H- The first few seasons were downright silly and the final few seasons were downright dreadful. But in between was some of the best writing TV will ever see. The show walked the line between comedy and tragedy better than any show before it. As funny as the Captain Tuttle episode or the unexploded bomb in the compound episode were ("...but first..."), the episode Hawkeye lost his writer friend (I never heard the bullet coming...) or the episode Radar stopped seeing Hawkeye in a heroic light were heartbreaking. When the show focused on the follies of the army rather than the obvious horrors of war, it was brilliant.

9) Rocky and Bullwinkle- It was a cartoon but it wasn't a kid's show. The animation was crude and the writing wickedly subversive. The side shows, Mr. Peobody, Fractured Fairytales, Dudley Dooright, gave way to the cliff hanging episodes of the moose and his flying squirrel friend. The jokes came fast and furious and it was a show you had to watch carefully to get all that was going on. And if you did, it was amazingly rewarding.

8) Sports Night- Recently canceled, this show was unlike anything we ever saw before. The dialogue was crisp and flowed like poetry. The show struggled to find its audience and this season was devoted to being a show within a show as the fictional sports program struggled for its life too.

7) Buffy the Vampire Slayer- Coming off its finest season ever despite the loss of several major characters (Angel, Cordelia, and for the most part Oz) this show is far and away the best written show on the air today. The obvious metaphor (the demons we are all facing in trying to find our place, our happiness) can be forgiven by the incredible witty humor. That the least interesting character of the show is Buffy herself says how much attention is paid to developing all the characters. The show is never predictable and it quite often deals with serious subjects (teenage depression, the consequences of sexual promiscuity, the efficiency and dangers of a lack of individual thought in a military complex, lesbianism...) so adeptly that one wonders how long it can keep up its unparalleled creativity.

6) The Slap Maxwell Story- Dabney Coleman's (one of our best good bad guys) show after his always interesting Buffalo Bill. Slap was a cranky and cynical sportswriter who nonetheless had a flicker of a kind soul underneath his lack of heart. This was one of the first half hour shows that wasn't a sitcom- it was as heart tugging and moody as it was funny.

5) Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin- A mid 1970's British comedy about a man who is so fed up with the sheer predictability of his life that he fakes his suicide (more than once) and comes back in several guises. Again the wonderful side characters (especially CJ and Jimmy) made this show an effective ensemble show. Leonard Rossiter as Reggie was perfectly neurotic.

4) The Simpsons- This is another show that over the years has undergone a drastic change in focus. Current episodes seldom follow a linear plot but are all over the map. Yet the rapid pop culture skewering references/refrential treatment makes this a show that can be watched over and over with admiration. Favorite episode: Lisa gets help learning how to play the blues on her saxophone from Bleeding Gums Murphy. "I'm the saddest girl in grade two..."

3) Late Night with David Letterman- Fun with velcro, Larry Bud, the Conspiracy Guy, Mr. T., Andy K.. Television hasn't been the same since.

2) Hill Street Blues- The original pitch of the show's creators, Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll was this- a cop show that took place entirely in the station house, filmed on grainy black and white film with hand held cameras. There were to be few if any regular characters. "Make it messy," was the goal. What ultimately got on the air was a bit more conventional but the first season of this series has never been matched for its innovation. Storylines interweaved, most for several episodes, some never quite resolved. Dialogue overlapped, movement in front of the camera was common. It was gripping, it was chaotic. The show eventually drifted into more of a soap opera, but the writing remained sharp throughout. Cap'n Furillo remains my favorite TV character.

1) St. Elsewhere- It suffered because it never quite escaped the shadow of being called "Hill Street Blues in a hospital." It never got as popular as its predecessor (while Hill Street became a top ten show St. Elsewhere rarely finished in the top 40). Still, watching repeats of the two shows back to back, one begins to appreciate St. Elsewhere more and more. It was a gloomy show- neurotic characters that never quite could find happiness, and patients that seldom made it out of the hospital intact (or alive). The series finale was brilliant- suggesting that the entire show had been a fantasy of Tommy, an autistic child. A soulful show that somehow celebrated how frail life can be.