sports

Origin Story Episode 31

Origin Story Episode 31 Website CoverWhen an American computer engineer seems to have gone rogue and started working with the Soviets in Southeast Asia, a select team of Joes have to go in to take care of him.  It’s a kinda/sorta crossover with “In Country” in G.I. Joe Special Missions #8.  Plus, I … well, I not so much reminisce as complain about the 1987 Mets and Terry F—ing Pendelton.

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

G.I._Joe_Special_Missions_Vol_1_8

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 68: Baseball Like It Oughta Be

1641713TH_ACRO17526022Thirty years ago, the New York Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. For those of us who are die-hard Mets fans, it was an experience that we’ll never forget, and one that we have savored since then, as we patiently (and sometimes even painfully) wait for the Amazins to hoist the World Series trophy once more. Join me and my guest Paul Spataro as we look back on the 1986 season, NLCS, and World Series and share our memories of what it was like to be a kid (in my case) and be at some of the greatest games in Mets history (like Paul).

PLUS … stay through to the end of the show for an exciting announcement about a BRAND NEW PODCAST!!!

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some extras for you …

(more…)

June 17, 1994: The Most Important Day of the Nineties

The cover to the 1994 Regents exam in English.

The cover to the 1994 Regents exam in English.

Had the events of the evening of June 17, 1994 not proceeded the way they did, i am sure that I would have remembered the day anyway.  It wouldn’t have had the national significance that it does; still, it’s not every year that the Rangers get a ticker tape parade because they won the Stanley Cup.  In fact, that day wound up marking the end of two significant periods of my life hours before O.J. and A.C. managed to take the Los Angeles Police Department and every television station in the country up the 405 for 50 miles and a few hours.

At 8:30 that morning in the Sayville High School gymnasium, I sat down to take my English Regents.  This was both the culmination of three years of novels, plays, literary essays, and compositions at the hands of my English teachers as well as the very last Regents I would have to take.  That may not seem like much, especially to people who did not grow up and attend public school in New York State, but those who did know exactly what I mean when I say that I considered the end of my Regents-taking career to be a cause for celebration, if however minor.

Regents were what kept us in school until late in June (well, that an starting after Labor Day and having a week off in February) and were a ritual for high school students since the New York State Department of Education started them way back in the 1930s (a quick look at the archives, by the way, shows tests on homemaking in the 1950s and 1960s).  Coming sealed in plastic and bearing titles like “The University of the State of New York Regents High School Examination Comprehensive Examination in English,” the tests were more than a rite of passage–they were one of the most important rituals of our academic careers.  Starting after Easter, our book bags were further weighed down with Red Barron’s books full of old tests, which we’d take and then pore over to see what we were doing right and what needed improvement.

A Barron's Regents review book, courtesy of Amazon.com

A Barron’s Regents review book, courtesy of Amazon.com

And English wasn’t particularly hard, although I’m sure my students would blanch at the sight of it.  Whereas current students in Virginia take SOL exams in reading and writing that are passage-based and have one simple five-paragraph prompt-based persuasive essay, my generation had to endure spelling,  definitions, two essays (a literary analysis piece and a composition), and a listening section.  That’s right–a portion of our test required us to sit and listen while our teachers read a passage and we had to answer multiple-choice questions based on what we heard.  I’m sure that such a concept would send today’s average anti-testing advocate/expert into a blood-vomiting rage.  Personally, I never thought twice about it, but then again I was one of those students they’d accuse of having Stockholm Syndrome or something because I dutifully took my Regents exams and did well in school.

Anyway, I remember chugging through the multiple choice, choosing one of the two literary essay prompts (which have both made their way onto my 10th grade advanced English final in recent years) and writing a composition that I think I titled “Notes From a Rest Stop on the Information Highway.”  It was my attempt at wit, I guess, and it seemed to work because I did well enough to continue on my path to graduating with honors a year later.

A page from the spelling section of the 1994 Regents English exam.

A page from the spelling section of the 1994 Regents English exam.

I wasn’t thinking of any of that while taking the test, of course, because the Rangers parade was going to be on television and the Regents exam was the only reason I hadn’t asked my parents if I could take the train to the city that morning (same could be said for my friends as well because we all had to take the Regents).  So like everyone else, I watched it on television.  To this day, the Rangers hoisting the Cup as they drove through the Canyon of Heroes followed by the presentations at City Hall seem surreal.  I wasn’t wearing my jersey–I had finally thrown that in the laundry after superstitiously refusing to wash it throughout the playoffs–but I was glued to my television set the way I was eight years earlier when my dad taped the 1986 Mets parade for me.

The Rangers hoist the cup on Broadway.

The Rangers hoist the cup on Broadway.

Of course, the television would be more important later that night.  But I didn’t know that; did anyone?

Stone Temple Pilots were supposed to appear on Letterman.  I don’t think that’s why I stayed home, but at some point in the afternoon, I made a mental note to stay up late and turn on The Late Show after I was done with whatever Friday night plans I had made–which, knowing my life in 1994 was probably renting videos and watching them in the basement–so I could see one of my favorite bands.  But of course, that didn’t happen.  Well, the STP performance actually did because Letterman taped his show in the afternoon, but it never aired.

At some point–I don’t remember when–I turned on the television and saw live footage of a white Ford Bronco speeding down a Los Angeles freeway followed by police.  The news reporters said that driving the Bronco was Al Cowlings and his passenger was O.J. Simpson. (more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 29 — Now I Can Die in Peace

Episode 29 CoverTwenty years ago, the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940.  Join me as I reminisce about that amazing run and talk about my life as a Rangers fan as well as share the memories of some of my friends.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen here:  Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 29

And in case you’d like to relive the entire season, here is “OH BABY!” the Rangers highlight video from 1994:

 

 

Bottom of the Inning: Taking Baseball Personally (Baseball, Part Two)

Baseball 10thIn my last post, I mentioned that watching all of Baseball made me feel like I was in an introductory, or “101” class on the game.  As well-researched and well-crafted as Ken Burns’s documentary was, there were times where I felt like I was getting the history textbook version of the baseball story:  hit the high points, go selectively in-depth, and completely skip over quite a bit.

While that’s a valid criticism, leaving it at that would be giving the work short shrift, especially since it’s a full day’s worth of a documentary.  Furthermore, I spent much of that first part of my look at Baseball on summary and critique and didn’t give much of my personal “story” as it is, or at least my personal reactions while I was watching it.  Which is kind of the whole purpose of this blog, right?

So that’s what I’m going to do.  Inning by inning.

First Inning (“Our Game” 1850s-1900):  This isn’t Baseball, this is seventh grade social studies with Mr. Kerkhof.  We’re talking about the Antebellum period and …  man, the 1800s are boring.  But this?  This isn’t so much because it’s an origin story, the kind I’m fixated on whenever we begin looking at an important event.  What were the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War and how did it progress from there?  Who actually founded the Roman Empire?  When did the  Middle Ages officially begin?  Who played that first game of baseball and what was it like in what seems like the Dark Ages to me–before Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Mantle, and every other name I know?

Second Inning (“Something Like a War” 1900-1910):  I’m ten years old and my parents have given me a “Baseball’s All-Time Greats” baseball card set, the one I spotted in the Sears catalogue.  There’s Ty Cobb, and there’s Honus Wagner, who has the most expensive baseball card in existence, something I learned on a feature I saw on 20/20 the previous year.  I begin looking at the all-time stats for the old players and am amazed and even though many of their records have been broken, they still are in the top five for many of their most notable categories.  The card set is worth original retail price (and even today it’s not worth much), but what it lacks in monetary value it more than makes up for in facts.

Third Inning (“The Faith of Fifty Million People” 1910-1920):  To me, it’s not the Black Sox scandal; it’s Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams.  It’s “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and the last scene of that softball episode of Married … With Children that parodies the last scene of Eight Men Out.  It’s also the idea that even something as pure as a game I play on Saturday mornings in Little League can be corrupted by outside influences (yunno, beyond the opposing team’s coach being friends with the umpire).

Fourth Inning (“A National Heirloom” 1920-1930):  I’m in the fifth grade and we’re asked to take a biography out of the library for our latest book report/conference with the teacher.  I grab one about Babe Ruth.  He competes with Gehrig.  He is supposedly “stranger than fiction,” which is what one of the chapter titles says.  Despite my being an excellent reader, I have trouble getting through the entire book.  I don’t know if it’s because the book’s badly written or because I don’t find the subject matter as interesting as I thought I would.  In fact, I can’t remember if I ever finished that book.  I do know that when I had my conference with Mr. Schafer about it, I did fine.

Fifth Inning (“Shadow Ball” 1930-1940):  I have no personal context for this.  In fact, if there is any episode that I found myself glued to, it’s this one.  Growing up, my knowledge of the struggle of African-Americans was limited to slavery, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I was not exactly a scholar.  I knew the Negro Leagues existed but I don’t think that what little I read about them in books clued me in to what extent.  If anything, I’m grateful for what I gained from this episode.

Sixth Inning (“The National Pastime” 1940-1950):  It’s 2012 and I’m in a used bookstore on the Downtown Mall.  I’m looking for a copy of As You Like It but am also perusing the small graphic novel section.  On my way to the counter, I pass sports and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.  It sits on my shelf until the start of the 2013 season rolls around.  While Kahn’s biographical retelling of his time becoming a sportswriter is interesting, it’s his visits with former Dodger greats and the retelling of Jackie Robinson’s history that pulls me in.  For years, I knew three things about Robinson:  he played for the Dodgers, he broke the color barrier, and he stole home once in the World Series.  This tells me so much more.

Seventh Inning (“The Capital of Baseball” 1950-1960): I’m twelve years old and my family is throwing one of those big barbecues where everyone–from my mom’s side and dad’s side–is there.  My Uncle Brian, a die-hard Yankees fan, spends a good hour talking to Grandpa Panarese about baseball in the 1950’s.  They talk about the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers.  I don’t interject; I just listen.  It’s one of the best memories I have of these two men and one of the most informative conversations upon which I ever eavesdrop.

Eighth Inning (“A Whole New Ballgame” 1960-1970):  To me, this is where baseball begins; specifically, in 1962, when the New York Mets go 40-120 and set an all-time single-season loss record that still stands.  I cut my baseball history teeth on An Amazin’ Era in 1986 and to me, “baseball history” has always involved Seaver, Koosman, Swoboda, Clendenon, Agee, Grote, Garrett, and McGraw.  Yes, there are more important figures in baseball history and more important events.  But it’s the lovable losers’ transformation into the Miracle Mets that I always remember.

Ninth Inning (“Home” 1970-1993):  It’s fascinating to see Bob Costas tell the story of being in the Red Sox locker room during the Buckner play and watching the champagne get wheeled out as quickly as possible.  It’s also fascinating to see testimony from Red Sox fans who were wounded by the play.  After all, I rooted for “the enemy” in 1986.  My nine-year-old dreams came true when Jesse Orosco threw the last pitch to Marty Barrett (I have a poster on the wall of my classroom), so it never occurred to me that someone might be upset by that night’s events.  Beyond that, there are so many recognizable faces here and I wish he was taking more time on them; I wish he was reminiscing with me the way he was reminiscing with my parents through the seventh inning.

When it ends with a talk about how baseball endures I realize that this isn’t a documentary; it’s a eulogy.  The season was cancelled due to a strike the month before the first episode aired and it doesn’t seem like we’ll get the game back.  Furthermore, it’s hard to pick a side because everyone seems greedy; everyone seems like a villain.  And here, at the funeral, we’re all trying to remember why we came.

Tenth Inning (1994-2010):  I was there.  I remember that.  I watched that.

I will never tire of watching Barry Bonds fail to throw out Sid Bream.  I always loved how much fun Ken Griffey Jr. seemed to be having–and always wished I had that swing.  I was cheering for McGwire the whole time and have to admit I was disappointed when the PED charges came to light.  I never cheered for Bonds unless he struck out looking.  I want to buy Steve Bartman a beer and talk baseball with the guy–not that game, just baseball.  No, the 2004 ALCS is not overrated and yes, I’ll watch the Yankees choke like that any time, day or night.  My heart was in my throat when Endy Chavez made that catch, only to have the Cardinals rip it out and crush it a few innings later.  You’re really using that Springsteen song, Ken?  Don’t you realize it’s about looking back and realizing how middle-aged you are?

“But then time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.”

You know what?  That’s exactly what this is, isn’t it?  Good job, sir.

Top of the Inning: The 101 Course (Baseball, Part One)

Baseball DVDThis post and the next post is part of the Big League Blog-a-thon, coordinated by Forgotten Films, home to one of the best film podcasts out there, The Forgotten Filmcast, which is about the movies that time forgot.

I discovered early on, after volunteering to sit down and watch Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball, that one simply does not sit down and watch Ken Burns’ Baseball. No, it is something that taunts you from the screen of your Netflix queue, daring you to take it on like a pitcher who’s been throwing heat all night and has only just hit his stride.  And all you can do, really, is step up to the plate, bear down, and let him know that if he’s going to get you out, you’re going to have to work for it.

In other words, challenge accepted.

Bad metaphors and even worse Barney Stinson jokes aside, Baseball was something I had watched when it was originally on back in 1994 but didn’t remember much about except that Burns spent the segment about the 1986 Mets talking about the agony of the 1986 Red Sox and that he must have exhausted every available version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over the course of the documentary.  That I remember the former should not be a surprise–my Mets fandom runs deep, even when they lose–and after re-watching all ten innings, the latter still rings true.

Baseball originally aired twenty years ago as a nine-part documentary, each part appropriately titled an “inning,” with a two-part “tenth inning” being added in 2010.  What this adds up to is a documentary that if one were to sit down and watch without a break, he would be on the couch for nearly a full twenty-four hours.  Burns begins with the  origins of baseball, both real and myth (an urban legend involving Abner Doubleday that has been disproven countless times yet still seems to have legs all these years later) and then moves chronologically through the beginnings of the game up until what at that point was the present.

Through the first five innings, Burns seems to have accomplished what he set out to do, which is given us a full history of the game.  Instead of blowing through the 19th Century, he spends all of the “First Inning” exploring baseball’s evolution and then only moves ten years ahead into the future with the second inning, bringing us only up to 1940 by the end of inning five.

This slow progression works to flesh out the characters of the first half of baseball’s history, men whose names are known and aren’t necessarily forgotten but are definitely overshadowed by the names revered in my parents’ youth.  Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, and Grover Cleveland Alexander were long dead by the time I went to my first baseball game in 1985, existing only  in trivia books like Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book.  Here, there is footage and there are interviews by historians and some of the few people who were, at the time, left alive to talk about playing against or watching those old-timers.

Furthermore, throughout the first half of the documentary, Burns does not shy away from the racism that pervaded the game for decades, telling the story of the Negro League whose history to me when I was a kid growing up on Long Island was a footnote in the Cobbs, Ruths, DiMaggios, and Mantles of books about baseball.  With stories from Negro League players such as Buck O’Neil (who is a delight in every interview throughout the series), you learn more about the racial history of the early 20th Century than you do in most high school history classes, even when that history is overshadowed by a mammoth figure such as Babe Ruth, who gets almost an entire episode to himself.

As Burns moves through the 1940s and 1950s, into an era where baseball really exploded and where he should have his strongest stories–after all, many of the players of those eras were still alive at the time when he was filming–the cracks begin to show and while the documentary doesn’t exactly fall apart by the Ninth Inning, it definitely is a lot weaker than at its beginning.  He relies too much on the same seven or eight different interviewees and we don’t hear directly from very many players beyond Ted Williams and a few others.  I wasn’t expecting every single player or anything, but seeing at least one appearance by Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, or Johnny Bench.  Heck, 1994 was when Tim McCarver was still mildly tolerable.

Which, in a way, brings me to the second major problem with the documentary.  Burns, who is a Red Sox fan, is committing the cardinal sin of sports reporting and being a “homer,” reporting with an incredible Northeast bias.  Walk away from Baseball and you will think that the period between 1957 and 1994 was a complete wasteland (as if the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and New York Giants’ leaving for California stripped baseball of its virginity in a way that the Black Sox scandal or the systemic racism that preceded the Jackie Robinson era never could) and that the only baseball worth happening occurred in Boston and New York and mostly in 1975 and 1986.  And I’ll readily acknowledge that both of those World Series deserve their reputations, as does the career and legacy of George Steinbrenner.  But much like a high school history class where you cover the Vietnam War in a day because the teacher has run out of time, Burns gives short shrift to then-recent history, probably assuming that we were all there and we all remember.

He sort of remedies this in the added “Tenth Inning,” but even then there’s an ESPN-like whitewash, perpetuating the narrative of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saving” baseball in 1998, the Yankees “saving” New York City in the fall of 2001, the Red Sox “saving” the nation’s soul in 2004, and Barry Bonds’ role as some sort of supervillain in the whole thing.  All  of those storylines have legitimacy, but Burns’ coverage only serves to date the film a little–we’ve had so many highlight reels, specials, and shorter documentaries about those specific moments that one wonders if there was a need for him to come back and tell the stories at all.

That’s not to say that this behemoth isn’t worth watching.  Technically, Baseball is carefully made and serves as a perfect “101 Class,” an introduction to a topic that can’t possibly be contained to a single film, no matter how large it is.

In Part Two:  Taking Baseball Personally

Amazin’ Baseball

Mazer CoverUsually when I write posts for this blog, I’ve recently read, watched, or listened to whatever I am writing about; however, I haven’t done my homework this time, choosing instead to set aside the movie I was going to write about and take a few hundred words to talk about Bill Mazer, who passed away earlier today.

Mazer, if you are unfamiliar with him, was a longtime New York sports journalist and commentator, one of the early guard of sports radio hosts, and was a mainstay on WNEW (Channel 5, now WNYW, the New York City Fox affiliate) during the 1980s, kind of the same way that George Michael was a Washington, D.C. mainstay with his “Sports Machine” highlights.  The New York Times has an excellent obituary of Mazer that I highly recommend reading, as I was struck by the extent and longevity of his career.

To be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with Mazer or his career, as I was too young to watch him on television and have only had a passing interest in sports radio (and only then it’s to listen to the occasional game).  But for the last twenty-three years I have had a signed copy of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book on my bookshelf, and when I saw the obituary in the Times, I immediately pulled it off the bookshelf and will be reading it again for the first time since my Uncle Michael and Aunt Clare gave it to me for my thirteenth birthday.

The title page of my copy of Bill Mazer's Amazin' Baseball Book, signed by the author for my thirteenth birthday.

The title page of my copy of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book, signed by the author for my thirteenth birthday.

As noted in my post about the 1988 Mets, when I was in the latter part of elementary school and through most of junior high school, I was a rabid baseball fan.  I’m still a huge Mets fan, but this was a time in my life when I was the encyclopedic sort of fan, the type of kid who read or watched everything about baseball that he could get his hands on and who enjoyed the most minute, trivial details about the history of the game (ironically, however, I found Ken Burns’s Baseball boring but I may give that a re-watch at some point).  Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book was the perfect gift, as it is both a memoir of his life and career in relation to the game along with page upon page of facts and stories about the history of the game itself.  The facts are presented in Q&A format with all sorts of tidbits, such as:

WHICH FORMER LOS ANGELES DODGER PITCHER APPEARED IN SUCH TELEVISION SHOWS AS THE LAWMAN AND THE BRADY BUNCH?

Don Drysdale.

It was questions like these (and their answers) that had me flipping back and forth through the book and poring over every page with my friend Tom in the back of his mom’s Ford Taurus on the way to Shea Stadium, and I think what’s always drawn me to shows and books about sports history, especially baseball history, even if my interest in the subject has waned from time to time, replaced with film, comic books, or whatever other part of popular culture I was obsessing over.  Mazer himself, in the introduction to his book, talks about being a fact-o-phile, a proto-Schwab, the type of guy who could rarely, if ever, be stumped.   In fact, the Times obituary sums it up perfectly:

Mr. Mazer’s boyhood idol, Van Lingle Mungo, became the title of a song by the singer, pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg, consisting entirely of old-time ballplayers’ names. Mungo, who died in 1985, won 120 games and lost 115 with the Dodgers and the Giants, and he led the National League in strikeouts with 238 in 1936. It’s a fair guess that the Amazin’ would have known those statistics without having to look them up.

I’m a fan of experts like that, guys who have extensive knowledge and are experts on topics.  I have always liked having an answer to almost every question and even though it’s becoming a bit passe for people in my field to want to be considered “experts” on anything, I still enjoy just knowing stuff.  I’m sure my fellow sports fans and comics podcasters know exactly how I feel.

But as interesting as all of the facts, figures, and stories contained in Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book are, his passing also reminds me of how many of those in his generation are passing away.  Mazer grew up in Brooklyn during the golden age of the Dodgers’ tenure at Ebbets Field, an era that I’ve only read about in books or heard about in stories that older relatives, like uncles and grandfathers would tell years ago at family functions.  For my money, if I could go back to any era of baseball, it would be the late 1960s so I could see the 1969 Mets, but I remember sitting at many an extended family barbecue listening to Grandpa Panarese talk to my Uncle Brian about the Giants, the Yankees, and whatever other sports stories they had.

While I think it’s out of print, you can find used copies of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book on Amazon and I recommend picking it up.  It’s truly a trip back in time, one that I’m looking forward to taking again.