Saturday, January 30, 2010

Not-so-baseball novel review: "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon"

Stephen King's short novel "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" is not really about baseball, but in reality, no good baseball book is really about baseball.

And King's book is not about Tom Gordon, the former Royals star and then a popular journeyman reliever.

"The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" is about a little girl who gets lost in the woods. But it's not really about that, either.

Think about that concept, though, for a moment. A little girl. Lost. In the woods. Just the thought of it is terrifying, maybe more frightening than any horrific monster Stephen King has ever imagined.

At its heart, "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" is about fear.

I'll be honest: I'm not a huge Stephen King fan. I've read "Misery," and I've read a handful of short stories whenever they appear in Esquire or on a Web site I frequent. And I've seen "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption," two works of Stephen King's imagination. But I'm not a diehard follower, like so many people are. I picked up "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" from the discount rack at Half Price Books because I'm into baseball novels. And I knew this wasn't really a baseball novel. But still, I wanted to give it a try.

And I'm glad I did.

"The Girl" has all the qualities that makes Stephen King's work so great and, I imagine, so tantalizing for his loyal fans. It has an edge of creepiness during certain scenes. Just the tiniest whiff of something not quite right.

In the book, the main character, Trisha, a tried-and-true Red Sox fan with a major crush on then Red Sox closer Tom Gordon, is on a hiking trip with her argumentative mother and brother. While the two of them are fighting, Trisha sneaks off the trail for a second to take a pee. When she's done, she tries to take a shortcut back to her family. But she can't find the trail.

And she begins to wander around in the woods. For days and days.

Her companions on the trip include a Walkman radio, with which she listens to Red Sox games every night on the AM band, and an imaginary image of Tom Gordon, who follows along with her, talks to her and teaches her the art of closing.

While most of the tale centers around Trisha's journey through the woods, occasionally the story flashes over to the search for the little girl. King does this brilliantly, switching between scenes within paragraphs, and even within sentences, without an unwieldy break in the narrative.

Here's my only criticism. I think King got a little too caught up in working in supernatural stuff and sometimes ignores the truly frightening story - the little girl lost in the woods. Sometimes, he can't see the forest for the trees - pardon the pun.

But it's a nice read, and a quick one, too.

It's not about baseball, but it is about baseball fandom to some extent.

And, of course, fear.

--Matt Kelsey

Monday, January 25, 2010

Like the Rick Ankiel deal after years of too-cool-for-school players; Our own Mike Kutner in centerfield even if the numbers don't add up

Now playing centerfield. Mike Kutner...

Just a quick moment to weigh in on Rick Ankiel.

You can crunch the numbers any way you want and decide, justifiably, Rick Ankiel is not a good addition for the Royals. Middling numbers at the plate and a Mike Jacobs hole in the swing. Overloaded outfield (I'd strongly argue against this idea). Too much money.

I like this deal for the intangibles. First, selfishly, I want to watch this kid play. Second, I want the Royals to watch this kid play. Third, I want everybody to watch this kid play.

Fact is, Royal's young players have had horrible examples to watch on the field. They never seem to have been taught to play hurt or play hard. The message they've absorbed through the organization and their agents seems to be to play cool. Never show emotion. Never hustle too hard. It's just another day at the office; make sure you don't get hurt in a losing effort and spoil your chances once free agency comes.

Only problem with this theory is that nobody will notice when free agency comes for some of these kids. If their agents are the authors of their attitudes, their agents may not see the paydays they're angling for.

So, I disagree strongly with Mr. Posnanski's assessment of Rick Ankiel yesterday, just as I disagree with his assessment of Brett Farve today. On a side note, are no editors available to give these guys decent advice on their blogs? To me, their blogs are still part of the newspaper; they demand, deserve and need editing. Mr. Posnanski goes on for one whole Webpage take just being cute before he finally, finally, gets around to introducing the beginning of his argument against Ankiel. This shtick is getting old fast.

I like the Ankiel pickup because the kid demonstrates for all what it means to have the gumption (old fashioned but wonderful word) to fight his way back to the major leagues as a hitter after famously imploding as a pitcher. Getting to the major leagues once takes every kind of guts. Getting to the major leagues twice? ...

But, more important than just getting to the major leagues, he plays the game hard -- full throttle -- every day. After watching Jose Gullien yawn through a couple of seasons, this will be a refreshing change for fans and teammates. Sometimes sports show you what it is to be a man. (See Brett Farve last night...) From what I've seen (just a fan's angle of view, admittedly) Ankiel does this in spades.

In fact, Rick Ankiel reminds me most of Mike Kutner. Mike Kutner is the fictional centerfielder from Man on Spikes by Eliot Asinof, who, literally and metaphorically, ran into a brick wall to chase down a fly ball in the opening pages of this fine novel. Our own Mike Kutner in centerfield? A pretty good deal, if you ask me.


The image is from the Kansas City Star Webpage, however, the Star did not include a photo credit to pass along.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Virus schmirus

The three-day Martin Luther King Day weekend would have been the perfect chance for me to buckle down and work on my book. I'm ready to make the final polish before sending out my query letter to prospective literary agents. Last Saturday, as I sat down at the computer to begin my work, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Turns out, it was an oncoming train.

The "train" in question was a nasty, nasty computer virus called Internet Security 2010. As you may be able to tell from the name, IS2010 looks like your typical anti-virus program, but in fact it is, itself, a virus. And a bad one.

Now I'm not a computer guy, but I've never seen anything like this. By Saturday afternoon, the virus had me on the ropes, dishing out annoying pop-ups and fake "security alert" messages every few seconds. I tried to delete the program via my computer's control panel, but in the list of programs, IS2010 wasn't even there - it was hidden somewhere, buried deep. My Norton antivirus program was defenseless, and in fact Norton couldn't even find anything wrong with my computer.

By Sunday, I was too scared to even turn the damn thing on.

On Monday, a friend of mine who's substantially more computer-savvy came over with his laptop with hopes of uploading a malware program onto a flash drive and downloading it onto my infected desktop. But minutes after he arrived, the virus finally decided to make me its bitch. Pardon my French.

By then, the virus wouldn't even let Windows boot up, not even in Safe Mode.

Here's the good news: the computer was pretty old. And here's the even better news: my book was backed up onto a flash drive.

So instead of spending a few hundred bucks to have the Geek Squad or something similar swoop in to fix my machine, I just spent a few hundred bucks on a new computer.

We also got a cool wireless printer. And a tough antivirus program. And no interest for 20 months.

Beware of Internet Security 2010. And if you think you have it, try to fix it as soon as possible. The little bugger will take over your computer faster than you can imagine.

And if you wait too long, you'll have a thirty-pound paperweight. Just like me.

-- Matt Kelsey

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Dorky but cool"

That was the subject line of an e-mail sent to my by my much older brother this week.

And yes, the link he sent me was a little dorky. But for the most part, it was really cool.

Check this out. It's Ernest Thayer's classic baseball poem, "Casey at the Bat," told through baseball cards, courtesy of The Baseball Card Blog.

Not only is this a wonderful way to tell the story, but it's also a trip down memory lane for anyone who's ever collected baseball cards, and anyone who's ever stacked their cards up on the living room carpet to see if you had more than your brother.

--Matt Kelsey

Friday, January 15, 2010

River Blindness: Limbaugh and Robertson set the standard for those lost in religion and politics to the exclusion of their human brothers...

Two of the most ridiculous statements to come along in the new century came from Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh yesterday, one attributing the earthquake in Haiti to the practice of voodoo in 1729 (suggesting the good news of the earthquake is a new beginning for a cursed people) and the other discouraging gifts to relief efforts because 1) you already gave through your tax dollars and 2) you will wind up on an Obama re-election campaign mailing list.

If you can think, and you can see, and you can feel, and you're human, then the devastation in Haiti will convince you of the total insensitivity of both pronouncements ... no matter what your politics or religion.

If you need more convincing, here is an excellent blog from the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof making the case. It is calm and reasoned. It also responds in a positive manner to the issue of how we could have allowed such poverty in our own sphere of influence in the first place.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

auggghhhh! Sound the alarm, here comes a naive liberal moment on the devastation in Haiti

Coverage of the disaster in Haiti has driven one message into the collective consciousness. This was, at America's doorstep, an indefensibly poor country.

Hearing this over and over is like passing the guy on the median at the stoplight holding up the cardboard sign. Makes you feel bloated and pampered and makes you wish you could do something ... but you don't. Suddenly something on your dashboard needs attention. You look away. Then, thankfully, the light turns green.

So, here comes the naive liberal question: How could this filthy rich country allow such poverty to exist in its immediate sphere of influence?

We have, of course, spent half a century attempting to starve the Cubans into compliance and they have not bowed their heads. Military dictatorships are like that. So are the Cuban people.

But, we had a reason, albeit a stupidly wrong-headed reason, to starve Cuba. Why have we allowed Haiti to starve?

Of course, we will now thunder into Haiti with relief and supplies on a level only America can provide. It's too bad we had to wait for an earthquake to do it.

Sometimes the logic is inescapable. What friends could we have made in Haiti, or Cuba, or, for that matter, Yemen, Afghanistan or Iran, if we had spent what we have spent on military action on food, medicine, infrastructure and American expertise instead?

How many lives in Haiti could we have saved from this act of nature by helping the Haitians build a solid foundation -- literally -- for their people before the earth shook?


Monday, January 11, 2010

Do I take the Mark McGwire Christmas ornament off the tree? A moment of truth...

OK, this is a moment of truth.

Do I take the Mark McGwire ornament off the Christmas tree still decorated and glowing here in my living room? Or, do I leave it where it is?

Watching the debacle that was McGwire's second most embarrassing day in front of the news media, and, by extension, the American people, was excruciating. It was excruciating because he seemed in so much pain. It was excruciating because he also quite obviously wiffed.

Isn't wiffing one of the key attractions of baseball? In baseball, a player has no where to hide. A pitcher stands alone on the mound. He throws balls or strikes, outs or runs and everybody who watches knows which he is responsible for. A hitter steps into the box and swings the bat. He will fail, if he is good, two out of three times. When he strikes out, everyone in the stadium is witness. The walk back to the dugout is painful.

Anyone who has played the game knows about the walk. You watch that third strike or you swing and miss and there is just no where to hide. It seems like the whole world is watching, even if it is just one guy's mother and another guy's grand daughter and a third guy's girlfriend and their new puppy.

Mark McGwire has nowhere to hide. He came clean -- sort of -- about using steroids. But he is either lying or fooling himself if he tries to argue, as he did, steroids did not help him hit more homeruns. That's just a called strike right down the crapper.

Did steroids make him a home run hitter? Of course not. Did steroids make his hand eye coordination better? Probably not, though one reporter said he understood they could improve his vision. Could I take steroids and hit 90 mile-per-hour baseballs out of major league parks? Are you kidding?

But, they did keep him on the field. That, he says, is why he took them. The more pitches he saw, the more homeruns he hit. Simple math. They also allowed him to recover more quickly, another benefit he admits. That means he was ready to go day after grueling day which also made it possible for him to hit more homeruns. It also means he could work out harder, put on more muscle. They typical workout regiment is to do upper body one day and lower body the next so the heavily taxed muscles can have at least a day to rest and repair in between.

Take steroids and you can do arms and legs every day. That means you have the opportunity to build muscle twice as many days in the off season as a non user. Again, simple math.

My guess is Mark McGwire is fooling himself into believing this cockamamie story. He has probably been telling himself this story since 1990. A prerequisite of a great hitter is not self awareness. Neither is critical thinking.

Coincidentally, I watched Hank Aaron take on Eddie Matthews in Home Run Derby on DVD yesterday. Hank, by all accounts, did it clean. He was long and lean, like Mark McGwire in the days before he started taking steroids. He lunged gracefully at the ball and let his wrists do the talking and, as Matthews said, the ball seemed to leap off his bat.

(One interesting bit: Between inning, Matthews said when pitchers got together to talk about Aaron they said, "Never throw him outside. He'll knock you off the mound." An inning later the Home Run Derby pitcher did just that and Hank nearly hammered him. Duck is an understatement for what the kid did.)

What would Hank have done with steroids to refresh his body every day? Or country-strong Eddie Matthews? Or, Roger Maris? Or the great Mick?

But, you know what? The ornament stays. The big redhead with the beautiful swing said he was sorry today. I believe him. Like a lot of us, he lost track of himself somewhere in the whirl of life and he did something he is paying dearly for today. Enough is enough.

--Lofflin -- BTW: the main reason I put that ornament on the tree in the first place was so I could look at and memorize the finish on one of the most beautiful swings in baseball... And the beauty of that swing had nothing to do with drugs.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"The Bad News Bears" is the best baseball movie ever

And here are 10 reasons why:

10. The classical music soundtrack, from the opera "Carmen." It's the perfect baseball score.

9. The introduction of the phrase "Kelly Leak" as a verb. Definition: when a batter hits a pitch during an intentional walk attempt; ie: "Albert Pujols just Kelly Leaked the ball over the fence."

8. Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal and Jackie Earle Haley.

7. The movie's ability to make viewers want to root for characters who are completely, fundamentally unlikeable. Matthau's character, Buttermaker, is a prime example. During the course of the movie he drives drunk with un-seatbelted children in the car, he throws a beer in the face of a teenaged girl, he instructs one of his players to take a pitch for the team and he verbally abuses children nearly the entire film. But you end up loving the guy. The most surprising example, though, is the character Joey Turner, the starting pitcher for the bad-guy Yankees and the son of the Yankees' dastardly manager. Joey acts like an ass toward the Bears the entire movie, but near the end he rebels against his dad in a magnificent way. In an amazing and heart-wrenching scene, little Joey becomes one of the movie's best heroes.

6. Joey's mom.

5. Miguel Aguilar, the cutest ballplayer since Eddie Gaedel.

4. Chico's Bail Bonds.

3. Tanner Boyle, the diminutive shortstop with the courage of all the lions in all the jungles in all the world.

2. Tiny second-place trophies; finding victory in defeat (and in making fun of the winner); and beer-soaked victory celebrations.

1. "And another thing - just wait 'til next year!"

--Matt Kelsey

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

There goes another one of our rights to the liberals in the Obama camp...

I love the reader comments
under news stories on the Kansas City Star Website. Sometimes they give you a feel for how hard democracy really is. Political scientists and politicians, to say nothing of reporters, often lose track of the level of sophistication of the public they are trying to reach.

To be sure, advertisers and political consultants do not lose track of the level of sophistication of the public they are trying to reach.

So in the Star today I found a small odd story with almost no detail about a raid on a small church in Independence in a firearms investigation. More will doubtless be known about this later.

The point here is the response of one reader apparently disturbed by such a raid. Many folks believe the second amendment is the 11th Commandment handed down to Moses but lost because he couldn't find space on the tablet. You also get the feel in this one sentence response of all the folks who have swallowed hook, line and sinker the idea Obama is a communist or, at least, a socialist, and that universal health care means the loss of democracy as we know it .

His comment went something like this: There goes another one of our freedoms, the right to keep and bare arms.

In this weather you wouldn't think that would be an issue.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Here's a great Web site for writers

If anybody's interested, my query letter for my recently-completed but yet-to-be-published novel, "The Rough on the Diamond," has been uploaded onto The Public Query Slushpile.

The Slushpile is a great Web site for aspiring novelists. It's a place where query letters (basically, the pitch letter novelists use to entice literary agents) are posted, and other novelists and interested readers can make comments and criticisms.

I've already received several very insightful and helpful comments, but I could always use more - so log on and comment away!

--Matt Kelsey

Friday, January 1, 2010

A fly in the champagne

If I were a cynic - and some days, I am - I would look on a particular occurrence during the Kelsey family New Year's Eve celebration as a metaphor for the year that was 2009.

Jamie and I celebrated quietly at home this New Year's Eve. Part of that celebration included a stop by a local liquor store for a bottle of champagne (not the cheapest brand they carried, but the second-cheapest). In the minutes before midnight, we popped the cork and poured a couple glasses.

After the foam died down, we noticed a few floating bits in each glass. We assumed it was pieces of cork. So we fished them out and continued to pour.

Then, from the bottle and into Jamie's glass flowed a very large and very dead housefly.

The cynic in me says 2009 was a pretty damn fly-in-the-champagne year. In January, Jamie and I were both laid off on the same day, and we've each struggled to find work ever since. In part, we're victims of a dreadful economy which has torpedoed the local job market. Our bank accounts are low, and our debt is creeping higher all the time. To add insult to injury, Jamie's car was broken into a few days ago, and the crooks went on a trashy little shopping spree with our credit card (K-Mart, Walgreens, Smokes 4 Less and, to top it all off, lunch at McDonalds).

But the optimist in me sees 2009 a little bit differently. Jamie, for one, used 2009 to move one year closer to the completion of her education, and it looks like she'll be finished with her teaching degree in 2011 - which, now, seems right around the corner.

And I've been able to grow as a writer. For one, I started this blog with my friend John Lofflin (and we'll be celebrating our one-year anniversary later this month!). I've also completed some rewarding freelance writing assignments and, over the course of three very difficult and taxing months, I wrote a book. Hopefully, 2010 will be the year I sell that book. And now I have a dayjob, albeit a temporary one, which has raised our hopes and our financial prospects significantly.

But the best thing about 2009? Because of our joblessness, Jamie and I have been able to spend more time together than we ever have in our six-year marriage. And we've had a blast.

So last night we dumped the fly-tainted champagne down the sink, and we toasted the new year with a couple ice-cold bottles of Woodchuck Draft Cider. And we had a damn fine New Year's Eve.

I can't imagine champagne tasting any sweeter.

--Matt Kelsey