Sunday, February 28, 2010

Virgil Trucks to Derek Trucks, fastballs and fast fingers bring it all back home

Ah... the stars align, sometimes.

Peter Gammons has a delightful piece on the MLB Web site today about two of my favorite performers, separated by more than 50 years of my life. (That is tough to write, dear readers...)

In 1957, my favorite baseball player was Virgil Trucks. Virgil Trucks pitched for the A's and I worshiped the A's. I was especially fond of pitchers, and even more worshipful of pitchers who threw hard. I've always had a thing for fastballs.

Virgil pitched in 48 games for the frustratingly bad A's in 1957, threw 116 innings, recorded seven saves and logged an earned run average just a tad over three runs per nine innings. As happened so often, his beautiful work was promptly rewarded by a trade to those damned World Series-bound Yankees in 1958. A 10-year-old heart was broken.

(This might help explain my life-long distrust of managers and administrators to do the right thing...)

Now I discover -- thanks to reporter / guitar player Gammons -- Derek Trucks, who may be the best guitar player in the world today, is Virgil Trucks' nephew's son. Gammons relates the story of Derek's surprise visit with Virgil two years ago when the old fire truck was 91. Virgil, by the way, is still kicking.

I love this quote Gammons captured. While admitting he didn't know much about Derek's music -- they don't play it much on the local radio station, he allowed -- Virgil told Gammons he was happy to "meet so fine a young man as Derek. I don't know where the musical part of the family came from, but I'm proud of him."

Derek's father is Butch Trucks, drummer and sometimes musical leader of the Allman Brothers Band. Butch often led the band into jazz in the Allmans' formative years. Fittingly, Derek's son is named Charlie, after Charlie Parker, who was born and raised within spitting distance of where my mother and father met and courted. The stars -- in the sky and in music and baseball -- couldn't be more aligned. Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket today.

Charlie Trucks, by the way, loves baseball. Of course.

If you haven't heard Derek Trucks, or his wife Susan Tedeschi, you should. They're important players in the evolution of the music I love. Here's a bit of a timeline. The territorial bands in Oklahoma and Texas in first years of the last century translated New Orleans and Delta music into a music known as swing, which took root in the Reno Club in Kansas City in the late 20s and the 30s. As swing and jazz blossomed, Big Joe Turner straddled all the music from the Delta to Chicago as the singing bartender in the 18th and Vine district only a short walk from where the Monarchs played ball. Joe Turner would have been Elvis Presley in a world without race. Rock 'n roll met jazz -- again -- in the Southern rock bands of the late 1960s and beyond, perfected by the Allman Brothers, and, today, kids like Derek Trucks are quietly returning the music to its roots. Derek was one of the guitar players recently collaborating with the great McCoy Tyner on his new album simply called "Guitars".

And Virgil? ...Well Virgil's career wasn't bad either. He pitched in 517 games, struck out 1,534 batters , posted a career 3.39 ERA, and won 177 games against 135 loses for less than stellar teams. In fact, he won just five games against 19 loses one year for the Detroit Tigers. But get this: two of those five wins were no-hitters and the third was a one-hitter, a single by the lead-off batter in the first inning.

-- Lofflin, delighted and begging for a spring day.

Virgil Trucks' autographed baseball card from the wonderful Web resource Baseball Almanac.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Doug Glanville has a great piece in the Times -- spring training is what we desire but it is the end of desire for ballplayers

Just finished a wonderful read. Doug Glanville writes about baseball and life for the New York Times and his latest is an absolute delight.

Glanville writes about what spring training means to the emotional life of a ballplayer. If you think about it, the event we desire all winter means, to some extent, the end of desire for ballplayers, at least for a while. Every year of their baseball lives they have to pull up stakes in early February and pack themselves off to Florida or Arizona.

What happens to those left behind? How do they cope? As Glanville asks, does the heart grow fonder or is the relationship out of sight, out of mind?

When you think about the extraordinary amount of money ballplayers take home, remember they have no real home from February through October, if they are lucky. There's a line about this in a Hank Williams Jr. song: "I've always had everything I wanted / except a home." Life on the road is the price you pay.

I know a guy who went to spring training once as a young man and received a minor league contract. The contract would have paid him a small fraction of what he made at the plant back home. Living in his Florida motel room while he was out chasing his spring training dream, were his wife and two of his children. He really had no choice, did he? He turned it down.

Professional baseball is cruel that way. It demands all of you, every bit of you, for nine months. A lot of us have said we'd give up everything for one at-bat in the major leagues... or San Angelo Texas, for that matter. Maybe we would, but probably we wouldn't. And, genetics aside, the reason we would never even be confronted with the choice is the same. Major league ballplayers not only give up everything else they could love for nine months every year of their careers, they gave up everything else to get there.

Henry Wiggen was pretty lucky. He was able to balance his life away from his wife and family in Perkinsville and baseball in New York City with only an occasional hitch. But as the books went on, it was easy for a reader to feel the pull of other loves against the aging southpaw. Mark Harris was wise to know this. And, the Glanville piece in today's Times, is a wise account of it.

Photo: Rick Piling -- Getty Images

Monday, February 22, 2010

The A-Team

This actually doesn't look too bad.

In recent years, Hollywood has butchered some of my childhood fascinations (Transformers, GI Joe, The Bad News Bears). And this is probably a hatchet job, too.

But from the trailer, it looks okay. And anything with Liam Neeson is bound to be good.

I'm optimistic.

- Matt Kelsey

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Russell vs. Chamberlain: It must be Sunday and the snow must be falling -- and all I've got is 74 channels of nuthin'!

It is Sunday afternoon in late February and it is snowing outside this window. We have had snow on the ground since Christmas Eve.

Suddenly, in the depths of despair and boredom, I am transported back nearly fifty years. It is Sunday afternoon in my tiny boyhood home and it is snowing hard outside the front window.

I have made a bowl of popcorn on the stove in a heavy steel pot which I shook back and forth over the flame on the burner. It is, of course, loaded with butter. Well... oleo. And nicely salted. I have a mug of root beer at my elbow, or, maybe peppery Vess Cola. The big old television sits on top of the wooden sewing table across the room in front of the window, both the window and the television bordered by lace curtains.

The television receives only three channels through the rabbit ears on top and we never think to wish for more. Right now I am perfectly happy with what I will have. Happy as I can be in winter, anyway. The only thing that could spoil this sweet moment would be a disruption of the picture by a failing tube or a glitch at the broadcast tower.

Or my mother with a job that needs to be done.

On the screen I have two giants in battle. Russell and Chamberlain. It is Sunday afternoon in February so it must be the Celtics and the Warriors or the Sixers, and if it is the Celtics and it is Sunday then it is big Bill Russell vs. even bigger Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain.

And it will be war. It will always be war.

It will be Russell's snaky left arm darting out of nowhere to snare a rebound or block a shot and it will be The Big Dipper fading lightly across the lane like an impossible ballerina to sky hook the ball -- so tiny in his palm -- into the nets. Never mind Cousy and Havlicek, Cunningham and the magnificent K. C. Jones. The war will be fought in the paint. Brute strength and delicate acrobatics, sweat and teeth rattling growls.

The crazy thing about childhood is you don't realize these moments are perishable. You don't think to take a good mental picture of them because they won't be around forever. You never imagine you will out-live them.

I've got 74 channels on my television this afternoon but absolutely nothing anywhere like Russell and Chamberlain inside the paint.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Spring brings hope to baseball fans... uh... well... maybe not in Kansas City

This is not good.

In the spring everybody thinks they have a chance. Everybody finds something to be optimistic about. This is our year. This is our time.

It has something to do with the season. And baseball, more than any sport, is organic. It has seasons. It lives in seasons. Hope spring eternal and springs brings eternal hope. Everybody has a shot at the World Series -- or at least a 50-50 finish -- in spring training.

So spring training has just begun, pitchers and catchers are just now limbering up and... guess what.

No hope. No hope at all.

Fans got a peek this week at the Kansas City Royals' potential batting order. Well... it had all the pizazz, all the hope, of the sound of a bat held together with screws and electrician's tape against a waterlogged baseball.


And, to top it off, the brain trust -- as usual -- wants to move a guy who put together a darn good defensive season in left, who had just agreeably made the transition from center, to right field for 2010. Shades of Mark Teahan. It's a good guess the White Sox won't be shifting positions on Teahan every six weeks. David DeJesus? Well... you probably better start breaking in that first base mitt, buddy.

--Lofflin, wishing for hope... really ...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shaun White on pure sport... It's not the points; it's the thrill

Shaun White
did what snowboarders -- and skateboarders -- do, last night. He was in first place, top of the heap, nothing left to prove. Does he play it safe? he asks his coach. "Just slide down the middle?"

The answer? Something like... count this.

He drops in, does the winning routine even higher and better and ends with the 1260 double McTwist that nearly tore his jaw off a couple of weeks ago. And he sticks that sucker.

Champions do such things.

Then he said an interesting thing when he was interviewed. He said I want people to know -- you had the feeling he was talking to snowboarding kids here -- this isn't all there is to snowboarding. This is just the by-product. Snowboarding is the riding we do with our buddies. This is just us showing off some of what we've learned, of what the possibilities are.

Translated: It ain't about the points, man. It's about the thrill. It's about the innovation.

Watch the men's figure skating long programs tonight. In my humble opinion you'll see the quad speak its mind. The men who attempt the quad are going for the gold. The men who don't are just praying they'll win a medal. They'll just be adding up the points. The problem with stick and carrot motivation couldn't be more clear.

Codes of points, whether they're used to judge figure skaters, snowboarders, automobile designers or teachers, don't encourage excellence or innovation. People play down to codes of points. If you want people to rise to their own greatness, you have to give them freedom, you have to love their mistakes, give them fistbumps for the risks they take, celebrate their strengths and otherwise ... get the hell out of the way.

-- Lofflin

Watch an excellent analysis of White's artistry here on the the NY Times Web Site.

Monday, February 15, 2010

In the Olympic tradition, reducing our lives to a code of points: The Likertization of modern times

"It was a great run, but if you look there at the seventh mogul you'll see... right here in slow motion... right there... that's it... right there you'll see where his knees came apart just a bit. We'll see deductions for that... No question... twenty-five percent of the final score is form... the judges won't miss that..."

I thoroughly enjoy the Winter Olympics but the "judged" events remind me too much of other parts of modern life I'm growing to dislike.

You watch what you think is a great skate. It had passion. The skater captured the music perfectly. The salchow looked magnificent, the skater soared above the boards like a human corkscrew, the footwork was delicate and precise.

Then a problem with an edge is discovered and a slight under rotation, and did you miss the skate traveling on the ice just a wee bit during the sit spin? The degree of difficult was off a bit. If only the triple-triple had been in the second half of the long program where it would have meant double points.

Suddenly you discover the skate you thought inspirational just didn't stand up to the code of points.

Code of points. I love the phrase. Love it because it so perfectly describes why I hate it.

Well, not particularly in figure skating. I'm not that passionate about figure skating, though I do enjoy watching the performances. I understand why it was instituted in the wake of judging scandals. But I also understand the argument many fans make that the code of points has stolen the art from the sport.

And, I might add, "judging" has stolen some of the joy of watching other Olympic sports as they are sometimes robbed of their emotional and artistic content. Judging is particularly damaging to passion and art when it entails deconstructing the performance to elements so cold and fine they have nothing to do with the outcome of the particular jump or skate or run. The whole, and its authentic value, are lost to calculus of the parts.

Judging, it seems to me, is an artifact of our times. In an effort, as in figure skating, to take the potential for human error -- or bias -- out of the equation, we have ceded more and more of our daily lives to numbers. Codes of points. The arts in our lives have suffered greatly for this bit of faux certainty.

We hire in committees hamstrung by codes of points and make decisions on who to retain governed by Likert Scales. Then we fire based on codes of points, or employ codes of points to fire those we disagree with. We suffer from the Likertization of our lives. Codes of points govern our self-worth and the worth granted to us by others.

Art has been stolen from the teaching profession by codes of points, for example. As teachers, our careers have devolved into three choices -- exceeds expectations, meets expectations, doesn't meet expectations -- reducing our value as teachers to a silly trilogy of points. Not any brilliant analogy we improvised on our feet in the classroom to bring home a difficult point to students who were so confused they were ready to give up. Not the artful way we pulled together ideas from several disciplines to design a new course. Not the outreach work we assigned ourselves just because we like giving something we know to those who can make use of it. Just, exceeds-meets-doesn't. The Trinity of modern administration.

For teachers in higher education, the code of points doesn't stop there. You get a certain number of points if you attend a conference, more if you participate in a roundtable, more if you make a presentation. Doesn't matter in the least WHAT you presented. The worst drivel gets the same points. Oh, what does matter is if you were invited to present. That's how the code of points is designed to separate the drivel from the gems, I suppose. If somebody asked or somebody chose, we know what you presented must be "better." How many did they reject? the coy administrator asks at evaluation time.

Of course, your uninvited presentation might have been risky. Might have broken calcified ground. Might have been the inspiration for a dozen teachers to go back to their classrooms and redesign their courses. "You left the ice on the wrong edge, mister, and you under-rotated that triple." Code of points will get you every time.

If this rant sounds bitter, it isn't because the academic code of points has bitten me in the ass. Not so far, anyway. But I've watched it take bites out of others and I've watched how single-minded devotion to it has squeezed the art from a once passionate, risk-loving, profession.

As Olympic fans, let's just hope that doesn't happen in the snowboarder's cathedral, the half pipe. Let's hope those kids continue to thumb their red noses at the code of points. Their response so far has been inspirational to an aging rebel with too many causes. "Oh, you've got points, eh?" snowboarders say with a wink. "Well, count this." And off the pipe they soar, turning once, twice, ducking under, turning again, landing ... or not ... And in the end, they seem only interested in the risks they took and the risks the others took, in the art of the tricks, the passion. They love to win, but they also seem to genuinely love to see another competitor break the code, sail off into something completely new, even if that something new can't be landed. Yet.

Here's a little secret I probably shouldn't say too loud. I'd do what I do if the code of points in academia never existed. And I know a lot of my colleagues who would do the same. They do what they do because they love it and because it is good for others. If they win points, fine, if they don't, fine. Can you imagine Shaun White never riding a half pipe again if they stopped naming winners? Neither can I.

-- Lofflin

Shaun White image by Bob Martin, Sports Illustrated

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Television news is killing us; time to make a revolution

Comes a time
to man the barricades.

To start a revolution.

Comes a time…

It's time to mount a major insurrection on television news. In particular, the time has come to do something about television news interviewing.

I tuned into television news this morning. What I saw was awful. A television journalist was interviewing a White House flak. She asked a question. The flak “answered” by artlessly saying he didn’t intend to revisit the past. Then he launched unimpeded into his list of talking points about what his agency wants to do for middle class Americans. And, also artlessly, she went on to the next subject.

He got away with murder. She should have made him take out an ad.

Conservatives consider this particular journalist detestably liberal. And the flak was, of course, a member of the detestably liberal White House. This problem knows neither ideology nor party persuasion.

It is simply a dangerous artifact of journalism in our times. As one of the folks I spoke to this morning said, “I fear we are dangerously close to a tipping point.”

And, we are.

Here’s the movement I want to start. Every time you see a television journalist ask a question and the flak (or the senator or the president) not respond directly to the question but instead launch into the talking points of his agenda, and every time the television reporter doesn’t follow up on the original question, doesn't hold his or her feet to the fire – click.




I don’t know how to make a revolution from this. I don’t know how to spread the word. But I would love to see this click-to-the-next-channel revolution take hold. Because if we don’t do something quickly, the forces of silliness are certainly going to win.

-- Lofflin

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Henry Wiggen: Action Hero?

All due respect to the title character of this blog, my favorite fictional character of all time is Travis McGee.

McGee is the hero of a series of 21 novels written by author John D. McDonald from the 1960s all the way through to the '80s. McDonald was appreciated for his literary fiction (terrific books like Condominium and The Executioners, the title of which was later changed to match its big-screen adaptation - Cape Fear), but he was most well-known for Travis McGee.

The McGee books - which all had colors in their titles, like Nightmare in Pink and A Deadly Shade of Gold and The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper - were usually published as pulp-fiction mysteries. But the writing was anything but pulp. McDonald, who died in 1986, was a masterful writer.

A little background - Travis McGee is a beach bum who lives on a 52-foot houseboat called the Busted Flush (he won it in a card game). The boat is tied up at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. To make money he is, in his own words, a "salvage consultant." Basically, he finds lost items. If somebody takes something of value from you, McGee will get it back and keep half its value as his fee. Because getting half of your lost fortune back is a whole lot better than nothing. McGee takes his retirement in installments between jobs.

I first became interested in Travis McGee when my dad gave me a stack of recommended books. Some I liked and some I didn't, but among the pile was a book called "Cinnamon Skin." It's the next-to-last book in the series. I read it in record time and absolutely loved it. I raided his libraries for more McGee books and found others at used book stores until I had about 13 in all. A few years later for Christmas, my wife bought me the remaining books in the series to complete my collection.

A couple weeks ago I picked up my dusty copy of "The Deep Blue Good-By," the first book in the McGee series, because it's written in first person. My own novel-in-progress is also in first-person, and I wanted to see how McDonald used the technique to his advantage. Before long I was pulled into the story and decided to read it through.

On Page 74, something caught my attention. McGee is trying to work his way next to a rich businessman, whom he hopes will help lead him to a lost fortune. But the beach bum looks somewhat unusual in a business suit. This is what he says:

I checked myself in a full-length mirror. I smiled at Mr. Travis McGee. A very deep tan is a tricky thing. If the clothing is the least bit too sharp, you look like an out-of-season ballplayer selling twenty pay life."


Fans of this blog know Henry "Author" Wiggen is a ballplayer who, in the off season, sells life insurance.

I chalked this up to an unusual coincidence and kept reading. Then I came across this passage on Page 85. McGee is on an airplane, and being flirted with by a large-boned stewardess "styled for abundant lactation." Then McDonald drops this bomb:

...I had the curious feeling I had met her somewhere before, and then I remembered where - in that valuable book by Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly, the stewardess that Author runs into when he is on his way out to Mayo's.

Holy crap.

Travis McGee was a Henry Wiggen fan!

Astounded over this discovery, I realized McGee and Wiggen aren't so different. McGee was a professional athlete, too, a tight end for the Detroit Lions. Wiggen and McGee both have an interesting perspective on life, one that becomes jaded as their perspective novel series continue. Both are ladykillers, although Henry settles down with Holly while McGee remains a confirmed bachelor. Both have well tuned bodies, Author a brilliant pitcher, McGee with reflexes so quick he has never once needed a flyswatter. In "A Ticket for a Seamstitch," Henry shows kindness toward a tender fallen bird of a woman; McGee makes a practice of this throughout the series.

In another life, could Henry Wiggen have been an action hero instead of a baseball star?

I like to think McGee and Wiggen were cut from the same cloth.

--Matt Kelsey