Exit Sandman

May 4, 2012

Sad news for baseball fans.

Over the last 15 seasons, Mariano Rivera has been the most consistently dominant pitching force in baseball.

Eventually, that run had to end, but after a brilliant 17-plus seasons with the New York Yankees, the best closer in the game deserved to go out on his own terms. Instead, the final image of Rivera on the field could be the 42-year-old veteran writhing in pain on the warning track before Thursday’s game in Kansas City.

No, it wasn’t supposed to end like this, but if there’s one constant in this changing world, it’s that all good things must come to an end. But seeing a unanimous first ballot Hall of Fame career abruptly end like this still hurts.

I must confess that I haven’t watched very much baseball this season. Work commitments and other interests have turned me into a fair weather lifelong Yankee fan. I did catch the 9th inning of a game last week that Mariano saved. At the time, I wondered how many more chances I’d have to see number 42 close a game. At age 42, I knew there would not be many. I never imagined those few moments of a game last week would be my last chance.

I have a good friend Rick from Central Pennsylvania who like me is a huge Yankee fan. We usually go to a Yankees-Orioles game or two each year at Camden Yards. We’ve seen Mariano record a number of saves for us over the years. Rick’s job takes him all over the world, but somehow he’d never been to Yankee Stadium heading into its last season before the team moved into what Wright Thompson of ESPN calls “The House Next to the House that Ruth Built.” But then, I’ve been to hundreds of Yankee games, but had never heard Mariano’s Enter Sandman theme played live at the Stadium.

I finally got a chance to reciprocate my friend Rick’s generosity over the years by snagging tickets for us to see the Yankees host the Seattle Mariners during the last season in the old Yankee Stadium. It was a chilly Bronx night with intermittent drizzles, awful baseball weather. Not enough rain to postpone or even delay the game, but miserable enough for two middle-aged guys not used to shivering for three and a half hours, while washing down cold $8 hot dogs with flat watered-down $10 domestic beers.

Chen Ming Wang started the game that night and pitched very well. Remember him? Wang had an unhittable 94 MPH sinking fastball before injuries cut short a promising career. That’s baseball. Injuries are part of the game, and pitchers  especially break down as often as Kentucky thoroughbreds. The ones who stay healthy eventually lose their velocity, their control or their command of one of their repertoire of pitches.

Mariano was the exception to the rule in every sense. For eighteen seasons, he was without question the best closer in baseball. He didn’t have a repertoire of different pitches to fool batters. No, he had one pitch, a cut fastball that broke sharply in on left handed batters, broke countless bats, nicked the outside corner on right handed batters. Every batter knew exactly what Mariano was going to throw. He didn’t try to fool them, he didn’t have to.

A few years ago, when his velocity dropped from the mid-90s to the low 90s, it was suggested that he add an offspeed pitch to his repertoire. Mariano said he might add a changeup eventually, but not yet. “Because,” he said, “I don’t need to.”

Back to our game. The Yankees led by three runs heading into the bottom of the eighth. Rick and I were excited waiting for that Metallica track to announce Mariano’s entrance. However, the Yanks got an extra insurance run in the bottom of the 8th. Normally we would cheer each run, but this time we diehard Yankee fans were deflated because it was no longer a save situation, and we figured we’d missed our chance to see Mariano’s entrance.

Now Rick and I are the type of fans who’ll stay to the bitter end of late weeknight games when our team is trailing by several runs and we have to get up early for work the next day. Our loyalty (or is it insanity?) has been repaid with a few dramatic late-inning heroic comebacks over the years. This time, between the rotten weather, our disappointment over missing Mariano’s entrance, and realization that we faced a long three hour drive back home after a subway ride back to Manhattan, this time we opted to leave one inning early.

We were outside the Stadium heading for the No. 4 subway when the 9th inning began. We knew the exact moment the 9th inning started because the opening notes of Enter Sandman rang loud and clear. Unbelievably, Girardi was bringing Mariano into a non-save situation on a chilly night in May.  I shook my head both at the manager’s decision and the fact that we’d exited the park at the perfectly wrong moment: right before Mariano’s dramatic entrance.

But at least we got to hear it. From the elevated subway platform, we could see a sliver of the playing field grass and the small pitch count scoreboard in the right field upper deck. The scoreboard showed there were 2 outs and 2 strikes. Moments later, we heard the roar of the crowd and the golden voice of another legend began to sing:

Start spreading the news,
I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it,
New York, New York.

These vagabond shoes
Are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it,
New York, New York.

I want to wake up
In the city that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap

The-e-e-e-se little town blues
Are melting away
I’m gonna make a brand new start of it
In old New York

If I can make it there
I’ll make it anywhere!
It’s up to you
New York, New York!

I just hope we get another chance to see Mariano play. Next time, if there is a next time, I won’t leave early even if it starts to snow or we’re losing by 10 runs. I wouldn’t miss another chance to see this for the world.


Counterfeit Sports Collectibles: A National Security Issue?

April 23, 2012

This stuff makes my head explode.

Federal agents raid Patapsco Flea Market

Capping a lengthy investigation into counterfeit and pirated merchandise, including the allegedly illegal use of a major sports apparel trademark, federal Homeland Security Investigations agents on Sunday raided the Patapsco Flea Market and confiscated numerous items being sold there.

Nicole Navas, a public affairs specialist with the Department of Homeland Security, said sports apparel, musical recordings and cosmetics were among the items under scrutiny in the 2 1/2-year-long investigation.

Think about this: a 2 1/2 year-long federal Homeland Security investigation into unlicensed sports merchandise. How exactly is this a national security issue?

The justification for the raid is provided by a Under Armour, a local manufacturer of licensed sports apparel:

“Individuals who produce and sell counterfeit goods harm the American economy. The reality of counterfeiting is that it’s much greater than just buying a knock off item at a discounted price, it’s a multibillion dollar a year problem that undermines corporations.”

Right, but how is this “multibillion dollar a year problem that undermines corporations” a national security problem? Sounds like an industry problem to me. After all, shoplifting is a multibillion dollar a year problem for retailers, but that doesn’t mean Walmart and Target should be allowed to forego the expense of hiring security guards when BATF or DHS agents can handle the work instead.

I already know the industry response. Even though laws exist to protect intellectual property owners from piracy, existing remedies and enforcement tools are expensive and ineffective to stop most violations. In other words, government failure to enforce existing laws is used to justify further expansion of government authority and regulation over the lives of citizens and taxpayers. In what other sphere of human affairs, is abysmal failure and gross incompetence so often rewarded? (I meant this as a rhetorical question, but then I remembered that Keith Olbermann was back on ABC’s This Week.)

Next time you’re at the ballpark, won’t you feel safer knowing that your tax dollars are being spent keeping the world safe from the imminent threat of unlicensed sports apparel? Silly me to think there might be greater threat to our national security than the possibility of sitting next to some stranger at Camden Yards wearing a knockoff Derek Jeter No. 2 jersey.

Meanwhile, next time you visit Baltimore, this could happen to you. Unfortunately, the victim of this horrific assault and thousands of others like him who’ve been brutalized by flash mobs this year (Bush’s fault of course) cannot afford the lobbyists necessary to persuade our elected officials to use government resources for say police protection rather than catering to corporations facing a “multibillion dollar a year piracy problem.”

Or maybe it’s just a matter of priorities in these “difficult economic times.” (Is it racist to say that?) Perhaps an occasional racially-motivated beating/public humiliation is a small price to pay for safeguarding our precious freedom to buy licensed sports apparel industry.

As Patrick Henry so eloquently put it, “Give me overpriced sports memorabilia AND give me Death!”

Tim Tebow’s Super Bowl Ad

January 27, 2010

ABC News reports on CBS’s decision to air a “controversial” Super Bowl ad featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow:

The University of Florida campus is slowly catching wind of Tim Tebow’s decision to star in a Super Bowl ad slated to air on CBS on Feb. 7, and some say the ad’s message is bound to spark controversy.

The ad spot was purchased by Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization that places emphasis on marriage and parenthood.

The Associated Press reported this week that the ad’s theme will be “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life,” with Pam Tebow sharing the story of her difficult 1987 pregnancy — instead of getting an abortion she decided to give birth to Tebow, the now-famous quarterback who went on to become a Heisman Trophy winner, leading the Gators to two BCS wins.

Full piece here.

I must say that for the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of the Univ. of Florida and not just because Tim Tebow has done well there.

The House That Greed Built

October 10, 2009

Wright Thompson of ESPN presents a fascinating look inside New Yankee Stadium’s Legends Suite:

Much has been said and written about The Moat and how it highlights the divide between the haves and the have-nots. But that’s not quite right. There are no have-nots here.

That’s not automatically a bad thing; a business should sell its product for as much as it can, as long as it’s not putting temporary profit over long-term growth. When a business makes that mistake, longtime pollster Rich Luker calls it harvesting. Starbucks is struggling, he says, because it harvested. Wal-Mart is not because it hasn’t.

“The American sports industry is in harvest mode,” Luker says. “The industry has lost its regard for human beings.”

A recent poll discovered an unsettling trend emerging for the first time. American families whose household income is $75,000 or less now have zero dollars of discretionary income. According to Luker, that means about 75 percent of the country can never responsibly afford to go to a live professional sporting event. Franchises want them to be fans, to buy the gear and pull for their teams and watch the telecasts the leagues are paid billions for. But they don’t need them to come to their stadiums. There are, right now, plenty of rich people who love games. The prices reflect that. The reason sporting events cost so much now, Luker’s research shows, is because they are designed to be affordable only to those making $150,000 or more a year.

This wasn’t always true. Ten years ago, it was cheaper to go to a baseball game than to a movie in half of the big league markets (take away parking at the game, and it was cheaper in every market). Today, there isn’t a single city in America where it costs less to go to a major league game than to a movie. Everywhere we turn, we see examples of the collapsing middle class. This is where that issue lives in the world of sports, and it has predictable consequences.

“The lower the income,” Luker says, “the less they’re enjoying sports.”

His August poll discovered a third of Americans are less interested in sports because of the declining economy. That’s bad news, made worse by a problem he first noticed in 2004 and which has continued since: For the first time, the largest number of sports fans aren’t 12- to 17-year-old boys. The baby boomers are the group that shows the greatest increase in a love of sports, and they’ll be dying soon.

Who will replace them?

By excluding 75 percent of the population from experiencing the best part of spectator sports — actually holding a ticket in your hand — franchises have created a potentially fatal problem for themselves. Luker predicts the future of sports by looking at the decline of soap operas. Once, there were 30. Now, because the audience changed, there are seven.

“We have the first true sustained evidence of less interest in sports than there was 10 years ago,” he says. “It won’t happen overnight. It will take a generation. But in general, sports will not be what it is today. We’re burning out the love of sports.”

Read the whole story here.

Last year, Major League Baseball celebrated the 100th anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the early 20th century Tin Pan Alley song that eventually became the unofficial anthem of modern baseball. The lyrics were written by Jack Norworth and set to music by Albert Von Tilzer. Norworth was inspired while riding a subway train by a “Baseball Today — Polo Grounds” sign, Ironically, neither of them had attended a major league baseball game when they composed their 1908 hit song.

The verses to the song are now largely forgotten, even as millions of baseball fans sing the chorus during the 7th inning stretch (another baseball tradition) of every game in every ballpark across America:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”

[Chorus] Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

[repeat Chorus]

Saul Steinberg wrote that “It is impossible to understand America without a thorough knowledge of baseball.” Within the next generation, the sublime experience of enjoying a hotdog and a beverage, keeping score, maybe catching a ball hit into the stands, while celebrating what was once America’s favorite pastime will be as unfamiliar to most Americans as the original lyrics to its 1908 anthem.

The New Yankee Stadium or as Thompson calls it “The House Next To The House That Ruth Built,” bears a superficial resemblance to the iconic ballpark where I grew up watching legends named Mantle, Maris, Ford, Guidry, Jackson, Munson, Gossage, Righetti, Williams, O’Neill, Rivera and Jeter. I went to hundreds of games over the years, watching most from unassigned General Admission seats, which let you sit anywhere you liked in the uppermost seats. I’d get to the ballpark two hours early, climb to the top of the park and seat myself directly behind and a couple hundred feet above home plate. At $3 per ticket (movie prices were higher), it was the best entertainment value in New York. Since then, movie prices have more than doubled, but the best seats in the Legends Suite were originally priced at $2,500 apiece, or an 82,333% increase from the cost of my General Admission seat. That’s not harvesting; that’s goughing the customer’s eyes out.

In a strange way, the new ballpark is as much of an anachronism as the 1908 verses of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Not in the sense that Thompson’s decadent description of the Legends Suite reminds the reader of a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Thorstein Veblen’s embittered critique of capitalist excesses in The Theory of the Leisure Class. But because the ballpark and its $2,500 seats (since reduced to $1,250 yet still empty) is a monument to a faraway time in 2007 when we all believed our incomes would eventually catch up with our spending and imagined that les bon temps would continue roulez-ing forever.

I don’t know if F. Scott Fitzgerald was a baseball fan, but I suspect he would have found himself equally at home amidst the opulence of the New Yankee Stadium Legends Suite and the financial straits in which we find ourselves. Fitzgerald once quipped that baseball was “a game played by idiots for morons.” When Fitzgerald died not unexpectedly from a massive heart attack after years of alcohol and drug abuse, on hearing the news, Dorothy Parker cried: “the poor son-of-a-bitch.” Fitzgerald may not have understood baseball, but having wrestled with demons through both the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, the poor SOB understood the American Dream, and he knew first-hand the heartache of waking from a dream of a better tomorrow inexorably fading into the past.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Theory vs. Reality

August 10, 2009

Two pictures which perfectly illustrate the difference between theory and reality:











Yankees sweep