Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Allure of the Olde Game Ball - An Update

About two years ago, I blogged at my old site about the allure of snagging a baseball from a ballpark. Last night, I had a dream come true by catching a foul ball. What follows is an update of that post, plus a new chronicle of last night’s story.

I love going to baseball games. I live in Baltimore so I have ample opportunity to see the Orioles play at Camden Yards. One benefit to having the hometown team suck is that you can always get walkup tickets. I love when I can get up one Saturday or Sunday morning, see the bright sunshine and decide, “Gee, I’d like to go the game today.

There's just something about being there for the game, and I'm not talking about the beer. I mean, it's great be at any sporting event, but actually attending a baseball game makes up for how boring the game can be. A lot of that has to do with the ever-present danger that goes along with attending baseball games, and by that, I mean getting drilled with a ball.

It's been my childhood dream to get a ball... home run, foul ball, whatever... just to be the guy who thrusts it up to the sky and soaks in the smattering of applause from the crowd. I've been to more than 75 baseball games, including the major and minor leagues, and I've barely gotten a sniff before. Well, maybe there was one...

A couple years ago I was at a game with my sister and brother-in-law, in some very sweet seats in the first row, about 12 seats in from the foul pole. Jim Thome of the Phillies cracked a long fly ball right at us and as I tracked it's arc, I said, "nahhh, not gonna make it, not far enough," and remained sitting and I was exactly right, it didn't fly over the wall. However it did hit the rubberized warning track and boiiiiiing... bounced right up to us. The guy 2 seats down from me plucked it easily. Me? By the time it registered that this was the chance I'd been waiting for and stood up, the guy was already sitting back down with the ball. I was a solid 2 seconds behind in reacting, as the TV replays clearly showed. I looked like a guy going the wrong way on the Electric Slide.

See, that's exactly how I want my ball... on a nice soft bounce. I want a ball, don't get me wrong, but I think I'll pass on the broken hand. Let it bounce off the steps, or the upper deck facing, or someone else's head, I don't care. I have to be able to type in the morning.

I have a lot of respect for those dudes who actually pull off the barehanded catch. It should be a Man Rule that anyone who bare-hands a ball on the fly gets a warm round of applause from the other men. He earned it. Catching one with a glove does not impress me... I consider that cheating. The world is full of people who can catch a ball with a glove. But either way he should keep the ball. I'm not down with handing the ball to some kid, no-sirree. Let them earn it. They can go scramble for those balls that wind up under the seats. Believe you me; should I ever wind up with a game ball in my hand, it's going home with me. Maybe I'll bequeath it to a beloved niece or nephew, but not until it's been properly aged on one of my shelves. No good comes from handing the ball to the kid. At best, he'll be using it to play in the street until the seams burst. At worst, well, let me tell you what I saw at an Orioles game in 2006.

I was enjoying a game from some nice seats 10 rows behind home plate. The batter popped a foul ball that landed all the way at the back of the lower bowl. A guy came down with the ball... I don't remember if it was on the fly or bounce... anyway, he raises it over his head, then gallantly hands it to the boy standing beside him, who immediately hurls the ball back toward the field! Had that little ingrate been with me, the ball wouldn't have been the only thing hurled toward the field. I know sometimes people throw back home run balls hit by the visiting team, but it wasn't even a home run, just a simple foul ball. I don't know what's up with these kids anymore. I blame rap music and wearing pants with your underwear sticking out. Anyway, with the crowd chanting at him, the poor slob that grabbed the thrown ball had no choice but to toss it back. Once the guy had it back, I'm pretty sure he pocketed that baby for the rest of the game.

At least there was some honor shown by the second guy. There's something about getting these balls... maybe it's the allure of "something for nothing", that makes people go crazy. Once, out in the left field seats during batting practice, one little kid standing along the wall by himself asked an outfielder for a ball. The player tossed one up to the kid, but just then, some college-aged kid reaches over the first kid and snatches the throw. Everyone just kind of stood there aghast, including the player. He yelled up to give the ball back to the little kid. So the college kid promptly... turned and ran up the aisle and out. Unbelievable. I wish I'd have been sitting on the aisle, so I could have reached out and tripped him. Of course, by the time I would have reacted, two seconds would have gone by, the college kid would have passed, and I'd have tripped the little kid. File that under "I'll give you something to cry about..."

Eventually the player threw the kid another ball. But I'm surprised they throw them up at all. Have you ever heard the noise when a player ventures near a wall before the game... It's deafening... It's a high-pitched chorus of "Gimmeeeeeeeeeeeeeee", emanating from a permanent mob of 50 kids, and it never ends. I know they get paid a lot of money, but if I had to listen to that every day for 6 months, I'd spend a lot of time hiding in the clubhouse too.

Kids will screw with you just on principle. A couple years ago, I went to a Toledo Mud Hens minor league game with my friend Rik, his wife and three kids. The seats weren’t together; 4 were in the first row of the upper deck, and 2 were a couple of rows behind the dugout. Doing the only fair thing, Rik and I sat behind the dugout, and exiled the rest to the upper deck. (In all fairness, this was a small park, and their “upper deck” was only as high as most big league “club level” seats, and much closer to the field.)

So Rik and I are kickin’ it and enjoying the game when a batter hits a pop foul over to our side. As the ball nears the upper deck, we look up and see one gloved hand reach out and snag it. Then we notice that the glove is on a hand that belongs to Rik’s daughter Kia, who holds the ball up for us to see. There’s karma for you. I wonder if she lets her dad play with it…

Which brings me to last night…

I was at the game by myself, sitting about 8 rows from the field, half way between first base and the outfield wall. The
Orioles were playing the Washington Nationals, which is a regional rivalry, so there was a pretty good crowd of 39,633, although the 3 rows in front of me were about empty. I’d been thinking about moving up 3 rows until a couple 4 rows up moved back one to give themselves more room.

Someone hit a screaming line drive that looked like it was coming right at us. Luckily it landed about 4 rows up and 6 seats to my right. I wanted to say to the row behind me, “If anything like that comes in here, don’t be looking for me to be in the way; I’m getting the hell out of Dodge.”

So about the 6th inning, I went for a pee and another beer. When I came back, I moved up one row, just for the hell of it. Up to bat comes
Ronnie Belliard of the Nationals, their diminutive 2nd baseman. (Seriously, the dude’s 5’8”.) He promptly sent a pop foul our way.

I was sitting there watching it, thinking, “nope, not gonna make the seats,” and remained seated. Then it hit the rubberized perimeter track. “Boiiiiiiiing!” Déjà vu.

This time, I stood up immediately as the ball bounced right up to me. I snatched it as easily as picking an apple off a tree.


I held it up briefly then sat back down in a hurry. There’s no hamming it up when you catch one on the bounce. But nevertheless, I had my first game ball.
The people in the row behind me were like, “Man, you just moved there and it came right to you!”

I said it must have been good Karma and that I’d never been close to one before. (I decided this wasn’t the time or place for the Jim Thome story.) I then apologized to the 15-year old boy sitting two seats down. Ball would have been his if I wasn’t there. I hadn’t really even noticed him… I just reached up high when the ball came.

So I said, “Sorry about that, but hey, you’re young. You’ll get another chance.” He was gracious about it, which is rare. 15-year old boys are not often gracious about anything.

So that’s that. I get to check off one thing from my lifelong “To Do Before I Die” list. Game ball… caught.

Next up: My Academy Award!
All pictures courtesy of ME!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Missing an Angel

I know I haven’t posted in a while… I’ve been working on my reaction to the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, (Whooooo!) but I felt compelled to comment on this development today.
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I can't say I was unprepared for this moment, but it still hit me like a punch in the gut.

Farrah Fawcett died today after a 3 year battle with cancer. The online world has been filling cyberspace with lavish tributes and remembrances. This is my small one.

I was 15 when Charlie's Angels came out and I already had The Poster. (My dad eagerly bought one each for my brother and me.) I watched the show, I clipped her pictures out of magazines, read books about her; I devoured everything Farrah. I remember watching her play tennis against Bill Cosby on Battle of the Network Stars and rooting desperately for her to win. (I’m sure Cos tanked that shot at match point to let her win.)

She was my Marilyn Monroe.

I didn't want to watch her last Special, but I just couldn't help it. I know it may have been considered an opportunistic grab for attention, but it was also heartbreaking.

I feel a bit like I did when Princess Diana died. It was the loss of someone I didn’t know and was a million miles away in every sense. But it was like losing someone I’ve known all my life. It doesn’t really make sense, does it? Except deep inside, it does.

Our world got a little bit dimmer today. That was one Angel I always believed in.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bill Killed

The recent stories about the death of David Carradine (Kung Fu TV series, Kill Bill 1 & 2, etc.) have gone from upsetting, to puzzling, to the inevitable disgust. Doesn’t look so much like a suicide anymore… Can you say Michael Hutchence? Evidence points to the conclusion that David Carradine died the same way as the former INXS lead singer did back in 1997… of “auto-erotic asphyxiation”. Carradine’s family is asking for FBI investigation, saying that he must have been set up.

But regardless, what an embarrassing way to go; hanging buck naked in a Bangkok hotel from a curtain cord that’s also tied to your junk. At least they can name the room after you: The Carradine Swinger’s Suite.

Nice legacy there, Grasshopper! Now see if you can snatch some dignity from the hand of… um… never mind. I guess your hands were already occupied.

Because I’m, well… me, this story made me wonder about a couple things:

1.) Can someone sue the hotel for having a dangerous curtain cord there? I’m sure someone will try that, although in Bangkok, you’re probably more likely to be screwed directly, rather that through the courts, like here.

I don’t know what else they’d use to hold back their curtains… maybe twisty ties? And if they have to get rid of curtain cords, what’s next? Maybe they confiscate your belt when you check in. Maybe provide only battery-powered irons so you can’t misuse the cord. And what next, do they remove the sheets too? Maybe they can substitute those foil NASA blankets that reflect body heat or something.

2.) Wouldn’t this make a great Very Special Episode of
Ghost Whisperer?

I could just see Melinda being visited by a ghost that says, “Say, I have a bit of an emergency here… I’m hanging in a closet over at the Marriott with no clothes on and a used Kleenex at my feet? Could you get down there and cover my ass up before housecleaning gets there? That is, if there’s room enough in the closet for my rigor mortised boner and your enormous eyelashes.

3.) And wouldn’t this be a great place for one of those celebrity Public Service Announcements?

“Hi, I’m Jennifer Love Hewitt. If you’re considering alternate forms of self-gratification, please keep your feet on the ground. Only a dope… uses the rope. Thank you.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Requiem for the Queen

I lost another one of my idols yesterday, with the death of Koko Taylor, Queen of the Blues. She was 80 years old. From picking cotton as a girl, to cleaning houses, to ruling the blues clubs, Koko was an American original. As she said, she came to Chicago with nothing in her pocket but “35 cents and a box of Ritz Crackers.”

I was working in a record store in 1984, when I discovered Koko on a live Montreux Blues compilation, singing her signature song, “Wang Dang Doodle”, for which she won her only Grammy. My thought was “this woman sings so hard it sounds like she’s going to hurt herself.”

Later I heard her sing “Come To Mama” on 1985’s “Queen of the Blues” for
Alligator Records, a song more frequently heard being done as “Come To Papa” by Bob Seger. The more I heard, the more I liked her.

I bought my first Koko Taylor record when she released “Jump For Joy” in 1990. All it took was one listen to the opening track, “Can’t Let Go”, and I was sold. With it’s thumping beat, wicked guitar solos, horn flourishes and keyboard sting surrounding Koko’s powerful vocals, it instantly became a regular on my CD player.

Normally, I’m partial to upbeat blues numbers… think Stevie Ray, Johnny Winter, Albert Collins… But later on that same disk, she has a song called “Only Time Will Tell”, which became my favorite slow blues tune ever. While straightening up after he's gone, she wonders if her man really loves her any more.

I’ll empty those ashtrays
His glass, put away
Straighten that sofa…
All those marks I’ll erase.

In the last verse she kicks it into high gear:

But will I ever,
Will I ever erase from my mind
Oh, the way he looked at me
Oh, the way he kissed me good night?
Ooooooonly time…
Ooooooonly time…
Only time will tell.

By the time she hits the first “Only time…” she’s singing with the wailing anguish of a woman whose heart is being torn apart. I still get goose bumps every time I play it. If that song does not move you, you don’t have a soul.

This isn’t to say that Koko’s blues are always blue. In “Ernestine” from 1993, she manages to be both blue and funny. In it she warns a romantic rival about what’s in store for her if she continues to mess with Koko’s man:

I warned you once,
Girl without a doubt.
Two strikes, you lose,
The third strike, you out.
Like a baseball game,
You messin’ with a slugga.
I’ll hit a grand slam,
Cuz I’m a bad mutha fugga!

I saw Koko play live twice. One time she played a free outdoor show out on the street in downtown Albany NY. Another time she headlined a 5-act blues show put on by Alligator Records. This was when I worked for my record store’s home office and had connections such that I could have my folks fly out for the show and not only get free tickets and backstage passes, we sat in a little roped off section in the 2nd row with some others from the company. So we went backstage after the show and meet all the acts. Luckily my parents had been to a concert before. Good thing, or else they might have thought that this was always what happens when you go to a show.

We really enjoyed meeting Koko. Her act was last up so you could see that she was still tired from her set. It showed in her demeanor as well as the little ball of sweat still on the end of her nose. But she was gracious and friendly to all of us, even though you could tell she just wanted to get out of those heels and that Supremes dress.

Now Koko is gone from this earth, but never from my heart, mind or stereo. They broke the mold when they made her. In this time of instant American Idols and disposable celebrity, we’ll never see another one like the Queen of the Blues.

Safe on, dear Koko. You will be sorely missed.