Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Saving wrenches

Just returned from chaperoning my church’s high school youth group’s ski trip, and learned some valuable lessons.

I realize that people in Vermont and Colorado would openly mock what passes for mountains here in the Lower Peninsula. What we think of as a wild slope would be considered a kiddie sledding hill in those parts.

And to be fair, some of the ski peaks in the southern regions of the state are actually new uses for former landfills. So trees aren’t a problem.

But we went to a place called Caberfae Peaks, near Cadillac, Mich. about two hours north of Grand Rapids and the hills in that part of the state are tall enough to make things fun.

I love to ski, but don’t get to do it very often. And as a chaperone, you have to go kind of slow to keep your eyes on the kids in the group, making sure everyone is happy and healthy.

Alas, there were some additional challenges that proved even more difficult than getting 22 high-schoolers up for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast call.

Boarders: About half the people on the slopes were snowboarders, and I didn’t quite see the appeal to what they were doing. Watching them hop around with both of their feet locked into place reminded me of those little plastic soldiers I had as a kid, all of them with little bases molded around their feet so they could stand.

Also, they seemed to spend much of the day clasping and unclasping their boots so they could walk around. The rest of the time they seemed to spend on their butts, either because they kept falling or they were sitting in groups, usually smack dab in the middle of a run creating an obstacle for the novice skiers in my group who had not become proficient at turning or otherwise avoiding anything in their path.

Ski lifts: We had two issues. Like I said, it’s been years since we’ve been on the slopes and getting on the lift for the first time in the day was a little tricky. OK, it was disastrous. They had to stop the lift to get us untangled, which prompted everyone else to groan and look.

Later in the morning, it was someone else’s tangling that stopped the lift two chairs after my son and I had been seated — except this time, the staff couldn’t get it restarted. This brought a hurried group of people on snowmobiles with tools. The people in the chair behind us were about 6 feet above the ground and jumped off. We weren’t so lucky, dangling there for about 15 minutes contemplating if dropping the 12 feet or so to the ground would cause serious injury.

Grown-ups in the hot tub: We were staying in what the lodge called "dormitory space," but was basically a big room divided by a sliding wall filled with old furniture and old skis nailed to the walls. We had access to a lavatory, but not showers. Which meant the heated outdoor pool and hot tub became more important.

It was pretty freaky — but kind of cool — to be sitting in a outdoor pool in Michigan in January while it was snowing. The second biggest difficulty was the sprint from the pool to the front door of the lodge, especially after discovering that our once warm and dry towels were covered in snow.

But the biggest problem turned out to be adults -- at least after the kids stopped challenging each other to jump out of the pool and make snow angels.

The kids in my group were all soaking in the tub when some people came over, popped in and a woman started smoking. Who smokes in a hot tub? Yeech. And because of the steam rising off of the bubbling water, she couldn’t see our icy stares. And it soon became a mixture of steam and second-hand smoke. Just plain gross!

Confusing lyrics: Our plan was to spend Saturday skiing, then visit a little Lutheran church in Tunstin, Mich. along the way home on Sunday to worship. Apparently our group had done this in previous years and the congregation enjoys hosting us, and likes us to sing for them.

So one of our leaders brought a guitar, and we practiced "Amazing Grace" on Saturday night. After a couple runs through the song, one of my guys raised his hand and said "We should say ‘screwdriver’ next time."

We mentors apparently looked confused.

"It could be any tool. You know, instead of ‘wrenches.’"

"Ah Jason, the word is ‘wretches,’ it means something different. The line is ‘... saved a wretch like me.’"


We all had a good laugh and a vocabulary lesson, too. We also discussed that the hymn was authored by John Newton, captain of a slave-trading ship who converted after surviving a violent storm at sea in 1748.

The next morning our hosts asked us to stand in front of the church — not what we were expecting — to lead them in song, and there were more than a few smiles when we sang that line.

Friday, January 26, 2007

With Yankee lovin' Mets haters, you know what to expect

Usually, Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci gets me pig-biting mad for his blind love for all things Yankee that clouds his judgment.

He slips it into his copy in odd little ways. In a story praising Angels prospect Howie Kendrick, Verducci slipped in that Kendrick “could be battling Robinson Cano of the Yankees for All-Star Game starting assignments and batting titles for years to come.” That’s despite the inconvenient fact that Cano has as many batting titles and All-Star Game starts as I do.

And in case you were wondering, I have none.

Then we have his partner in crime, Bob Klapisch. It’s not that Klapisch is necessarily and Yankee lover. It’s that he’s a Mets hater.

Klapisch, it seems, can’t write a grocery list without taking a cheap shot at the Metsies, much less a column or a book.

Bob’s written a bunch of tomes, all of them either ripping the Mets – like “The Worst Team Money Can Buy” – or detailing the on and off-field troubles of former Mets stars Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.

And for a change of pace, he also writes history books about famous Mets killers, the Atlanta Braves. Then there’s “’98 Champs: The Greatest Season, a Chronicle of the Yankees’ Amazing Journey to the World Championship.”

So now that I’m aware of such things, it’s fun to read their copy to find either the over-the-top Yankee praise or the unnecessary Mets bashing.

It’s like playing a Kiss CD and waiting for them the rhyme “knees” and “please.” You know it’s going to happen. And like Kiss, Klap and the ‘Ducc never disappoint.

Klapisch got loose this week with an article that’s part of an ESPN.com series of hot people and things to look for in 2007. His task was to identify the hot division, and he chose the National League West.

Now I don’t accept his basic premise, and his main reason seems to be that a bunch of over-the-hill pitchers – some of whom are ex-Yankees – have settled there. Whatever.

But you know the Mets slams are going to be there. It’s just a matter of how far Klap will stretch to get it in. And Klap can stretch further than John Olerud snagging an errant throw from short.

Amazingly, we had to wait all the way until the fourth paragraph.

“It's enough to make you think the lure of the East is finally on the decline; (Barry) Zito turned his back on what should've been an layup courtship for the Mets…

While it's true the Giants essentially were bidding against themselves -- one AL general manager called it "madness in a market that'd already gone mad" -- Zito opted for San Francisco's familiarity over, say, New York's energy.

The implication is that the Mets blew it, as they may have done by pulling out of the ARod bidding early and trying to get Vlad Guerrero in the cheap several years ago.

But it should be noted that the Giants blew everyone out of the water with a seven-year, $126 million contract that made him the richest pitcher in history. Some have said the Giants were fools to offer that deal, and Zito would have been a bigger fool to turn it down.

Then, somehow, Klapisch shows restraint by waiting seven whole paragraphs before his next cheap swipe and comes up with this gem:

“The Phillies' acquisition of Freddy Garcia means that no one, meaning the Mets, is likely to run away with the division by June, as was the case in 2006.”

Freddy Garcia? He of the 4.53 ERA last year and the 4.01 ERA for a career? There are many reasons why the Mets might not run away with the division – again – but a middling Phillies pitcher coming over from the American League is not one of them, and certainly not the only one.

So the key is to not get all worked up when you read these guys. Like an Adam Sandler movie, you know what you’re getting into before you start. Sit back and wait for the one laugh.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sign the petition, ditch the black jerseys. It's the right thing to do.

I’ve never been a big fan of signing protest petitions.

I think the first one I ever signed was in sixth-grade. Being 1976 and having recently studied the American Revolution, and, well, being a bunch of sixth-graders, we decided we had had it with the quality of the cafeteria food.

I don’t actually remember it being all that bad, to be honest. But we didn’t like the pairing of frozen pizza and string beans served with an ice cream scoop. Plus, we were sixth-graders.

First we passed around the aforementioned petition. And when that didn’t generate a response, we hatched a bigger plan – a one-day hot lunch boycott.

It was a glorious rebellion! Just about everybody was fired up and on board. And we even got a response.

Mr. Bosco, the cranky teacher and designated discipline hard-ass, blew a gasket, yelling in the hall that we were “all a bunch of big babies.” Score!

Then, the head of the food service department agreed to come speak to us. Score! Again!

I got to lob the first question: “Pizza and string beans. Why?”

The director humored us for a while, explaining nutritional guidelines called or a vegetable each day, and that ice cream scoops provided an easy and accurate way dispense uniform portions. He also refrained from rolling his eyes many times when it would have been justified.

There was no discernable improvement in food quality after our little rebellion, but we had fun for a week before moving on to other causes.

But I recently found a new cause. And that, my friends, is to abolish the Mets black uniforms. And I found this brilliant Website Ditch the Black that features a petition so far signed by 3,454 people.

I must say I don’t mind the road cap, with the blue bill and black crown.

And I don’t really have a beef with the shadows on the white alternate uniform and road jersey.

But the all-black jersey and the all-black – they gotta go!

The webmaster doesn’t list his name on the site, which is unfortunate because I’d love to give him the proper credit.

He makes some points about tradition and honoring team history, all of them valid and important.

But he forgot one thing. They’re evil.

Think I’m kidding? Check this out.

Case 1: Game 6, 1999 NLCS.

Kenny Bleeping Rogers faced Andruw Jones with the bases loaded and the season on the line. Except The Gambler couldn’t find home plate with a freaking GPS and Jones brought a bat with him for no apparent reason because he had no intention of swinging. Nor did he have to.

Want to guess what jersey Rogers was wearing? You got it, the black one!

As if that infamous moment wasn’t enough, consider this:
Was it Timo or the jersey?

Case 2: Game 1, 2000 World Series.

Two outs in the top of the sixth, and Timo Bleeping Perez was standing on first when Todd Zeile hit what appeared to be a two-run home run to left. Except that the ball bounced off the top of the fence and into the hands of Halle Berry-dumpee David Justice who threw it to Derek Freaking Jeter. Normally this is not a problem, since Jeter has the arm-strength of hamster.

But Timo, thinking the ball had cleared the fence and broke into a trot. And by the time he realized it had not, Jeter was able to rainbow his toss to the plate, nailing Perez and sending Verducci and Klapisch to write a whole new chapter on intangibles.

The Mets missed the opportunity to stab the Yankees in their black hearts, allowing them to come back and we never recovered.

What jersey do you think Timo was wearing that night? Yup, the black one.

Case 3: Game 3, NLCS

In a must-win game after blowing Game 2, Steve Trachsel took the bump and promptly imploded, giving up five runs in two innings. He even begged out of the game after taking a floater on the leg. The Mets never got back into the game, eventually losing in Game 7, as we all painfully know.

Of course, Trachsel was wearing the vile black jersey.

Trachsel’s not coming back, and let’s send the black jerseys packing with him.

In fact, dispatching them with a press release won’t be good enough. We need to gather them in a pile and burn them at what will be the home plate at Citi Field forever expunging them – and all the bad things they represent -- from our memories.

Do your duty and sign the petition, and let’s hope the Mets don’t get any more bright ideas, be they black jerseys or string beans served with the pizza.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Honey, I'm home!" Not so fast, Unit.

Hello. I used to be a good guy, then I turned to the dark side.

I’m all torn over what to do about Randy Johnson.

I used to like the Big Unit when he pitched for the Expos, Mariners and even the Astros.

And I loved him when he pitched for the Diamondbacks, especially when we beat him multiple times in the playoffs.

In fact, I was about to build a shrine for Johnson in the baseball room after he sent the Yankees home weeping in 2001 after beating them in Game 6 then driving the stake through their blackest of hearts by coming out of the bully and nailing down Game 7.

Then the unthinkable happened. He became a Yankee.

And this wasn’t your garden variety got-stuck-on-the-Yankees-after-a-trade type of deal. No, the Unit practically forced his way into the Bronx by demanding the D-Backs deal him and limited the number of teams to which he could be traded to just one, that being the one known as the Evil Empire.

That’s bad on multiple levels. First, pledging allegiance to the demonic influences of the sport is justifiable cause for scorn in and of itself. But he also worked the Snakes over the coals on the way out because it’s not like they had a lot of leverage in the trade, or any at all.

I can’t help but think of all those poor Diamondbacks fans with their No. 51 jerseys lamenting that their scowling, mulleted hero was pining for the dark side and unable to stage an intervention.

So there was muted rejoicing in these parts when the Unit apparently forced his way back to the desert with the Snakes sending back a trio of C+ prospects to the Yankees.

It’s nice when someone sees the light, and we are supposed to offer second chances. But still, it’s not like you can wash off Yankee taint with a good shower. It sticks on you like a bad tattoo you discover after waking up in a haze in a Cancun motel on a spring break trip gone oh-so-wrong.

At best, you can cover it up and sheepishly admit that mistakes were made when people see you at the pool.

Now that the Unit is once again among the cactus, we can only speculate what went wrong and at what point Johnson realized he had made a terrible, terrible mistake.

1) Perhaps it was the introductory press conference where, after apologizing for his little scuffle with the photogs, he was handed a jersey that did not have his trademark No. 51.

Imagine the conversation.

“Hey, why can’t I have No. 51?”

“Bernie Williams has it.”

“Bernie Williams? He’s still playing?”

“Kind of. Technically he’s on the roster. It’s mostly symbolic. Sometimes Joe lets him wander around the outfield just for old time’s sake.”

“Ah, not when I’m pitching.”

At that point every staff member launches into a tirade yelling “Yankee pride! Twenty-six world championships!” which is what they are programmed to do when ever someone is less than complimentary of a Yankee player or mentions Jason Giambi’s alleged steroid use.

2) Perhaps it was the moment that Dae Koo, a seldom-used Mets reliever who batted even more rarely than he pitched, launched a triple off the unit’s sorry butt.

Yup, it’s hard to look intimidating to the rest of the Mets lineup when a guy who had to borrow batting gloves, a helmet and a bat and needed directions to the on-deck circle is standing there on third base asking that the ball be taken out of play so he can display it on his mantle, a souvenir of his only Major League hit.

3) Perhaps Johnson looked over his shoulder at the guy playing shortstop, and realized that despite the lavish praise heaped by Yankee fawners like Klapisch and Verducci, Derek “Freaking” Jeter has the range of a garden slug in a salt mine.

Or maybe it was sometime this past season when, well, everybody in the world – including the aforementioned Mr. Giambi -- was piling on ARod and Capt. Jeter rose to his defense by saying…nothing. So much for those “intangibles” Verducci mentions so often.

Unit must have figured that if the team threw ARod under the bus after an MVP season because of a little fielding slump, what would happen to Johnson in 2007 with his creaky back, 5.00+ ERA and playoff loss to the Tigers. Exactly, he’d have a prime view of the undercarriage of a Greyhound.

No, Johnson must have realized it was better to slink back to Phoenix, where photographers leave you in peace, the paying customers are happy in the rightfield pool.

But not so fast, Randy. If I walked back into the house after a two-year affair with a rich old lady and announced “Ta-da! I’m home, come love me!” the reception might not be so cuddly.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A husband, a father and a grandfather

Jimmy Carter is no longer my missing link. I was able to get an up-close view of our 39th president this week as he took part in laying to rest the man he succeeded in the White House, Gerald R. Ford, here in Grand Rapids, Mich.

This was an emotional week, one of those times when we journalists walk the fence between being a participant and a neutral observer serving as the eyes and ears for our readers.

But it is impossible to not be awed by the majesty of a state funeral, or to not be swept up in what became a homecoming for Grand Rapids’ favorite son.

Ford’s casket and his family arrived on Tuesday afternoon after the service in the National Cathedral in Washington. My first assignment was to be at the Ford Museum when the casket arrived for a brief ceremony before the president was to lie in repose overnight.

There is some downtime in an event like this because the Secret Service demands everyone be there hours early, partially for security.

This allowed me time to talk to some of the U.S. Army staffers who are in charge of such events. I was amazed at the amount of planning involved, literally years of work coming together. The days are planned down to the minute.

When the time came, I was brought into the museum to a perch on the second floor, overlooking the atrium where the ceremony was to take place. I was the only reporter there, a testament to my editors’ pull. I considered that both a tremendous privledge and responsibility. Everyone else relied on a C-SPAN video feed.

Some of the guests, such as the governor, were already in place. Others, including Carter and his wife, arrived in a motorcade prior to the arrival of the Fords.

Everyone stood when they heard the military band outside play “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief.” Then the color guard slowly marched into the museum, followed by the flag-draped casket carried by six soldiers, their every movement precise, polished and in perfect unison.

I confess there was a lump in my throat when they set the casket on a catafalque under a large stone presidential seal that decorates the atrium.

Then Betty Ford, her children and grandchildren were escorted to their seats. The first lady looked smaller and frailer than I imagined. The Fords are icons here in Grand Rapids. To see them in person is a reminder that they are real people showing real hurt at losing a husband, father and grandfather with the added burden of people looking over their shoulders as they grieve.

This was intended to be an arrival ceremony and it was relatively brief, with an invocation by the mayor and comments from the former head of the president’s foundation and the governor. The Army Chorus sang the hymn “Shall We Gather by the River,” chosen, I’m sure because the museum is located on the banks of the Grand River that gives the city its name.

After about an hour to remove chairs and prepare the room, the museum was opened so people could pay their respects. Plans called for the museum to be open overnight until late the next morning, when it was time for the funeral at a nearby church

The planners expected thousands of people, set up the convention center across the river to accommodate the lines.

But what happened caught everyone by surprise. So many people came pouring in that the lines snaked out of the convention hall then throughout most of downtown. I’ve never seen anything like it, stretching for block after block and over four bridges. Police were telling people they would be in line for six to eight hours, and I didn’t see a single person walk away.

Family members handed these cards to people who paid their respects.

My job was to walk the length of the line from about 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. asking people what moved them to spend the night standing for a few moments before a casket.

People freely told stories of their encounters with Ford – you meet a lot of people when you are in Congress for 25 years – and their pride that a president could hail from their city.

Others said they just wanted to be a part of history, and knew they’d never have another experience like it in their lives.

I spoke to people who came from as far as Chicago and northern points of Michigan, people with babies and elderly parents.

Amazingly, no one was tense or grumbling. I get cranky when I have to wait on line at the supermarket, and police told me there was just one incident the entire night.

In all, about 57,000 people – roughly the capacity of Shea Stadium -- passed through the museum.

Several of Ford’s children spent time greeting people on line and handing them cards with the president’s photo and a word of thanks. It was a very classy thing to do.

I finished my shift at 2 a.m. and spent about 45 minutes writing the story before heading home.

My children had been watching the arrival of the casket in Washington earlier in the week, and last week I brought them down to the museum to sign the condolence book, so we had several discussions about President Ford and what he meant to the city and the country. They asked that I wake them up when I got home and bring them downtown to view the casket.

I knew my 14-year-old would be fine, but was a little worried about how the 9-year-old would handle it. But I was proud of both of them as they respectfully walked past the president. I hope it is something they will always remember.

We didn’t arrive home until about 4 a.m. – the kids are on Christmas break, so they could sleep in – but I had to return back around 9 to help with the funeral coverage.

My assignment Wednesday was to join the media group outside the church and describe the arrival of the hearse and the ceremonies that take place before and after the funeral.

The honor guard brings President Ford into Grace Episcopal Church. The president's brother is in the light jacket on the far right. The next person in a light jacket is golfer Jack Nicklaus.

We’re used to cold, gray winters and you can usually be assured of snow in January. But we haven’t had snow in weeks and the weather was beautifully sunny and only slightly chilly.

Vice President Cheney was one of the speakers, so that called for new levels of security. Every street within three blocks of the church was blocked to traffic with dump trucks and other public works vehicles.

There were thousands of people outside the church, and they fell silent when the honor guard and Air Force band marched out of the church, again in perfect formation. Then a string of police cars and black vehicles started arriving with guests and the Ford family. The honorary pallbearers – including golfer Jack Nicklaus – were positioned at the end of the driveway.

Finally, the hearse pulled into view and stopped about 20 feet from where I was standing.

Even the post jaded onlooker cannot help but be impressed by the pageantry and the seven soldiers who carry the president in and out of the church.

If you closed your eyes you would not have believed that you were surrounded by thousands of people. The only sounds were the commanders issuing orders to the honor guard and two blocks away, those protesters who have been showing up at every military funeral for the past year. I think they were looking for a confrontation and must have been frustrated when they were ignored because they suddenly stopped and disappeared.

The scene outside the church relaxed once the service started inside. Reporters sat around watching the video feed from inside and talked with the network people who came from out of state. Some of the Army staffers told us horror stories about where they were staying after getting bumped from the main hotel, and people in the East Grand Rapids neighborhood surrounding the church all apparently felt the need to show off their shaved dogs in assorted designer jackets.

I spoke to families who had gathered there since early in the morning with blankets and snacks for the kids. One said she worried that their spread would look like a picnic and seem disrepectful, but they could think of no other way to keep the kids content.

But it was all business again when the honor guard and band reemerged. This time the family was brought out into the street to the rear of the hearse, with Mrs. Ford assisted by one of her sons and her military escort.

Shortly thereafter, the motorcade arrived back at the museum, where the president is to be buried. Again, thousands and thousands of people filled downtown.

No one was allowed close to the fenced-in area around the gravesite, but people wanted to see the 21-gun salute fired by cannons that promised to rattle windows – they did – and the 21 F-15 fighter jets that flew in formation, with one breaking off from the group and seeming to head straight up into space. Like everything else in the past two days, it was awe-inspiring.

Today we expected life to return to relative normalcy after the hectic two weeks.

The museum, which is in a city park, is practically across the street from the newspaper, and on my way to grab a sub at Jimmy John’s I figured I’d pass through the park and see the gravesite.

I was surprised to see a Secret Service agent. He was letting people walk past, but making sure no one stopped. Then I saw why.

The Ford family was once again up at the gravesite, Mrs. Ford by now using a wheelchair. There was no honor guard, no cannons, no flyovers and no crowds. Just a family saying a quiet goodbye to a husband, a father and a grandfather -- who just happened to be the president of the United States.

Monday, January 01, 2007


To everyone out there, may you have a blessed, happy and healthy new year! I have a feeling this is going to be our year!