Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hands, feet and personal theme songs

I was kind of kind of surprised to hear the Shea Stadium PA system blare out a heavy metal song when new Met Jeff Conine strode to the plate Sunday night. Not that we know Conine very well yet, but it just didn’t strike me as something he would select.

And since the mind wanders when the Mets are incapable of getting a hit off Dodger relievers, I wondered what it would be like if we all had to pick a theme song for when we entered the room at work, which is essentially what Conine is doing when he carries a bat into the box.

What kind of statement do you want to make?

For me, it would be an easy choice: “Hands and Feet” by Audio Adrenaline.

The band’s final CD -- "Live from Hawaii, the Farewell Concert" -- was released today. Audio A is disbanding because lead singer Mark Stuart’s already raspy voice is shot from years of touring and the members want to go out while still on top.

I had heard of the band, but not necessarily heard much of its music until Sept. 15, 2001 when Audio appeared in Grand Rapids headlining first Festival Con Dios.

“Hands and Feet” was one of the last songs played at the daylong event, and I remember Stuart stepping back and letting the crowd sing the refrain several times, then letting people sing it without the band playing.

“I want to be your hands
I want to be your feet
I’ll go where you send me
I’ll go where you send me
And I try, yeah I try
To touch the world
Like You touched my life
And I’ll find my way
To be your hands”

And as the sound of several thousand people singing this filled the air, I had one of those magic moments of clarity. I got it. I understood what we are supposed to do.

And without getting all preachy here, I understood that we are supposed to do more than just show up at church every Sunday, and then forget everything we are supposed to have learned – until the next Sunday.

I understood that we are in fact, supposed to do His work all the time, and that he might take us places that are uncomfortable and put us into challenging or even scary situations to reach the people who are not easily reached and might need to hear His message. The Lord has touched my life and made it better, and part of our job is to spread his word and do his work.

Which is not to say that I do this well. More times than I care to admit, I fail miserably – like when I wrote mean-spirited things about Derek Jeter in the since-deleted previous post.

But after that night at the concert, I’ve thought about those lyrics a lot. And I’ve tried to think about ways to do his work in uncomfortable places.

One opportunity came up the next year when my church needed someone to lead a middle school youth group and was having trouble finding someone because, well, they’re middle-schoolers.

I gave it a shot, and based the first lesson and activity around “Hands and Feet.” And there are times when working with young people is uncomfortable and scary – and unbelievably rewarding. And you’ve read about some of those adventures in this space before.

This year will be the sixth year that I’ve worked with middle- and high-school students – but not at the same church.

Churches can be messy places, especially when a lot of strong-willed people think they are all doing God’s work and sometimes their ideas contradict. And the one we were attending was getting messier – I’ll spare you the details -- and we were wondering if we should be worshiping elsewhere.

Leaving a church is a tough decision to make. We started checking out another church and it seemed like a great fit, especially with a baseball-loving pastor. But I still felt pulled in both directions. I wanted some kind of sign that we were doing the right thing.

One of the weeks we attended was the new church’s youth Sunday. You want to guess what song the kids performed? My wife said, “What kind of a sign are you waiting for, a burning bush?”

We’ve been there ever since and it’s a wonderful place. And each time I have a new group of kids I share the song with them and we talk about how we can apply it to situations we encounter every day.

I’ve meet the guys in Audio A several times since then, and each time I thought about telling them about the impact “Hands and Feet” has had on me then chickened out. They probably hear such things a lot.

But, in the unlikely event that the Mets call on me once the rosters expand this week, you’ll know what to expect as I head to the plate.

In other words:

I’m a bit of a uniform nut, so I’m an avid reader of Paul Lukas’s http://www.uniwatchblog.com/

But Paul has a column on ESPN, too. Head to the section about he Detroit Tigers and check out who he quoted.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cleaning up yet another Tom Verducci mess

Amazingly, Tom Verducci didn't think any of these guys were worthy of his "best players of today team."

I suppose the only thing more predictable than an outrageous Yankee-lovin’ column from Sports Illustrated hack Tom Verducci is a post from me expressing outrage over Yankee-lovin’ Verducci columns.

So for the sake of consistentcy, let’s dissect Verducci’s recent column where he picks today’s very best players at each position. He also picks the best of all-time and of the next five years and those are equally bad. But we only have so much time and energy to spend on Yankee-hacks.

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way:

SS: Derek Jeter, Yankees. And Verducci’s rationalization: “His defense is slipping, but he is a consistent offensive force who will march well beyond 3,000 hits.”

His defense is slipping? The wax dummy of Jeter at Madam Tussauds has as much — if not more — range as the real Jeter. And the wax version can at least claim it didn’t (allegedly) give herpes to Jessica Alba, as the L.A. Rag Mag celebrity gossip site reported.

Heck, Jeter couldn’t claim five tools if he walked through Lowe’s with a gift card.

Let’s look at some facts:

Player A: .327 ave., 8 HR, 57 RBI, 75 runs, 12 steals
Player B: .303 ave., 9 HR, 47 RBI, 86 runs, 56 steals

Player A, of course, is the object of Verducci’s man-crush. Player B is our own Jose Reyes, who is clearly the better player. Yes, Jeter has more runs batted in, but he’s the DH league and has an actual batter getting on base ahead of him to drive home, as opposed to the pitcher.

Plus, Reyes is an excellent defender and appears to be disease-free.

Player Verducci should have picked: Reyes, of course.

3B: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees; “Best ever among a rare breed: a game-changing infielder.”

What Verducci is leaving out is that ARod has tried to change games by slapping the ball out of a first-baseman’s glove and shouting to distract at a third-baseman so he’d drop a pop-up, a move even his manager criticized.

I won’t deny that Arod hits an occasional homer. But the dude has accumulated enough baggage that the Skanks need a cargo jet to follow the team charter on road trips. This season alone we’ve had photos of him leaving adult establishments with ladies who did not appear to be his wife (Stray-Rod), and then his wife wearing t-shirts to Yankee Stadium emblazoned with an F-bomb (F-Rod). Jose Canseco has recently hinted that the source of Arod’s power might not be totally natural (A-Roid).

Then you have the on-going feud with the Blue Jays that led to bench-clearing brawls in a recent series and Roger Clemens getting suspended for throwing at a batter.

Player Verducci should have picked: David Wright. Wright hits for power, hits for average, is fast, is getting better in the field and is squeaky clean.

Closer: Marino Rivera, Yankees “His cutter is among the greatest pitches in history. When he's on, he's a one-pitch pitcher, but hitters still can't hit what they know is coming.”

Maybe, just maybe, this might have been justifiable in, say, 1998. But once people like Marco Scutaro start taking you deep, you can no longer make such claims. But Verducci also listed Rivera as the greatest closer of all time, which makes me think he has never heard of Dennis Eckersley and Rollie Fingers, closers who actually have things like Cy Young and MVP awards.

Player Verducci should have selected: Billy Wagner. Imagine, a closer who actually closes games.

C: Joe Mauer, Twins “Only 24, with a .316 lifetime average and .396 on-base percentage.”

You know it just killed Verducci not to pick Jorge Posada. I bet the SI editors forced him to throw some token non-Yankees on there so he could at least pretend he’s not biased. Mauer’s a nice player who probably should have won the AL MVP last year, which went to his teammate. But he seems to lack that fire a team needs in the on-field captain.

Who Verducci should have picked: Paul Lo Duca. Talk about fire! Did you see the absolutely crazed look in Paulie’s eyes when he got tossed back in July!

1B: Albert Pujols, Cardinals “Maybe the greatest start to a career in history: six straight seasons hitting .300 or better, with at least 30 homers, 100 RBIs, 100 runs and a top-four MVP finish.”

Greatest start to a career? Did he forget about Mike Vail’s 23-game hitting streak? All I know is that when the All-Star Game was on the line, Pujols’ own manager sent Aaron Rowland to the plate instead of Albert.

Who Verducci should have picked: Carlos Delgado. You know that if LaRussa had Delgado on the bench at the All-Star Game he would have called Rowland back. Carlos doesn’t even need to swing the bat to win a game. Remember his walk-off walk? That’s how good he is!

2B: Chase Utley, Phillies.
“He's clearly the best second baseman in the game and getting better. His batting average has gone up four consecutive years.”

First of all, the dude’s name sounds like he would be in Neidermier’s frat in “Animal House,” and the last thing we need on the best-of-today team is some uptight preppy with easily breakable hands.

Who Verducci should have picked: Luis Castillo. How good is Castillo? In 2003, a Cubs fan had to make a choice. He could let Moises Alou catch a ball and send his beloved team to the World Series. Or, he could have a glorious piece of memorabilia, a foul ball hit by Luis Castillo. As we know, Mr. Bartman wanted that ball. And that speaks volumes about Luis Castillo.

OF: Manny Ramirez, Red Sox: “His power numbers may be down slightly this year, but he's still as pure a hitter as they come.”

Hey, we all know Manny is a hitting savant. But the guy is just plain nuts – look at the hair! – and fields even worse than Jeter. If the guy is so good, why did the Sox try to dump him to anyone who would pay his salary a few years ago. And take note, no one took him!

Who Verducci should have picked: Moises Alou. I’m not saying Alou isn’t somewhat injury prone. He misses a game or two or 30. But dude’s been a monster since returning from the DL.

OF: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners: “A hit machine, his graceful, gliding style at bat, and in the field, is a pleasure to watch.”

Ichiro might be the luckiest All-Star Game MVP in history, reaping the rewards of the ball taking a funky hop off the outfield wall and rolling away from Ken Griffey Jr.

Who Verducci should have picked: Carlos Beltran. Beltran, when he does swing, also is a hit machine with a graceful, gliding style and is a pleasure to watch on the field. But unlike Ichiro, Beltran actually hits homers, setting the Mets franchise record last year.

OF: Vlad Guerrero, Angels: “He's the most dangerous offensive force in the game because he can hit absolutely anything and hit it hard. Guerrero is a great combination of power and hand-eye coordination.”

I guess Vlad is OK, But there must be a reason the Mets passed on him when he was a free agent.

Who Verducci should have picked: Matt Holliday, Rockies. You thought I was going to pick Shawn Green, didn’t you? Not a chance! Blindly picking players from my favorite team would make me no better than Verducci!

Rotation: Johan Santana, Twins; Roy Hallady, Blue Jays; Roy Oswalt, Astros; Jake Peavy, Padres; Justin Verlander, Tigers.

The Yankees rotation is so horrible that not even Verducci could justify picking one, though I bet his first draft had Clemens in the mix. Some of those guys are decent.

Who Verducci should have picked: I’ll grant him Santana as a decent pick. But he forgot Tom Glavine – you don’t pile up 300 wins stinking up the field – John Maine, Oliver Perez and El Duque.

Now that’s the best team of today! How Verducci draws a paycheck is a total mystery.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mets should learn from the Reds' Hall of Fame

Do not believe stories that I misbehaved near the Tom Seaver jersey hanging in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame when the Baseballtruth.com Executive Board visited a couple weeks ago.

OK, there was an icy glare shot in the direction of a Reds fan who was not, shall we say, showing the proper reverence to the artifact.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Executive Game 7 – we save Roman numerals for the NFL – at the Great American Ballpark was a great success.

The park itself was a lot better than I expected. The yard is still a notch below PNC, but better than Citizens Bank Park in Philly and light years above Comerica Park in Detroit.

It’s not a retro park, like Camden Yards, but similar to Jacobs Field in Cleveland, with lots of white steel. The park overlooks the Ohio River and it was neat to see the paddle boats passing by, as well as the faux boat in centerfield that houses the party suites.

But the absolute jewel of Great America is the Hall of Fame that opened this year. It’s in a free-standing building next to the stadium, and admission is free with your ticket.

A tour should be mandatory for anyone who has a say in planning a Mets museum expected to be in Citi Field when it opens in 2008.

The first thing I saw upon entering is the massive 1976 World Series pennant. If you listened closely, you could still hear the Yankees weeping from the four-game spanking the Big Red Machine dropped on the Bronx that year.

That’s a pretty good start. And then things got better.

The hall’s first temporary exhibit is called “PETE!” and my companions openly speculated it will still be the temporary exhibit when they bring their grand kids to games years from now.

The Queen City appears to be obsessed with Pete Rose, which is something considering he’s not allowed to enter the ballpark without buying a ticket.

And that’s OK with me. We all have our heroes, and sometimes they are flawed.

There was a nice collection of Rose jerseys, bats and balls and his story filled the whole lower level before walking you down a corridor to windows that show the Rose Garden. A white rose bush shows where his record-breaking hit landed.

Then we moved upstairs where things got exciting. Turning a corner we came to a section of outfield wall with a bin of baseball gloves. And not just modern gloves – you could try on a glove from just about any era, even some sweet fingerless models.

The idea, of course, is to pose for photos making spectacular Endy catches, which we did many times over. A few more steps revealed a batting cage, then a pitchers mound where people threw toward a wall with a painting of an umpire.

Embedded in the wall was an umpire’s mask, and from the other side you could look through and decided whether pitches were balls or strikes. I took one off the mask, and it was pretty scary.

And, appropriately, near the pitching cage was the tribute to some of the greatest Reds hurlers. Shining like a beacon to all that is good in life was the glorious Seaver jersey.

We were standing in awe – well, I was standing in awe and my friends humored me by standing by – and a Reds fan walked past, looked at the jersey and said, “Look, it’s a ‘onesy’ like a baby wears.”


“Look at the way it’s in the frame. It looks like it has leg holes like a onesy.”

If someone wants to have a little fun at the Rob Dibble display, I’m all for it. But disparaging remarks about the No. 41 hanging there was just unacceptable. He got “the look” then moved along.

After a period of recovery and extended reverence, we moved along to a dugout display, where there was a section of the bench from Riverfront Stadium and a statue of Sparky Anderson leaning on the rail.

Even more life-sized statues were a few feet away, depicting “The Great Eight” celebrating a win, with the three most recent Reds World Series trophies.

There were also displays to assorted Reds greats – like Johnny Bench – and individual achievements – like Tom Browning’s perfect game. A broadcast both allowed fans to make the call on a number of moments in Reds history.

Then came the actual Hall of Fame plaques, which was anticlimactic compared to the rest of the vibrant museum. There were just plaques suspended on wires from floor to ceiling.

Naturally, Seaver is a member. I’m still waiting for the White Sox and Red Sox to extend the honor.

The Hall leads you down a stairway into a gift shop dominated by a massive World Series trophy.

The whole time I walked through I imagined how the Mets could do something like this.

I’m holding out for a spot to make Ron Swoboda catches!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Adventures in the air: The flight of the B-17 bomber and a rough landing

You'll have to excuse the quality of the photos, which were taken with a cell-phone camera and sometimes include my thumb.

I suppose it wasn’t technically a crash landing. But it was rough and brought the plane to a complete stop at the intersection of two main runways, closing the airport for a little while.

I’m blessed that my job is fun most days, and once in a while we get to do something that leads to an adventure.

One assignment last week was to fly in a World War II-era bomber. The B-17 Flying Fortress was lovingly restored by a group called Experimental Aircraft Association and members take turns bringing it to airports around the country and selling flights into the past.

I was pretty excited because I think old airplanes are pretty neat. And while I’ve been in several at museums, I’ve never been with one up in the air.

This plane, the "Aluminum Overcast," was definitely not built for comfort. Then again, I thought the same thing on my last couple commercial flights, too.

The folks in our party — two World War II veterans, an aviation museum volunteer and some media types — climbed into a hatch that seemed to be two-thirds the size of a typical airplane door.

Inside, it was dark and hot. There were maybe six canvas seats that one of the veterans told me weren’t in the planes during the war. I walked toward the front and settled into a seat that was used by the person who worked the radio.

To get there, I had to climb around what looked like a large ball that was half inside the plane with the other half sticking out the bottom. Back in the day, a machine gunner would crawl through a hatch that looked to be only about a foot wide.

One of the veterans said the gunner would pretty much be in the fetal position in the ball, with his feet working pedals that moved the bubble while his hands worked gun. I couldn’t imagine squeezing in there, much less firing a hot gun while people were shooting back at me.

Once in my seat, I noticed that a hatch overhead was removed. I’ve never been in an unpressurized plane before.

The plane’s four large propeller engines belched smoke and roared as they started up. The crew passed out earplugs, but it wasn’t oppressively loud.

We were allowed to move around once we were up in the air. It was hard to walk. You know the feeling in your belly as a rollercoaster goes down a hill? It felt like that a lot. I went nowhere without holding on something.

You have to walk over the bomb bay to get up to the nose section. It seemed like a 10-foot stretch on a walkway the size of a balance beam, but with the benefit of having rails to cling on to.

One of the crew told us to make sure we held on to cameras and anything else as we crossed, and to not even think about stepping into the bay. Those doors, he said, would open with as little as 100 pounds of pressure and we’d become the first bomb dropped from the plane in decades.

The cockpit area was brighter and roomier than the rest of the plane. There was a glass bubble on top, and the crew member gesture for me to stand on a seat — I presume it was for the navigator — and stick my head into the bubble, where I could get a spectacular 360-degree view of Grand Rapids from 1,000 feet in the air.

The front section was like a split-level house. The pilot and co-pilot had to climb up into their seats, and people going into the front gunner’s posts had to crawl through a space before emerging into another glass bubble that had spots for three gunners.

I took my turn in the lead gunner’s spot as we flew over downtown. The view, of course, was fantastic. But I touched the handles of the gun and wondered what it must have been like to be the soldier in that seat. It felt vulnerable. One of the veterans told me that 94 percent of the damage the planes incurred came from anti-aircraft guns fired from the ground. "There’s no foxhole to dive into when you’re in the air," he said.

At that point we had to turn back. This was the first flight of any kind for one of the other reporters, and he was hurling his lunch into a plastic garbage bag. Several of us contemplated using him to test the bomb bay doors.

I moved to the middle section of the plane and sat in one of the canvas chairs with one of the veterans. We touched down, then heard a rumbling as the plane bounced around a little and started smelling the stench of burning rubber.

The veteran implied that wasn’t supposed to happen, and we came to a quick and complete stop out on the runway, nowhere near a terminal.

The crew members opened the hatch and jumped out to inspect the damage. Apparently the tube inside the tire blew, and pulled the tire off the rim. It could have been dangerous, but the pilot did a great job.

But apparently our little problem was closing the Ford Airport runways. After helping the veterans through the hatch and into a police vehicle to bring them back, the pilot restarted the plan and moved it down — bad tire and all — to a spot further down where it blocked only one of the two runways.

I can only imagine what passengers of departing jets thought as they looked out their windows.

The radio guys hopped in a van sent to retrieve us, but I wanted to see how they changed a tire on a bomber.

The crew member told me they travel with a spare, but that they weigh about 1,000 pounds inflated and on the rim. A procession of a weighed-down pick-up truck and a forklift came out. One of the crew said the tire rolls easily, but they don’t dare lay it on its side or they’d never get it up again.

They started with jack not much bigger than the one in your trunk — though much stronger — and when that didn’t work they towed out a much bigger one that raises the plane from point under the wing.

Curiosity settled and photos taken, we headed back to the terminal in a van as the volunteers worked on the tire.

It was an absolutely amazing day, and gave me yet more appreciation for our servicemen and women who risk everything to protect us.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Streak continues, but it was still a glorious day at Wrigley

I can’t prove that Tom Glavine sent word that I would not be welcome at Wrigley Field on Sunday.

But after the streak-extending debacle on Saturday, I can’t say I’d blame him.

Will surprised my on my birthday last April with a glorious present – a ticket to see the Mets play the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Laurie, his girlfriend, is a member of a group that has season tickets, and she was able to snag the Mets tickets, and was even able to grab seats for the game against the Reds, who are Will’s favorites.

He did warn me that the Cubs are something like 8 and 1 when he is in the Friendly Confines. And that’s not even counting the game in Cincinnati last weekend when we saw the Cubs pound the Reds.

And he knows of my painful streak of not seeing the Mets win in person since 1991, a trail of tears that was of course extended in June when the Tigers remembered they were good and slammed us 15-7.

So clearly, the odds were not in our favor. But any opportunity to see the Mets in person is to be treasured, and to see them with my best friend in a fabled yard is just extra special.

I haven’t seen a game at Wrigley in years, and Will warned me that things had changed a little.

Not the yard itself, but rather the people in the seats. It used to be that the bleachers were the trendy place to be. But now the ballpark sells out for the season, and is packed with people Will calls “Trixies and Tylers,” who are there to see and be seen.

They’re part of the overflow crowd at Murphy’s before the game, show up around the middle of the second inning, then depart after seeing which celebrity sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

And make no mistake; the streets around the ballpark were jam-packed even 2.5 hours before the game. It’s neat to see all the Cubs-themed shops, bars and even street vendors.

Even the billboards were cool. Absolut has an ad reading “In an Absolut world,” and showing the famed billy goat getting a seat in the park, eliminating the curse.

Some people were knowledgeable. Naturally, I was wearing my Faith and Fear in Flushing t-shirt, and the owner of one of the souvenir stores said “OK, I know what the shirt means, but who is No. 14?” I explained it was Hodges, and gave him credit for knowing Casey, Tom and Jackie.

Inside, two ushers – two nice older ladies – also asked me about the numbers then insisted they take my photo with Wrigley in the background.

We picked up our cool Ryne Sandberg freebie caps, squished pennies for my daughter and enjoyed the Mets stretching and taking BP. The Wrigley bullpens are near the stands, and we were able to watch Oliver Perez getting in some work.

The Cubs do something else neat, they sell food and soda for 25-percent off for the hour after the gates open, so we snagged some fine brats and settled into our seats in the upper deck along the third-base line.

As for the game, I thought innings 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 were great. Third inning sucked.

Will was dead-on about the Trixies. A pair in their late 30s came and sat next to us in the second inning. The following is the extent of the baseball conversation they had with us, themselves for anyone else.

Trixie: Are you guys season-ticket holders?

Me: I’m not, but by friend is part of a season-ticket group.

Trixie: Oh. We bought these from a guy who is a season-ticket holder.

Me: So, are you a Mets fan?

Trixie: No (with disgust.)

And that’s it. As Will said, “They’re here for a game, but it ain’t baseball.”

They walked around for a while, came back to their seats and the Trixie who had the short conversation before asked if she could eat some of my peanuts. Never had that happen before.

And of course, they departed after Chris Chelios sang during the seventh-inning stretch.

Of course, the Mets lost. My (now extended) streak of shame:

8/4/2007 Cubs 6, Mets 2
6/10/2007 Tigers 15, Mets 7
4/5/1999 Marlins 6, Mets 2
6/30/1997 Tigers 14, Mets 0
9/24/1995 Marlins 4, Mets 3
7/26/1995 Cardinals 3, Mets 2
7/21/1991 Mets 9, Dodgers 4

After the game we headed over to the Northwestern University campus, where Will showed me his old stomping grounds and we dined at the appropriately named Dave’s Italian Kitchen for an amazing meal.

We then caught up with Laurie and finished the night at an ancient, eight-lane bowling alley for some glow-in-the-dark bowling. Timber Lanes had a juke box with like a gazillion songs.

A pretty fantastic day, save for the third inning.