Sunday, September 30, 2007

Racing, scoring and watching the Mets on a special day

Pedro: I'm worried about this season, John. Some of the other guys in the pen kind of suck.

OK, Sunday wasn’t a good day.

But Saturday, that was something special.

It started early, getting my son on the school bus for his water polo tournament at 6 a.m. But then I got ready for my one race of the year – the Komen Race for a Cure.

I’ve been doing this 5K for six years. I’m not what you call fast runner any more, but then, neither are the vast majority of the people in this race, a fund-raiser for breast cancer research.

The first year I ran, I told people in the office that I’d paste NASCAR-style on my race shirt the name of anybody who sponsored me. Several co-workers approached with money, and most had a story of someone they knew who was affected.

Then one of the guys came by, put some money down and said, “I’m a fan.” Of what, races? “No, breasts.”

Joking aside – and there are indeed some light moments and messages in the race -- it’s very emotional. Survivors wear special pink shirts and other people pinning to their shirts the names of friends and relatives who either were lost to the disease or are were fighting it .

There are others running in groups, sometimes holding signs with photos of relatives. I get choked up reading them.

This year, I was humming along pretty well, with Relient K on the iPod helping to keep the pace. My shin splints started barking around the 2-mile mark and I tried some fast walking for a while. But it seemed like they hurt more walking than running, so I picked it up a little.

Typically there are a lot of people waiting near the finish line, and I started hearing cheers and applause as I got near the end.

This was pretty cool. I was feeling pretty good about myself. And I could see that my time was about 6 minutes better than what I usually do on the treadmill for 3 miles, and this actually 3.15 miles.

Then I looked over my shoulder and saw a woman in a pink shirt – a survivor – finishing just behind me. Naturally, they were cheering for her. Very humbling, in multiple ways.

Panera Bread had special cranberry and vanilla bagels waiting just past the finish line. The results were online on Sunday. Apparently I finished 928th out about 5,000. More importantly I raised $28 to help find a cure.

So after some post-race snack and crusing the vendor tents, I headed out to the high school to catch up with my son for his water polo tournament.

My boy is a sophomore on the junior varsity team. He doesn’t get a ton of playing time, but he really loves being part of the team. And the other players are very supportive.

But one thing has been hanging over his head – he’s never scored a goal in a game that counts. This year he’s been able to increase his assists, but goals have remained elusive. His shots are better, and he’s had a couple hard ones clang off the goalposts. But still, none have slipped into the net.

The second game on Saturday was against a team that included a bunch of juniors, and they were pretty rough. Water polo, I have learned, is very physical. I’ve learned a lot of things, actually. We’ve had a butt crack scandal, but you don’t want to know the details.

Water polo action from last season.

I’m also pretty quiet in the stands. I don’t know much about the sport, and the coach does, seeing that the varsity team has won the last four state championships. So the last thing he needs is some guy in the stands shouting things to the players. And yes, I’ve seen plenty of that from parents from other schools. Makes me cringe.

So late in the game my son was in there, and again, took a shot without scoring. I remember saying to the dad next to me, “My boy is going to feel so much better when he finally gets one in.”

And a minute later, Andrew was on the left side of the goal, accepted a pass – and promptly pumped it right in the corner of the net beyond the reach of the goalie.

I remember jumping to my feet and pumping both arms in the air with a “YES, YES!!” My son made eye contact with me as he swam back toward the other end. He was beaming, my eyes were welling up.

The other parents turned and smiled. They, too, knew it was his first one. And Andrew continued beaming through the remaining minute of the game and through the post-match handshakes with the other team.

We had about a four-hour wait before the next game, and this particular school has a huge flat-screen television mounted to the wall of the pool lobby. ESPN was playing, but being a fall Saturday, college football was getting all the airtime. I did catch that the Mets were up 2-0.

We ran some errands and came back a couple hours later. This school also has wi-fi, so I fired up the laptop and caught up with the game on I did this with some fear, because, well, you know what the week had been like. It could easily have been 6-2 in favor of the Fish.

Then I saw the score – and the line score, particularly the 0 where the Marlins’ hits should have been. No. Way.

I slid the laptop across to my son, but first explained the rules about jinxes. “I’m going to show you the score. Do not say anything about it. It’s a rule.”

I spent the rest of the time flipping back and forth between’s Gameday and the Crane Pool Forum.

Being a Mets fan in Michigan can be pretty lonely, and it was fun to be able to cyber-converse with the Crane Poolers throughout the game. It was like watching it surrounded by friends.

And even after the Marlins ended John Maine’s no-hit bid with that cheap-ass grounder, it was still a thrill – especially as we could see that the Phillies were losing and the season was still alive.

Well, at least for one more day.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Phils, corn, Live, caps and other mysteries of the summer

It’s been a pretty freaky summer, with a lot of things that I just can’t figure out. This is the kind of stuff that just keeps me up all night.

Aaron hangs his head in shame. And he should.

Mystery: Why can’t we beat the Phreaking Phillies?

So, we are the best team in the league.

Our MVP candidate, David Wright, is hotter than Rachel Ray, reaching the magical status of 30 steals and 30 homers. Our now-sorta-healthy left fielder, Moises Alou, is even hotter – Rachel Ray in a sauna? – as he charges to the team’s longest-ever hitting streak. And our ace, Pedro Martinez, is back and proving to be the Pedro of recent healthy times if not the studly Zimmer-tossing Pedro of old.

The second-place team rolls up, having recently reached the milestone of their 10,000th loss as a franchise. It’s main slugger, Ryan Howard, is headed toward setting the all-time single-season record for strikeouts.

You’d think it would be time to start unpacking the N.L. Eastern Division Champs t-shirts in the team shop.

So how can we possibly get swept not once, but twice by these guys?

It’s not like our boys are getting their butts kicked. We’re losing because of late-inning reliever meltdowns and freaky stuff like game-ending interference calls.

How can the Mets play like the champs we know they are against the once-vile Braves and then play like the Mets of ‘93 against the Phillies? It’s a mystery.

Mystery: Who is the intended market for this?

I stumbled across this cap, part of New Era’s new “MLB Twisted” line. It looked like the official and classy blue Mets cap, except instead of the stylish interlocking NY that the Mets don, it’s got that goofy NY that the bleeping Yankees wear on their caps.

First, did you every notice that interlocking NY on their caps is different than the interlocking NY on their jerseys, which is different than the interlocking NY on their batting helmets?

You’d think since it’s the only element on their uniforms they wouldn’t have too much trouble getting them to match. Point this out to a Yankee fan and they’ll respond with, “Well, Derek Jeter should have been the MVP last year instead of that guy on the Twins.” So don’t waste your time.

But I digress.

After recoiling in complete horror, I had to wonder just who exactly New Era thinks would buy a cap like this?

Certainly not a Mets fan. As if.

Not the hip-hoppers, who are the apparent intended market for most of New Era’s “fashion” caps, since these designs are too plain.

Not the gang-bangers, the alleged intended audience of some recently recalled New Era caps.

No, I’m thinking these are aimed at Yankee fans who deep down feel guilty about rooting for the Evil Empire, and want to cross over to our more wholesome Metsies but aren’t quite ready to take that full step to renounce all things Yankee.

They might not even wear a cap like this out in public. They might wear it around the house and wait for some basic truths come their way. Stuff like “Maybe it isn’t really fair that we can spend more on one player than the Rays spend on their entire roster,” and “Suzyn Waldman was a tad hysterical when she saw Roger Clemens in Steinbrenner’s box.”

Then one day, they might think, “You know, the Home Run Apple is really pretty cool,” and “That Mr. Met is a damn good mascot,” and then, “Having jets fly 30 feet above the upper deck is really kind of cool.”

Then soon, the faux-Mets cap goes in the trash and the reformed Yankee fan runs down to Roosevelt Field and walks out with the real thing.

Mystery: Just how bad was Flint radio?

We had two interns working with us at the paper this summer, and I think I learned more from them than they learned from us.

One day we were discussing my love of Christian rock and Jenna said, “Well, you must really like Live.” I confessed I had heard only a handful of the band’s newer songs, and that was just a couple years ago.

Jenna resisted rolling her eyes, and politely wrote me a list of songs I should check out, and I promptly You Tubed “Lightening Crashes,” “Overcome,” “Selling the Drama,” and “I, Alone.”

Needless to say, I spent the next couple days rounding up all the band’s CDs from my public library or iTunes and telling anyone who would listen about how great this band is.

Then I told my buddy Will about my discovery, and he said something along the lines of “No kidding. Where were you in the 1990s when all this stuff came out?”

And there’s the problem. I spent all but a couple months of the 1990s living in Flint, Mich. which I always suspected was a cultural black hole. Now I see that Flint radio was even worse than I thought.

Here’s a typical hour of Flint radio circa 1993:

A “double shot” of two Bob Seger songs.
ZZ Top’s “Legs.”
Something from Rod Stewart’s Spandex soccer-ball-kicking era.
A “Three play” of three Bob Seger songs.
Two ads from any of Flint’s 25 topless bars.
An anecdote from the DJ about meeting Flint-natives Grand Funk Railroad when he was 16, but not actually playing a Grand Funk Railroad song.
Anything from Hootie and the Blowfish.
Anything from the Spin Doctors.
A “Blast from the Past,” which was always something from Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” album.

I wish I were kidding.

This wasn’t a shock to Will, who also lived in Flint for a while, and has spent the last year educating me about another band I just discovered. They’re called Pearl Jam.

Mystery: Why is there corn growing in my flower garden?

One day in late July I walked out of the house and saw what appeared to be a corn stalk rising from my hostas and black-eyed Susans.

Now, we tried growing corn in a small vegetable garden a couple of years ago with absolutely no luck at all.

And now, this stalk is at least 6 feet tall and appears to have several ears sprouting at various points.

I’m fairly confident that one morning I’m going to go off to work and find Shoeless Joe Jackson playing catch on my front lawn.

I certainly didn’t plant this. So who did? Everyone seems to have a theory.

A common one is that some bird ate the seed and, well, it made its way through the digestive tract. But I’ve seen corn seeds and they’re pretty big, and most of the birds around here seem pretty small.

So we’ve either had a sparrow with a really sore butt or an eagle that made a rare appearance on my front porch, admired the hostas, took care of some business and was never seen again. Neither seems likely.

Maybe some Johnny Cornseed type walked the neighborhood tossing seeds and convincing people that ethanol is the way to go. But if that were the case, there would be stalks rising up and down the block.

This one has me stumped. But I'm kind of looking forward to some corn on the cob.

Mystery: Where and how many?

No, the mystery is which room my wife will consent to have it displayed.

I don’t want to go overboard. Baseball room, living room, family room, sun room, maybe tucked in the corner of the dining area — it’s all good. Maybe we could even have a couple around the house.

Then you have the other mystery. Do we also request the Yankee version?

I suppose the product should be used as advertised. I’d take it out to the backyard and practice pitching.

Of course, with the Yankee version, we’d slap a No. 2 on its greasy back and vent some frustration by going Don Drysdale on the inflatable Jeter. I’d wear the thing out by New Year’s Day!

Heck, when the Yankees find out about these things, they’ll probably try to sneak one out there on defense. Inflatable Derek’s range has got to be slightly better than the real thing.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

New patch to say 'Farewell' to Shea

The Mets are to wear this neat patch next season. I love how it combines the original look of Shea with the orange and blue panels and the modern neon players.

Truth be told, the Mets have mixed success with special patches. We know the team doesn't do an especially good job showing off its glorious history, and that extends to shoulder-ware.

We won't include memorial patches in the discussion -- although the Bill Shea design was a nice touch -- nor the patches worn by the entire league or even all the teams, as happened in 1969.

So let's review:

The Mets opened their new ballpark with a design commemorating the World's Fair. This is what was posted on the Chris Creamer site, but I think the team wore something a little different. I'll try to find a better photo.

But I've always had a soft spot for the Unisphere, and any attempt to link it to the Mets is OK with me!

Here we go! Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing fame noted that the glorious Ultimate Mets Date Base site had a photo of the proper patch -- which should be a surprise to no one because that site is an amazin' treasure chest of Mets history.

Can it be that the team went from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s without a special patch? The 25th anniversary design always will be special because of the link to the championship team. It's a little bland -- but not as bland as some to come -- but gets points for restoring the skyline logo, which was removed during the racing stripe years.

I've got some issues with this one. For one thing, it's more of a patch collar than an actual patch since the team had restored the logo to the sleeves by this point.

Then you have the whole debate about whether championship teams deserve such commemoration.

And players like Tom Seaver will tell you that using the word "miracle" implies that the team somehow lucked its way into a championship. Amazin' -- yes! Miracle -- nope, just good players playing great baseball.

It didn't help that the patch was attached to the abomination jersey with the big tail coming under the team name, a design that couldn't be scrapped fast enough for my liking. As Metstradamus correctly called it, the "wardrobe of failure."

Snore. Marking the 40 years was worthy, but this patch is boring beyond belief. And the Mets wordmark was already across the front of the jersey, so why include it here? Luckily two years later someone got a clue.

I love it! Note the shoutout to the World Fair design from the Shea's first year, fused with the neon players from the yard today. Brilliant! And, a rare instance of someone at the team knowing something about Mets history.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Viewing Dick Cheney from under the truck

Sometimes I get to see people like Vice President Dick Cheney in fancy ballrooms or boisterous campaign rallies.

Other times, like Friday, I get to kneel under a flatbed truck.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. One of the best parts of a job I love is that I occasionally get to see important people like Cheney up close.

I’m fascinated by the presidency, and I love seeing and learning about all the behind-the-scenes details that go into a visit.

Cheney was in town the day after President Bush’s national address about Iraq to hammer home the president’s message before a friendly audience.

One of our editors came over and asked if I’d like to be a part of the coverage. He already knew the answer and saved us all the spectacle of me begging.

My assignment was to cover Cheney’s arrival at the airport, then head to where he was giving the speech to monitor the protesters who would no doubt be there and look for things that can be written as vignettes.

We call the arrival assignment “death watch” because it tends not to generate any news. But woe to the news organization that passes up the opportunity and have something terrible happen.

A presidential aircraft just doesn’t drop down and taxi to the main terminal. In our city, they tend to land at the opposite end of the airport near hangars owned by one of the freight companies. It’s out in the middle of nowhere and easier to secure.

And security is tight as you can imagine. Media types were required to show up more than an hour before the arrival time, and television crews left their equipment out on the airport apron – don’t call it a tarmac – so the Secret Service could check it out.

Once the crews are done, each reporter and photographer was checked out with the hand-held metal detectors before being allowed through the gate. A staff member handed us red identification badges and a piece of string so we could wear them around our necks. The string is cheesy, but the press pass is not and I hang them above my desk because I am a geek.

Out on the apron, there were two of those portable staircases to move to the plane and a flatbed truck trailer for us to stand on. The motorcade was already in place, brought, I suspect, in the Air Force cargo plane that was off to the side.

There were a handful of dignitaries assembled to greet the vice president after he arrives, usually state and local political leaders. There were Secret Service agents everywhere and you do no mess with them. I keep waiting for another reporter to tick them off because I think it would be fun to watch.

Cheney’s jet arrived about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. When a president arrives there are two jets because there is a back-up for everything. But the vice presidents get just one.

There are few things as stirring as seeing a presidential jet with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA written in huge letters above the widows.

It had been overcast all morning, and rain started coming down hard as the jet taxied closer to the hanger. I didn’t even think to bring a jacket, much less an umbrella, and I was getting soaked. I asked the officer guarding the flatbed if it would be OK if I went under the trailer so I could stay dry and take notes. He asked one of the Secret Service agents, who smiled and said that would be fine. It was the first time I had ever seen one of those guys smile.

In case you are wondering, there is no dignified way to crawl under one of these trailers and, naturally, I banged my head.

Luckily, the rain died down as the jet came to a stop, and the greeters were quickly escorted to the end of the portable staircase. I was able to get out from under the trailer and stand in front of it.

The door at the rear of the plane opened first, and assorted Air Force personnel and staff people scurried down with carrying cases of all different shapes that they unloaded into the trunks of cars in the motorcade.

Then the door toward the front of the jet opened, with the vice presidential seal affixed to the inside. Usually, the politico will stand in the door for a moment and wave as if there were throngs of people waiting. The first President Bush was famous for pointing, as if there was someone special there. This is done entirely for the cameras.

But Cheney tends to be all business. Last time I covered him he walked out the door and down the stairs without even looking up. This time he walked out with a huge umbrella, followed by his daughter, Elizabeth.

Two black limos with the vice presidential seal are parked near the bottom of the stairs, and the Cheneys shook hands for a moment or two before stepping into the second car.

We were allowed to leave only after the motorcade cleared the area.

Next I went to the area downtown where the protesters were supposed to be, only to find that they had marched down to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, where Cheney was speaking.

There were about 75 of them, holding signs, blowing whistles and banging plastic buckets.

After covering these things for years, I’ve come to realize protesters fall into two groups.

There are people who are passionate about an issue and believe it is their responsibility to make their opinions known to their elected leaders. They’re usually interesting to interview.

Then there are people who just like to protest anything, anywhere and any time. “Fighting the Man” is kind of a hobby, even if “the Man” is kind of a shifting target.

I understood the signs and the banners, but I didn’t get the whistles and drums. As reporters, we can just go up to people and ask questions. So I approached a group of the whistlers.

They said the idea was to make a distraction to all attention to their position on the war.

“The giant banners don’t do that?”

“We want to drown out the speech inside.”

“Do you think that’s going to change the mind of anyone inside?”

“Probably not.”

Seems kind of pointless to me, but I suspect they’d think that me paying to watch other people play baseball is pointless as well.

After the speech, Cheney briefly visited President Ford’s grave, where nine months ago he presented Betty Ford with the flag that draped the president’s casket.

Then it was back into the black limos and the airport for Cheney to deliver the speech in another city.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pennies, passports and difficult Euros

Here's a Washington monument I didn't know about. JFK played hockey?

I have come to realize that not only am I an obsessive collector, but I’m an enabler to other people who are obsessive collectors.

And apparently the collector trait was passed to my daughter, who sent me off to an education writer’s conference in Washington, D.C. with a list of places that have penny squishing machines.

My job was to collect shiny new pennies and squish them at the assorted sites during my down time. Who knew this would lead to some adventures?

And I had my own items to chase. Years ago I bought one of those national parks passports that you are to carry along when you visit a historic site and find the postmark-like ink stamp in the gift shop that records the date of your visit in colorful glory.

I used to keep mine in the car glove compartment, and it indeed has traveled to places with many historic sites like New York and Philadelphia – only to have it never leave the cozy confines of the glove box because I always forget about it until driving back home.

In fact, I forgot about it altogether in recent years, reminded only after reading Neil Peart’s Roadshow, where he recounts obsessively getting his stamped along the East Coast while with Rush on the Vapor Trails tour.

So with pennies and passport I touched down in DC on Friday with three hours to fill before the first session. My daughter’s list showed there was a machine in a store in the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Ave. The clerk told me there is a surprising number of people stopping in throughout the day to turn the crank.

This was a good machine, too, because it had some general Washington designs like the White House and Washington Monument, as opposed to the museum-specific machines in two Smithsonian sites.

I cranked out three of the four designs and lined them up carefully atop the machine, then accidentally forgot to set the device properly and printed a design twice. I took two steps over to the patient clerk to get more change, and turned to discover two tourists from Europe picking up my squished pennies.

I certainly didn’t want to be an ugly American, but these people need to know that just because we’re the Land of the Free does not mean they get free squished pennies. Apparently the horrified look on my face required no translation.

Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 0

Walking back, I discovered that Ford’s Theater was around the block from the hotel, but was closed for renovations. But the Peterson House, where President Lincoln died, was open. You know all those paintings of Lincoln on his deathbed surrounded by seemingly half of Congress? Let’s just say some artistic liberties were taken, because that room barely had space for the bed and a dresser.

I got up early the next morning, figuring that time resting is time wasted, especially when there are missions to accomplish. The White House was about three blocks away and was beautiful bathed in morning light. And I was geeked to find that the White House Visitors Center opened at 7:30 a.m., which is about the time I was walking past.

I knew there would be a passport stamp inside, and this would be the first time I remembered to bring it somewhere since July 5, 1999 when I hit both the Lincoln Home Historic Site in Springfield, Ill. and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on my way to a Cardinals game.

Not only were the ladies inside excited to do some stamping, but they gave me a list of all the other places around the National Mall that had them, far more than were indicated in my 1999-era passport.

Then they let me in on a secret: The little Parks Department bookstore near the Washington Monument has one of almost every stamp on the Mall – a one-stop passport-stamping paradise!

Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 1

So I went back to the conference plotting my trip to the book shop after the last session of the day. But I also wondered about Ford’s Theater. It was closed for renovations, but there were a lot of workers running around and maybe they had the stamper available.

During a 20-minute break, I sprinted around the corner but didn’t see any workers. I stepped into the Peterson House and asked the park ranger if there was someone in the theater who might stamp.

“Nope,” he said, then pulled a small box out from under his desk. “I’ve got them here.” Yes! Not only did he have the theater and the house, but one for the African-American Civil War Memorial, which I didn’t know existed. He also said there were two stamps back at the old Post Office Pavilion, which I had already visited for the pennies, and a whole bunch at Arlington Cemetery.

An older woman overheard this and said, “Oh good!” and pulled out her own passport and, I swear, pushed me aside to get to the box. And not only that, she had to test them all on scrap paper to see how well they stamped.

I’m thinking, “Ma’am, I’m on what is supposed to be a bathroom break at a conference and I need to get back quickly.” But she was not getting my subtle hints and I suspected that if I took the stamps before she was done, she might have made sure a second person would have passed away in the house.

I made it back — a little sweaty since I had to jog, but no one seemed to mind.

Stats: Pennies 4, Stamps 3

I embarked on the stamping mission after the last session of the day, changing into cargo shorts with pockets designated for the passport, camera, bag of pennies and quarters and cell phone. I love walking around cities, and Washington seems to have something interesting on every block.

The first stop was back at the Old Post Office Pavilion, where the guard was friendly and nice despite me knocking over his box of stamps and scrap paper, sending them sprawled on the floor. There was one for the pavilion and one for Pennsylvania Avenue as a whole, which seems strange.

Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 5

From there it was short walk to the Washington Monument, which I’ve only seen from a distance. And, as promised, there was a small Parks Department book store near the base.

Before I could finish my sentence, the clerk pointed to a wooden tray with an array of stamps, ink pads and test paper.

I was a stamping fool! Some of these were for memorials I didn’t know about and in one case a person I had never heard of. I quickly filled the pages for the Capitol Region: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, National Capitol Region, District of Columbia World War memorial, The National Mall and Memorial Parks, The John Paul Jones Memorial, the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial, the George Mason Memorial, the John Ericsson Memorial and the Constitution Garden.

Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 21

With the mission accomplished rather efficiently, there was plenty of time to take in the splendors of the National Mall, starting with touching the Washington Monument then walking across the street to the World War II Memorial, which was much better in person than from what I’ve seen in photos.

Still, you walk through it and are impressed. But you walk away from the brilliant Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans memorials with a lump in your throat.

And that’s OK, because not every Rush album can be “Moving Pictures.”

Walking down to those other memorials along the Mall I stumbled upon some other things, like the JFK Hockey Field. I must do some research on this, because I am unaware of any connection between Kennedy and hockey.

Having made the loop of the Mall and with darkness approaching, I made it back to the hotel excited to discover a Qdoba two blocks away.

The conference ended around 2 p.m. the next day, and my flight didn’t leave until 6:45, so there was some time to squish some more pennies if I hustled.

The National Air and Space Museum was first, and there were two machines. Alas, the one of the machines had a big “Out of order” sign. The second was in a lower-level gift shop, where two guys in their 20s were already squishing.

Pretty sweet designs, too: The space shuttle, the Wright flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis and the moon landing.

Stats: Pennies 8, stamps 21

Next I crossed the Mall to the Museum of Natural History, navigating the maze of the lower level and the old-fashioned stuffed birds exhibits to find the gift stores, where two machines awaited.

One was all dedicated to dinosaurs and the other with a spider, elephant, moth and another dinosaur.

I cranked out the first four and noticed a guy in his mid-20s watching me closely. Then I moved across the hall to the other machine and the guy followed. In a thick accent he asked how the machines worked, and showed him how to put in the coins and turn the crank.

He walked over to the first machine, then came back over to me and said his wife would like one, and if there were any that had Washington designs and not museum-specific designs.

I told him about the Post Office Pavilion and that it was only across the street and over one block.

He said didn’t understand, and I told him again, pointing to the back door and telling how you cross the street, turn up 12th Street and there it is.

He said he STILL didn’t get it and I pulled out my map, showed him where we were and where he needed to go and assured him that he could be there in three minutes, four if he stopped to admire the statue of Ben Franklin in front.

He still didn’t get it, then told me how much he liked Washington and that and his wife were traveling around the country. Then he broke out with, “Can’t I just buy your pennies from you?”

“Dude, where are you from?” I asked.


No pennies for him.

But I told him I was glad he was enjoying the country and said the World War II Memorial down the mall was really neat. Then I finished squishing my pennies and set off to the next destination.

Stats: Pennies 16, stamps 21, confused Euros 2.

Over a couple blocks away from the Post Office Pavilion is the Commerce Department, which for reasons unknown to me is the home of the National Aquarium. Since this is a federal department, the security was even tighter than in the museums and my laptop and its case got thoroughly checked out.

I figure checking tourist bags all day is a pretty sucky job, so I thanked the somewhat grumpy guard for keeping me and the fish safe, and she rewarded me with a nice smile and directions to the machine, located outside the gift shop.

But, horrors, the pennies in this location were twice as expensive as anywhere else I’ve ever seen, draining my quarter supply. Luckily the shop clerk was kind and made change. My wife pointed out later that of course the Commerce Department was more expensive.

I cranked out the first three, then goofed by putting in the money before adjusting the crank to select a different design, producing a double of the sea horse.

Then I set the handle for the design I wanted and was about to push in the money when I kid ran up and started cranking the handle.

Now I suppose the proper PC thing would have been to say “Hello, tyke, do you want to turn the handle for me?” But I was not in the mood.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Don’t do that!”

Then mom and dad walked over, and these were the kind of mom and dad who like speaking to their kids in really loud voices so everyone around them can hear them being wonderful parents.

“Oh, Ian,” the mom said. “I guess we shouldn’t be touching that.”

And she was shooting me a look like I was being unreasonable. I reality, I should have scooped up Ian, paid the $5 admission and heaved him into the shark tank. Because you just don’t mess with people on a squishin’ mission and these people didn’t deserve slack like the previously encountered foreign visitors.

Stats: Pennies 20, stamps 21, kid saved from being shark bait 1

I had just enough time to head back to the hotel, get my luggage back and hop on the Metro to Reagan Airport. I slipped my fare card into the machine and it pumped out my $3 in change -- all in quarters.

“Great,” I thought. “Now I get quarters.” This is known as foreshadowing.

Arlington Cemetery is one of the stops before the airport. And I was really tempted to jump out, run up the hill and get more stamps then catch the next Metro — even stood up and took a step toward the door.

But the image of walking up the hill to snap a photo of the Kennedy graves with my luggage clacking on the cobblestones behind me was probably not the dignified scene the cemetery deserves.

I later arrived in Detroit, bummed that there was a two-and-a-half hour layover for a 30-minute flight. We arrived at gate 77 and would depart from 19, way across the long terminal.

I passed on the tram, thinking there was plenty of time and you just never know what you might come across.

Midway through the trek, I saw a Motown-themed music store and thought it might be worth a look.

Except I never made it inside. Because there in front was a previously unknown penny squishing machine. There was one airport design and three for Motown. And here I was with a bag full of quarters and pennies.

The clerk, who said she was standing near the entrance because the music was too loud inside, noticed my glee.

I told her of my assignment, and how we didn’t know there was a machine in the airport.

“Heck, there are more,” she said, pointing over my shoulder where the Henry Ford Museum also had a store — with two machines! Plus, there was a Michigan-themed store down the end of the terminal near my gate.

I was never so happy to have a couple hours to spend at the Detroit airport. I cranked out two from the Motown machine and six of the eight from the Ford Museum — including the Oscar Mayer Weiner Mobile, the Rosa Parks Bus and the Kennedy presidential limo — and all four from the Michigan store, an amazing haul -- and without the demanding Euros and annoying tots.

Stats: Pennies 32, stamps 21, tired travelers 1.

I got home after midnight, and carefully laid out all the pennies for my daughter to find when she got up the next morning. Also set out were the t-shirts from the Hard Rock Cafe and International Spy Museum for my son, who was spared the collecting gene but has his mother’s appreciation for cool attire.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

She got the shirt right off his back

You know I’m a jersey nut. So each year the kids and I attend the West Michigan Whitecaps’ final home game, which is called “Shirts Off Our Backs Night.”

After the game, the players line up and pull entries out of a box. If they call your name, you run down to the field and the player takes off his jersey, signs it and hands it over.

The Whitecaps are a well-run team, and have become better and better handling this promotion. It used to be that people were allowed to take entire pads of entry forms and spend the game filling them out to stuff the box. In the last three years we got a form as we entered the gates, limiting each person to one, which is fine with me.

Not that it has helped us. Each year, we’ve gone home only semi-disappointed – we don’t really expect to win, and any excuse to go to the ballpark is a good one.I say the kids and I because my wife attends one game a year, and that’s usually around Father’s Day.

But we were out of town that weekend this year – setting foot on the glorious Field of Dreams – and I joked that she could boost our chances of winning a jersey if she joined us to see the Whitecaps take on the Great Lakes Loons on Friday night.

But my wife said she might not mind, as long as it wasn’t too hot. And with the temps in the 70s, off we went.
OK, as an aside. Jersey collectors are a fanatical bunch to be sure. We are sticklers about certain things, and that means getting the proper lettering. Having a name added to a jersey is big bucks, and you need to be sure it's done properly. This guy actually had a World Series replica, which is not cheap. But whoever added Justin Verlander's name used the wrong letters. The Tigers don't have a white outline on their names, and the letters are much taller and thinner. This is at best a rip-off, and at worst jersey abuse. Don't let this happen to you.

Now, I often say that the best part about minor-league baseball is that games are so affordable that you can bring the whole family. And the worst part is that, well, many people bring the whole family. And if you get stuck sitting near bad kids it can be a not-quite-as-glorious experience as it is supposed to be.

But we had fun watching the two kids in front of us this time. I’m guessing the two boys were four and five, and both were thrilled that the Whitecaps had stationed a player at each gate to greet fans and sign autographs.

Pitcher Matt O’Brien was signing near our gate, but it might as well have been David Wright to these kids, as excited as they were. They made multiple trips to have O’Brien sign things, first their programs, then the free mesh jerseys all kids were handed on their way in.

These items were carefully laid out on the bleacher in front of us, as if they were artifacts in a museum for everyone to appreciate.

But O’Brien was still there, and the kids had run out of things for him to sign. We noticed one of the brothers came back with the back of his hands signed. Seeing this, the younger brother wanted to go back and have his hand signed, too.

We overheard the dad say, “No. Look, it’s just going to wash off.”

Which was followed by the priceless: “Nooooo, it’s a permanent marker!”

Now, O’Brien is a decent player and clearly a man of great patience. But I can’t say I’d want to have his signature tattooed to the back of my hand. But it sure was fun to see the kids so excited.

The game itself had some drama, with the Loons tying the game in the top of the ninth, then going ahead in the top of the tenth when the Caps started throwing the ball around. Apparently I'm a jinx for the Whitecaps as well as the Mets.

But the then the real drama started and the players were called out one at a time to pull entry forms out of a huge box.

Throughout the game, there was much teasing about what would happen if my wife's name was called, and about how she’d have to go on the field to claim her prize – and her wanting nothing to do with taking a sweaty jersey from a guy she doesn’t know or getting any closer to the field than row 21 in section 220.

The game was close to a sell-out, so the odds were not good. And as in every other year we’ve attended these games, player after player would step up and read out a name from someone in Hudsonville or Kentwood. I was mock pouting, and my wife said, “Well, looks like you’re going home empty handed again.”

And at that moment, we heard: “And the jersey from Jeramy Laster goes to…" and we heard my wife's name.

I think the older guy sitting next to us was somewhat startled by my fist-pumping and yelling. There’s a chance everybody sitting on the third base side was startled by my fist-pumping and yelling.

My wife rolled her eyes. No. Way.

We quickly gathered our stuff and worked through the crowd to the gate near the first base dugout. Only the winner is supposed to go out on the field, but no one stopped the four of us from heading out. I already had the camera out and ready as we stepped close to the players.

They had started calling names of other people for other jerseys by the time we were out there, so it was a little confusing. We told the on-field announcer my wife's name, and he asked the players who pulled her name. Laster stepped up, shook her hand and asked her if she wanted him to sign the jersey.

He looked for a marker that would work best, signed the jersey – actually, the batting practice jersey, which the team wears for these games – and handed it over with a big smile.

I was documenting all of this, and tried to dodge the team’s on-field cameraman, who was projecting images to the video board in left field.

I asked Jeramy if he could pose for a shot, which he did happily. He seemed pleased that we were thrilled to meet him and get his jersey.

“It’s still damp,” my wife said as we went back to our seats. “You so owe me.” And I did. We went to a nice restaurant the next night.

Laster, drafted in round 12 in the 2003 draft, might not be the highest-rated prospect to pass through Grand Rapids. That would be Cameron Maybin, who is with the Tigers as we speak.

But Jeramy’s our new favorite Whitecap.