Friday, December 28, 2007

Mandy, take me to Shea!

The route to Shea already is planned out!

There’s a new lady in my life and her name is Mandy.

Except that for the first week we were calling her Mindy.

And sometimes I use her friend Lori, but never their partner, Richard.

And like many other women, she tells me where to go and what to do. And I obey.

Mandy is the computerized voice in the automotive GPS device I got for Christmas.

It’s like the iPod in that after having this treasure for just a couple days I can’t imagine how I survived 43 years without it.

My family already is sick of listening to me extol its glories.

I don’t have a clue how it works. Something about satellites.

All I know is I usually get tense driving from sister-in-law’s house.

It’s waaaay deep in the country and you have to take these little roads once you get off the real streets. And even the real streets aren’t anywhere near civilization. I know this because I don’t see a Panera Bread or Jimmy John’s.

But as we loaded up the car Christmas night for the trip home, the relatives asked if I needed directions back to the highways.

"Heck no," I replied confidently. "Mandy will lead the way."

And sure enough, my new friend navigated through tiny towns and fields right to the I-55 entrance ramp.

Which is not to say everyone is a believer. On that trip to Kris’ house, Mandy told me to make a right turn. I was about halfway into the turn when my father-in-law objected, telling me to take the more familiar route.

To me, this is like a pitcher shaking off a catcher. When Gary Carter called for the curve, Dwight Gooden listened.

My mother-in-law, in the other car, later said. "When we saw you start to turn then spin back, I said, ‘Well, Dad must have overruled Mindy.’"

Somehow Mandy understood that the elders must be obeyed, because once we missed the turn, she simply reconfigured the route and directed us another way.

And somehow, she also knows the location of every restaurant, stadium or other place we designate a "point of interest," or "POI." You can either set it ahead of time to lead you to Quiznos, or wait to see the little fork-and-spoon icon appear on the screen.

I don’t know how Mandy knows these things. And apparently there are knowledge gaps — I won’t call them faults because that would imply Mandy has faults — because the new Starbucks near our house doesn’t appear.

This could be easily solved by simply flashing a Starbucks icon on the screen every other mile or so because, chances are, a Starbucks is either there already or will be there soon.

And she doesn’t just give directions. The screen flashes the speed, how many more miles are left in the trip and roughly how long it will take us to get to the destination.

Supposedly she even makes a mooing sound should I ever be cruising above the speed limit, though we’ve yet to hear the cow.

Picking which computer voice to use was a big decision. Mandy seems to have a slight British accent and for some reason calls Interstates "motorways." Lori has more of a Midwestern sound and a serious tone that seems to say, "Don’t cross me. I know where to go. I have an internal GPS and you routinely take the family on accidental tours of bad neighborhoods."

The company’s Web site said we can download other voices. It describes one as "New York cab driver" that sounds like no one I know. Of course, the last time I was in a New York cab the driver was talking into his Bluetooth and I thought he was talking to me, so I'm not sure how I'd respond to this while driving.

Another voice was John Cleese, but he costs extra. I’m holding out for Rachael Ray. "Did you turn left? Yum-o!"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The worst Christmas song. Ever.

I’m a Christmas music fanatic, secretly starting to listen to holiday songs when new releases start appearing in October.

Not all mistle-tunes are created equal. Some songs are amazing, like "O Come All Ye Faithful" which shines when covered by artists ranging from Twisted Sister to Third Day.

But then there are others that are neat to listen to but don’t make sense when you really think about them.

Take "Little Drummer Boy," for example. I’m pretty sure that if I was a mother who had just given birth – in a stable, of all places, – and a little kid came up and started banging a drum, there would be some ba-rum-pa-pum-pumming on the kid’s noggin.

But once in a while I come across a song that is so dreadful that it can instantly curdle egg nog.

I don’t mean schlock like "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." I think Elmo and Patsy knew exactly what they were doing when they penned that song, and it’s not their fault that it’s been overplayed.

I mean the kind of stuff where someone sat down intending to create some holiday warm-and-fuzzy, completed the task and said, "Whoa, this is . . . awesome. I now know the true meaning of Christmas." But something went terribly, terribly wrong.

With that in mind, I now offer you The Worst Christmas Song Ever.

Years ago I stumbled across an album called "T.V. Family Christmas." It’s filled with, you guessed it, songs that were either included in very special Christmas episodes of sitcoms, or holiday albums that were rushed out to cash in on a show’s popularity. I suspect the Brady Bunch album was conceived, recorded and released during a lunch break.

And you’ve got some sad stuff, like Gene Autry’s "Nine Little Reindeer," an obvious sequel to his Rudolph hit that is as good as "Caddyshack 2" and about as welcome.

It’s schlock, and these guys knew they were creating schlock.

But buried in the schlock is "A Crosby Christmas," which is just shameful. It’s the "Billy Don’t be a Hero" or "Run, Joey, Run" of Christmas songs.

It’s a medley of mostly some bland or stupid stuff like "I’d Like to Hitch a Ride With Santa Claus" that seems to have been was pulled from an early Bing Crosby variety special.

It’s bad to begin with, but things go completely off the rails when some of the Crosby kids break out with something I think is called "The Snowman." Here are the lyrics:

On a Christmas Eve
A happy snowman
Stood and dreamed beside
A cottage door

How the children loved
Their friend the snowman
And the funny fedora
That he wore

When they said "Good night,"
They told the snowman
That a gift for him
Was on the tree

So he called himself
A lucky snowman
Just like one of the family
Was he

OK, this is pretty lame so far, but nothing too freaky. We’ve all made snowmen and added hats. Once I made a cool one with a Wiffle ball bat and Mets batting helmet. And for the sake of holiday cheer I’ll buy into the premise that this snowman can think and dream. The snowman might be somewhat delusional if he thinks he’s really part of the family, but then they did promise a gift and all.

But things are about to go horribly wrong. Back to the lyrics.

The cottage porch
Looked beautiful and bright
The holly wreath
Was hung up for the night

When all at once,
It caught on fire and fell
He couldn’t knock
He couldn’t ring the bell

He couldn’t run for help
He couldn’t call
But then he had
To save the children after all

He knew he’d melt away
But then the snowman
Threw himself across
The burning floor

Jingle my bells, what the heck was that?

First we have a Christmas wreath that is hung on the door "for the night" as if it hasn’t been hanging there since the week after Thanksgiving.

Then, this wreath spontaneously combusts? How? Why?

We established earlier that this snowman can some how think and reason. But he can’t speak?

And how come he can’t run for help or ring the bell, yet can somehow drag his icy butt up the stairs and hurl himself on the flaming wreath, regretting that he had but one life to give for his family?

It’s just not consistant. Either he’s a magical snowperson or he’s not.

And how are we supposed to feel happy about all of this? "The Gift of the Magi" story is all about sacrifice — and really isn’t one of my favorites — but this downer ditty takes it to a new level. It’s one thing to give up your hair or watch, but another to accept a firey death.

Back to the story:

How the children missed
Their friend the snowman
But they’ll always remember him for
A heart that was brave
And the joy that he gave
And the funny fedora he wore

And then Bing, looking to transition to the next part of the medely, says:

Ohhhh, great little guy, the happy snowman. I’ll never forget him.

"Great little guy, I’ll never forget him?" That’s what you say about a neighbor who helps you dig your car out of the snow bank. Bing, the snowman took an early exit — sacrificing both his life and the gift on the tree — to save you and your family. And that’s the best you’ve got?

And technically they still have the funny fedora, though soggy, to give to the next snowman — unless the kids are too tramautized to build another one.

Now, the really bad part is that someone stepped away from the piano and thought this was good -- and someone agreed. "Hey, this is great ! We'll put it in the show and have Bing's kids sing it!."

Hopefully, that person got coal. And a fedora and non-flammable wreath.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bowie and Verducci lead the Hall of Fame over the shark

It’s a good week for Mike Pagliarulo, Steve Balboni and Kevin Maas.

But it’s a bad week for baseball fans every where.

The reason: The Baseball Hall of Fame has jumped the shark.

Oh, I’m sure it will still be a glorious place to immerse oneself in baseball history. Cooperstown is a slice of heaven. The museum always will be a special place.

But I’m about ready to walk right past the part of the building with the plaques.

Two reasons: A guy they just voted in and a guy just selected to do the voting.

First, the newly configured Veteran Committee elected someone for the first time since the whole Bill Maseroski debacle. No players, mind you. But five executives and managers.

One of those earning a plaque was former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Dating myself here, but remember that song on Sesame Street that went, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong?”

Let’s see. Jackie Robinson, Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver and Bowie Kuhn.

Yup, you guessed it.

About the best thing you can say about Bowie was that he wasn’t the worst baseball commissioner. My buddy Will put it best: “Bowie’s ‘leadership’ resulted in two player strikes, a lockout and bad player-management relations for decades.”

Granted, it’s not like Kuhn allegedly encouraged owners to collude or exclude black players or even look the other way when certain players started looking like the Shrek balloon in the Macy’s parade, like some other commissioners might have done.

But 30 years after he was booted out of the job, you just don’t hear people walking around saying, “Bowie Kuhn, right man at the right time. Thank goodness he was at the helm in the turbulent 1970s.”

Plus, he resided over the era of polyester uniforms. He should have evoked the “best interests of baseball” clause the moment the first player stepped on the field with elastic instead of a belt.

About the best thing you can say about Kuhn being in Cooperstown is that there are actually less-deserving people in there. Like Phil Rizzutto.

This leads me to the second reason the Hall has gone shark-jumping. Expect to see many more undeserving Yankees getting votes. Tom Verducci has been invited to join the ranks of those casting ballots.

The Baseball Writers Association of America decided to add to its rolls some people who write for Web sites rather than just newspapers. There were 18 writers nominated and 16 were accepted. A dozen were former newspaper people like Peter Gammons, so this was pretty much bringing some alumni back into the fraternity.

Rob Neyer and Keith Law from ESPN were the two guys who were excluded. I think that’s wrong, but they can fend for themselves.

But Verducci, the Yankee-lovin’ columnist for Sports Illustrated, was one of the writers who gets a vote.

Somewhere, Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens is cheering.

I envision all kinds of problems. First, we’ll hear Verducci calling for the likes of Fritz Peterson, Bucky Dent and Fred “Chicken” Stanley to be restored to the ballot. And if that happens, we know they’ll get at least one vote.

Then, I suppose he’ll call for waiving the rule mandating a player wait five years until after he retires to be on the ballot --but just for Derek Jeter.

“Why make Derek wait? We all know he’s going in,” he might say.

Oh, who are we kidding. Verducci might start writing in Jeter’s name while he’s still active.

And Verducci already is showing his colors. He wrote a column this week advocating for Tim Raines to be enshrined. I support that, as Rock was one of the best players of the 1980s. I can overlook his short time in pinstripes at the very end of his career.

But in that column, guess the subject of the first three paragraphs? If yousaid "Derek Jeter" you are correct!

As Casey used to say, you can look it up.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Jacques, Boris and the dangers of minor league hockey

It’s a wonder any sports franchise lets me buy ticket.

I recently went to see the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings top farm club. Of course they lost, since I am a jinx to any team I seem to care about. The Griffs even did so in grand fashion, tying the game late then coming up short in a shoot-out, setting a franchise record of 10 consecutive home losses.

But as bad as the Griffins are, they can’t even come close to the former Flint Bulldogs, who we christened the worst team in the worst league in professional sports when it debuted in the Colonial Hockey League in 1991.

The horrid Bulldogs did provide one of the most glorious nights I’ve ever spent watching minor league hockey – where I brawled with a mascot and apparently shamed a coach into giving up his job.

For this story to make sense, you have to know the cast of characters.

First you have me, who considers hockey a worthy off-season diversion and doesn’t mind watching a couple goons drop the gloves between goals.

You have Skip Probst, founder of the Colonial League and owner of the Bulldogs. We liked Skip, who filled the void after the Flint Spirits – the Rangers’ farm team with Mike Richter in the net – departed after the 1989 season. The start-up Colonial League was an independent league home to an occasional prospect, but more often castoffs who had bounced around the minors.

Our favorite player: Jacques Mailhot. Jacques had actually played five games for the Quebec Nordiques in the NHL in 1988-89, but was better known for piling up tremendous amounts of penalty minutes. Here is his Hockey Legends page.

Some teams had enforcers who used their brawn to protect the goal-scorers from getting too roughed up by the opposition. But I think Jacques just liked to fight. He would do things like skate past players and wipe his glove in their faces as he passed, just in hopes of drawing them into a brawl, asking, in his thick French-Canadian accent, “Do you want to dance?”

Naturally, we embraced Jacques as our hero.

Even before the first game, we gave him the nickname “Mad Dog” and made a sign with interchangeable numbers called the “Goon Meter” that we planned to use to keep track as Jacques piled up the penalty minutes. We had three digits, because we expected lots of penalties.

I worked for the Flint newspaper at the time, and our friend Bill covered the Bulldogs. My buddy Will and I would attend games at home and tag along with Bill on some of the closer road games.

We started wondering about Jacques after the team’s first-ever game. Amazingly, he scored the franchise’s first goal and somehow managed not to get called for a single penalty.

After the game we were waiting for Bill to finish talking to a player near the team bus. Jacques walked over when he saw me holding the sign.

“How come you didn’t change the numbers?” he asked.

“Well, you didn’t have any penalty minutes. Did we miss something?”

“Oh,” Jacques said, disappointed. “I thought you were keeping track of my goals.”

Nevertheless, we had plenty of opportunities to change the numbers as the season progressed and Jacques found dancing partners. Many of them. He was among the league leaders in penalty minutes. And after a big fight he’d stand in front of the opposing beach and gesture like he was fastening a belt – like the championship belt worn by boxers. The fans would go nuts, as would the other team.

We were thrilled. Jacques’ only request, passed through Bill, was that we change the name of the sign. Calling it a “Goon Meter” implied that he was a one-dimensional player. And as we learned after the first game, Jacques fashioned himself as a goal scorer who just happened to get into a lot of fights.

Not wanting to offend our hero, we recast the sign “Penalty Meter” and continued to haul it to games around Michigan and Ontario.

And the goonery was the only thing for Bulldogs fans to cheer for, because the team was dreadful. Never once did I see them win, at home or on the road.

Jacques had piled up 237 penalty minutes in 21 games – with 15 goals, as he would like you to know. But, his antics off the ice apparently weren’t much different from those we saw during the games, and he and Skip were not getting along. There was some loud meltdown during a practice and the owner-coach decided he had enough and cut Mailhot – who told all to Bill for a story.

Clearly, this was an outrage. Like any good Mets fan, I am nothing if not loyal. This would not stand. A group of us from the Journal decided to attend the first game after Jacques’ dismissal. I bought some paint and poster board, sat on the newsroom floor and created a sign reading, “Dump Skip, Not Jacques.”

Apparently lots of people were just as upset. Flint can be a tough place, and hockey goons are held in great esteem. The atmosphere at the game was ugly. We snagged seats directly across from the Bulldogs bench, holding high our expression of rage.

Naturally, it caught Skip’s eye – which was the point – and he spent the first part of the game frowning and glaring. I was even able to get a “Dump Skip, Not Jacques” chant going in our section of Journal people.

And of course, the team was getting pounded, no doubt adding to Probst’s frustration. I saw him summon Boris the Bulldog, the team’s mascot, then point across the ice at me as he spoke.

Minutes later, Boris – I was never sure which unfortunate employee got stuck wearing the costume – appeared in the aisle at my seat.

“Gimme the sign,” he said.


“Skip wants your sign.”

“No way. I thought you weren’t supposed to talk in costume?”

“Really, give it up. Skip’s pissed.”

“No way. He fired my favorite player. What did he expect?

At that point, Boris took hold of the sign and tried to pull it away. I was actually having a tug-of-war with a guy in a bulldog costume. The whole section was booing. His gloves made it hard to get a good grip, and I pulled the sign away.

Then he grabbed my 1960s-era White Sox cap off my head and scampered back up the aisle. I wasn’t too upset. Theft is a crime, even in Flint, and there were about 5,000 witnesses.

I looked over, and Skip was shaking his head in disgust.

Soon, Boris appeared behind the Bulldogs’ bench again, waving my Sox cap. Then he gestured the cap with his hands, negotiating a trade of my cap for the sign.

I figured we made our point and nodded approval. Soon, Boris again came back down the aisle, handing me the cap as I handed him my sign. The mascot then made a big production of tearing the sign into big pieces and throwing them up in the air to a mixture of cheers and boos.

I was collecting the pieces when a kid came running down the stairs with a big roll of duct tape.

“You can use this to put your sign back together,” he said.

“Thanks!” I remember saying. “Where did you get this?”

“We brought it to the game,” he said. I do not know why someone would bring a big roll of duct tape to a hockey game. I figured it was just better not to ask.

We reassembled the sign, mostly, and held it high again as Skip seethed behind the bench.

Victory! And another loss for the Bulldogs – both on and off the ice. Apparently it was too much for Skip.

The next morning I got a call from Bill, yelling on the other end of the line. “YOU RUN THIS TEAM!”

Probst called a team meeting after the game and resigned as coach – retaining his ownership role, of course. He installed the team’s best player, Ken Spangler, as player-coach.

We were kind of bummed. Like I said, we liked Skip. He was a good guy, and bad hockey is better than no hockey.

The rest of the story…

The Spangler era ended after about a week, when Skip reinstated himself as coach when the team didn’t play much better. I ran into him in the concourse before a game, and he said, “Didn’t like that sign.” And I said, “Didn’t like that you cut my favorite player, Skip.” We had a nice chat. He was happy to have paying customers.

The Bulldogs lasted another season, then moved to Utica, N.Y. and soon folded.

The Colonial League was reconfigured as the United Hockey League, and Flint got a new team, the Generals, named after General Motors.

Jacques was quickly signed by the Bulldogs’ rival, the Michigan Falcons, who played in a Detroit suburb. There was a packed house the first time he came back to Flint, and I brought the Penalty Meter,” which, unlike the “Dump Skip, Not Jacques” sign, had been spared Boris’ wrath.

He ended up playing until the 1999-2000 season, finishing with the Central Texas Stampede of the Western Professional Hockey Association and a stint as player coach of a Pro Beach Hockey team.

And he even made national news in 1999 when a dance partner got a little carried away. Dean Trboyevich of the Anchorage Aces was suspended for the season, fined an undisclosed sum and put on probation for the 1999-00 season by the West Coast Hockey League for a cross-check of poor Jacques of the Fresno Falcons in February 1999. Fresno, Calif., authorities decided to drop felony assault charges against Trboyevich.

And I still go to an occasional minor league hockey game – but I stay clear of mascots.