Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover!

Here’s one I never saw coming.

Sitting at work one day, I got a call from a man identifying himself as Kal Wagenheim, who said he had a question for me.

As a reporter, usually I ask the questions, so I was intrigued.

Wagenheim said he was a former New York Times reporter who now writes about the Caribbean and sports biographies. He called my home first, and my wife game him my work number.

He told me that he wrote one of the first biographies about Roberto Clemente published after his death in that plane crash bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims.

As I’m sure Wagenheim will affirm, reporters are somewhat skeptical people, and I confess to searching for him on Amazon as we spoke. And sure enough, there were books about Clemente, Babe Ruth and Puerto Rico, written by him.

Now I was really, really intrigued.

He told me that there is a group of Clemente fans who gather in New York every year on the birthday of the Hall of Famer, to discuss his life and legacy. He said that people in the group enjoyed his book from 1973, but it has been out of print for a while. The group was hoping he could issue an updated version, and found an interested publisher.

“Now, what does this have to do with you, you’re wondering,” he accurately stated.
Wagenheim said he was searching for a photograph for the book, and searched “Clemente” and “Hall of Fame” on Google, and saw a photo of a Clemente statue he liked.

He contacted the Baseball Hall of Fame for permission to use the photo, and the nice folks in the baseball library looked at it and said it wasn’t one from their archives.

“It’s from a blog,” he told me, retelling the conversation. “You have to contact the author, someone who goes by ‘Mets Guy in Michigan.’”

Wagenheim said he looked around the blog for a while and found my name – which I don’t really hide – and looked me up based on what he could find on the site.

He told me he liked the angle and lighting in the photo and asked for my permission to use it.

Naturally, I was honored.

We talked for a little while about growing up in New York and working for newspapers, and I had a wonderful time. It’s not like I get too many opportunities to pick the brain of a New York Times reporter who loves baseball.

I remembered the photo and the statue, which I wrote about several months before. It was taken during a glorious weekend. Will and I had our baseball card column in the Flint Journal, and the editors allowed me to apply for credentials to cover the 1994 All-Star Game FanFest in Pittsburgh.

It was my first time attending such an event, which is a fantastic celebration of all things baseball. Of course, there was a cloud hovering over the game at the time, with the strike looming. But it also was just before Ken Burns’ epic “Baseball” documentary.

Burns hosted journalists for breakfast to discuss the project, and former players attended. I sat with Joe Black, who starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers and also in the Negro Leagues. I knew he also played for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues – and that the name was pronounced e-LIGHT. Black told me I was the first white guy he ever heard pronounce it correctly. Buck O’Neill also attended the breakfast, and walked to every table to introduce himself.

Part of the All-Star Game’s festivities was the unveiling of the statue, and it’s pretty special. Roberto is depicted just after a swing, dropping the bat and headed to first base. The base of the statue contains containers of dirt from three fields where Clemente played -- —Santurce Field in Puerto Rico, Forbes Field, and Three Rivers Stadium.

I took a walk from the convention center to Three Rivers and caught the statue in late-afternoon light. I’m hardly a great photographer, but as my kids will tell you, I believe in quality through quantity, and a statue will never groan when you say, “Just one more.”

I though the shot was marred by some people walking in the background. But it is kind of nice.

I e-mailed the photo to Wagenheim, and then heard from the folks at Markus Wiener Publishers , who asked if I could scan it again and send them a higher resolution photo, which was easy.

I’ve since learned that Wagenheim also writes plays and screenplays in addition to writing and translating books, which is impressive because I sometimes struggle to write in one language, much less two.

This week a package arrived, with “Clemente! The Enduring Legacy,” written across the front, superimposed over a full-bleed version of my photo. The graphics folks were able to remove the people in the background.

I get a photo credit inside the cover, but more special is a nice note from my new friend, Kal.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Injured Ryan Howard is latest victim of Hallmark curse

No one believes me. But the evidence continues to mount.

You know Ryan Howard, the slugging first baseman for rival Philadelphia Phillies? The guy with the underserving All-Star Game selection, made by his own manager?

That would also be the same Ryan Howard who has been seen on crutches and was placed on the disabled list last week after spraining his ankle. He’s not expected back for two or three weeks, but he might as well go to a safe house, or enroll in the witness protection program seeking a new life somewhere in Idaho.

That’s because Ryan Howard is doomed.

Howard, it has been disclosed, is the unfortunate victim selected to be this year’s Hallmark baseball ornament. And as history has proven, anyone picked to hang with the tinsel is instantly tagged for injury or worse. (See Braynt, Kobe)

Yes, it’s the Hallmark Curse.

Usually the ornaments are unveiled around this time of year, and my co-worker was a little stunned when I suddenly pumped my fist up in the year and yelled, “Yes!”

It was a nice balance to last year around this time, when I started banging my head on the desk at the sight of Johan Santana cast in plastic.

There are several interesting things to note here besides my office behavior.

First, it appears that Howard is wearing Phillies colors, but there is no indication of Phillies logos anywhere on the painted-on uniform.

Perhaps Hallmark is trying to protect Howard, thinking cloaking his team affiliation would somehow ward off the curse.

Perhaps it’s a hedge in case Howard is suddenly traded, which has been the case in the past, as you’ll see below.

Perhaps it’s because someone at Hallmark realized that no one would ever want to celebrate the joyous Christmas season by looking at freaking Phillie on their tree. Talk about a mistletoe buzz kill. Might as well invite the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to the party

Or, perhaps, Hallmark could no longer afford paying the licensing fee demanded by Major League Baseball.

Even more interesting was the notation that the Howard ornament was the last in the “Day at the Ballpark” series, which started in 1996. My guess is that Hallmark either decided it had killed enough careers, or the Major League Players Association started protesting.

In case you doubt, let’s review the past array of yuletide terror.

1996: Nolan Ryan

The series started out with Ryan, a safe, reasonable choice. Except Hallmark goofed up by depicting Ryan as a Texas Ranger instead of as a Met, which is the way the whole world remembers him. Nolan since has tumbled so far down the chain of respectability that he was tapped to become the Rangers’ new owner. Note that the McFarlane folks are wise enough not to repeat this error. They company’s upcoming Ryan Cooperstown figure in fact shows him at his peak form, helping the Mets win the 1969 World Series.

1997: Hank Aaron

For years and years, Hank Aaron was listed first among baseball players in any alphabetical listing. That’s so appropriate considering his stature. Well, Hank’s magnificent home run record was swiped under a cloud, and, after this ornament came out, so did his listing in the Baseball Encyclopedia. The Hammer is now second to David Aardesma, a reliever on his fifth team in six years, currently sporting an 0-6 record for the lowly Mariners.

1998: Cal Ripken Jr.

The Iron Man, of course, set the consecutive games record several years before this ornament was released. The next season? Ripken went from playing in 161 games in 1998 to just 86 in 1999.

1999: Ken Griffey Jr.

It was hard not to love Junior in his Mariners days, at least his first run with the team. Sadly, two months after Christmas, Junior browbeat the M’s into shipping him to the Cincinnati Reds.

2000: Ken Griffey Jr.

After the whole trade debacle, Hallmark issued another Griffey ornament. It was actually the same pose, but with a new paint job. A bad one, in fact. It showed a solid red jersey with only a sleeve patch to indicate it was in fact a Reds uniform. And, of course, Junior has never been the same.

2000: Mark McGwire

This was he first two-ornament year. Hey, why mess with one player’s career when you can trash two? McGwire was hurt for much of 2000, but still hit .305 with 32 jacks and was rewarded with an ornament. The next season a broken-down Mac gimped with a .187 stick and 29 homers and four years later showed up before Congress not wanting to talk about the past.

2001: Mickey Mantle

The Mick was dead for six years when the ornament came out. To this very day, he remains dead. Pretty strong curse.

2001: Sammy Sosa

Sammy hit 64 homers in 2001, and then showed up on Christmas trees. He had one more decent season before going from King of the Windy City to corking bats, ticking off teammates and getting run out of town.

2002: George Brett

Brett was already in the Hall of Fame when Hallmark decided to test the curse and make him an ornament. But since he played for the Royals and no one cares about the Royals, he seems to have sneaked by undetected with no apparent ill effects.

2002: Derek F. Jeter

Derek F. Jeter went from being an over-rated, smug Yankee punk with no range to an even bigger over-rated, smug Yankee punk with even less range.

2003: Ted Williams

Poor Ted. Hallmark could not let him rest in peace. The year after he passed, Hallmark made him an ornament – and the sordid details about cutting off his head and freezing the body were revealed. Williams had a rep for being a little surly during his first life, so can you imagine what kind of mood he’s going to be in someday when they thaw his body and resurrect him and he finds out that Hallmark made him into an ornament.

2003: Jason Giambi

Giambi has sort of, kind off confessed to doing something improper after he came back spring training looking a lot smaller, and no one believed his initial claim that yoga was responsible. You’d think that Hallmark would try to avoid Yankees. Actually, I’m OK with the company using Bombers any time it wants.

2004: Willie Mays

Ahhh. Here we go. The Say Hey Kid. It’s all good. Except, of course, that the former Met is for some reason depicted as playing for some other team. And since then, he’s witnessed his beloved godson become the poster child for alleged steroid use.

2004: Barry Bonds

Speaking of Willie’s godson, Barry’s life pretty much went to hell after Hallmark dropped this present. He barely played the season after the ornament was released, and we all know what’s happened since. Does the trial start soon?

2005: Albert Pujols

Hallmark clearly tried to learn from its past mistakes and picked a picked a squeaky clean player from a great baseball city. The next season, Pujols broke down and missed three weeks of the season, losing just enough of the season to allow the now-jinxed Ryan Howard to pad his stats just enough for misguided sportswriters give Howard the MVP award.

2006: Alex Rodriguez

OK, let’s see. Since getting his Hallmark ornament, ARod confessed to PED use, dated Madonna, and was revealed to have a painting of himself as a centaur. He hit his 600th career home run this month, and no one cared. Even Yankee hacks like Bob Klapisch downplayed the accomplishment.

2007: David Ortiz

Hallmark robbed Ortiz of his power. Big Papi went from 54 homers to 35 to 23 to 11 last year. There was talk that the Sox were trying to find a way of cutting his slumping butt before he picked things up a little bit.

2008: Nomar Garciaparra

This was a surprise pick, because Nomar was already in decline when he was fitted for the tree. But 2008 was a nightmare. Battered by injuries – including one that mysteriously came when the Dodgers needed a roster spot for Manny Ramirez – Nomar played in just 55 games and drove in just 28 runs. He ended up with the A’s and a mere three homers last year, and now he’s just Mr. Mia Hamm.

2009: Johan Santana

There is no need to recount the struggles of the 2009 Mets, or Santana’s season-ending surgery right after this ornament was announced. Damn you, Hallmark.

So, Phillie fans, I feel your pain. Well, not the Phillie fan was sent to jail for “vomit assault.” Or the Phillie fan was felt the gentle sting of the taser when he ran on the field. And probably not the Phillie fan shown on television allowing his pre-K son to drink from a beer bottle.

Come to think of it, Phillie fans kind of deserve this. Way to go, Hallmark!