March 23, 2010

The legacy of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies.

I used to tell anyone willing to listen that a World Series victory would be more satisfying than winning the Super Bowl. I said that the drawn-out, never-ending intensity of a seven-game baseball playoff series, where so much rides on every pitch, was unmatched in sports. I thought that battling past three of the eight best teams in Major League Baseball, the only remaining sport in which earning a postseason berth is a true accomplishment, would confirm my team’s superiority. I just felt that a World Series involving the Philadelphia Phillies would be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

And, of course, I was proven right.

Not through direct comparison, unfortunately. I imagine that if the Eagles had won a championship sometime during the early Andy Reid era, I’d have happily eaten my words and called the joy of a Super Bowl win "indescribable."

But that’s not what happened. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008, showing unbelievable resilience every time they faced adversity. And unlike a surprising NFL team that pulls off three quick wins en route to an unexpected Super Bowl title, the kind of championship that often goes into the record books with an implied asterisk attached (see the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers), the Phillies won 11 grueling games against above-average teams, cementing their status as deserving champions.

They may not have taken down the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, but I’ve heard very few people doubt the validity of knocking off the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. They weren’t world-beaters, but they were all worthy opponents. And although at the time no one cared how we won, in retrospect it's nice to see that baseball’s exclusionary playoff system and double-digit championship win requirement makes even an unexpected title merited and justifiable.

And by winning, they took over the city. Last year’s repeat appearance in the Series, unsuccessful as it was, only reaffirmed that the Eagles have been usurped as kings of Philadelphia. We now expect great things from the Phillies.

But we haven’t gotten cocky. I’d say far from it.

From the mid-1980s on, Philadelphia teams simply weren’t good enough. The Flyers ran into juggernauts like the Islanders and Oilers and then couldn’t find a goalie, the Sixers made a series of boneheaded moves that included giving away the number one overall pick in 1986 and two of the top 50 players of all time (Moses and Barkley) and the Eagles just plain couldn’t get over the hump. There were no curses, the fix was never in – other teams were just consistently better.

The Phillies changed that to a certain extent – we’ve seen that winning is possible, especially at Citizens Bank Park. But we aren’t filled with a newfound sense of hope. We still attach stigmas of loserdom to players like Donovan McNabb, deciding that the odds of a McNabb-led Eagles team winning it all are zero.

Hell, I do this myself. I want McNabb sold off to the highest bidder, and I want Kevin Kolb behind center in 2010. Is this wise? Possibly not, but Kolb has a sense of newness around him; he could still be somebody in this city. McNabb is the guy who quarterbacked all those teams that couldn’t get the job done.

Is that fair? No. But it’s kind of reassuring. It’s heartening to see that Philadelphia fans haven’t gone through a large-scale metamorphosis, that our ability to pick apart underachievers remains intact. A lot of the time, bitching about how your team sucks is as entertaining as winning, and it certainly lasts longer. I’ve written a bunch about the 2008 World Series, but I’m sure I’ve written a lot more about how Move X or Play Y blew up in the Eagles’ face.

Obviously, some people who do things like endlessly rip Donovan McNabb are missing the big picture: that he’s one of the top four or five quarterbacks of the last decade. Those don’t grow on trees. But at the same time, it’s important to be realistic – McNabb honestly probably won’t win a title as an Eagle, and it won’t be for lack of opportunities.

Again, granted, few quarterbacks ever do. Hell, Peyton Manning may be the most talented quarterback ever, and he cost his team a second Super Bowl two months ago. His playoff record is .500.

But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m trying to say that while the Eagles have settled into their role as "frustrating losers," the Phillies took advantage of a giant gap in the city’s collective heart. For one month of playoff baseball, they were defiantly better than everyone in their path, and in turn, they have risen to a higher plane of consciousness. They’ve reached Philadelphia sports nirvana.

They have the immeasurable intangibles that we like to pretend are discernible. They have giant rings on their fingers; they’re World Fucking Champions. And it all happened so fast, in such an enjoyable fashion, that I don’t even remember having time to be pessimistic. I remember being nervous, sure, but I don’t recall thinking that any other team was better. I thought we had as good a chance as anyone, and it turned out that we did.

That added something to everyone associated with the 2008 squad, something McNabb will never get (even if the Eagles somehow win in 2010, which won’t happen when fucking Marlin Jackson and Darryl Tapp are your big acquisitions). They haven’t changed our psyche as sports fans; they’ve changed how we perceive them, how they are judged by fans and the media.

People always say players on a winning sports team will "never have to pay for a drink in this city again." Well, I don’t know if I could even buy a member of the 2008 Phillies a drink. They’re otherworldly creatures. I live in awe of them and the joy they brought to everyone who watched them. They took a beleaguered city and turned it on its ear for a few quick weeks, won a title, led a parade down Broad Street, and now live on forever in our collective consciousness.

Like everyone else, I’m salivating at the promise of Roy Halladay in 2010. And I love Raul Ibanez and pray that he can stay healthy for at least one more full season. But they weren’t there in 2008, so until they prove it, they’re still question marks. That's probably why we miss Cliff Lee so much – even though we know Halladay is better, we’ve seen Cliff on the big stage. He was arguably the only Phillie in last year’s Series with a 2008-level of mystique, and he wasn’t even around in 2008. We respected the hell out of that.

But as long as Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are in the clubhouse, we'll know the possibility of ultimate success is there. When Cole Hamels walks out to the mound, even if he’s in a 2009-like slump, we know what he’s capable of, and we wait for it to emerge once again. And even when Matt Stairs came to the plate last year, a shell of his former self, we remembered the time that he launched one into the night against Jonathan Broxton, and we believed that he could do it again.

That’s what winning a World Series did -- it turned ordinary men into legends. It wasn’t Donovan McNabb finally breaking through after years of failure, extinguishing so many demons. That would be satisfying in its own way, but like I always said, winning the World Series was so much better. I just didn’t realize exactly what about it would be oh so sweet.

March 16, 2010

This isn't turning into the party hangout I'd hoped.

Darren Sproles, Julius Peppers/Ray Edwards, Antoine Bethea/O.J. Atogwe. Moving one of our three talented quarterbacks for a high draft pick.

Mike Bell, Darryl Tapp, Marlin Jackson. The increasing likelihood that all three quarterbacks will remain on the roster.

Pardon me if I'm not that excited for the 2010 NFL season.

I've already listed what I thought the Philadelphia Eagles should do this offseason. And, of course, none of it happened.

To be fair, they did address what I considered to be three areas of need: running back, defensive line and safety. There will be new, warm bodies in Lehigh in late July at each position, and they're all (relatively) talented.

Bell is a bruising runner, Jackson was a first-round draft pick in 2005 and Tapp had seven sacks and three forced fumbles in 2007.

But...

Bell eked out an unimpressive 3.8 yards a carry in 2009, Jackson has torn his ACL two years in a row, and Tapp had only 2.5 sacks last year, not to mention the fact that I'd never heard his name before today.

As depth additions, they'd all be fine. They'd fit perfectly as backups or second-and-third options on a team looking merely to plug holes.

But for a team that that was beaten by a cumulative score of 58-14 in the last two games of 2009, for a team that needed significant upgrades, these three are not enough.

If the Eagles do not add several other impact veterans before the start of the season, they have no chance of making the Super Bowl, let alone winning it. And if, despite what would then be a glaringly obvious inability to win a championship, they keep an essentially lame-duck Donovan McNabb for a final season wrought with questions and controversy, they'd turn the team into a media circus that would be destroyed on a weekly basis by fans and media alike.

It would be a disaster. If they don't make a big move, and fast, the 2010 Philadelphia Eagles season will have all the makings of a train wreck, and we, the fans, can only sit and watch it happen.

March 14, 2010

Who are you?

The Philadelphia Flyers have 14 games left to figure out who they are.

Are they the team that dominated the New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens in two early February home-and-homes, the team that came from behind in extremely dramatic fashion to upend the 44-18-6 Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday afternoon?

Or are they the team that was embarrassed by both the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, two key Eastern Conference rivals, over the last four days? Are they what they often seem to be, an inconsistent bunch of overpaid underachievers?

No one knows for sure. For now, they're both, a Jekyll and Hyde team that says all the right things, looks great on paper and comes up short when it counts.

In the NHL, a win can wipe the slate clean on even the worst game. In other sports, it would be just another notch in the right column, but the two points a victory earns you in hockey are invaluable.

So when the Flyers were struggling post-Olympics, losing to the Buffalo Sabres and squeaking out wins over the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, no one complained too loudly. They were taking care of business, beating bad teams and racking up just enough points. Good play or not, the Flyers seemed to be, at the very least, locking up a playoff spot.

The Chicago victory was the textbook example of the "a win is a win" philosophy: Until the end of the second period, Michael Leighton was carrying the team on his back. And until the very, very end of the third period, the game seemed destined to be a loss. But after the goals by Scott Hartnell and Chris Pronger, it became, unquestionably, the biggest victory of the year. Even more than that, it looked like it could be the turning point in the season, a spark that would light a fire under the Flyers' asses.

But after another lackluster performance today, the Flyers are 4-3-1 in their last eight. That's been good enough to hold onto sixth place in the East but not the kind of record that will help gain any ground on nearby Ottawa and New Jersey. They're also still in very real danger of dipping into the final two playoff spots, which would mean a first-round trip to either our nation's capital or the home of the defending Stanley Cup champions. Those are not places the Philadelphia Flyers want to go.

There was an article by Sam Carchidi in today's Philadelphia Inquirer that took notice as to how the 2008 and 2009 Flyers ended their regular seasons. The 2008 Flyers finished up 7-1-1 and made a surprising appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 2009 Flyers memorably coasted into the playoffs with a 7-7-1 record and were wiped out in six games by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A hot finish would in no way guarantee the Flyers playoff success; we've all seen teams flounder when it counts for absolutely no reason, and we've also seen teams, often ones packed with veterans, who are able to flip a switch and get into postseason mode in an instant.

If you remember, the 2009 Flyers closed the regular season acting like they had this ability. Two weeks later, they were playing golf. For this year's team, one that brought in long-time leaders like Ian Laperriere, Chris Pronger and Blair Betts, there'd be no excuse for that kind of behavior. Playing hard for three periods a night over the last four weeks of the year, especially under a fiery ass-kicker like Peter Laviolette, should not be that much to ask.

2010 has already been a letdown of a season: John Stevens got fired, Ray Emery got injured, Scott Hartnell and Simon Gagne got (for the most part) shitty and the team continues to hover around mediocrity. No one expects much from them in the playoffs, but we all do expect them to get in. And while they probably don't have the talent to take down Washington or even Pittsburgh, we saw what they're capable of on Saturday. If Leighton can keep up his strong play, if the lines start to click and if the defense continues to be steady, they can compete with anybody.

But, as always with the Philadelphia Flyers, it's not a question whether they can. It's a question of whether they will.

March 13, 2010

A passionate defense of In & Out.

I love Kevin Kline.

I love Dave. I love A Fish Called Wanda and Wild Wild West. I even love his cameo in Definitely, Maybe, one of the most underrated rom coms of the 2000's.

And I really, really love In & Out. I remember seeing it with my entire family when I was 12, and although I had to ask my dad what "pussy boy" meant afterward, I liked it a lot more than a little kid probably should. As I told my roommate while we watched it last night, it's the perfect "light comedy," except that this particular example comes equipped with a message.

If you haven't seen it, a quick summation: Kevin Kline is an effeminate English teacher who a young actor (played by Matt Dillon) unexpectedly outs during the Academy Awards. He struggles to deal with the media's descent on his quaint town, including a mustache-less Tom Selleck, who is openly gay and eventually kisses him. At his wedding to Joan Cusack, Kline finally admits that he's gay, and after a while, his family and the town come to terms with it. He then presumably has off-screen sex with Selleck, that lucky bastard.

Considering that gay rights are still hotly debated in 2010, it's no surprise that the movie, a 1997 release, takes a delicate approach to homosexuality. No one seems to have any idea what being gay actually means, and no one really thinks to ask. Stereotypical responses ensue, including "young men covering their genitals when the possibly gay man enters the locker room" and "town secretly tries to get gay teacher fired for fear that his gayness will corrupt the impressionable children."

But that's OK, because In & Out knows its limits. In a way, it's kind of like a period piece. In 1997, unless you had a good reason, you probably didn't spend too much time thinking about homosexuality. And I don't doubt that many people from that era (ugh, "era"; as if it was the Roaring Twenties or the 60's) reacted in such an awkward way towards gay people, partially because people still do now. Maybe not in such a silly, cinematic fashion, but probably close to it. But the genius behind In & Out is that this light comedy takes a serious, then-unexplored issue and injects a dash of...light comedy, and that makes it a lot easier to ignore the occasional stupid scene or inane response to Dillon's revelation.

But the real reason we, the audience, are willing to accept this kind of necessary ignorance is the movie's wonderful cast. Kline is perfect as the closeted teacher, Cusack got an Academy Award nomination as his screeching fiancée and Selleck is even better as the overeager reporter. One can only wonder why Magnum P.I. shaved for this movie; perhaps Kline demanded it, as he otherwise foresaw his upper lip being constantly tickled during their kiss.

And you can't say enough about Bob Newhart's performance as the principal. The king of seemingly unintentional comedy, a comedy rookie might watch In & Out and think Newhart was an actual bumbling idiot, but as Newhart has said in the past, "that stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills." The movie plays to his strengths as much as anybody's, and it all pays off in the end credits. Kline jumps behind Newhart in a conga line, and the look on the principal's face when he realizes who is grabbing onto his ass is priceless. Thank God he survived the three hours of air he was limited to during the 2006 Emmys.

Although it chooses to consciously ignore the deeper issues behind closeted homosexuality, the movie does have a touching ending. Dillon arrives to right the small wrongs he's caused, and with the full-fledged support of a Best Actor winner (celebrities: is there anything they can't do?), the town rallies behind Kline and his preference for penis. It's not very deep, but there's some truth there -- the love of friends and family can get you through a whole lot. Even though real life doesn't always come with so much unconditional love, when Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley's mustache are your parents, we realize that sometimes it can.

And that's a great message to attach to this light comedy. That honesty can work out in the end, that being true to yourself is key to happiness, and that you have to trust in those you care about to care about you. In & Out may leave a lot...well, out, and what it brings to the table is nothing groundbreaking. But for a late 90's, homosexuality-themed comedy that offers some sweetness and actually induces laughter, what more can you ask for?

March 11, 2010

A passionate defense of 2012.

I really enjoy movies. I own over 150 of them on DVD, and I try and go to the cinema at least once a week. However, although I attempt to avoid this whenever possible, sometimes I can be a movie snob. A few of my favorite flicks are by directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, filmmakers that many find quite pretentious, and I'd usually rather go see the latest indie movie at the art theater down the street than the shoot-em-up action picture at the multiplex a few blocks away.

But I'm not always that way. I have a few guilty pleasures that I'm not afraid to discuss in great detail. One is Rush Hour 2, which I plan to passionately defend at a later date. Another is The Terminal, a light comedy that most people would call "minor Hanks." And then there are disaster movies.

To be fair, lots of people like disaster movies. Obviously, there are big crowd pleasers like Independence Day that almost everyone enjoys. There are also mini-disaster movies like Daylight, where the world isn't going to end but stuff sure is going to fall apart or blow up. Those are a bit more polarizing but ultimately still very entertaining.

And then there is the granddaddy of them all, Armageddon. I've probably written more words on Armageddon than any sane man should, and if provoked, I'd write some more. But a new disaster movie has emerged that warrants discussion, one not at Armageddon's level but still a masterpiece of the genre. That movie is 2012.

When the 2012 trailer debuted in early 2009, a lot of people groaned but I cheered. This was what I was waiting for: another epic explosion-fest from ID4 director Roland Emmerich with a cast that rivaled the 1996 alien-invasion classic. Danny Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, George Segal, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and acclaimed indie director (and sometimes actor) Thomas McCarthy? Where do I sign up?

I was hooked from day one. Yet somehow, unfortunately, I did not catch 2012 in theaters. Maybe it was because no one would see it with me, maybe I was just inexcusably busy; I honestly cannot remember. But I've regretted it every day since, and for the last several weeks, 2012 sat near the top of my Netflix queue as I patiently awaited its DVD release.

Finally, it arrived. And it did not disappoint. Please note that the paragraphs below contain massive 2012 spoilers. If you plan to Netflix this gem on your own time, please X out of this website right now.

The first thing I noticed about the film was its brutality. In these types of movies, there are often scenes where a supporting character will find him or herself in a sticky situation, only to be "surprisingly" saved by one of the heroes. But not in 2012. Segal and Ejiofor's movie-dad are introduced early as a lounge-lizard duo that seem destined to dispel countless pearls of old man wisdom, much like Judd Hirsch in ID4. But nope, their cruise ship is soon violently destroyed. Woody Harrelson pops up as a soothsaying crazy man who looks like he might be a pesky thorn in someone's side down the line. But nope, he is crushed in a volcanic explosion. And Danny Glover is the fucking President of the United States, so surely he'll survive the Earth's near-destruction. Nope, he is also brutally killed.

Deep Impact
dabbled in this as well, such as when Tea Leoni and her father both unexpectedly fall victim to a gigantic tidal wave, but it refrained from going the whole nine yards. 2012 does not; when it says that the world is ending, the world is fucking ending.

That is not to say that the movie doesn't wrap itself up in a nice, neat "happy ending" package. It does, and in a way that awkwardly forces a reaffirmation of your faith in humanity. Despite that, though, 2012 perseveres. This is because the movie doesn't waste time (its and yours) developing heroes and villains. Platt is the closest thing the movie has to a bad guy (unless you count the planet Earth, which is silly), but everything he does is backed by rationality. A cold, slightly twisted rationality, but come on, the world is fucking ending. You'd really be concerned about the greater good when a 20,000 foot tidal wave is right behind you? Let's just say that most moviegoers would probably be willing to cut Platt some slack.

Meanwhile, Cusack is the "good guy," but he's really just a schmuck who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Even though it seems like he's almost magically dodging debris and driving through falling buildings, nothing about him appears, or is, heroic. He just wants to save his family, and though he does so in the end, it's through oddly successful misadventures and mishaps more than anything. Hell, he almost single-handedly destroys one of the arks at the end with his stupid "everyman" behavior (granted, he does also single-handedly save that same ark; I never said this particular big-budget clusterfuck of a film was flawless).

It's interesting, though, because when 2012 came out, I remember people nitpicking Cusack and his family's survival. They said that Emmerich was glossing over the destruction of cities and the deaths of millions of people for the sake of a pretty picture and cool special effects, which is partly true but not the whole story. What I thought is that, even with the world ending, it's not that far-fetched that at least one family would be charmed enough to catch all the breaks and find their way out. Yes, everyone else was being crushed, but Cusack wasn't exactly using superhuman strength or intelligence to escape. He was 100% lucky, no doubt about it, and he's glorified appropriately. Like I said, almost everyone dies, but the odds are that someone would live. Emmerich might pull a few punches to make his movie, but I'd say it's a lot less cookie-cutter than it could be.

If you're one of those people who judges movies like 2012, Transformers and Armageddon before they even come out, I'd say you're missing out. Not just because you're writing off big, dumb action movies, but because you might not be fully appreciating the simpler things in life. 2012 does many of expected things wrong, but it also does a lot right. Emmerich recruited a very skilled cast, people who've recently starred in acclaimed films like Frost/Nixon, Children of Men or The Messenger. In the past, he's used equally unexpected actors like Jeff Goldblum, Matthew Broderick and Jake Gyllenhaal as his protagonists. He rarely, if ever, goes after heroes in the Stallone/Schwarzenegger vein, and I think there's something to be said for that.

2012 won't win any Oscars, but that shouldn't matter. It does what it's supposed to do very well, and if you're looking to be entertained for 158 minutes (trust me, it flies by), then you could do a lot worse.

March 10, 2010

Analyzing my past Springsteen shows.

While writing my recent review of Springsteen's River show, I got to thinking about the twelve Bruce shows I've seen. My first was October 21, 2005 in Providence, Rhode Island, and my last (as of right now) was August 23, 2009 in Mansfield, Massachusetts. It's been quite the journey, with over 125 different songs played by Springsteen solo, Bruce and the Seeger Sessions Band and the Boss and E Street themselves. So join me, if you will, in reliving the good and the (very mildly) bad from my dozen Bruce Springsteen concerts.

Most played: "Lonesome Day" and "The Rising" at 11 each, "The Promised Land," "Badlands," "Born to Run" and "American Land" at 10. I was very surprised that "Born" wasn't number one with a bullet, but he didn't play it at the solo show or the Seeger show. Unfortunately, he played one of the two Rising tunes at each. It's not an overstatement to say I fucking hate "Lonesome Day" and hope I never, ever hear it again. "American Land" is probably the only one on that list that I've enjoyed each time, although the "lights coming on at the start of 'Born'" thing had me hooked...up until my epic "four shows in eight days" adventure. Now I just wait patiently until it's over.

Biggest surprise: Probably that I've only heard "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" six times. It feels like a hundred. I used to like the Rising songs, I really did, but their replay value is practically zero. I was also very impressed that I've heard "Working On The Highway" and "I'm Goin' Down" three times, "Thundercrack" twice and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" five times. God, I love "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," and in the grand scheme of things "Thundercrack" and "I'm Goin'" are extremely rare treats.

Biggest regret: That my musical education was so lacking in 2006, both in Springsteen and in general. The Seeger Sessions show I saw that year featured "Long Black Veil" and "Rag Mama Rag" by The Band (who are now one of my top-five favorite groups of all time), along with "My City of Ruins" and "Ramrod." I never heard any of those songs again. God damn it, 2006 version of me.

Worst realization: How fucking repetitive so many of the Working on a Dream shows really were. "Outlaw Pete" six times, "Working on a Dream" six times, "Johnny 99" six times, "Raise Your Hand" five times, "Hard Times" five times, "Seeds" five times, "Land of Hope and Dreams" four times, "Kingdom of Days" four times. Jesus. Before this tour, I honestly believed that each Springsteen show was a different experience. I used this as a constant defense when people bashed my outrageous show-attendance schedule. Now I realize that I was just an idiot who totally wasted a good amount of his disposable income in 2009. Bah.

Thank God I heard: "So Young and In Love," the aforementioned Band tunes (I like to think I enjoyed them, even when I didn't know what they were), "The Ties That Bind" (twice!), "Kitty's Back" (thrice!), two "Jungleland"'s and three "Rosalita"'s. No Springsteen fan's collection is complete without those two.

Covers!: "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Trapped," "Seven Nights to Rock," "You Can't Sit Down," "Detroit Medley," "London Calling," "Burning Love," "You Never Can Tell," "Hang On Sloopy." Besides the full albums (which, of course, I never got to hear), the best part of the Working on a Dream tour.

Bookends: Heard "The River" at my first Providence show and my last Mansfield show. Not my favorite tune in the world, probably not even in my top 50, but hey, there must be some symbolism there. If you find it, let me know.

March 7, 2010

Reviewing a five-month-old Springsteen show.

My friend Rob Turbovsky, one of the funniest men I know and owner of this moderately neato Twitter account, gave me a truly magical gift last week. No, it wasn't a reach-around! It was a bootleg of Bruce Springsteen's November 8th show at Madison Square Garden.

Now, I saw Bruce six times on this same tour, so in theory, this doesn't seem like that great a present. But by all accounts, including my own, this was one of the best shows he and the E Street Band have ever performed.

For you see, this was The River show. For the first time, Springsteen played this epic double album in its entirety. And that ended up being as awesome as it sounds. Join me, if you will, as I review this show I never saw, five months after it happened...

First off, the bad. As expected, there wasn't much to criticize, but it wasn't 100% perfect. Bruce mangled his first solo verse on "Hungry Heart," "Wrecking Ball" might have carried some significance at the now-exploded Meadowlands but it's subpar as a general show-opener, "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" has quietly sucked since...well, since it was first played, and "I'm A Rocker," one of my favorite Springsteen guilty pleasures, sounded pretty awful.

But that's being very, very nitpicky. In general, the show was unspeakably tremendous. Bruce brought so much passion to "Fade Away" and "Drive All Night," two of the best "serious songs" on the album. Songs like "Independence Day" and "Stolen Car," not usually something you'd request to hear live, carried the same gravitas that you heard on the album 30 years ago. And while "Ramrod" wasn't as good as this classic version...



...it didn't matter. Like all passionate Bruce fans, I do my fair share of complaining about Springsteen, but bashing this version feels like dismissing Cinderella Man because it inadequately compares to Rocky and Raging Bull. It might be a worse "movie that prominently features boxing" but it's still a minor masterpiece in its own right, and you're only hurting yourself if you demean it with an off-base assumption.

You also got "The Ties That Bind" (also heard by yours truly at the far-shittier Philly II show in April), which is an underrated song that I can't believe never picked up traction as a single. "Crush On You" was another gem from the evening; it gets a lot of shit, but I think Bruce was right when he called it a "a hidden masterpiece." Not every song needs to have a deeper meaning or eloquent lyrics piled on top of each other. Sometimes its fun just to rock out. And let's not forget the always-appreciated "Atlantic City" that followed up the River part of the show. The full band version is always a treat, less despair-y than the one on Nebraska but still sounding so fucking good:



What I love more than anything, though, are his latest cover choices. I heard "Seven Nights to Rock" at Boston II several months ago, but they rocked it twice as hard at MSG. "Sweet Soul Music" is three minutes and thirty seconds of pure joy, even though Springsteen couldn't come up with interesting ad-libs for the "Spotlight on the Big Man/Little Steven" parts. "Can't Help Falling in Love" is a nice quick little curveball, nothing I need but certainly not anything to disregard.

And "Higher and Higher," while possibly perfected the night before with a guest appearance from Elvis Costello, is such a terrific show-closer. Bruce is a genius at finding the perfect song to stretch to the max, turning two-minute-and-forty-nine-seconds of soul single into an almost ten-minute orgasm of musical pleasure, with the song being pushed to the limit and Springsteen demanding that the band pile on until they almost collapse.



All in all, it was three hours of excellence. Plus, the bootleg sounded amazing, maybe even better than the stuff from Live/1975-85. I don't know how that's possible, unless the recorder was up Garry Tallent's butt, but I'm not complaining.

I felt like an idiot in November for not taking a bus to New York and blowing $200 bucks on this show, especially after I heard the glowing reviews, but having this unexpected masterpiece dropped in my lap makes me feel a lot better about it. I've heard the band is taking at least a year off, which is understandable when you think how how hard they've been pushing themselves. But knowing that they were basically at their peak when the tour ended, specifically in this unbelievable show, I hope they decide to come back in full force afterwards. And if they decide to play full albums a few more times, I certainly won't complain.

March 3, 2010

Reason number three why the Phillies will return to the World Series.

Four and a half full seasons. 220 home runs. 635 runs batted in. A .961 career OPS. An MVP award, a Rookie of the Year award and two All-Star teams.

Simply put, there is no one in baseball like Ryan Howard.

Prince Fielder might be semi-Howard-esque, but his career OPS is 40 points lower and his roughly 40-homer, 110-RBI pace pales in comparison to Howard's 50-and-140 mashing abilities.

Does the Prince hit for a higher average? Yes. Does he hit lefties better than Howard? Yes. But that's not what the Philadelphia brain trust asks from our monstrous first baseman. The Phillies pay Ryan Howard to destroy right-handed pitching and crush fastballs, and he does both of those things (1.070 OPS against RHP and fifth overall in runs above average per 100 fastballs faced the last three years) better than almost anyone in the game.

Basically, if you're looking for baseball's best power hitter, you're looking in the right place. He might not be Albert Pujols, but who is? Very few people in the history of baseball (which is quite an expansive amount of time) can compare favorably to Pujols, and coming up short in that regard should not be a slight against Howard.

There was a time, though, when Howard seemed like he might become difficult to work with, someone who overvalues his own contributions and undervalues the unique way this current Phillies team appreciates his skill set. Howard's early-career posturing made it appear that, above all else, he wanted a $200 million contract and the respect that comes with that kind of money. And who doesn't? No one faulted him for that specific desire, but everyone thought it was fairly obvious that Howard wasn't Pujols, wasn't Alex Rodriguez, wasn't an all-time legend in the making. He was great, yes, but most likely great in the Mo Vaughn, Carlos Delgado, (ahem) Cecil Fielder way. A great short-term slugger, but not a player beyond comparison.

But then the Phillies won a relatively unexpected World Series championship, in great part due to Howard's three home runs and six RBIs in the Fall Classic. And then Howard agreed to a very reasonable three-year extension with new general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. And THEN he got in great shape and focused on his defense with third-base coach Sam Perlozzo. Did something click in his head? Did he realize he loved this team, the city, these fans? Did he decide that, if he was really going to be a $200 million superstar, he had some work to do?

We might never know for sure, but the .279/.360/.571 line he put up in 2009, combined with greatly improved defense, spoke volumes. Ryan Howard has his limits, but we can never dog him for being complacent, or lacking ambition. He may never actually get his nine-digit payday, and if he does, it probably won't be here. But during his time in Philadelphia, he's become a beloved sports icon, and he's cemented himself as the game's premier big bopper. There's a lot to be said about a guy like that; surround him with an MVP-caliber second baseman and a very skilled complimentary cast, and you've got a World Series-winning offense. We've seen it before, and we could easily see it again.

My only Ryan Howard complaint, however, is an odd one, something that has nothing to do with the man himself. Why are we being told to call him the "Big Piece"? Who came up with that? How is "Big Piece" better than "Big Man"? I know that "Big Man" was already adopted by another famous, giant black man, possibly the coolest giant black man of all time. But I highly doubt that Clarence Clemons would mind if we borrowed it for Ryan Howard. I bet Clarence Clemons loves Ryan Howard even more than I do.

But aside from all that, let's not forget this one last key aspect, something discussed much less than the Big Man's big bat: the almost unparalleled equilibrium between Ryan Howard and Phillies management. Hell, between everyone and Phillies management. Amaro and Pat Gillick have built an organization that people want to play for, where they'll forgo super long-term contracts and flourish in a beautiful ballpark with a great team and loving fans. That, along with Howard's mighty lumber, acquired taste for championship success and commitment to his own continued excellence, is why the Phillies will return to the World Series.

March 2, 2010

Three videos that sum up my sense of humor.

I've been told by a bunch of people, including several good friends and numerous women (who don't usually mean it in a good way), that I have an odd sense of humor. Guilty as charged.

Some might call it "eclectic," others would choose "quirky." But it's not all weird. Two of my favorite shows are "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld," hits of the most mainstream variety. I really enjoyed the zillion-dollar behemoth known as The Hangover, and I consider Rush Hour 2 to be the greatest buddy-action-comedy of all time.

Nevertheless, many of the things I laugh at might be a bit different than what makes normal folk in middle America guffaw. And, like most people who live on the fringe, I take more pride in my love of alternative comedy than I do in the generic stuff everybody likes.

So if I had to sum up my sense of humor in three videos, these are the ones I'd choose. Enjoy; by the end, you'll have a deep understanding of what makes Steve Cimino tick:


The incomparable Tim and Eric present "My 2 Fathers."



The unbelievable "Porcupine Racetrack" from The State.



And finally, these guys (who miss way more than they hit) present the best five seconds in Internet comedy.