July 31, 2010

A passionate defense of Little Big League.

You always hear movie critics complaining about summer blockbusters, the emphasis on return on investment over competent filmmaking, and the fact that cinema as art has gone downhill since the high tide of the 1970's. (Read Peter Biskind's excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls if you want to know more.)

But I'm here to lament a different thing: the disappearance of the children's sports movie.

When I was a kid, there were a plethora of fantastic sports movies for kids. Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield, Little Giants, D2: The Mighty Ducks, The Sandlot -- those days are gone. Every kids movie nowadays is animated or involves some kind of CGI talking dog. No one wants to take a simple sports story, fill it with a few jokes that adults might appreciate too, populate the cast with outstanding character actors and make a movie. And that's a damn shame.

But of all these young people sports movies of the past, Little Big League was king. The plot revolves around Billy Heywood (played by Luke Edwards and also known, in his more serious moments, as Bill), the grandson of the owner of the Minnesota Twins. Billy's a baseball nut, so of course his grandfather sees fit to leave him the team when he dies. Equally as improbable is Billy's decision to manage the floundering team, re-infect its players with child-like wonder and lead the Twins to a winner-take-all showdown with Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and the Seattle Mariners. (Both played by themselves; Junior in particular has a great exchange with star first baseman Lou Collins, played by Timothy Busfield, that I'll discuss later.)

First off, the casting. John Ashton, who you'd recognize from Beverly Hills Cop or Midnight Run, is perfect as Mac, Billy's bench coach and baseball mentor. The always-exquisite Dennis Farina plays the screaming, over-the-top manager pushed out the door by new owner Billy (literally the same exact role he'd go onto play in Eddie), and Scott Patterson, the requisite "player disgusted to play for a kid who eventually realizes the error of his ways," is a veteran of Seinfeld, several Saw movies and this extremely weird slideshow. And he's a Philadelphia native!

For a kid's movie, it's remarkably funny. Jonathan Silverman, the definition of "early '90's comedic star that immediately fell from grace," knocks it out of the park in scenes like this one. There's a subplot about Billy ordering porn and his mom finding out, which is both tastefully done and slightly risque for a movie aimed at kiddies. Hell, the movie even makes Chris Berman look funny. I can't find a link to that scene, unfortunately, so here he is yelling like an asshole instead.

The baseball montages are also among the best I've seen in a sports movie. They're so good that I just spent 20 minutes Googling "Little Big League baseball montage" in the hope of finding a clip, but alas, none seem to exist. The filmmakers (yes, the people behind Little Big League are indeed filmmakers) use "Stuff You Gotta Watch" by The Band and "Runaround Sue" by Dion as the perfect background tunes for these montages, and the acrobatic plays within seem straight from a MLB highlight reel. Not to gush endlessly, but it's the kind of touch we tend to take for granted. Little Big League, however, does it right.

The decision to use real baseball players and personalities (10-year MLB veteran Kevin Elster plays Twins shortstop Pat Corning; Patterson and the guy who played "Blackout" Gatling have major league experience; the "Touch 'em all, Mickey Scales!" broadcaster is John Gordon, the real voice of the Twins; and Paul O'Neill, Pudge Rodriguez and Raffy Palmeiro all make cameos) also adds an authentic feel to the movie. As absurd as the concept may be, Luke Edwards finds himself embroiled in enough adult scenarios (releasing an aged fan favorite, going mad with power after months of publicity and praise) that we can't help but invest ourselves in his life. And anyway, there's Carlos Baerga! This movie is so realistic!

But, as weird as it sounds, it all comes back to Timothy Busfield. Lou Collins is one of the great sports movie characters of all time. There's the amazing aforementioned scene where Griffey brags about his plans to steal second, third and home and Lou responds, "Gotta do what you gotta do, Junior." There's the scene when Billy insists Lou move a few inches to his right, then a few more, then a few more, and then Lou immediately snags a liner right into his glove. These scenes are all made considerably better by the fact that Busfield played semi-pro baseball; he looks like a real player out there.

Most people probably don't enjoy this movie on the level that I do, and that's understandable. I just greatly respect the care that went into casting this movie, the believability of the actors, the simple yet endearing story, the clever script and the adult themes that lift it above general Disney fare; no one seems to put all these things together anymore. Movies for kids nowadays are thrown-together animated ordeals with big-name voice actors and flashy visuals, or something else equally dumbed-down and mass-marketed. The truth is, there may never be another Little Big League, and that should upset even the most optimistic among us.

July 29, 2010

Roy story 2.

Back in May, the Philadelphia Phillies were ten games over .500. And as an annoying, easily excitable baseball fan, I couldn't help but tweet something along the lines of "Man, it sure is fun to root for the best team in baseball!" to the masses.

Of course, every non-Phillies fan that follows me flipped out, and the baseball gods noticed and punished my team appropriately. They always do. Since then, the Phillies season has been maddeningly up and down, to the point where I called for the team to trade Jayson Werth and focus on 2011 no more than a week ago.

Luckily, Ruben Amaro Jr. didn't listen to that part of my blog post. He did, however, listen to the parts about calling up Dom Brown and trading for another ace. The former, while exciting, might prove to be temporary. The latter, though, may very well shape the Phillies' 2010 fortunes.

In general, most Phillies fans have been pro-Roy Oswalt throughout the negotiating process, but there was also an unmistakable layer of fear coating every response. No one wanted to be part of a fleecing, especially since confidence in Amaro was at an all-time low, and everyone wondered if another ace was really the answer, especially post-Lee. Would the Astros pry away Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart or any of the other big-name low-level prospects that the Phillies had suddenly stockpiled? Was it worth it to sell off these assets for an injury-prone, soon-to-be 33-year-old starter?

As I sat on Twitter this morning watching the Oswalt-related reports trickle in, I saw everyone's mood change from "cautiously optimistic" to "outrageously excited" as the Phillies became the ones doing the fleecing. At first, it seemed like Singleton was going to be included, a concern that grew when the Astros kicked in a boatload of cash. Then everyone got nervous about Cosart being involved, about the names remaining unconfirmed, about Oswalt's back and about Happ's affordable upside.

But at the end of the day, we were all happy. There's an element of risk to every trade; if the ace's arm falls off the day after you acquire him, even if it's through no fault of your own, they'll burn you in effigy forever (unless you're Pat Gillick and win a championship one year later). It's safer to stick with the guys you know, particularly when you've been to two straight World Series.

But Amaro did what he does best, which is make big trades in July. Last offseason, times were tougher. Numerous teams were serious about Roy Halladay, and Amaro turned out to be under an strict economic ceiling that forced a knee-jerk Lee trade to the first interested party. Without the pressure of empty stadiums, bloated payrolls and underperforming rosters, the bad teams felt unusually competitive and the good teams thought they could get away with underspending. Hence the interest in acquiring Halladay, and hence the "need" to move Lee.

Over the last few weeks, however, it was amazing to watch Oswalt's suitors fall by the wayside, and then to see the Angels underpay significantly for Dan Haren, and then to find out that the Phillies got away with what is, by all counts, a ho-hum offer for a pitcher with a career 134 ERA+. In the middle of a pennant race, with the risk of a $140 million investment going to waste, Phillies ownership was suddenly ready to open the purse strings a little, especially if the Astros were willing to chip in. And all of a sudden, Amaro didn't seem as concerned with emptying the minor league cupboard, especially if it meant an extra $11 million coming in from Houston. This convergence of good timing and good fortune has brought the Phillies a third ace. He might not be the one we all wanted, but let's not hold that against him. Please.

There's always the chance that Oswalt will get injured, that J.A. Happ will return to his Rookie of the Year form, that Jonathan Villar will be the next Jimmy Rollins and that the Astros instantly flipping Anthony Gose for Brett Wallace will end up being a stroke of genius (actually, that part is probably true). But I imagine Astros fans probably feel a lot like Phillies fans did after the Cliff Lee trade: upset at moving a beloved known commodity for maturing prospects with high upsides but absolutely no guarantees.

All I know is that this has been an amazing week. Not only have the Phillies won seven straight games, but the Domonator and Roy 2.0 are in town. The 2010 season has never been more exciting, not even back in the spring days of overly enthusiastic tweets. Maybe I don't root for the unquestioned "best" team in baseball, but 29 other teams have zero Roys. We have two. Be jealous.

July 27, 2010

The golden age of television.

Editor's Note: If a show is mentioned that you haven't seen yet, be careful. I might spoil it for you. Keep reading, of course, but read cautiously.

I remember, at some point in 2002, stumbling upon the pilot episode of The Shield. Up to that point, I didn't watch much TV. I was an avid fan of The Simpsons, Frasier and Seinfeld, but I never invested my time in anything else. For some reason, however, I decided to give this new FX show a chance.

If you haven't seen it, buy the entire series immediately. It's the best $100 you'll ever spend. I was hooked; first chance I got, I told my friends about my new obsession. Coincidentally, they had their own series to share with me: 24. Season 1 had ended, but I was able to buy the box set at Best Buy soon after.

And of course, like everyone else, I fell in love with the show's action-packed, edge-of-your-seat brand of serial drama. So began my love affair with television, and, coincidentally, the golden age of television.

Everything changed after I met Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer, for both myself and the medium. My interest in 24, along with the quality of the show, evaporated after a few seasons, but I followed The Shield until its bitter, heart-pounding end. I watched Season 1 of The Sopranos with my brother in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother's house; we packed it into about 30 hours, stopping only to sleep and eat. We flew through Season 2 soon after.

I loved every second of the first season of Lost, but not as much as I loved the first season of Twin Peaks. I might be the only remaining Sports Night fan on Earth. Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Party Down, The Office (British version only, please), 30 Rock, Community, Eastbound & Down...I've torn through them all.

And I haven't slowed down since entering the real world. In the last year, I've watched Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad and The Wire in their entirety. These are the shows I'd like to talk about; these four, plus The Shield, are probably the greatest television series of all time, and my brain has absorbed every second of them over the past 365 days. It's been a crash course in Amazing Television 101, and anyone lucky enough to own what used to be referred to as an "idiot box" should get down on their hands and knees and kiss it daily. It now offers the smartest, most in-depth entertainment on Earth.

My preference for The Wire has already been documented, but I haven't gotten much of a chance to wax poetic about the other three. I started with Battlestar Galactica on a recommendation from my friend Walt, based on the fact that a) I love science fiction and b) it melded sci-fi with real character drama like no other show in history. And he wasn't wrong.

My viewing of Battlestar coincided with a nine-day family cruise, and at the risk of exposing myself as extremely nerdy, I was very tired of fun in the sun by Day 8. Even though I felt like an extreme waste of life, I decided to hang in the cabin after lunch and enjoy a quick Battlestar ep before heading back out into the world.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how big of a loser you are), I was about to watch the two-part Season 2 finale. Also known as the episode where Gaius Baltar surrenders to the Cylons. Also known as the episode that sparks the action shifting from outer space to New Caprica, a chain of events that both changes the complexity of the series and blows your brain out the back of your head.

Although there were a few clunkers from there until the end, and even although the end itself felt a bit rushed and unfulfilling, that was enough to suck me in forever. I laid in my cabin and watched about eight episodes in a row; my brother had to come in and pull me outside, and all the while I was babbling about Brother Cavil, Colonel Tigh and the Chief. If there was one TV show I could have wiped from my brain to be watched fresh, it would be Battlestar.

Mad Men was next on my list, and as that's still ongoing, it's a little tougher to comment on. A lot of people harp about how pretty the show looks and how well it captures its era's style, but I think the show has produced its own beautiful style, a style that its audience is now immersed in; this is how the '50's and '60's feel, even if they didn't before. Mad Men has defined a generation 50 years after the fact; while that might not be a good thing, it's an impressive thing.

The creator, Matthew Weiner, worked on Sopranos, and you can tell he studied at the feet of David Chase. Much like the world that surrounded Tony Soprano, Weiner's ensemble cast makes the most of their screen time, fleshing out the Mad Men universe and creating a slow-paced, intricate character study. This kind of show used to be an HBO-only, but now it's on a pay-cable station that usually shows Catwoman and The Last Samurai.

Don acquires your sympathy through his genius in navigating the advertising world, much like Tony's self-awareness made him feel like more than just a nameless, soulless mob boss. Where he goes in Season 4 is anyone's guess; last Sunday's episode indicated that he may be ready to self-promote, perhaps even overextend himself, which could lead to new levels of fame or the downfall he always used to fear. But as long as Roger Sterling is there cracking wise, and Joan Holloway remains busty and attractive, and Bert Cooper continues to...wander around being weird and old, well, I'll be onboard.

Finally, there is Breaking Bad. I just finished this about a week ago, and it was the greatest change of pace from The Wire imaginable. After the near-endless ups and downs of the giant Baltimore-based series, it was refreshing to watch television on a smaller scale, to buy into Walt and Jesse's adventures on a more personal level and connect with them as characters, rather than numerous chess pieces on the giant board of life.

You can't say enough about what Bryan Cranston has done on this show; to go from Tim Whatley to the Malcolm in the Middle dad to a meth-selling, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher is the most amazing metamorphosis I've ever seen in popular entertainment. Minus some of Walter White's more clever moments, which allow his comedic chops to seep through, you'd never know they were all played by the same actor.

But if we're going to talk about intensity: the intensity of The Shield, 24, certain parts of The Wire, even Battlestar Galactica, well...it doesn't get more intense than Season 3 of Breaking Bad. Other than the first three seasons of The Sopranos and the Forest Whitaker season of The Shield, Season 3 of BB might be the best season of television of all time.

The shootout between Hank and the cousins, increased appearances from Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman and Mike the Cleaner, the episode where Walt and Jesse are trapped in the RV, the incredibly introspective "Fly" episode...you can't make TV better than that. More than anything, I'm excited for Vince Gilligan's masterpiece to get back on the air. I can only hope that, unlike The Sopranos, it doesn't soil itself by sticking around for too long.

But besides Season 4 of Mad Men and the upcoming BB season, whenever that may be, I feel a little lost. I'm not sure where to turn for my latest TV fix. I've got Dexter and Friday Night Lights on my radar, and everyone keeps telling me to watch Weeds. And Deadwood, which I've never really considered watching until very recently, might end up being the best of them all. I've heard nothing but good things.

To anyone who's undecided about investing time in one of these lengthy, engrossing television series, please do so. I beg you. I love movies as much as anyone, but when it comes down to it, this is the best place to spend your entertainment dollars and waste your entertainment time. Showrunners continue to work within their means, promote original new ideas, shrug off expectations and craft a form of poetry on the screen. It's pulse-pounding, it's imaginative, and it's entertaining as all hell.

July 24, 2010

Stop talking about Cliff Lee.

The Philadelphia Phillies continue to scout Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren and any other available ace pitcher with a pulse, but all anyone can talk about is Cliff Lee, Cliff Lee, Cliff Lee.

And it needs to stop....right after this blog post.

Trading for a third ace, completing the triumvirate everyone longed for last offseason, can't be naysayed and nitpicked because of the Lee deal. Lee is gone, and he's not coming back. He's now a member of the Texas Rangers, and he'll probably sign a lucrative, nine-figure deal this offseason with a team other than the Phillies. Do I wish he was here? Of course, but as Chevy Chase says in Dirty Work, hindsight is 20/20, my friend.

Maybe the presence of the three prospects Ruben Amaro Jr. got for Lee will free up others to be moved in a Haren deal. Maybe, now that the team is floundering in the post-Lee era, Phillies ownership will see the value of adding payroll in order to bring home another championship.

Either way, it's outrageous how many people are clinging to Cliff Lee. The Phillies, and their fans, need to concern themselves with the future; more importantly, the immediate future. They need to call up Dom Brown, they need to move Jayson Werth for prospects, and they need to turn those prospects into another lights-out starter, no matter the cost. That's how you shake up a stagnant team, and that's how you prep for future championship runs.

Yes, I know that pitching, at least starting pitching, has not been a major flaw with the 2010 Phillies. They can't score runs. Roy Halladay has a 2.28 ERA...and only 11 wins. Lee has a 2.56 ERA, so he'd be good for what, nine? Jamie Moyer and his 4.84 ERA already had nine when he went down with an elbow injury. It'd be far more beneficial if the corpses of Raul Ibanez and Jimmy Rollins came back to life, or if Shane Victorino (career OBP of .342; .314 in 2010) started taking some pitches, or if our terrible bench was slightly less terrible.

Maybe that'll happen; Raul has shown vague, vague signs of life, and Ross Gload came up big in last night's game against the Rockies. A starter like Oswalt and Haren could then make all the difference in a bounce-back second half, but mainly, bringing one of them in would be part of a 2011 reload. One of the selling points on moving Lee was his expiring contract; Oswalt and Haren, however, are locked up for a few years. This could be a prime opportunity to go all-in for 2011 and 2012, while a (hopefully) healthy Chase Utley and Ryan Howard still have a full tank of gas.

Amaro walked away from a Q&A at Wrigley Field earlier this week because a reporter brought up Lee again. He was right to do that, but for the wrong reasons. He shouldn't talk about Cliff Lee because he has a lot of work to do: a flawed roster to patch up, a rejuvenated minor league cupboard to empty and an almost-aged group of superstars with only a season or two left to win big. Everyone said that we'd all forgive the Lee deal if the Phillies won another championship. For the sake of our sanity, it's time for Amaro to make that happen.

July 21, 2010

Why Inception is not as good as you think.

As a big budget, summer popcorn movie, Inception does the job. Great cast, lots of fun stuff blowing up, cool fight scenes, Tom Berenger.

But when you add in the occasional intriguing foray into "complicated issues," such as the power of dreaming and what constitutes reality, you've got a cinema experience that many people are describing as a "masterpiece."

Those people are wrong.

There aren't many masterpieces. The Godfather is a masterpiece. Raging Bull is a masterpiece. They're almost-perfect cinematic gems that have held up over time, which is really the only way to define a true, lasting movie.

Inception isn't anything close to that. It's also not as good as either of the Batman movies, as Memento, as The Matrix. The first two, despite being comic book movies featuring Christian Bale growling deeply, are more fleshed out and complete. And the second two touch on issues similar to Inception's, but with a more detailed, insightful approach. They are movies with stories that you can trace from A to Z, movies that use filmmaking methods, whether it's effects for The Matrix or roundabout storytelling in Memento, to dissect reality in an innovative fashion.

But Inception's story doesn't hold up. It contains a convoluted jumble of ideas, a plethora of vague insights and questions about reality that director Christopher Nolan's already explored far better in his earlier work. The movie never pauses to examine a thought for more than a fleeting second or two, which might actually be a good thing.

Whilst it drags on with a rapid-fire evaluation of these queries, it seems like Inception is also into being complicated for the sake of being complicated. Dream sequences piled on top of dream sequences; two-dimensional characters with no motivation, no purpose besides providing lengthy exposition; an X-Men 3-esque final scene that seems designed to draw attention away from the clumsiness of extracting the characters from the plot.

This isn't as bad as it sounds on paper, which is probably a testament to Nolan's skill as a director. But it certainly doesn't help, doesn't make the movie any more than it is. No one but Cobb (and maybe Saito) comes equipped with any kind of back story or reason for existing, and most of the "theories" being banded about on the Internet involve, as Dileep Rao (the Indian guy) put it, "negative evidence to support a story that isn't there."

Which means they're mostly speculation based on scenes not in the movie, guesses straight from people's heads. That can be interesting, especially if you're talking about a deep movie with thought-out twists and turns, but I'd prefer that it didn't define how I absorb my entertainment. If you want to imagine how something ends rather than see it end, go watch "The Sopranos."

Chris Nolan has made very few, if any, missteps in his directing career, and Inception isn't one of them. But it should be considered correctly -- an interesting, ultimately forgettable summer blockbuster. If it's changing the way you look at the world, or turning out to be something you think about for more than a week, you should probably get to the movies more often.

July 20, 2010

In defense of Paul Holmgren.

After yesterday's trade of Simon Gagne, it's safe to say that the Philadelphia Flyers' offseason is over. They could always move one of their eight NHL-caliber defensemen, or resign Arron Asham, but for the most part, this is the team we'll be rooting for in October of 2010.

This seems to bother a lot of people, and I'm not sure why.

The biggest complaint I've heard bandied about is that Michael Leighton is returning as the starting goalie. Numerous pundits spent the last few months clamoring for Marty Turco, Evgeni Nabokov, Dan Ellis, etc, and then crying like babies when Leighton came back for a reasonable price. My response to them is: What are you, fucking nuts? Marty Turco is a 34-year-old goalie whose best years are behind him; Evgeni Nabokov went back to Russia because no one would "pay him what he was worth." Both of them have never won anything, ever. Turco's 21-26 in the playoffs; Nabokov is 40-39. Sounds like John Vanbiesbrouck all over again.

As for Dan Ellis, frankly, I don't see what the difference is. He had a 2.69 GAA last year for Nashville, as compared to Leighton's 2.48 as a Flyer. He's 30, a year older than Leighton. He has barely any playoff experience -- six games in '07-08, losing four of them. He signed with Tampa for $1.5 million a year; Leighton signed for $1.5 million this year and $1.6 million next.

Forget about the weak goal that ended the Stanley Cup Finals. Forget even about the dominating performance Leighton put on in the Eastern Conference Finals. These are two goalies, essentially both "journeymen" to this point, one we know and one we don't. The one we know is coming off the most successful year of his career and was willing to resign for a small raise, a reasonable price for a goalie. He's had playoff experience, he knows the players around him, and he operates well behind a strong defense (which we have, which I'll discuss later).

The other guy? No one knows a thing about him. Like Jeff Hackett, like Robert Esche, like every other goalie the Flyers have brought in over the last few years, he's a Band-Aid at best, a new name that might work out...until he doesn't, and we all hate him, and we ship him out of town. Is that really a preferable option?

And like I said, in front of Michael Leighton in 2010 and 2011 will be an expanded, upgraded defense. I can't say I know much about Andrej Meszároš or Matt Walker, and my Sean O'Donnell knowledge is dated about ten years or so. But what I know for sure is that the Flyers will have a much more capable third defensive pairing in 2010, two players that aren't a guaranteed heart-attack every time they step on the ice. Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent were walking calamities in the playoffs, forcing our fantastic top-4 defensemen to play 30 minutes a night, whether they liked it or not. Did Pronger and Timonen break down in the Finals as a result? That can be argued, but I don't think anyone can argue that they could use a little help. Holmgren made that a priority, and in doing so he strengthened a definite area of need.

But a lot of people don't see it that way. There have even been calls for Paul Holmgren's firing, which boggles my mind. Did Holmgren lock the Flyers into salary-cap hell the last few years? Yes. Did he dump Gagne's contract for very little return? Yes. But if you think his most recent moves aren't smart general managing, if you think Holmgren is leading the Flyers down the wrong path, I don't think you understand hockey.

First, keep in mind that Gagne only had one year left in his contract, a contract that almost certainly wouldn't have been extended. If you're to believe Gagne's interview with CSNPhilly.com's John Boruk, one of the reasons he chose Tampa Bay is its salary cap space -- he wanted to make an impression on a team with money and try to secure one final, lengthy contract. That wasn't happening in Philadelphia, not with Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk stepping into presumably larger and larger roles.

He was the most movable player, especially if the goal was to fit everyone's salaries under the cap, and Holmgren took the best, easiest trade available. This isn't Ruben Amaro Jr. dumping Cliff Lee in his prime, this is shipping out the contract of an aging, injury-prone player. I love Simon Gagne and everything he's done for Philadelphia, and I'll cheer loudly when he's inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame in a half-dozen years. But this is not a move to cry over.

Instead, praise the emphasis Paul Holmgren put on his defense, a unit that received a consistent amount of neglect from Flyers management over the last two decades or so. There was no way, repeat, no way the '09-'10 team could return intact and make the Finals again. There were a glut of forwards out of position, many of them injury-prone, not enough talent on the wings and an extremely weak third defensive pairing. Holmgren brought in Nikolai Zherdev on the cheap to try and harness his talent at right wing, he brought in several quality defensemen to compete for the back-end pairing and he moved the soon-to-depart Gagne to open up some much-needed cap space.

Given the restrictions he was under, both cap-wise and personnel-wise, I think Holmgren's finagling should be viewed as nothing less than inspired. They may not have been the "turn garbage into gold" type deals that got us Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik, but I think everyone who's spoken out against Homer will be eating their words in a few short months.

July 16, 2010

I got the news.

An odd thing has happened. I've lost interest in Bruce Springsteen.

That isn't to say that I don’t still revere the man and his music. But maybe I've burned out on him, maybe a decade or so of relatively nonstop Bruce has proven to be too much for me.

So what’s taken his place on my musical Mt. Rushmore? Steely Dan. Yes, Steely Dan.

“Steely Dan” has been my preferred Pandora station for months now, and I've even delved into Donald Fagen’s solo work (which, by the way, is tremendous). I've rented Steely Dan DVDs off of Netflix, both live concerts and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Aja. I've read about their lyrics, learned about their backgrounds and appreciated the layers upon layers of sound they put into every song. I think their music is catchy, probing and intelligent, all infused with a layer (or more) of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s jazz upbringings.

That being said, they’re surely a departure from Bruce musically, although Bruce does have a guy playing a horn and his earlier work (see: “New York City Serenade”) has distinct jazzy elements. Overall, I don’t think the Dan and Springsteen have too much in common, but maybe the only thing they share is a sometimes musical penchant to mask their lyrical intentions.

Editor’s note: I know that songs like “Surprise, Surprise” and “Last to Die,” among other Bruce tunes, could not be more in your face about what they mean/what they are. Fuck, “Outlaw Pete” is about an outlaw named Pete, and all the “symbolism” in the world doesn't make it suck less. But on occasion, Bruce has done exactly what I said, so read on and give me the benefit of the doubt. For now.

I remember George Carlin had a joke that insulted a certain group of people, I believe it was those who wear Bluetooth headsets, by classifying them as folk who “listen to Steely Dan.” My good friend Rob Turbovsky interviewed George Carlin on numerous occasions -- hell, Carlin actually left him a voicemail back in high school -- and I asked Rob a while back why Carlin felt the need to belittle Steely Dan. I think Rob had actually asked him that before, oddly enough, and Carlin’s response involved the band’s reputation, among casual music fans at least, as no more than an AOR band. Also, I think their name was short enough to fit perfectly into the joke’s cadence and wording.

Even if he had his reasons, I’m still surprised that Carlin would single out the Dan. Their subversive lyrics seem like they’d have been right up his alley. Maybe it’s the fact that they mask them behind supreme production values and awesome musicianship -- Carlin always was the kind of comedian who cut right through the bullshit, came right out and said it. Steely Dan is a band with songs that cover the gamut, from incest to immigration and back again, but it’s entirely possible that you never noticed. Becker and Fagen are geniuses in more ways than one, and even though they rarely pull punches, they also don’t smack you over the head.

Now, Springsteen is not often one to infuse his music with the same kind of pessimistic, veiled lyrics; pretty much everything on Born to Run means what it sounds like, and The Rising was basically branded as “THE 9/11 ALBUM.” But on Born in the USA in particular, and later on Magic, he does just that. A lot of it is probably timing; Magic was an full-band album with songs that Bruce apparently produced to sound good live, even if it was about life in America under the Bush regime, so tunes like “Livin' In The Future” rock without really needing to. And a bunch of the USA songs were written during the Nebraska sessions, which is an extremely depressing album. For whatever reason, he decided they’d sound just fine with the full band, which they did, and apparently didn't mind at the time that their meanings might be misconstrued.

Now that “Born in the USA” is a fist-pumping, go-America anthem, one adopted for a brief period by Ronald Reagan, I’m not sure what Bruce’s thoughts are on the matter. Hell, it made him millions of dollars and he still plays it at numerous live shows, so he can’t mind too much. But the fact of the matter is, many of those songs sound one way and say something very different. You could even make the point that the meaning of songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River, while far less misunderstood, is lessened by the fact that they were recorded, and continue to be played, by what Bruce often calls “the biggest little bar band in the world.” The E Street Band, and Bruce in particular, often have something to say. But just as much of the time, they’re looking to rock, and it’s easy to get caught in between the two.

I have to say that, although I’m a writer and a huge fan of screenplays and movie dialogue, I don’t always read that deeply into music lyrics. Hell, I was blown away a few weeks ago when I found out that “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” off Katy Lied was about a child molester. It was obvious when I listened to it again, but I never picked on it otherwise. I still think I often appreciate good lyrics, though, especially when they’re sung with honesty. Springsteen, obviously, does this extremely well. I’d argue that Elvis Costello also sings from the heart, and I love the darkly funny words of Warren Zevon.

And then there’s the Dan. While often going off on abstract topics and in unexpected locations, Donald Fagen always seem to be singing with a message that he and Becker believe in. They’re the rare band that has mastered their particular genre musically and yet doesn't ease up or lower their standards lyrically. Most of their songs can be appreciated merely sonically, and their hits have the necessary simplicity that everyone can enjoy. But if you want to look deeper, there’s something there, an oft-cynical, unfiltered, stinging and provocative look at the world.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, even combined, are not Bruce Springsteen. And right now, that’s what I like about them.

July 11, 2010

We're halfway there.

At the halfway point of the 2010 baseball season (or the 90ish-game point known as the All-Star break, which is close enough), the Philadelphia Phillies find themselves in an odd place.

A team that used to be among baseball's biggest offensive juggernauts is...well, not on quite the same pace. 410 runs scored, good for 10th in baseball, but only a .737 team OPS, which places them 17th. This shouldn't surprise people, as anyone watching since the middle of May knows that steady offensive production has not been this year's specialty. Ryan Howard is hitting at about the same pace (minus a few dingers), but his infield cohort Jimmy Rollins is still struggling to recover from two early-season injuries. Shane Victorino has been inconsistent all year, especially in his approach at the top of the order, and Jayson Werth has swung a bat like there's a lot on his mind (probably 100 million dollars worth of stuff).

Meanwhile, injuries have really hurt the Phillies, for maybe the first time since they became a legitimate title contender. Placido Polanco starts baseball activities tomorrow after taking some elbow-related time off, but Chase Utley's return remains up in the air. Carlos Ruiz missed three weeks after a bat to the noggin, and Raul Ibanez is withering away like the old man he is. Several recent reports indicated that the Phillies were trying to move Raul and bring up Domonic Brown as soon as possible, but that's about as likely as more than twenty people reading this blog post.

Thankfully, a 3.92 ERA, combined with 10 complete games (most in baseball) and a 1.27 team WHIP (fourth in baseball), is the reason the Phillies are very much so in the playoff picture. Roy Halladay has been the ace everyone expected, leading the majors with 148 innings pitched and coming in fourth in ERA and sixth in WHIP. Jamie Moyer is tied for 11th in WHIP, ahead of Jon Lester. The bullpen's been strong at times and sad at others, with Brad Lidge continuing his seemingly endless struggles, Jose Contreras lapsing in and out of effectiveness, Chad Durbin suffering an ill-timed injury and Ryan Madson kickin' furniture. But overall, and highlighted exceptionally in the wonderful four-game sweep of those pesky Cincinnati Reds, these Phils have won with pitching.

And then there's the trade rumors, which may die down a tad now that Cliff Lee has been traded to another faraway, relatively unthreatening American League team. All signs indicate that Ruben Amaro Jr. is at least kicking the tires on a Jayson Werth trade, probably in a complicated arrangement that would return a prominent, ace-like starting pitcher. One we'd have under team control for a few years, of course, which is the only thing that makes these rumors bearable post-Cliffy. There's also been talk of an infield acquisition, talk that has also quieted after the reanimated corpses of Greg Dobbs and Cody Ransom socked a few big homers this past weekend.

There's no doubt that this team could use reinforcements here and there, but Amaro may be finding himself between a rock and a hard place. He played up the Lee trade in the press to be about restocking the minor league cupboard, so to a) deplete that cupboard quickly for something as "unimportant" as injury replacements, or b) deplete that cupboard to acquire what would essentially be a Cliff Lee replacement, could look really bad with fans, the press, players...pretty much everyone actually or tangentially related to the Phillies. At the very least, I wouldn't be surprised if Rube really was waiting for this latest Lee trade before making a move. Bringing in another starter before Cliffy was officially out of the picture again would have provoked a very interesting reaction.

Either way, the most consistent rumor that keeps popping up is a Werth trade resulting in a starting pitcher, someone at the level of a Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren. A commenter on Beerleaguer made an interesting point recently, in regards to all this -- sometimes it seems like Amaro is taking reaching the postseason for granted. Yes, adding another studly starting pitcher would help the team; yes, Werth has not been swinging the bat well lately and almost certainly won't resign; yes, Joe Blanton might be the worst starter in the National League this season; and yes, Dom Brown does seem ready to play in the major leagues. But the real perk to adding another shutdown arm would come in a five- or seven-game series, something that is in no way guaranteed. So far in 2010, starting pitching has not been a top concern.

I've already mentioned Halladay and Moyer; meanwhile, Cole Hamels has been decidedly above-average with a 3.78 ERA and 112 innings pitched, and Kyle Kendrick has begun to hold his own (a 3.81 ERA in his last five starts). Again, yeah, Joe Blanton has been really bad. But it seems to me that his worst moments come in the sixth or seventh innings; for whatever reason, he doesn't have the gas to go deep into games this year. Not that this is acceptable, though; he came to Philadelphia as an "innings-eater," and he hasn't exactly lived up to that moniker. But I wonder about the real value gained from replacing him, especially at the expense of our only right-handed power bat.

The biggest concern for Phillies fans this year should be the all-around improved National League. Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Diego, Colorado, Los Angeles, San Francisco. There are nine legit playoff contenders this year; lately, there's rarely been more than five, six tops. Luckily, four of those teams are in the NL West and should beat up on each other nicely in the second half, and I don't think many of them could take the Phils in a short playoff series. But you still need to make the postseason in the first place; any moves Amaro and Phillies management pull off in the next few weeks should concern themselves with this above all else.

A lot can happen in the last 76 games, and frankly, I'd be surprised if the Phillies aren't playing deep into October yet again. But the main thing I've taken away from the first half of 2010 is that some of the luster, particularly the idea that this team is a definitive step above everyone else in the NL, is gone. Jerry Seinfeld once said that even he, star of probably the funniest TV show of all time, only got a few short minutes of audience goodwill when doing post-Seinfeld stand-up. If he was bombing four or five minutes into his set, no one cared how funny his show had been. It became strictly "what have you done for me lately," and the 2010 Phillies are finding themselves in the same boat.

July 9, 2010

A stupid thing happened on TV: What's ACTUALLY interesting about LeBron's decision.

By now, everyone knows that LeBron James will play basketball in Miami. And if the reactions of the Internet community are any indication, people are mighty pissed.

"Never in my life can I remember someone swinging from likable to unlikable that quickly," said Bill Simmons in his most recent column, and he's probably right. I didn't watch his special last night, but I did spend a half-hour rehashing the last couple days with my Cleveland fan ex-roommate after the fact. He was sad, as he should be, and we discussed how the city will respond and how the Heat will do over the next few seasons.

But I think everyone's missing the big picture here. Everyone is ranting about where he's going (or where he's not going), but not enough people are talking about why. This is one of the biggest sports stories in recent history, and one of the strangest, but it's not just because a world-famous basketball player, arguably the most talented, is changing teams. It's because we've been invited inside the psyche of a 25-year-old man (you could even say kid); we've been granted insight into what makes him tick.

I don't claim to know much about LeBron James; basketball is my least favorite sport, and he's of no more interest than any other star in the NBA. But the way he made this decision, the way he presented this decision, and the way everyone is responding to this decision strikes me as fascinating. Nothing like it has ever happened; it emphasized that sports is now very much a business, that there are a lot of things about it that we shouldn't like, and also that it's so much more about the people and the personalities playing the games than it is about the games itself. That probably hasn't been up for debate for a while now, but if any event put the stamp on it, it was last night.

First off, the idea to announce it on an hour-long ESPN special. This is especially what set the Internet off, as a) most people think ESPN is a insufferable propaganda machine that eats its own shit for sustenance, and b) LeBron was finally exposed as the ignorant, inexperienced young man that he is. Now, he's not that ignorant, as he is a bazillionaire who, despite alienating an amazing number of people over the last week, remains beloved a large portion of the world. When he gets back out on the court, especially if the LeBron/Wade/Bosh triumvirate win a whole bunch of games/titles, most people won't care about his 60-minute PR nightmare. It'll go away, like almost everything does over time.

But for now, it's intriguing to take a look at it and wonder what he was thinking. Did he expect people to be riveted by what they saw? Did he expect his fans, and NBA fans in general, to swoon over the three stars uniting in South Beach? It's hard to imagine how LeBron and his team thought last night was a "good idea," that it was something that would really push the LeBron brand over the top. A lot of people watched it, and God knows it got a lot of people talking. But in the end, LeBron went to a state where everything but college football draws mostly a "meh" response, where anything short of total basketball dominance will be just another story among many. It was the safe choice, not a bad one by any means, but one that really didn't seem to warrant 3,600 seconds of chatter.

I've read some people ranting about ESPN "pulling punches" and "not asking the tough questions" last night. Honestly, if you expected Stu Scott, Mike Wilbon and Jim Gray to do anything but swoon at the feet of the mighty LeBron, I'd wonder if you ever watched ESPN before. Anyone who stuck it out after LeBron's announcement and was surprised by how passionately yet gently the ESPN staff cradled the balls and stroked the shaft, welcome to sports in the 21st century. Everyone's in bed with each other, everyone loves everyone else, and it's all about playing nice and making a bunch of money in the process. And it was for charity! Everyone wins. I wish I was rich, so I could act like a boring, aloof dick and get away with it because I donated a bunch of money to the Boys & Girls Club.

Everyone should understand that LeBron James probably doesn't care about his legacy. I imagine few, if any, athletes are self-aware enough to realize, or even consider, the fact that their day-to-day actions affect a "legacy" that fans and journalists cobble together and alter whenever they deem it necessary. He has a shitload of money, he'll always have a ton of fans, and he gets to play in a fun, beautiful city with two of his good buddies. Would we all rather he be a giant competitive asshole like Michael Jordan and want to stab every opponent in the throat? Would that make him more fun to watch/cover/cheer for? Would any of us choose cold Chicago, shitty New York or shitty and poor Cleveland over sunny Miami? He made a life decision, not a legacy decision, and that's because he's a 25-year-old guy who wants to have a good time and enjoy himself. Did we expect anything but?

Just because he looks like a man doesn't mean he is one, and just because he made what seems like a curious decision OR didn't properly thank Cleveland fans OR didn't mention the mother of his children doesn't make him a fiend or a bastard or a genuinely bad person. He's a guy, really, just like any other guy. Analyze the sports aspect of his decision to death: will it make the Heat a title contender, can a team survive with only three legit, albeit very good, players? If you're a Cleveland fan or a Knicks fan, bitch about how he left or how he never showed up at all. But don't just attack the guy; study the guy. Think about what he did, what you'd do, and how ridiculous it all was. How popular it became, how polarizing it ended up being, and the ramifications it'll have on sports, sports reporting and sports personalities, specifically, in the future.

The cool thing about being a sports fan nowadays is that the lives of players are more accessible than ever. This isn't cool in the sense that it makes the actual games more fun, but it does make things more intriguing. It's pretty easy to find out who's a jerk and who's a cool guy, which can sometimes make it tough to root for an athlete or even a whole team. But you can also watch them live, watch them think, and watch both their decision-making processes and their maturation as human beings. You can read what they think on Twitter. It makes them more real, but also accentuates how different their lives are from ours. It helps you realize that you don't have to look at all athletes as role models, which is good, trust me, because they never have been. They play a sport well, and that's super neat, and I like to watch them do it. But some of them are bad people, and some of the ones that are good people still make really dumb mistakes. We're now more able to be discerning, to pick and choose which ones we like for more legitimate reasons, and to watch it all play out in front of us like the money-earning entertainment it always has been.

In a way, it's kind of like a zoo. We gawk at LeBron as he makes a life-changing decision, then rant about how idiotic he is and how demeaning he was to his hometown and loyal fan base. Sure, he has eleventy billion dollars, but to get it, he has to dance for us. And if he dances wrong, he'll hear about it. He'll get @ed on Twitter, he'll get blasted on all the major websites, he'll get yelled at on the court and in the streets. It might start to eat him up inside, or he might roll around in his giant pile of money and party with Wade and Bosh all night. We don't really know, but he's not retiring, and we're not turning off our TVs or closing our laptops. He makes money we can't even imagine and lives a life we can't fathom, but it's OK because he's so far removed from us that it doesn't matter. He's still a member of the human race, but only biologically.

But watching the path in front of him unfold, and how he's reacted to it each step of the way, strikes me as the most interesting thing to happen in sports in years. Because for all his differences, for how real and yet unreal he is, the decisions he has to make are fueled by human emotions. And when it's all said and done, he doesn't even have to hide away like Tiger; everything he's done has been out in the open, for the world to see, and none of it is wrong. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it's over. But seeing a boy become a "man," seeing him deal with an incredible amount of money and a decision that weirdly affects the happiness of millions of people he'll never meet and doesn't even care about, well, that's something that I think is profoundly unique. Whether it's unique in a good way or a bad way doesn't really matter, because the runaway train that is professional sports in the 21st century isn't slowing down for anyone. This, everyone, is just the beginning.