Monday, February 26, 2007

Mantle? Maybe. W? Never

Typical Yankee trickery!

I’ve collected baseball cards since I was a little kid, and I used to wonder about whether Topps doctored photos when a player was traded.

For instance, as I kid I wondered why Bob Miller in 1973 was wearing a Pirates uniform and a Mets cap -- only a really bad Mets cap.

Later, I learned that Topps artists painted the new caps on the photos, sometimes to disastrous effect.

The company has become much more proficient at doctoring cards in the computer age. Sometimes, like last year’s Billy Wagner card, it’s very tough to tell unless you know ballpark backgrounds and other tell-tale signs that something is amiss.

Then you have the just-released Derek F. Jeter card, No. 40 in the first series.

The card shows Jeter swinging and probably missing. Nothing strange there. But if you look more closely, it appears that Mickey Mantle is in the dugout and President George W. Bush is standing in the box seats.

Where to begin. Let’s start with Mantle. The last time I saw Mantle, he was helping my cable television bill get to its destination.

Now it’s not a shock that the Mick would still be on the Yankees’ roster.

Think about it. Carl Pavano’s on the roster. And between Pavano and Mantle, guess who appeared in more games in 2006. That’s right, it’s a tie: neither of them!

Mantle has a pretty good excuse, being dead and all. But they’re actually cutting checks to Pavano.

But if you look closely, there is proof that Mantle has been PhotoShopped into the photo.

It’s a day game; Mick’s looking all bright-eyed and holding a bat, ready to get into the game.

Anybody who’s read any baseball book knows that Mantle hit the town harder than he hit the ball. And the day after, well, Mick was more likely to be slumped in the corner of the dugout with his cap pulled over his eyes nursing a hangover and lamenting that the barkeep at the Copa allowed himself to be bullied into serving one more round for Mick, Billy and Whitey.

Then there’s the president. Assume for a moment that the Secret Service would even, for a second, allow him to set foot in the Bronx, much less in that outhouse, much less, again, to sit in the box seats among the great, very unwashed masses that are Yankee fans. Imagine the diseases, much less the terrorists.

No, if the card is to believed, Bush is standing there waving or cheering. Nonsense!

The Decider is a red-blooded American. If anything, he’d be jumping up with hand to mouth letting loose a most profound boo that only Jeter deserves, or directing the unseen Boston pitcher to boink one off of Derek’s earflap because, as we all know, it’s just the right thing to do.

Then look at Jeter. Something’s wrong. If Tom Verducci is right, St. Derek The Intangable, patron saint of hype, would have wings, and at the very least a halo. Could it be that the Topps artists air-brushed them out of the picture? Either that, or Jeter isn’t all that Verducci makes him out to be. (A friend in the always-glorious Crane Pool Forum gets credit for the halo line. Clink on the link on the side to read more from that always interesting forum.)

I bounced this all to my friend Clay Lurchasi, a Topps spokesman. He said it’s true; the card has been doctored.

“Between the final proof and the printing, someone in the art department thought it would be funny to do it. I have to admit it -- it’s pretty funny.”

OK, Clay. Just keep them away from my David Wright card.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Moses, Caro and swinging for the fences

Robert Moses, master builder and grade-saver.

I jumped at the chance to cover a lecture by historian Robert Caro at the Gerald Ford Museum on Tuesday.

There are people or songs or books that are linked with a time in your life, for both good and bad. And Caro instantly brings me back to the fall of 1984, my first semester at the University of Missouri.

It was my first, and nearly my last. I thank Caro for his unknowing assist in making sure things turned out OK.

I was transferring from Nassau Community College. The Missouri School of Journalism tossed out my credits for journalism courses, and demanded several courses as prerequisites that we were not aware of – including three semesters of a foreign language.

I would have to take summer classes at Nassau, then use my first semester at Missouri to take the rest of the prerequisites, entering the J-school in the spring, assuming I posted at least a 3.0 GPA.

No problem, I figured. I was a B or better student in subjects that did not involve math, and the math credits transferred over.

But I hadn’t taken a language class since my sophomore year of high school. And the thought of learning a new language during the summer was daunting, so I cheated a little and took Spanish, which is what I studied in high school. I was really rusty, but did muy bien.

But Spanish 3 at Missouri was another matter. The class was all conversational and the instructor was from Belize and barely spoke English. I struggled mightily.

By late-semester, panic was setting in. Nothing was helping. I was looking at a big, fat, ugly D – which was not helpful to a gaining a 3.0 GPA.

I was getting an As in two other courses. The fourth was American urban history. I love cities, but the class was tough. And weighing heavily was the knowledge that anything less than an A and there would be no 3.0 and no journalism school. And if there was no journalism school, there would be no justification for leaving my family and heading halfway across the country. It would mean returning home embarrassed and a failure.

And here’s where Caro comes in. The topic for the last quarter of the urban history class was Caro’s book “The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.”

“Caro’s a journalist,” I remember the professor saying. “So he’s not dry like a lot of historians. You’ll like this book.”

Of course, anyone growing up on Long Island has heard Moses’ name, or at least seen it on signs for the causeway and park.

I remember flipping through the massive book and seeing photos of the Jones Beach bath houses, the Varrazano-Narrows Bridge and, amazingly, Shea Stadium – all things I had been to a million times.

One of the first pages was a map of all the parks on Long Island, including the Massapequa preserve, which was four blocks from my house.

Then it struck me. I had come from Long Island to the middle of the Heartland to learn about…Long Island.

I’m not self-centered enough to think the Lord cares about my academic life, but this was if he was saying, “I’ll throw you a fastball down the middle, but you still have to hit it over the fence.”

And it had to leave the yard. It was home run, or run home in shame.

Moses was a master builder, but Caro is a master storyteller. The book is fascinating, spinning the tale of how Moses for 40 years was the most powerful politician in New York despite never even holding elected office.

He was a brilliant planner, and also deeply flawed. You know why the overpasses on the Southern State Parkway are so low? Apparently so buses bringing poor people from the city could not fit under them, making it harder for lower-class folks to get to Jones Beach and other parks.

We were assigned to read only portions of the 1,246-page book, but I couldn’t put it down. I was spouting Moses facts to anyone who would listen. You know why they’re called parkways? Because Moses was in charge of parks and then he could control the roads.

And unlike, say, Carlos Beltran in NLCS Game Seven, I swung from the heels. I wrote the term paper of my life, about Moses’ impact on the growth of Long Island suburbs.

I earned an A on the paper, and it all came down to the final exam. I thought I launched one into the seats, but so did Todd Zeile in the first game of the 2000 Subway Series. He hit the top of the fence and watched it bounce back onto the field.

The envelope with the Mizzou logo in the corner arrived a couple weeks later arrived with the grades – and the acceptance letter from the Journalism School. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I wanted to go kiss the magnificent Jones Beach water tower.

I sold most of my non-journalism textbooks back to the bookstore, but I held on to The Power Broker. Once in a while I pull it off the shelf and read a chapter or two.

The book earned Caro the Pulitizer Prize, and he is now wrapping up his fourth volume on the life of Lyndon Johnson, the topic of his lecture on Tuesday. I brought my son to hear him speak. And again, Caro was fascinating, revealing incredible details.

LBJ, another amazing yet flawed person, was adamant that letters to constituents be replied to on the day they were received. Caro said few knew that Johnson had horrible problems with eczema, and he’d stay up nights signing letters with towels wrapped around his hands so blood wouldn’t get on the letters.

I knew there would be a short book-signing session after the speech, so I brought along Caro’s third Johnson volume and my battered copy of Power Broker.

I meekly slid it across the table, and the man on line behind me laughed as Caro tried to find a page to sign that didn’t have the the Mizzou bookstore price tag or wasn’t dog-eared or torn.

“It’s a very special book to me,” I told the author. “I know it’s beat-up, but it has a lot of sentimental value.”

Caro signed his name and underlined it, smiled and shook my outstretched hand.

I thought about telling him about the urban history class and the term paper and how getting into to the journalism school led to a career that has led to experiences I could never have imagined and wife who I love.

But you tell someone a story like that and they typically either back away slowly or call for security. Perhaps it’s something the master storyteller was better off not knowing.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Aaron's car and other spring training news.

If there’s anything that can at least mentally melt the snow piling up around Grand Rapids this week, it’s the phrase “pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.”

And it was so nice to see the Mets out there frolicking around Port St. Lucie that I didn’t even mind the stupid new batting practice caps they’re being forced to wear.

And what contrast between the Mets camp and the hi-jinks going on across the state in Yankee land.

We’ve had Pedro showing up, looking nice and healthy and announcing that he was rehabbing ahead of schedule.

D-Wright is living up to his do-right reputation with every quote he gives, and Mr. Cover Boy has been all over the place.

Willie was walking around flashing his World Series rings, making it clear that playing deep into October last year isn’t going to cut it this year, a message we all like to hear – especially when the management goal not to long ago was to be playing “meaningful games” in September.

Even the owners are getting into the act, with Fred Wilpon announcing a $12 million donation to the University of Michigan for some health and athletic programs.

About the only thing that comes close to spoiling the good mood was Aaron Heilman griping about his parking spot. And we’ll get to that in a minute.

In contrast, at so-called Legends Field about the best thing they can say is that Derek Freaking Jeter hasn’t become the latest to declare he’s a potential father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. Of course, he’d be exposed as a liar right away because even Anna Nicole had some standards. And when you rank below Gabor husbands on the acceptability scale, that's saying something.

But let’s review. Yankee icon and helmet-tosser Bernie Williams was kicked to the curb. Apparently Bernie thought his years of solid play and not embarrassing the Yanks earned him a little more than a minor league contract. I guess Bernie didn’t think spending the summer at Scranton-Wilkes Barre waiting for Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui to get hurt was his idea of a farewell tour.

Then cyborg-closer Mariano Rivera mouthed off that Bernie was being mistreated, and oh yeah, he wants a contract extension or he’ll walk at the end of the season. I didn’t know Rivera was programmed to speak at all, much less criticize management.

Stunned that he was being out-quoted by a guy who previously never spoke, Mike Mussina started tossing verbal bombs at slacker-pitcher Carl Pavano, who has spent a lot more time on the DL than the mound since signing a big deal.

Then, not content to allow the players to do all the stupid things, George Steinbrenner’s son-in-law and designated successor Steve Swindal is facing charges of driving under the influence after allegedly weaving and driving 61 mph in a 35 mph zone.

Yankee turmoil is like shrimp sample day at Costco, you just can’t get enough.

Now, back to Mr. Heilman. Apparently Aaron was peeved because some of the biggest stars and veterans have assigned parking spaces at the Mets camp and Aaron’s ride is going to reside with the rookies and everyone else.

Aaron. Dude. What are you doing? Last time I saw you, you were looking over shoulder as a pitch to Yadier Molina was flying into the left field bullpen in the ninth inning of NLCS Game 7.

Molina, he of the .216 stick during the regular season, is the reason my Christmas list did not consist entirely of 2006 World Series merchandise.

It wasn’t quite a Kenny Rogers meltdown, but there are enough people who think your new middle name should be “Bleeping” to suggest that you should not be so cocky arriving in camp.

Aaron, you should have been the second guy in camp. I’d say first guy, but I think Wright has been there since Halloween trying to make up for his own post-season woes.

Then you should have quietly slipped in a side door, hustled out to the field, and practiced your change-up so no one with a .216 can never ever get solid wood on it again.

Then, you should have marched to the stands to sign everything for everyone whether they asked for it or not, and write “I’m sorry” under every autograph.

Park your car and pitch well, and you can be redeemed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Using the Mick to stick it to 'em!

I get pretty excited when the Post Office puts baseball players on stamps.

Not that I’m a big stamp guy, but since you have to use them anyway, I’d rather use the ones with something cool or New York-ish, like the Statue of Liberty.

And the Post Office did a fine job a few years back when it offered a "Legends of Baseball" issue that had portraits of 20 players, only two of them Yankees — Ruth and Gehrig, probably among the least objectionable Yankees, if there is indeed such a thing. And it was easy to overlook them when they are surrounded by players like Jackie Robinson, Christy Mathewson, Roberto Clemente and former Mets coach Rogers Hornsby.

So I was pretty excited earlier this year to see that there was a new "Baseball Sluggers" issue. I know it’s unlikely that a Mets player would appear since a person has to have made their final out on Earth at least 10 years ago to be eligible. I’m in no rush to get Willie, Tom, Mex and our other heroes immortalized in that way.

But after the success of the Legends issue, I was hoping for something cool.

Alas, the first day I asked for a sheet there was great disappointment, then horror.

There were just four players repeated over and over. Three were guys we can all cheerfully honor: Roy Campanella — excellent — Mel Ott and Hank Greenberg. Then I saw player No. 4. Mantle.

Yikes! Not only a Yankee, but practically Mr. Yankee!

Just so you know, if you ask the postal clerk to remove all the Mantles from the sheet and replace them with Campanellas, not only will she deny your request but she will laugh out loud and tell the other postal clerks what you wanted her to do and say something about getting this all down for the employee newsletter.

Trust me.

So I brought the sheet home with all these moral issues.

First, I’m glad that these are the self-sticking kind of stamp because the last thing I want to do is lick the back of dead Yankee. I don’t even want to imagine what that would taste like.

But how exactly can you use a Mantle stamp? I can’t justify throwing them away now that they cost 39 cents each.

But it’s not like you can use them on certain types of mail, either. How do you send a card to your mother? It’s like saying, "Hey, hope all is going well, Mom, despite the fact that there’s the image of a booze-hound Yankee punk stuck to your envelope."

Or, "Happy birthday, nephew. Don’t consider the guy under the postmark to be any kind of role model."

And the nieces. Can you imagine how many My Little Pony sets I’d have to send to Florida to make up for the sobbing phone call, "Uncle Dave... I thought loved me...why is...that scary man...on my envelope?"

I had to come up with some guidelines. Loved ones get the Campanellas, since he is a former Brooklyn Dodger, which is kind of like being a Met before there were Mets. Occasionally I can use the Ott -- a valid New Yorker -- or Greenberg, a swell guy we all like, when I use up all the Campys.

Mantles, I decided, go on the bills. And not just any bills. The kinds of bills that get you ticked off just writing the check. The ones where you can fell you can make a statement by slapping the Mick right there in the top corner.

Exxon Mobil and your $3 a gallon gas and record profits? Take a Mantle and his "I’ll outspend you without caring about the cost to everyone else" team he represents.

Comcast Cablevision? I’d like to be able to get the SciFi channel for my wife without having to pay for digital cable -- despite the fact that every other system includes it in the basic package. You get a dead Yankee!

Sports Illustrated subscription bill? Hell, the people who employ Tom Verducci would actually like getting a Mantle stamp, so they get Hank Greenberg.

Oh, and don’t tell me that Verducci isn’t preparing a column demanding that all four players in the series need to be Yankees, and shouldn’t the rules be waived so Derek Freaking Jeter can take his rightful place among the game’s most honored?

But I digress.

Phone company? Mantle!

Mortgage company? I like my house, so they get Mel Ott.

But the car insurance company? Oh yeah, baby, the Mick is headed their way.

So at the end of the day, the bills get paid, statements are expressed and I get to vent a little.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Manning's monkey, morons and management mandates

I don’t know about you, but after two weeks of Super Bowl hype, I never want to read about Peyton Manning’s monkey again. Never.

But amazingly, the only place to have worse weather on Sunday than Miami was right here in the Midwest.

We’re used to snow in Michigan.

You can expect it anytime from November through April. But last weekend we had an honest-to-goodness blizzard.

It was the real deal, with below-zero temperatures, 40 mph winds, nearly a foot of snow, whiteout conditions on the roads complete with 70-car pile-ups.

As luck would have it, it was my turn in the rotation to work the weekend shift. Yes, when other people are told to stay home, our job is to defy that order and go in to work and report on the other people defying the order along with the assorted nasty things that happen in such conditions.

But I saw a pair of things that convinced me that the greatest hazard isn’t the snow, the ice, the temperature or even the wind.

No, the greatest threat to public safety is certain members of the public itself. Yup, morons behind the wheel.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure these people are morons every day of the year. They’re just easier to spot in the snow.

I was driving into work Saturday, taking side roads because it already was apparent that the Interstates were doomed.

It was slick and nasty and the roads had not yet been plowed well.

And blowing past me in the other direction was a car where the driver apparently had the time to wipe the snow off his windshield, but nothing else. There must have been eight inches of snow on his hood, and I have no idea how he possibly could have seen over it.

So I was getting all worked up, feeling guilty that I hoped this guy would plow right off the road and into the BP station on the corner that always seems to charge a nickel a gallon more than any other station. At least the explosion would warm things up and I would have a decent story to write.

Except I had barely thought up that scenario when I saw a second car speed past. The only spot cleared off on this guy’s car was the driver’s side of the windshield. That’s it. Side windows, back window and the other half of the windshield, all covered in snow.

I almost made a u-turn and followed the guy for a while, because you have to figure it was only a matter of time before something bad happened.

My real job

Usually I cover schools here in Grand Rapids. We’re slowly entering the Internet age, and the folks at The Press have allowed me to blog about education on the paper’s Website.

If you are interested, you can find it here: Head of the Class.

It’s been hinted that perhaps my blind devotion to all things Mets be confined to this space, and that Head of the Class be limited to discussions about education.

Hmmm. Education as in the “three R’s.” And those would be reading, ‘riting and …. Ranting. Yeah, ranting about the Derek Freaking Jeter and his Yankee-hack-loving intangibles and Jose Reyes not getting the respect he deserves and Willie Randolph getting denied his Manager of the Year Award for an ex-Yankee flunkie who finished with a losing record and was promptly fired couldn’t get another job.

Maybe we’re better off sticking to school programs after all, like No Carlos Left Behind.