Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Windy City drive leads to a Friday Five

I’m practically a Windy City resident after two trips to Chicago this week.

You already know about the streak-extending trip to Wrigley on Monday. I returned Wednesday for a two-day education writers conference, where we learned all sorts of neat things about covering teachers unions.

I also learned all sorts of things about the three-hour, three-state trek between Grand Rapids and the Second City. So here is a special, my-kind-of-town Deezo Friday Five.

1) Any good Long Islander has a special place in his heart for White Castle. While there are some in Michigan, my part of the state is shamefully lacking.

Luckily, there is one in Michigan City, Indiana, where I needed to stop for gas. Normally, my family prevents me from making a nostalgic visit. But traveling solo, I figured I could swing through the drive-thru for a little snack.

I used to eat 10 “belly bombs” as a teen-ager. I thought three would be a nice snack. That was about 2.5 more than I should have eaten. Luckily, I discovered the next item.

2) The Illinois toll roads have dramatically renovated their “Oasis” rest stops. Not only are they bright and clean with a decent rest rooms, but they have some pretty sweet penny-squishing machines, too!

3) When I got to Chicago, Will took me to get a burger that might have actual beef in it. Moody’s Pub is one of his favorite places, and was as good as he described – and so big of a feast that I had only a Wrigley pretzel for the remainder of the day. In fact, I passed on the onions and only made a dent in the fries. That was one big burger.

4) Walking to the game we saw the Church of Wrigleyville, which boasts that it is the “unofficial” church of the Chicago Cubs. Considering the team has been cursed by a goat, I’m not sure this is a place I want to be.

5) If my TomTom played music, it might edge out the iPod as the most essential appliance of my lifetime.

The device cleared the “obscure rural road” test long ago. This time Mandy effortlessly guided me through the zillion lanes of the Dan Ryan, and does everything but say, “Stop looking at the Sears Tower and keep your eyes on the road.”

Seriously, driving to new places is so much less stressful. Heck, you can even program it to find White Castles! Or so I’ve heard.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cubs, Tigers and extending shameful streaks

The only thing worse than watching the Mets lose in person is not watching the Mets in person at all.

I pretty much have to adopt this as my credo. Because it appears that the Mets are going to lose whenever I show up. As those close to me know, the last time I witnessed a Mets victory was all the way back on July 21, 1991, when the Mets beat the Dodgers at Shea.

Correct. We’re talking 17 years. Here is my streak of shame:

7/26/1995 Cardinals 3, Mets 2 in St. Louis

9/24/1995 Marlins 4, Mets 3 in Miami

6/17/1997 Yankees 6, Mets 3 in the Bronx

6/30/1997 Tigers 14, Mets 0 in Detroit

4/5/1999 Marlins 6, Mets 2 in Miami

6/10/2007 Tigers 15, Mets 7 in Detroit

8/4/2007 Cubs 6, Mets 2 in Chicago

Extending the streak was Monday’s debacle at Wrigley Field.

4/21 2008 Cubs 7, Mets 1 in Chicago

First, thanks are in order to my buddy Will and his lovely sidekick Laurie, who gave up her seat so I could go. Naturally, she’s a Cubs fan, and she knows how to ensure a victory for her team.

Final score aside, there’s nothing bad about seeing a game in the Friendly Confines. It’s a true neighborhood event, with houses for blocks and blocks showing their Cubs banners.

Inside, you can’t get closer to the players in too many other places. I was hanging out near the Mets bullpen watching Oliver Perez throw, and I bet he was less than five feet away.

And I was pretty impressed by the Cubbie vendors. Keep in mind I was proudly wearing enemy colors. Yet several ushers cheerfully offered to take our photos, and both the food and concession vendors I dealt with seemed to go out of their way to be nice.

You already know about the game, which was a great pitchers’ duel until our bullpen decided to let the Cubs batters pad their stats.

Sadly for many Cubs “fans,” they were already back at Sluggers and Murphy’s by the time game got out of hand.

So I thought you might like a photo tour of our adventures.

The blocks around Wrigley are filled with street vendors selling Cubsware.

Some their wares are of questionable legality and taste. Check out the Japanese headbands.

Will and I checked out the new Ernie Banks statue. Naturally I have my sweet new Shea Final Season t-shirt.

Part of the new Walk of Fame is a tribute to Bill Buckner, who was wearing a Cubs batting glove when Mookie's ball rolled between his legs in the glorious 1986 series.

It was nice to see Mets fans at the game -- even delusional ones.

Just like my game at Wrigley last year, Oliver Perez was throwing in the bullpen.

Derek Lee collected his Gold Glove Award prior to the game.

Cubs fans know how to party. I have no idea what the hats were about. Will says there are a lot of people there who are interested in a game, but it has nothing to do with the events on the field.

It's a little hard to see, but that's Cubs legend Ron Santo singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

With the game over and the streak of shame extended, I sought comfort in the fact that the Cubs have an even longer streak of shame. We celebrated this by reenacting the infamous Steve Bartman moment from the 2003 playoffs.

As we were going Bartman, I heard a voice saying "Nice try, but you're in the wrong spot." This guy said he was sitting in the actual seat, and was "reversing the curse" by sitting there after the game. Not sure how he was doing that, but he was having fun.

In other news...

I now have a favorite Tiger.

Sometimes my job takes me to cool places, and sometimes cool people come to my job.

Tuesday morning we got a press release saying that Curtis Granderson, the Tigers centefielder rehabbing here in Grand Rapids with the Whitecaps, was appearing at a middle school.

I suddenly became the most territorial reporter in the newsroom.

Curtis Granderson meets the local media.

I have to say that Granderson was impressive. I learned that he asked the Whitecaps to call the schools and said he had a couple hours of free time before the game, and offered to speak to students.

He spoke about how both of his parents and his sister are teachers, and that classmates are like teammates who you can call on for help. He's one of just 30 major-leaguers with a college degree, proudly discussing his business degrees from University of Illinois - Chicago.

We talked for a little bit after his time with the students, and he told me the event is just something he enjoys doing.

Here's my full story:

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Bad Guys" and awesome cousins

I had one of those post-vacation weeks where work was crazy and outside commitments were stacking up, preventing me from blogging through what was a pretty sweet week for our Mets.

And I’m heading off to Chicago on Monday for a glorious opportunity to see the beloved Mets in the friendly confines of Wrigley, thanks to my buddy Will and his wonderful sidekick Laurie.

I’ll have a full report after that game. Until then we can have a meeting of the Mets Book Club.

I had no interesting reading “The Bad Guys Won” by Jeff Pearlman, for a couple reasons.

First, I avoid negative books about the Mets, otherwise known as the collective works of Bob Klapisch. I generally don’t care to know that players can be jerks.

Second, I had reservations about Pearlman, who wrote the Sports Illustrated story that made John Rocker infamous.

Don’t get me wrong. Rocker was a complete knucklehead. But I’m not sure the piece was fair. When I interview someone I make sure they know they’re on the record, especially when I’m dealing with someone who is not used to dealing with the media.

Technically, I don’t have to. Because if you are speaking to a reporter, you need to know that what you do and say can appear in the paper. But you don’t want to take advantage of people, either.

And by the way Rocker was carrying on in the interview, I’ve always wondered if he was aware of what was going on, or whether Pearlman was egging him on. It’s just not my style of journalism.

But I was in a Borders Outlet store in Florida looking for some light reading for the trip home, and saw the paperback version for $3.99.

And I remembered that Pearlman had nice things to say about "Mets by the Numbers" on the back cover. Maybe he’s a decent sort after all.

So with just minimal investment and guilt, I picked it up and started reading.

Seems like the worst stuff is in the first chapter, about the food fight on the flight home from Houston after the 1986 playoffs. From there on there isn’t too much that we didn’t already know, like Gooden’s drug issues and Dykstra’s gambling and Strawberry’s unhinged first wife.

I do have to say that I almost stopped reading near the end of Chapter 11, when Pearlman is talking about the “Let’s Go Mets” song and video. He got to the part about non-players who appeared in the video.

“No star was too small. As a result the last 20 seconds is an embarrassing nod to such not-so-hot luminaries such as … two schlubs from Twisted Sister (neither is named Dee Snider.)”

Wow. Just, wow. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the video. So I’m not which members he insulted there. And Jay Jay French, Eddie Ojeda, A. J. Pero and Mark “The Animal” Mendoza might not care.

Pearlman’s from Mahopac. He needs to learn that one does not dismiss Long Island royalty as “schulbs.”

I nearly bounced the book off the forehead of the guy sitting in front of me on the plane. And he deserved it because he had the seat fully reclined, which means he was practically sharing my seat.

Ahem! No one in Twisted Sister is a "schlub."

The last time I was that ticked off reading a Mets book was when Peter Golenbock referred to some pitcher named Thomas George Seaver in his book “Amazin’.” Obviously I know of George Thomas Seaver, the Hall of Famer and face of the franchise. But I’ve never heard of that other guy.

Seriously, if you’re writing a team history, how can you possibly blow the name of the team’s greatest player?

Back to Pearlman. The rest of the book was just OK. It’s pretty much a retelling of the playoffs and the World Series win over the Red Sox. All that has been told in more detail in other places.

So, slights to Twisted Sister aside, I guess it was an OK book to buy on clearance in an outlet. And it passed the time on the flight home.

Then, I arrived home and found a mysterious package in my mailbox. I opened it, and with great joy discovered the program from the Mets’ Opening Day and a note from my cool cousin, Mike.

I must say that my cousins are taking extraordinary care of my Mets needs this season, and I am most grateful.

Mike said he got to the game early, saw the special program – and saw that they were going quickly. He grabbed an extra one for me, and even kept it dry and clean with some drunk sitting behind him was spilling their beer all over the place.

I must say this is the best Mets program I’ve seen in years. It’s almost yearbook-thick. There are a lot of historical photos, and even a poster of David Wright.

And unlike the Jeff Pearlman book, there are no cheap shots at Long Island legends.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Key deer, key limes and five key moments of our vacation

We’re arriving back home today after a glorious week being spoiled by my parents in Florida.

After jinxing the St. Lucie Mets, we headed down to Key West, which is a strange place but very, very fun -- so much fun that it gets its own version of the Deezo Friday Five.

1) On the five-hour trip down we went through the national key deer refuge. And I confess that I have never heard of key deer, which my Dad said are like other deer, but smaller. And like Jimmy Buffet, they spend all their time in the Florida Keys.

There is much concern about the key deer, because there are high fences along the road and constant reminders to go slow and beware of the deer throwing themselves into the path of on-coming traffic.

The joke is that since most of U.S. 1 in the Keys is a two-lane road, the odds are that you will get stuck behind one of those RVs towing an SUV or boat – and in one case, both, I swear – so there is little chance of going that fast even if you wanted to.

Then we saw this sign:

To which my wife smartly replied, “Duh. Don’t give them any.”

2) Key West is famous for its Sunset Celebrations in Mallory Square, which is filled with all sorts of crazy performers, including Dominique and his Flying House Cats. Make no mistake, dude is nuts. But he had housecats jumping through rings of fire.

I used to think my own cat’s skill of pulling my pennants off the wall when he’s ticked off was pretty cool. But after seeing these flying felines, the bar has been raised.

3) The Southernmost Point marker is a mystery. It’s just a big concrete thing. It’s not even at the southernmost part of the island. But damn, it’s cool. We went back to it three different times, and waited in lines to pose with it. I seriously contemplated buying a miniature version of it for my desk at work, but then I’d have to move one of the Statues of Liberty.

4) Frozen chocolate key lime pie on a stick. It’s like key lime pie, but it’s frozen, dipped in chocolate and put on a stick. Having been to the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts, I was sure I have enjoyed every possible food and stick combination. Seriously, they have chocolate chip cookies on a stick and pickles on a stick. But this was … amazing.

5) Ernest Hemingway’s crazy cats. Hemingway’s house is a museum. Actually, a good chunk of the island seems to be dedicated to the author, who apparently fished and drank, both in great quantities.

His house is famous for having about 60 cats running around, most with six toes on their paws.

The folks there were nice enough to let us use the penny squishing machine without paying the $12 admission, and we did indeed see many, many cats, including one that was keeping the top of the penny squishing machine warm for us. We didn’t count its toes. Nor did it seem interested in jumping through hoops of fire.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

I jinx minor-league Mets, too

Tim Teufel and Met-for-a-day Dan Murray guide the St. Lucie Mets this season.

OK, we know I’m a jinx to the major-league Mets. But apparently that now extends to any of our assorted minor-league versions as well.

I know this because I had the extreme pleasure of going to see the St. Lucie Mets play the Jupiter Hammerheads at Roger Dean Stadium on Saturday.

The game started on a good note because, well, I was with my Dad, and that makes any event special. But as we were walking to the ticket window a ball came bouncing off the stadium roof and landed in the grass about 30 feet in front of us.

Sweet! An official Florida State League ball, and without having to deal with someone yelling “Give it to a kid.” Kids are perfectly capable of catching their own balls, and note that this phrase is yelled only by people who, in fact, were not able to catch one.

It didn’t even dawn on me why someone would be hitting a foul ball out of the stadium when the game was a half-hour away from starting and too late for batting practice.

Snagging our tickets and free “Game Day Magazine” and magnetic schedules, we soon discovered that the game started an hour earlier than the schedule I saw last week.

But that was OK, because it was only the top of the second inning and the Mets were already up by a run.

Roger Dean Stadium is a spring training complex shared by the Cardinals and Marlins, and then used by the Hammerheads and Palm Beach Cardinals for the remainder of the summer. That means there is a game just about every day, which is pretty efficient use of your stadium tax dollars in my book.

And while tickets might be hard to snag in March, they are pretty readily available in April through August. We sat where we pleased, which was in the third row behind the Mets dugout near the on-deck circle.

I didn’t see any of our assorted ailing and rehabbing Mets, but the team is managed by Tim Teufel, who doesn’t look like he’s aged a day from when he earned his 1986 World Series ring.

Mike Hart, Joel Fuentes and Dan Murray are the coaches. Murray pitched one game for the Mets and 14 for the Royals in his brief major-league career, but, of course, is a favorite of mine.

A Mets catcher wearing No. 31! Is Mike Piazza back? Nope, it was Jason Jacobs wearing a number that should be retired throughout the Mets system.

I can’t say I recognized anyone on the St. Lucie roster, but nearly all were either Sand Gnats or Cyclones last season. The Hammerheads were trotting out rehabbing Jeremy Hermida.

Mets hurler Dillon Gee didn’t seem to be fooling anyone, but he was getting saved by some really tight defense.

He definitely didn’t fool Hammerhead Jacob Blackwood who launched an absolute bomb to left that landed on the roof on the building beyond the fence to tie the game.

Naturally, with me an attendance, the Mets forgot to score any more runs. The game remained tied until James Guerrero hit another homer – this one nowhere near spectacular – off Mets reliever Garry Bakker in the seventh.

The Mets only had one hit the entire time I was there, which I guess I should have expected, being a jinx and all.

But we were able to see some nice pitching and fantastic defense. Plus we left with our foul ball, magnet schedules and I even got a sponge eye-ball that was tossed into the crowd during the between-inning festivities.

Earlier in the day, my parents once again showed how they absolutely spoil me by taking a side adventure from our shopping trip in Vero Beach to get one last look at Dodgertown, which, of course, is the best spring training site in the universe.

Supposedly the Orioles are planning to move into Dodgertown next season, though it sure won't be the same.

Holman Stadium is probably the best place I'v ever watched a game. Look how close you are to the action. And note that the dugouts are just a bench in front of a chain link fence.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Legos, assorted funny things and the Friday Five

A little late with the Deezo Friday Five this week. But I can still get it in before midnight, especially for the West Coast readers!

1) Lego stadiums. Sadly, it doesn’t look like anybody made a Shea or Citi Field. But some of these were pretty sweet, like Oriole Park at Camden Yards, complete with warehouse and the absence of any quality players.

2) Hugo, Cat of 1,000 Faces. I have to give Hugo credit. He acts as least as well as Mark Hamill.

3) Topps had a good chuckle with its Kazuo Uzuki card. I pulled this short-print from a pack and wondered who the heck he was. Then I turned it over and read that he throws 104 MPH and I figured something was up. The company revealed this week that it was an April Fool’s Day joke. I think I’d rather find a card of a real player, even a stiff like Guillermo Mota.

Then again, it was more believable than last year’s spoof, which had President Bush in the stands on Derek Jeter’s card. As if the Secret Service would let someone like Jeter get that close to the president.

4) Speaking of Jeter, the folks at the Crane Pool Forum had fun mocking his cologne, “Driven.” Naturally, it wasn’t called “Divin’” because Jeter usually waves at grounders, especially ones on the third-base side, so he can find something new to blame ARod for.

5) Thank you for the nice birthday wishes! And I must say there is nothing better than a Dairy Queen ice cream cake! It's the crunchy chocolate center that puts it over the top!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Like Brady Clark, I'm just happy to be here

Forty-four is for fence-busting mashers, forever associated with guys like Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey.

And according to the essential “Mets by the Numbers,” the best member of our beloved team to wear the number was … a pitcher.

But that’s OK, because our team doesn’t seem to do things the conventional way.

Today I turn 44. With Mets as in life, it might not seem as magical as No. 41 or as special as No. 42. And yes, I’m claiming Jackie Robinson as an honorary Met. The team seems to, so I’m just following its lead.

But 44 is better than 43, which in Mets World appeared to be troublesome with Jim McAndrew being our most successful player to wear it on his back.

So we move on to the David Cone birthday. We share a bond, as he also was a University of Missouri journalism student. Or it could be the Jay Payton birthday, or the Lastings Milledge birthday.

Howard Johnson bailed on the number after just five days, which worries me since I don’t have that option. But Brady Clark has it now, so I’m pulling for him.

And like Brady Clark, who barely made the team, I’m just happy to be here. I write a lot of stories about people who don’t get to be 44 – three in the past week, as a matter of fact.

Every day is a blessing and a gift.

It might not seem like it on an evening when Pedro heads to the DL for the next two months and our new reliever gives up a walk-off homer to a Marlin who is lucky to slap singles.

But you can’t get too down, because there’s always the chance that you can come back the next night and win 13-0.

I think we’re in for a good year.