Friday, October 31, 2008

Pumpkins, candidates and other scary things

Last year’s Paul Lo Duca jack-o-lantern might have been a little too scary, so this year we just resorted to pumpkin cannibalism to greet trick-or-treaters — and to kick off the Deezo Friday Five.

1) The scariest thing that ever happened to me on Halloween occurred a couple years after we moved to Grand Rapids and I had the infamous "Bus Stop Gang" on my lawn every morning.

One of the kids in particular was difficult.

I was walking with a neighbor, taking all of our kids trick-or-treating around the subdivision, and we came upon the house where the difficult girl lived. They had what appeared to be one of those stuffed scarecrows sitting on the bench by the door with its head down.

So as we were walking up to the door, I said to the neighbor, "This is the house where the pain-in-the-ass kid lives."

And, and the last word left my lips, the scarecrow’s head picked up and said, "Boo." It was the father.

I felt bad, at least when my heart started again.
But my neighbor suspected that the father already knew his daughter was a pain in the ass, and that we just learned that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

2) We’re heading to see the Grand Rapids Griffins on Saturday night because the team is giving away bobble heads of John McCain and Barack Obama wearing Griffins sweaters.

Supposedly, the team has 1,000 of each, and people will have a choice of which one they want. When they run out of a bobble of a particular candidate, he is declared the winner, allowing the team of lawyers to immediately call for a recount.

There is no proof that ACORN is trying to get people to buy multiple tickets and return to the line again and again.

But to be honest, I’m bringing along my son so we can snag one bobble of each candidate.

I thought this was really original until I saw that another minor league hockey team doing the same thing. Doesn’t make it less cool, though.

We haven’t gone to too many Griffins games since the infamous Napoleon Dynamite incident, so this will be an opportunity for redemption.

3) Speaking of bobbles, I pre-bought the latest Hawk Nelson CD back in March because it came with a special four-headed figure.

But when I went to get the CD, I was told that every single bobble arrived broken, and that the company was replacing them. That was April 1. I asked about the bobbles every time I’ve been in the store since, and was told each time that the replacements had not yet arrived.

Finally, on Thursday, I was able to take home what is a better bobble than I thought. Usually when there are multiple guys on one stand, they get shrunk down. But this is pretty sweet.

For the unfamiliar, Hawk Nelson is sort of rock band with Christian leanings and puts on a heck of a show.

4) The Crane Pool Forum has been debating a Times of London listing of U.S. presidents. I thought Theodore Roosevelt was a little low at No. 5, but it’s hard to argue against Abraham Lincoln at the top.

Driving home from St. Louis, I passed through Lincoln, Ill. The town’s claim to fame is that Abe christened Lincoln in 1853, with watermelon juice, and the town's colors are red and green. It’s the only town named for Abraham Lincoln before he became famous.

The town once had a grand plan to built a 10-story statue of Abe spilling the juice that people could climb into, like the pre-Sept. 11 Statue of Liberty.

Apparently this plan is on hold, but I did find this neat fiberglass Abe at a big intersection.
5) I was aware the Mark Knopfler made a CD with Emmylou Harris a while back. But I did not know that they made a live version that included some of Mark’s other solo work and even two of my favorite Dire Straits songs.
It was a CD-DVD combo, which was pretty expensive. But I pounced when I saw iTunes made the CD version available.

"Romeo and Juliet" is spectacular and "So Far Away" is simply stunning, with Emmylou’s voice drifting into the chorus.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Every signature tells a story: Stephen King kicking butt

All the presidential campaign activity reminded me of one of my favorite autograph stories.

Stephen King, I learned, is an awesome writer, but not much of political pundit.

This discovery came back in 1984 when I was the editor of the Nassau Community College newspaper and we got word that King – my favorite author at the time -- was appearing unannounced downstairs in the Student Union.

King, we were told, was speaking on behalf of Sen. Gary Hart, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

Not that it mattered. King could have been reading the minutes of the last student government meeting out loud and we still would have scrambled down the stairs to catch a glimpse. And there, standing without a crowd, was the master of the macabre, the man who penned “Cujo,” “Carrie” and “Christine.”

Tall and bearded, King looked as imposing as one of the characters in his spooky books.

I bravely walked over and introduced myself, and went into reporter mode.

“Why,” I asked, “should someone support Gary Hart.?”

King looked down, furrowed his brow and said – growled, more accurately – “Because he’s gonna kick Reagan’s ass.”

The last three words were said slowly as if each were followed by a period. They sounded more menacing than they appear in print.

And then nothing more.

I was going to venture a follow-up question, maybe something about a particular aspect of Hart’s proposals that King might have particularly liked.

But frankly, the whole ass-kicking thing threw me off guard. And I was totally star-struck. I might have thrown out something like, “I really liked ‘The Dead Zone.’” before handing him my reporter’s notebook to autograph.

Looking back, of course, it was The Gipper who extended boot to buttocks, dropping a 49-state smackdown on Walter Mondale.

And King’s candidate, Gary Hart, will forever go down in history as the man who, through his misdeeds on the Monkey Business, opened the door to a whole new kind of political reporting, the horror story that is the poking and prodding into personal lives of the people who run for office.

The only thing scarrier might be the phrase, "Now warming up in the Mets' bullpen..."

Give me "The Shining" over Schoenweis any day!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cardinals show off their history in the new Busch Stadium

Busch Stadium was a short walk from my hotel in St. Louis, so you knew I'd take an opportunity to check it out.

I realize the old Busch was a multi-purpose "ashtray" of a park, but I still kind of liked it. It was the site of my first-ever Mets road game, and I have been there a number of other times, including a cool tour where we did Ozzie Smith flips -- with help -- on the turf.

But the Cards are a classy group, so I assumed the new stadium would be a treat. My only opportunity to explore was in the early morning and on the way out of town, so I didn't expect anything more than walking around the outside and checking out the team store.

Arch views are spectacular wherever you can get them!

The fence in front surrounds the field of dirt that once was the old stadium. There are plans for two phases of a "Ballpark Village," but nothing has started.

There are a lot of nice details that I didn't expect to see. This cornerstone added a little flair.

The sidewalks surrounding the stadium have personalized bricks, but also great moments in Cardinals history. The idea is nice, but the MasterCard ads cheapen the whole thing.

So I saw this "Carlton baffles Mets" stone, and figured t might be his 19-strikeout game. But I thought, "Wait a second, didn't the Mets win that game? He couldn't have baffled them that much!" Sure enough, the stone told the whole story, with Ron Swoboda's two home runs.

It was nice to see Met Fernando Tatis get some love -- at the expense of Met-for-a-day Chan Ho Park.

The Cardinals honor some of their immortals as well as Cool Poppa Bell with these neat statues. When I came by later there was a bridal party -- with red and white tuxes -- posing with the statues. Here's a close-up view of Ozzie Smith.

I found two of these plaques showing how the old and new stadium sites overlap. This one was for a white stripe on the sidewalk. But the other one, the spot where the 402 mark was listed on the outfield wall, was a little better.

These were all around the stadium, each with a Cardinals logo from another era. Unlike some teams we know and love, the Cards do a fine job with their history.

The Cardinals are hosting the 2009 All-Star Game, and the gift shop already was decked out with gear. I picked up the cap and pennant I grab every year, so I'm already done shopping until 2010!

This is as close to the concourse I could get. Looks like a nice place. The seats are all red, which makes sense.

The main entrance is sharp-looking. The steelwork looks just like the Eads Bridge, which is over by the Arch. The Stan Musial statue was a focal point at the old stadium, and it gets even more respect here.

Overall, Busch seems like a nice stadium, and I hope to get to see a game here next season.

Monday, October 20, 2008

St. Louis in detail for a Friday-ish Five

I had a busy weekend in St. Louis learning about high school reform efforts with other education writers.

We didn’t have a lot of time to explore what is a very glorious city. But I was able to take some early morning walks and catch some beautiful sights. So, with that in mind, this shall be an up-close but somewhat late Deezo Friday Five. On a Monday.

1) I love the Arch, which might be the best national monument not located on Liberty Island. You can’t not look at it. Your eyes are drawn to its slopes. And for something that is all polished steel, it reflects light from many sources taking on all sorts of colors. There are an array of angles to view it's slopes, and it reflects light in all sorts of magical ways.

I caught this view as the sun was rising and the moon still shining.

2) The Mighty Mississippi might be the most famous river in the country. I’m not content to just see things like this. You have to touch the water to actually be there. I once led a whole group of education writers into the Pacific Ocean because just looking at it wasn’t good enough. This time I made sure one colleague from Florida got a little wet.

3) The International Bowling Hall of Fame shares a building with the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame. For now. The bowling hall is closing soon and moving to San Antonio. What was left in the gift shop was on clearance, so I squished soon-to-be-rare pennies for my daughter and snagged floaty pens and pins for just $1.

The down side is that if my Wii bowling scores are ever given their proper due, I’m going to have to head to Texas.

It was really slow, so a clerk had time to tell me that the Cardinals hall might not be long for the world, either. The second phase of the Ballpark Village that is to rise on the site of the old Busch Stadium includes that spot.

The artifacts might move into a new building there. Then again, the first phase still resembles a big dirt lot, so I think you still have time for a visit.

4) Back to my walking tour with a colleague. She was interested in the architecture, her husband's field. I turned a corner and recognized the detail atop one of the buildings.

"That's the Wainwright Building, one of St. Louis' first skyscrapers," I said, impressively.

I don't know how I pulled that out of my mind, since it has been 20 years since I took that architecture course at the University of Missouri. I also wasn't sure I was correct. Then again, how would she know?

But there was a moment of panic when she noticed a plaque near the corner of the building and wanted to read it. If it were the Schwartz House, Retro Condos, I'd be trouble.

Sure enough, it was the Wainwright Building, and the plaque told of its place history.

Professor Osmund Overby would be proud!

5) Whenever I head to St. Louis I make sure to find a Jack in the Box for two amazing tacos.

Look, I realize Jack tacos barely qualify as a food product, and I won’t even speculate at the origin of the "meat" inside. And I can only eat two these days without having serious regrets.

But you have to understand that there are no Jacks in Michigan. One bite brings back a flood of Long Island memories.

I also circled the new Busch Stadium and even snagged a 2009 All-Star Game cap. There are enough photos of that for a reporter later this week.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Covering President Bush and Air Force One

I had a fun time covering President Bush's arrival in Grand Rapids, and his departure, too. Here are a couple photos to get you going, and I'll post some more that tell what it's like when a sitting president comes to your town.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A late Friday Five? Blame the Wii Cult

OK, so I’m in a cult. My second one, actually.

First it was an iPod cult, and I’ve managed to spread the love to the rest of my family.

But now we’re all in a Nintendo Wii cult, and that will be the lead item in the celebrated, but not always timely, Deezo Friday Five.

1) You have to understand that I’m not much of a video game guy. I’d play MLB Slugfest until my son finally got tired of beating me. And my daughter and I have fun with with an ancient Nintendo system playing some version of Mario Bros. But that’s about it.

Then Will’s brother Scott introduced me to the Wii during this year’s Executive Game weekend. We played before the game between the Mets and the Reds, and long into the night afterward. I was hooked.

My awesome parents bestowed Wiis on the family for Christmas. We had the option of opening it right away or waiting until Christmas. If Costco can have Christmas decorations up already, it must be close enough. We’ve been playing pretty much non-stop since Thursday.

2) It was a spectacular and unseasonably warm fall day here in West Michigan. I took a Wii break to get the kayak out on the mighty Grand River one last time.

Apparently everyone else had the same idea.

I saw seven other kayakers, a moron on a JetSki, three people in boats who are unaware of the rule about slowing down around kayaks, two pontoon boats – one of which had to be towed – multiple fishing boats and, get this, a sea plane. And I was only out there about an hour.

But the scenery was amazing, with the fall colors just starting to burst. We missed church this morning, but I couldn’t help but be in awe of the beauty of the world God has blessed us with and felt His presence.

3) I’m having a difficult time getting excited about the playoffs. The Mets, of course, didn’t make it. The Cubs choked. The White Sox gagged. I obviously can’t root for the Phillies. I’m tied of the Red Sox, or, as Will calls the, the BoSkanks, since he said there is little difference between them at this point. I’m stilled ticked at the Dodgers for 1988 and because they rolled over for the Yanks in 1977. Plus their manager has some Yankee taint.

That leaves the Rays, who have some former Mets and are benefiting from the karma Met Muffin and I passed along in Detroit.

4) I finally have the campaign pins I wanted for my collection.

I’m picky. There are rules. I like pins that have photos of both people on the ticket and hopefully the year. I picked up some cool McCain-Palin pins when they were in town last month.

But I ordered two Obama-Biden buttons from their Web Site. They took the money quickly, but I waited and waited and waited for the pins. It took nearly a month.

When a campaign takes a month to get a couple buttons to a guy living in a battleground state, that’s a telling sign.

5) Michigan’s economy is hurting the concert industry. I went to see Relient K (with Ludo, This Providence and House of Heroes) in Grand Rapids at a place called the Orbit Room on Friday.

I took my 16-year-old son, his buddy and my 11-year-old daughter. Orbit room is an old venue/bar, with standing room on the floor and seats in a balcony. Not sure what capacity is, but it's probably several thousand.

I figured I'd let the boys hang out on the floor, and my daughter and I would sit in the balcony so she could see well.

But the balcony was closed, and a bouncer said they need a crowd of at leat 1,100 to open it, and that they expected 800 for that show. I bet they drew twice that when they came to the same place two years ago.

I was stunned, since Relient K is really popular, especially with youth groups. Tickets were relatively cheap, too, at $20. But he said that the Michigan economy is so bad that even bands that tend to draw well have problems selling tickets.

But they let us drag two bar stools behind the soundboards so my daughter could see.

It was a good show, Relient K never disappoints. Plus, the guys working the boards let us have the set lists for my son’s collection.

The band’s hit, “I Must Have Done Something Right,” is far and away the leader on the iPod’s play count list. Here’s the video.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Unlike Tiger Stadium, Shea will go quickly

If you think the Mets are doing a lousy job with the final days of Shea, let me tell you about what's happening to Tiger Stadium.

The corner of Michigan and Trumbull was my baseball home-away-from home for nine years before in 2000 the Tigers moved downtown to Comerica Park, which is, well, lacking.

Rather than tear down Tiger Stadium, the city spent years debating what to do with it, as assorted schemes were thrown about, like turning it into condos or a shopping area.

The stadium was an urban park, but unlike Wrigley, it's surrounded by dirt parking lots and a neighborhood that was even less safe to park in than the parking lots. Oh, and there was one glorious old souvenir store that had things on the shelves since the 1970s.

So the idea that people would want to live or shop there was pretty much a fantasy.

As these ideas were kicked back and forth, the city did nothing to maintain the stadium, allowing it to tumble into disrepair.

Finally, demolition crews moved in late this season, preserving three things -- the stands from first base to third, the field and the flagpole that was in-play in centerfield.

This week the Detroit City Council discussed last-ditch efforts to save even those things.

So when my daughter and I went to see the Tigers in the next-to-last game of the season, I made sure we swung past the old stadium for one last peek while there was still something there.

What I saw was even more heartbreaking than seeing it in decline.

We parked next to a remaining souvenir store -- not the old glorious one, which closed -- and walked past an old store front that became a mini-souvenir stand on game days. It looked like the building was about to collapse. It might have looked that bad back in the day, too. But I was distracted by the souvenirs.

The first part of the park we saw looked pretty much same, except that the Tigers logo was even more faded and peeling.

Like when I went to Shea this summer, the memories came rushing back.

But we walked up the block a bit and saw the building just abruptly stop. Like an open wound, you could see the steel skeleton. The seats in the lower level were gone, but there were still many in the upper deck.

There's a pedestrian bridge over I-75 that lfted us high enough to see above the construction fences and look into the stadium. The field was there, though the grass was not manicured. And there was the flagpole, standing alone.

We were soon joined by other fans taking photos from the perch, all of us snapping photos.

I have no idea what the city could possibly do with that remaining part of the stadium. Saving the field might be fun, so kids can play ball on the same spot where Ty Cobb spiked, Dirty Kirk jumped and Kaline and Greenberg roamed.

Seems a little better than a parking lot, but at least it won't take the Mets eight years to bring Shea down.

Here's the famous Tiger Stadium in-play flag pole that was about 440 feet from home plate.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Covering Obama in Grand Rapids

I love covering presidential candidates, and it doesn’t matter whether they area a Democrat or a Republican. The presidency, and all of its trappings, is majestic and so uniquely American.

Thursday I was able to play a small role in our coverage of Barack Obama’s visit to Grand Rapids. The most interesting parts to me aren’t necessarily what you see on the news, but the little details, the things that go into making an event like this so exciting.

It starts long before the candidate arrives. There is a lot of strategy at work.

I brought my camera along, and, like when I visit a ballpark, I snap away and anything that moves – and doesn’t move.

I’ll show a bunch of those shots here.

Here's the view from the main media photo riser. Note the positioning of the stage and the visual elements, such as the huge "Change" sign dead center. If you hear nothing the candidate says, you'll still see the word "Change," the message the campaign wants you to get.

I like to stroll the blocks around an event. That’s where some of the most colorful people are – passionate folks willing to wait on long lines because they don’t have VIP passes, the protesters and the vendors.

Unlike the McCain event last month, there were very few people protesting. But there were more people selling things than I’ve ever seen.

There was no shortage of gear available.

Usually you get the roaming button dealers. Last month I saw a couple tents with some t-shirts.

But today there were people selling caps and shirts of all colors and designs up and down the street. There were vendors with photos and posters – few of which appeared to be authorized by the campaigns, but I suspect they’d rather have people walking around showing support than quibble over royalties over a logo.

Inside, things are more controlled. Especially the message. The real target at these events are not the thousands of people who are present, but the hundreds of thousands of people who might see the photos in the newspaper or its Web site or on television.

You’ll see hand-made signs in the crowd, and those are indeed made simply – but by campaign volunteers. They only want cameras to see the messages the campaign wants them to see. They pass them out to people who are happy to wave them.

You’ll also see the mass-produced signs with the campaign theme of the week, be that “Country First” for McCain or “Change We Need” for Obama. These are distributed right before the candidate arrives.

Usually there are a string of local speakers to get the crowd warmed up, and if they do their job the place will be electric. I’ve said before there is almost a crackling building to a crescendo by the time the candidate takes the stage. The only things I can compare it to are a band at its peak launching into its best song, or, say, David Wright making the upper deck of Shea shake after a walk-off win against the Yankees.

That seemed a little lacking today. But that could be because of the early hour, or because an outside event just won’t have the volume as a packed house. The positioning of the stage favored the media – remember the visuals – rather than a lot of attendees who I’m not sure had a decent view of Obama, or any at all.

Obama is a charismatic personality, and certainly a gifted speaker – especially before an adoring crowd. It was a treat to watch him and study not just what he said, but how he said it.

OK, there are a couple of cool things going on here. The guy in the sunglasses is a Secret Service agent. Do not mess with him. Do not even entertain thoughts of messing with him. The Obama Biden sign he is partially blocking is bullet-proof. Another one is covered by the bunting. They're placed at either side of the podium so that if something happens they agents can get the candidate in a sheltered area. The tilted glass on the poles on both sides of the podium are TelePrompTers, which allow the candidate to read the speech and still look up at the audience.

I noticed he was reading off a TelePrompTer, which I’ve never seen at a rally before. But comparing my notes and the prepared text made available to the media, I noticed he deviated a fair amount.

You don’t get deep policy discussions or details at a rally. The idea is to fire people up and provide the visuals. And truth be told, they’re a lot of fun to cover.