Friday, November 27, 2009

Place No. 74: Bob Feller Museum; and Place No. 74A: Bob Feller statue and the amazing man himself

The only way you could learn more about Bob Feller than visiting the Bob Feller Museum is to spend a couple minutes with “Rapid Robert” himself.

I’m convinced about that after having the pleasure of meeting Feller a couple times.

Josh Pahigian takes us to Feller’s hometown of Van Meter, Iowa and the Feller Museum as place No. 74 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I’ve never been there, so I’ll substitute:

Place No. 74A: Bob Feller statue at Progressive Field, Cleveland

It’s a huge statue just outside the rightfield gate at the Indians’ home, a fine meeting spot before or after a game, as you can tell from Will and I hanging out here in the mid-1990s.

If you’re an autograph collector and you don’t have Feller’s signature, that’s on you and not Feller. He is among the nicest and most prolific signers in the game.

My experiences with Feller were a few years prior to the new stadium and that statue. I was living in Connecticut and working in the Bridgeport Post’s Valley Bureau. Feller had relatives in nearby Waterbury.

Each summer he’d visit, and would be sure to line up a handful of appearances in the area. I’m sure he made a few bucks – and not many, based on the low-for-the-time rates he was charging. But I think Feller just liked meeting fans and talking baseball.

I was a little nervous the first time I met him at a card shop in Seymour, Conn. in 1987. I brought a ball for him to sign, and there were only a handful of other people in the small store.

With little prompting, Feller starting telling me about his amazing Hall of Fame career. After asking my name, he wrote on an 8.5 by 11 sheet with his photo on the front, and flipped it over to show me where it listed all his career achievements.

I heard about the 266 wins and three no-hitters, and how he could have had more of each had he not enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, spending 44 months serving his country and earning eight battle stars.

He pointed out the line reading “The only pitcher in Major League history to win 20 games or more games before age 21,” then crossed out “only” and replaced it with “first,” since Dwight Gooden had matched the feat.

While proud of all he had done, Feller was humble, too. I handed the Hall of Famer a new ball to sign, and he chose the spot above the Rawlings logo, instead of the sweet spot, where only, managers and the best players sign. I met Johnny Mize a short while later, and he had no qualms writing his name in that spot on that ball.

I met him again the next year at a New Britain Red Sox game, sitting at a table near the concession stands, signing photos and telling stories. He signed everything for everyone and then walked around the stands talking, signing and shaking hands.

He come off a little crusty in interviews these days, not having a lot of love for modern players who don’t approach the game the same way. Don’t expect Feller to ever welcome Pete Rose, Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire into the fraternity with open arms.

But he’s also still throwing in Old-timers Games, too, and he's in his 90s. I think Feller views himself not just as a standard bearer for old school hardball, but as an ambassador for the game. And to that end, few are better than the “Heater from Van Meter.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Counting our many blessings -- and the turkeys, too

I just finished preparing the mashed sweet potatoes and the steps that will lead to my turkey’s stuffing, events that can only signify that my favorite holiday is approaching.

I love Thanksgiving because I have so much to be thankful for, and I appreciate them all. I’m blessed, and I realize it.

So let’s launch into the annual list of all that is good – and the accounting of the turkeys who try to spoil all the fun.

I’m thankful that I have a job that I love. One and a half, actually. I don’t take this lightly, because Michigan is hurting bad. It’s been a rough year in my state and in my profession. We’re hanging on, and don’t think there isn’t a day when I don’t thank the Lord for this blessing. And I’m glad that I can continue my adjunct teaching job in the spring semester. Working with such wonderful students tells me there are still talented young people who are dedicated to journalism and have hope for the future.

Turkey! Hallmark. People mocked in the past when I bemoaned the Hallmark Christmas Ornament Curse. But I was distraught when I learned that Johan Santana was this year’s decoration. Of course, he had season-ending surgery just after the ornament was released. And he took most of the team with him, leaving us with an especially dreary season.

I’m thankful that I was able to see our beloved Mets three times this season, twice in the spring and on Aug. 5 in our Citi Field debut. And amazingly – considering my past -- the Mets won all three. The 9-0 destruction of the Cardinals in August was viewed from spectacular seats provided by my parents – awesome – and was marred only by Jon Neise being carried off the field to join the DL party. But my son was able to see his first Mets game in New York, and I got all weepy seeing my glorious FanWalk brick, provided by Cousin Tim, who was there to join the celebration. And we all caught up with blogging buddy Greg Prince at the game, too. It was a very, very good day.

Turkeys! The ESPN Sunday Night Baseball crew of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. Look, I like Miller, one of the best voices in the game. But Morgan is killing me, and he’s an anchor around Miller. When Morgan is not reminding us that he “played the game,” he’s praising Derek F. Jeter. Jeter doesn’t even have to be playing at the time. But it’s darn near embarrassing when he is. How many times have you heard this scenario: A weak, routine five-bouncer to short, which Jeter gets only because it’s hit right at him, then promptly throws to first base, bouncing twice along the way. “Look at Jeter get to that ball,” Morgan will exclaim. “He makes that play look easy. Derek just brings that something special every time he steps on the field. He makes everyone around him better. I know how players do that, because I played the game.” Gag.

I’m thankful for my iPhone, which is very close to surpassing my iPod as the greatest device ever. It is life-altering. The apps are incredible for both work and home. I’m especially thankful for the “Lose it” app. All I’m saying is that I installed it on July 7 and now I’m 50 pounds lighter. Really. And there’s the app that tracks how far and fast I can run, with the pause button so I can flick over to the maps app so I can get unlost while running in Texas and find my way back to Aunt Darlene’s house. Yes, this happened.

I’m thankful for lax security in the Astrodome and tour guides who don’t mind giving individual tours of Minute Maid Park. That trip to Texas offered all kinds of adventures.

I’m thankful that the Baseball Hall of Fame is taking the task of adding executives and pioneers more seriously by adding a keen and brilliant mind to the selection committee. That would be Tom Seaver, who is being lured from the vineyards next week to make sure these knuckleheads don’t mess things up again.

Turkeys! Sadly, the Hall still managed to goof things up. The committee to consider managers and umpires includes Tom Verducci, the infamous Yankee hack who actually declared that cyborg/reliever Mariano Rivera should start the 2008 All-Star Game so applause could fall on him like soft rain. I almost gagged on the turkey just typing that again. But seriously, this is a bad idea. Is there any doubt that “The Duce” will start the meeting by protesting that there are non-Yankees on the ballot? Do we not believe that Verducci will, with a straight face, make a case that Billy Martin should have a spot in Cooperstown, then try to slip in Ralph Houk and Joe Girardi and goodness knows how many once and future Yankee managers into the Hall? Then he'll move along to Yankee coaches and bullpen catchers and the grounds crew and Derek F. Jeter's parents for their role in making the world a better place. I, for one, hope that they don’t put Verducci in charge of counting the ballots.

I’m thankful that the Mets are not totally screwing up the new uniforms all the way. We love the team. You know that. But sometimes it makes questionable decisions when it comes to tinkering with the astonishingly great uniforms the Mets were blessed with. This week the team announced it would feature cream-colored pinstripes intended to honor the 1969 champs. I’m down with that, even though the typical Mets pinstripes are the best uniforms in baseball. But for reasons I can not figure out, they are leaving the black drop shadow on there. Help me figure this out. If you are going to recreate a uniform from 1969, why exactly are you keeping the feature from the past decade? We know the Mets. The team makes progress in increments. That’s why we’re getting a Mets Hall of Fame a year after the ballpark opens. As long as we’re headed in the right direction, it’s all good.

I'm thankful that I was allowed to coach the greatest church coed softball team ever. One a communication-forced forfeit prevented us from smashing through the playoffs. We settled for the consolation championship -- excellent -- and lots of wonderful fellowship. And now I can start planning and plotting for next year.

I'm thankful that I was able to hear Audio Adrenaline's Mark Stuart and Will McGinnis one more time. One of my favorite bands, Audio A called it quits a couple years ago when Stuart started losing his voice. Now he and Will tour as Audio Unplugged, and share their stories as they play a few songs, which is easier on Mark's voice. I had the chance to meet them after a recent concert, and share how much their music inspired me, especially when I was looking for ways to connect with the middle school youth groups. They probably hear that kind of thing all the time, but maybe not. I didn't want the opportunity to say "thank you" slip by.

I hope this holiday finds you happy and healthy and in appreciation of the blessings the Lord has given us. Even in the toughest of years on and off the field, may we never forget what is special about our lives, and the people we get to share them with.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Place No. 73: Baseball Reliquary; and Alternative Place No. 73A: South Shore Sports Legends and a Mets tragedy

I confess I had to look up “reliquary,” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a receptacle, such as a coffer or shrine, for keeping or displaying sacred relics.”

We need to know this because Josh Pahigian takes us back to Los Angeles for The Baseball Reliquary or place No. 73 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

Spread over several locations, the reliquary’s mission is to display objects “that more conservative, timid, or uninformed baseball museums have failed to bring to the public’s attention.”

According to Josh, the collection seems to run toward the scandalous, with items like thong panties worn by Wade Boggs’ mistress, a half-smoked cigar Babe Ruth allegedly left behind at a brothel and a signed record from “Disco Demolition Night.”

You can learn more about it here.

“Whereas the sine qua non of most baseball museums are bats, balls, and gloves, the Baseball Reliquary has pursued a more visionary acquisitions policy, which has resulted in many extraordinary discoveries,” reads the organization’s Web site.

“While each artifact is approached with meticulous scholarship and veracity, the ability of an object to invoke a sense of wonderment in, and to inspire the imagination of, the viewer is of supreme importance. The Baseball Reliquary's collections chart an eclectic terrain, and it is the purpose of this guide to introduce the public to the scope of materials that have been procured.”

Considering I once picked up some of Mike Schmidt’s lawn clippings, I suppose I can’t be hard on these guys.

I do like quirky little museums, so that takes us to:

Alternative Place No. 73A: South Shore Sports Legends display at the Indiana Welcome Center

You never know what you’ll find when you pull off the highway.

I had a mission while traveling back from Texas last month, trying to find postcards, key chains and a snow globe from each state I drove through, presents for my nephews.

Indiana was destined to be a challenge, since I’m only in it for the stretch from Chicago to Michigan City, and most places along that stretch offer souvenirs featuring the Windy City. Guess there’s not a huge demand for Gary snow globes.

But there is an elaborate welcome center in Hammond, partly shaped like a barn with a large exhibit space and a museum about John Dillinger, including his “death trousers.”

I have no interest in learning anything about bank robbers. They’re evil, like Yankees, but not as arrogant. And I was mildly offended to see photos of his corpse for sale in the gift shop near items from “A Christmas Story.” Ick.

And the key chain-postcard-snow globe selection was rather poor, too.
But I did wander over to a temporary exhibit called South Shore Sports Legends, saluting athletes from Northwest Indiana. There wasn’t much to it, other than a series of banners for each inductee and a small display case.

Among the 2009 inductees, I saw a baseball player in a Mets uniform, a blue batting practice jersey with the tail under the team name -- the short-lived style from the mid-90s – and pants with the racing stripes from the 1980s and early 1990s.

I had only a faint recollection of Tim Bishop, and was sad to read at the bottom of the banner that he passed away April 18, 1997.

It said he was one of only two players ever selected for state all-star teams in three sports, was selected by the Mets in the 1994 amateur draft, batted .325 for Kingsport in 1996 and that he played for Columbia.

A quick Google search revealed the rest of the story, and it’s pretty sad. In a New York Times story from June 1997, Buster Olney reported that Bishop and a Bombers teammate were driving home after a game was postponed.

A tire blew out and the car spun around into a highway passing lane. The players got out, but Bishop went back to turn on the hazard lights. As he was doing that, the car was struck by another car, throwing Bishop over the median and into the path of another vehicle. He was just 20.

Olney reported the Mets two months later asked for resignations from Bombers manager Doug Mansolino, pitching coach Dave Jorn and coach Tim Leiper.

Olney reports that a “high-ranking official in the Mets' front office,” told him the three men did not appropriately address whether players had been drinking on the team bus before the crash.

Frank Thomas, from the original Mets team, also is in the Sports Legends hall, along with baseball players from lesser teams, like Ron Kittle, Don Larsen, Kenny Lofton.

Sadly, the display was taken down this month and is looking for a permanent home. That’s a shame, because it will make it more difficult for fans to learn about player like Bishop. And I'd rather learn about people like him and Frank Thomas as I stretch my legs and buy a post card than some outlaw.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Place No. 72, Pink's Hot Dogs. Seriously. And, 72A, Nathan's Famous

Is the World Series over yet? I’ve been hibernating, attempting to avoid exposure to the whole sordid affair.

I did emerge and see a photo of ARod dressed in his Halloween costume. I’m assuming he was dressed as Rocky Balboa. Seriously, that had to be a costume, right?

"Yo, Adrian! Trick or treat!"

Speaking of people trying to pull our legs, Josh Pahigian tries to salute ballpark hot dogs by taking us to Los Angeles and someplace called “Pink’s” for place no. 72 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

Based on this entry, the book should be renamed “100 Baseball Places and one Hollywood Eatery That Has Nothing to Do With Baseball.”

Seriously, even Josh points out that the place has a Hollywood motif, and that you have to look hard to find a baseball connection.

The fact that Josh looked to Los Angeles for hot dogs is an outrage and makes be uneasy about places Nos. 73 through 101.

I shall come to his rescue.

Alternative place No. 72A) Nathan’s Famous, Coney Island.

Nathan’s, of course, is the kind of hot dog served at Citi Field and formerly at Shea. So it only makes sense that we had to return to the epicenter of all things Nathan’s to pay proper tribute when we returned to the homeland this past summer.

Hot dogs have been a ballpark staple since Harry M. Stevens began serving them at the Polo Grounds in the early 1900s.

Tim and Andrew liked thier dogs.

History tells us that Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker, in 1916 opened his small stand at Coney Island, serving the dogs and crinkle-cut fries are served with a little fork.

The company's Web site claims President Franklin Delano Roosevelt served Nathan's Famous hot dogs to the King and Queen of England in 1939, and had the dogs shipped to Yalta when he met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.

Dad, Tim, Andrew and I headed to Coney Island after seeing the Mets beat the Cardinals 9-0 in our Citi Field debut.

After braving the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel, we made our way down to Nathan’s. Things had changed, but not that much. Dad ordered a round of dogs and fries, and we sat down on some tables to watch the colorful world that is Coney Island walk past.

There are massive signs about the annual hot dog eating contest, which seems kind of freakish.

New York requires restaurants to disclose the number of calories on menus. A hot dog with bun had 296 calories. This year's hot dog eating champion, Joey Chestnut, ate a record 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes on July 4. That would be 20,128 calories.

The dogs were glorious, and I’m sure I savored my one more than Joey enjoyed his 68.

We came right from the game, though I removed my Tom Seaver jersey for safety, lest there was any hurling on the Cyclone.

I was in standing on line for a second round of Diet Cokes when I guy looked over and said, "Hey, were you at the game today?"

"Yeah! How'd you know?"

"Well, you got Mr. Met on your face."

I'd forgotten to remove the menacing Mr. Met temporary tattoo. Not that strange facial tats made me stand out in a crowd on Coney Island.

Truth be told, I’m not keen on franks at the ballpark. Order a dog at your typical stadium, and an employee will open a drawer and hand you a ball of foil, the contents of which will be a shriveled dog and a squished, soggy bun that sticks to the dog.

One of things I liked best about the old Tiger Stadium was that vendors would roam the stands with boiled dogs floating in water that I assumed was hot. (If you know otherwise, don’t tell me. I’m in my happy place.)

Anyway, the vendor would capture a dog with tongs, take a fresh bun out of a bag, slap it there and then offer you mustard or ketchup, which he’d apply from a bottle.
The dogs were Ball Parks and not Nathans, but I could pretend.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Baseball place No. 71: Phoenix Municipal Stadium; 71A: Oldsmobile Park

Sometimes you go to a ballgame and something just seems ... off.

I can't exactly put a finger on why we didn't have that great a time during what should have been a nice day at the park.

But first we have to deal with the formalities. Josh Pahigian takes us to Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the spring home for the Oakland Athletics, for place No. 71 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

Phoenix is one of the rare cities that host both spring training baseball as well as regular season games. And the city is Arizona's state capital, too.

The stadium sounds nice, with red rocks of Papago Park rising above the field.

I’ve never been there, but I have attended a game is a ballpark built in another state capital.

Alternative place No. 71A: Oldsmobile Park

Lansing isn’t far from either of the places in Michigan where we’ve lived, only about an hour away.

But I’ve been to Oldsmobile Park, home of the Lansing Lugnuts, for a game just once since it was built in 1996, and I really can’t say I’m in a rush to get there again.

It’s a nice enough ballpark, made of brick with a retro feel. It replaced an entire block of buildings that were historic but in bad shape, filled mostly by porn shops, according to one report I read.

But something sure seemed unfriendly when we attended a game against the Fort Wayne Wizards in 2005.

We have a tradition of the whole family attending a game as a Father’s Day treat, and we had high hopes checking out a park for the first time.

You have to remember that I always bring my backpack to games, and just about everywhere else. I got the blue Jansport for my freshman year in college, and it’s held up remarkably well since. It’s my essential game companion, holding pens, pencils, a small pencil sharpener -- for keeping score, of course -- packets of sunscreen and whatever else I think I might need for a game.

My youngest was seven at the time, and when we’d go to see the Whitecaps here in Grand Rapids, I’d bring along some Capri Sun juice packets. Sometimes they’d get left in the backpack if she didn’t drink them all.

Well, the Lugnuts are one of those teams that search every backpack, and the guy working the gate poked around mine.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that Capri Sun,” the worker said.


“There’s a Capri Sun in the backpack. No outside food or drink allowed.”

Seemed kind of weak. I was bringing a family of four there for Father’s Day, and it’s not like one Capri Sun was going to sustain us for the whole time. Clearly we were going to be buying more food and drink inside park.

And when it was time to grab some lunch, I found out why they didn’t want anyone sneaking in snacks. You expect to pay more at a ballpark, but these prices seemed excessive, especially for the Midwest League.

The team store wasn’t any friendlier on the wallet. The team had tweaked the uniforms that year, keeping the logo but changing the caps from red to black. Not only were the out-dated caps not on sale, but they had a sign reading “retro caps” or “heritage caps” or something along those lines.

And lets talk about the logo. The team is called the Lugnuts. And the logo is … a screw. Did nobody realize this, or didn’t they care?

The mascot is a dragon-like monster with lugnuts – not screws – where his nostrils should be.

On the bright side, we won a bottle of warm Sprite for doing “the Twist” during a between-inning promotion.

In the end, the Lugnuts won, 4-3, and the kids seemed to enjoy running through a fountain on the plaza outside the ballpark.

But something left a bad taste in our mouth, and we’ve never been back.

No one likes to feel gouged. A major league team can get away with it. Fans expect it, especially when they see $10 million players on the field. But minor league teams have to realize they’re selling the experience.

We do appreciate the fan-friendly West Michigan Whitecaps.