Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lacing up for a 'Great Skate' and a great time

Hanging with Justin Abdelkader, who scored in last year's Stanley Cup finals.

The most dangerous part of ice skating, I’ve decided, is not the hard, slick ice, the freezing temperatures or even the sharp blades of steel.

No, the hazardous parts are little kids.

There are two kinds. The fearful inch along, stop without warning and when they fall – which is often – their blades go every which way, threatening to slice ankles of passers by.

Then there are the fearless, kids who skate better than I can walk, going forward, backward, sideways all at great speed and only occasionally looking where they going.

But once I learned to dodge the tots, I had a wonderful time as a “celebrity skater” on Sunday with the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team.

The Griffins are the Detroit Red Wings’ affiliate in the American Hockey League, and are very active in the community. Players participated in a downtown Winterfest, followed by a marathon “Great Skate” to raise money for the West Michigan Youth Hockey Foundation.

The team asked me to join in the fun, and I was thrilled. I had not laced up skates in about eight years, but team staffers assured me the skill would come back easily. And that was true!

After viewing the porcupine and owl brought over from the local zoo an several neat ice sculptures, Caroline and I pulled on our blades and I hit the ice at Rosa Parks Circle. After a slow, cautious lap or two, we were skating with ease.

The team announced that I was out there, and was, in fact the leading fundraiser in the celebrity/media division. Nobody booed, which is what I feared.

The Griffins do a wonderful job with the event, and some of their top players were out there greeting fans, signing autographs and posing for photos as they skated.

Center Justin Abdelkader has spent most of the season with the parent Red Wings. He’s famous for setting an NHL record that won’t soon be matched – scoring his first two career goals in the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals.

Goaltender Thomas McCollum is a fellow New Yorker, but he’s from the Niagara Falls area, about as far from Long Island as one can be and still be in the state. We had a nice time chatting about the Homeland. He was the Red Wings’ first-round draft pick last year.

Center/wing Evan McGrath has been with the Griffins for four years, and ranks among the team’s all-time leaders in several categories.

Thank you to every one who donated and made this event a lot of fun!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Solving the mystery of the horrific Hostess Rusty Staub

I fondly remember turning over box after box of Ring Dings and Twinkies at the Dan’s Supreme supermarket in downtown Massapequa Park, looking for baseball cards on the bottom of the boxes, searching for the rare Mets player who might appear.

These memories were stirred by a post on Paul Lukas’ awesome Uniwatch blog showing an ad for the cards.

That, in turn, brought back horrific memories of what might be the worst Mets card ever rendered – and a potential mystery solved by members of the even more awesome Crane Pool Forum.

First, some background. Baseball card lovers know that it stinks to have a player wearing the wrong uniform on his card. It just looks bad.

This is a problem because players get traded, especially during the winter. And Topps back in the day the sole producer of cardboard glory, sometimes wanted to get cards produced without having the time – or the desire – to get a fresh photo of the guy in his new threads.

The company worked around this problem in two ways.

First, it would ask each player to remove his cap for a headshot, known in card circles as a “big head, no hat” photo, or BHNH.

Or, the company would either paint over a cap logo, and, in some cases, attempt to paint a new logo on the cap.

The 1962 set had a ton of BHNH cards, since it was the Mets' first year, and manager Casey Stengel appeared with his Yankee logo painted over.

But after that, it wasn’t unusual to see a player or two get the brush treatment. Sometimes the artists did a fairly nice job. Sometimes, not so much.

Logos got more complicated over the years, and the 1977 expansion Blue Jays players no doubt hoped and prayed that the squishy bird heads painted on their cards would bear only slight resemblance to that their actual caps would look like.

That brings us to our horror story and Hostess. The Mets had experienced some awful air-brush jobs over the years, but the 1975 Hostess card of Rusty Staub is the worst of the worst.

Hide the children, because this is nasty stuff.

Wow. For starters, the Expos logo is still clearly visable on Rusty’s chest. Topps often would leave collar trim in plain view, but never an entire team logo.

Then it appears an artist started adding Mets pinstripes on Rusty’s unstriped Expos jersey, then got distracted and stopped. Or, he was in a sugar frenzy from eating too many Ring Dings. Either way, there is a whole section of Rusty that is without stripes.

And keep in mind, this card is from 1975. Rusty was traded to the Mets at the start of the 1972 season. You telling me Hostess couldn’t get a current shot of Rusty after three years at Shea?

Something went horribly wrong, and there must be a reason. Crane Pool Forum poster batmgadanleadoff has a theory that makes great sense.

He’s thinking that Hostess used Topps’ archives for the photos. Clearly they reached out to someone because there were a lot of cards in the sets and the bakery folks probably didn’t shoot the players themselves.

Rusty, it is known, had some kind of beef with Topps, because his cards do not appear in the 1972 and 1973 sets. His first Mets card is in the 1974 issue.

“I'm guessing that Hostess licensed their pictures from Topps and that the screwup with the Expos "elb" logo and pinstriping was not an artist's oversight, but that the photo was supposed to be cropped higher up, at around Staub's neck and through the shoulder line. I've seen several proofs of old Topps cards where the cap or helmet was airbrushed to reflect the player's brand new team. In those proofs, the jersey top (former team) was left unaltered. The final card was cropped above the jersey.”

That’s very plausible. And I was convinced when the fine people behind the Ultimate Mets Database created this mock-up of what an air-brushed 1972 Topps Staub card might have looked like.

That’s very much in line with what other air-brushed Mets of the ear looked like. So what we likely see before us is Hostess folks not cropping old photos as intended.

Now, equally frightening is the physical cropping of the entire card from the box. I will not accept blame for this. This is the way the card was when I found it at a show – the only time I’ve ever seen it.

Maybe Rusty bought up all the boxes to prevent this nightmare from getting out in public, but I don’t think Twinkies would appeal to his gourmet tastes.

Speaking of treats, the Ultimate Mets folks have a whole bunch of modern Mets in pretend cards using designs from the 1970s. If you, like me, love the cardboard treasures from that era, you'll love the handiwork on display here.

And here's some less-than-glorious artwork from Topps, a gallery of air-brushed shame.

I don't know if it's coincidence or design, but a lot of air-brushed Mets didn't last with the team more than a year. This Jerry Robinson from the 1971 and Phil Hennigan from 1973 are good examples. At least Phil got a full logo on his cap.

Bob Miller was an original Met, then came back for a cameo in the 1974 set. Alas, Topps didn't bother to the hide his Pirates collar.

Joe Torre got the air-brush treatment in 1974, with Topps even adding the pinstripes and a button on what was a Cardinals jersey.

Finally, we have the sad case of Mickey Lolich. He lasted a season with the Mets, appearing in this 1976 traded card and a in a real photo in the 1977 set.

I met Lolich at a card show near Detroit years later and asked him about his short tenure at Shea.

"Hated it," he said. "I'm just an ole country boy and didn't like living in the city."

Of course, Mickey was involved in one of the worst Mets trades ever, coming from Detroit in exhange for -- you know it -- Rusty Staub.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Me? A celebrity? Only when skating for a good cause

My guess is that many famous Grand Rapidians sent their regrets.

Betty Ford is busy in California helping the rich and famous dry out.

Andy Richter is comforting Conan O’Brien through difficult times.

Taylor Lautner would likely spark a riot among high school girls.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. is sparring with potential opponents over drug testing.

Rev. Al Green is helping people stay together.

Anthony Kiedis is doing whatever hot peppers do when they chill.

Gillian Anderson is chasing UFOs.

NASCAR driver Johnny Benson is driving in circles somewhere.

Chris Kaman is dribbling in LA with the Clippers.

Staring down that stack of declined invitations, I suspect staffers with the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team decided that the term “celebrity” can be applied to certain newspaper education writers/baseball bloggers, at least in dire circumstances.

I’m glad they did!

The Griffins are the Detroit Red Wings’ affiliate in the American Hockey League, and are very active in the community. Players are participating a downtown Winterfest, followed by a marathon “Great Skate” to raise money for the West Michigan Youth Hockey Foundation.

The group helps young people succeed in the classroom and on the rink.

Players are using the skating event to raise money, and the team reached out to local celebs and media personalities to join in the fun – and the fundraising.

I was invited, and my editors signed off on the plan as long as I knew there would be no workman’s compensation should I hurt myself trying to check one of the area television types if they decided to lace up some skates.

I do fear that the Griffins are unaware of what happens to teams when I start to follow them. It’s been said I’m a bad hockey fan. Or, more correctly, a fan of bad hockey.

Naturally I followed the Islanders through their magnificent Stanley Cup run. But I’ve loved minor league hockey ever since Rich introduced me to the New Haven Nighthawks during our time in Connecticut.

There’s a chance I gravitate toward the type of players sometimes called “goons” in impolite circles. OK, I formed a fantasy league based entirely around penalty minutes.

Our favorite Nighthawk was Ken “The Bomber” Baumgartner, who could mix it up with the best of them. But Bomber was a brawler with brains, went to Harvard and everything. We were bursting with pride when he eventually played for the Islanders.

We moved to Flint in 1990 in time to catch the final games of the Spirits, and were devoted to the Bulldogs, a team in a new league that replaced them.

Our glorious adventures with the Bulldogs, our loyalty to Jacques “Mad Dog” Mailhot and the near-brawl with Boris the mascot is a tale best told here.

I promise there will be no such shenanigans when I join the Griffins as we lap Rosa Parks Circle on Jan. 31.

But I did have a good time designing my official fundraising page, wearing my classic, game-worn Nighthawks jersey and recreating glorious poses from Topps hockey cards of the 1970s.

That page is here, and, if you feel inspired, a donation of any amount is greatly appreciated.

I’m just grateful I don’t have to drop the gloves and dance with Floyd Mayweather. I don’t think Floyd can skate, but he sure can punch!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I'm responsible for Mark McGwire's steroid use

I claim full responsibility.

I allowed Mark McGwire to stake steroids. Now that his hour of confession and judgment has arrived, I must stand beside him as a codefendant.

I didn’t supply Mac with the andro, HGH and goodness knows what other chemical he used, but I might as well have.

I bought the 70th home run T-shirt in St. Louis’s Lambert Airport, and walked out of the Post-Dispatch’s offices with a stack of the special editions from 1998, when he broke Roger Maris’ famed home run record.

I have the Starting Lineup figures, the commemorative Headliner with Mac and Sammy Sosa, and the All-Star Game figure of McGwire in his National League jersey.

I bought the magazines with him on the cover, and wore my Cardinal cap.

Worst of all, I cared. I got caught up in the home run chase, watching the games with great interest as he approached and surpassed No. 62.

I bought tickets to see the Cardinals and cheered when the giant strode the plate, hoping to see him bash another home run.

McGwire and Sosa are credited with bringing fans back to baseball, still struggling with the aftermath of the 1994 labor battle. I’m one of the loyalists who never left the game, and it sure was nice to hear people stop bashing baseball and celebrating the game again.

It was fun. A lot of fun. In fact, I'd say it was the best baseball season that didn't involve a Mets championship.

I liked the whole Sammy Sosa thing, too. It was neat to see Sammy charge out to Wrigley’s right field with the bleacher creatures bowing and going nuts. The home run hop, the heavenly points — they were all part of a great show.

Did I suspect that there might be chemical enhancements? In some deep, dark corner of the mind there were doubts. But I was having so much fun that I banished them to that corner.

Truth be told, I didn’t want to know.

I’m still in denial that any Mets player ever juiced, and fully suspect each and every member of the Yankees roster is ‘roided up, and also most of the grounds crew and even some of the ushers and beer vendors.

But those of us who willingly went along for the ride can’t stand here today with clean hands and condemn McGwire.