Saturday, January 27, 2007

Are all sports fans morons?

I seem to have a love-hate relationship with sports. Having played baseball at the college level briefly, as well as playing semi-professionally and for various town teams for more than a decade afterwards, not to mention coaching college-age players as recently as two years ago and still serving as league president, I obviously have a strong connection to the sporting world.

One of the things I recall from my own playing days back at the University of Maine, was that most of the jocks that I ran across wouldn't have been classified as intellectuals. I’m not sure why that is and certainly, you’ll find athletes in all sports that are intelligent, articulate and who could serve as role models of thoughtfulness.

If anyone has ever read David Halberstam, Pat Jordan, or Michael Lewis, to name but a few writers who mine the field of sports, it becomes obvious that sports and intelligence aren’t even mutually exclusive. Having said that, however, all one has to do is spend a few minutes going up and down the radio dial, or spend time with any of the better-known television sports talk shows to wonder why so much of America’s discussion of sports is rooted in the mundane, monotonous, and dare I say, simple-minded and shallow end of the pool.

There are sports hosts for instance, like David Stein, who takes the events that comprise sports and weaves them into a celebration of life. Even the incredibly popular sports host, Jim Rome, books solid interviews that on most occasions, reveal that many athletes are capable of more than the typically clichéd answers to the usual line of sports questioning.

Yet, from the two local yokels on The Morning Jab, to other national sports feeds from ESPN Radio and other syndicated programming beamed at us, the questions and the topics rarely seem to vary. Even worse, the level of discourse and the lack of civility among regular callers is particularly gallling. Speaking of the local morning drive programming on WJAB, the two morning hosts recycle the same warmed-over drivel on either the Patriots, or the Red Sox, 365 days per year. Oh, yeah, they manage to mix in some local racing news once-in-awhile, but good lord, how many fucking times must we rehash this past Sunday’s Patriots’ loss to Indianapolis? And did I mention the callers? Well shoot me and put me out of my misery! I swear, these people are interchangeable with the crowd of knuckle-draggers who call in to support the war, the right-wing agenda of the Bush administration and any other topic that can be condensed into a five-second sound bite.

It doesn’t seem to matter what sport or team one follows, either. Despite their losing record, I’ve gotten hooked on this year’s version of the Boston Celtics. As a result, I’ve begun searching the blogosphere and other online sources of information on the Green and Gold and I swear, the commentary is the same old rehashed shit that one would find at baseball, football, or hockey fansites. As always, there are exceptions. Both Dave Zirin’s blog, as well as the excellent NBA site, True Hoop offer examples of witty, intelligent takes on the world of sports. In fact, Zirin’s site often puts sports into a political context that is sadly missing in almost all reporting and writing that might be classified as sports journalism.

Like any subject, the world of sports allows writers and other so-called journalists, an opportunity for innovation and something that rises above the trite and typical. Writing about sports and covering teams and athletes allows access to an entirely different audience than commenting on politics, or popular culture. I’m surprised that more writers and journalists don’t offer a more nuanced approach and maybe attempt a blending of the world of athletics, with politics and social commentary, more often.

I know I’d certainly appreciate some different perspectives and new approaches to the coverage of sports, as I can only take so many discussions about the same old players and teams. It seems to me that a few others might, also.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Local baseball legend passes on

(Stubby Truman on his way to first, 1965)

I interviewed Leon "Stubby" Truman in the fall of 2004. I knew when I walked in the door of his rustic home, on the outskirts of Norway that Stubby was a character.

We spent three hours together that afternoon and I knew in speaking to him, how much being inducted into Maine's Baseball Hall of Fame would mean to him.

Like many of the 40 men I interviewed for When Towns Had Teams, Truman still took pride in the accomplishments that he had achieved on the baseball diamond. One of the best indications of this was born out to me in March, the following year. I was giving one of my first talks on my upcoming book at the Auburn Public Library. On that cold late winter evening, nearly 30 people showed up for my talk, most of them being former town team legends.

My talk was scheduled to start at 7, but these old-timers (including Stubby) were trying to one-up one another with stories, reliving the days when maybe they struck out a great hitter, three times, or when one of those hitters won the game with a blast over the trees in the distance. I enjoyed just sitting back, listening, knowing I played a part in bringing these guys together one more time.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from Stubby's daughter-in-law. She wrote that Stubby was terminally ill. While struggling with the questions of "why" that accompany being dealt this hand, she indicated that Stubby was still as upbeat and filled with life as was possible when you know that your days are numbered. Apparently, Stubby received a call on Christmas Eve, indicating he had been selected for a July induction into Maine's pinnacle of baseball achievement, the prestigious Hall of Fame. His daughter-in-law said there was alot of joy in the Truman household. She also told me that she felt my book had much to do with his induction.

If my book was able to accomplish anything, it was to validate the stories and the memories that these men have left behind. I had been hoping to call Stubby and was thinking about doing that and inquring if he was up for a visit, making a note to call him over the weekend. I never got the chance because when I opened up the newspaper, his obituary was featured at the top of the page.

While Stubby was a tremendous local baseball player, twirling 10 no-hitters over his illustrious career that spanned nearly three decades, he was so much more than that. His obituary indicated that he was a pillar of his community, reviving the local fish and game club, as well as being a longtime member of the Rotary. Married to the same woman for 46 years, the obituary showed Truman to be the loving husband and father that he was, devoted to his two sons and two daughters and later, his grandchildren

I drove to Oxford yesterday afternoon to pay my respects to the family. When I walked into the packed room, I knew that this man left behind a legacy in his local community. I also observed several men that I had interviewed, opponents of Stubby, some of them bitter rivals, but here to honor a good man, someone who lived his life with honor, dignity and who enjoyed his time that he had.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Not a judgement, just an observation

There once was a blogger from away, who got paid to blog. She developed a large following, mostly because she wrote with enthusiasm and wit about many things that locals got jaded about, or no longer took the time to seek out. In fact, some of us thought she captured the unique qualities of the Pine Tree State better than many of us who have lived here forever.

People regularly visited her employer's site, people who ordinarily didn't give two sh*ts about most of the rest of the lame ass content at that site. As happens, the blogger got a new job and she was off to New Jersey, to discover new things about a brand new adopted state.

Much to the excitement of her readers (dare I say, fans?), the blogger began a new blog, which fanned the flames of anticipation for stories from the land of Tony Soprano, urban crime and the Meadowlands. At first, our former daily detour included us in those first early days, unpacking and setting up her new life in Jersey City—tales of journeys across the river, exploring the Big Apple, her new landlord and the first things of a new chapter, thus begun.

Our former online compatriot from away, no longer paid to blog as part of her job, grew tired, or found other things to do with the time she once spent blogging. If other former readers were like me, they continued to check her new blog, hoping to glean what new things she was learning in the new land to our south, told with her unique voice and self-deprecating way of seeing things. Unfortunately, despite posts insisting that she wouldn't forget us, the posts stopped. Oh, there was the recent one telling us that she was too busy, too tired, too whatever, to post even occasionally. C'est la vie, as they say.

It makes you appreciate those bloggers, who also spend their days in front of a computer for work, or even write for a living, who for whatever reason, find the time and the urgency to continue to share their thoughts. As a friend once told me, when I was growing weary of the blog—you've got to write for yourself first—if you can do that, more likely than not, you'll continue to crank out posts, frequently, or even semi-frequently. In my way of thinking that makes it more authentic and in line with "keeping it real."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

HIllary joins the 2008 field of candidates

It's now official—Hillary’s entered the horserace. Just like Obama, who didn't come off particularly presidential, with his hemming and hawing about his own announcement, the senator from New York has kept us waiting longer than was necessary.

Both Senators Clinton and Obama contend that they are still in the exploratory stages of whether to run or not, having each formed perfunctory “presidential exploratory committees,” which has now become commonplace in our media-driven, candidate-handled, image-focused world of politics, making a run for president look more like The Truman Show, every four years.

People who get paid big bucks to handicap the circus, have guaranteed us plenty of early Clinton/Obama drama on the Democratic side. While no fan of the GOP myself, I’d have to say at this stage, the Republican field brings plenty of intrigue and interest to their own bid to crown a contender, particularly in light of President Bush’s dreadful poll ratings, the war in Iraq and candidates like Chuck Hagel, who incredibly is running as an anti-war Republican, of all things.

Senator Sam Brownback, who makes our current president seem like a progressive cut from LaFollette’s cloth, has thrown his hat in the ring and will curry much favor with the far right Christian, Left Behind crowd, hoping to get their annointed one to Pennsylvania Avenue before the rapture.

Intent to take issues of morality and run with them, Brownback could prove an interesting opponent for the likes of Giuliani, McCain and Romney, although it appears that McCain, the former “maverick” has suddenly become a born-again conservative, trying to run right of the rest of the most rabid right-wing contingent of contenders.

There is no doubt that Obama’s entry into the mix threw an unexpected wrinkle into Clinton’s bid for the presidency and forced her hand earlier than I think she intended to announce. Still, her online announcement was well done and humanized her, which is something that will be imperative for her to be successful in gaining the Democratic nomination and more important, having a legitimate chance at the presidency. Team Clinton brings a team of seasoned political operatives, including her former ex-president husband, as well as an expected war chest that will probably raise $100 million in 2007, alone, making her a formidable opponent, regardless of her tendency to be one of the most polarizing figures in post-modern American politics. The fact that she supported the war could also cause her problems, as it will for much of the pack of contenders and presidential wannabes.

In addition to Clinton and Obama, former Kerry running mate, John Edwards, as well as New Mexico governor Bill Richardson will be nipping at the heels of the appointed leaders of the pack, waiting for some scandal, or some other X-factor to allow them their window of opportunity.

Russ Feingold, who has said he won't run, could bring some progressive values to the race and force fellow Democrats to face, rather than dodge real issues—plus, he'd be a legitimate anti-war Democrat. Speaking of issues, here's a short list of things that Democrats better be talking about—things like the spending on the war (now topping $360 billion), healthcare, education and particularly the American workforce’s inability to compete with much of the industrialized world, as evidenced by several recent reports. Additionally, finding an alternative to oil needs to be put on the front burner, as American cannot continue to depend on fossil fuel to power our cars, heat our homes and prop up our system of commerce.

It’s still early, but for those of us who follow the race, there is plenty of interest already. And since its only the first lap of the race, those of us who follow these things know that anything can and probably will happen.

Friday, January 19, 2007

IRS/Govt. practices selective enforcment

I ran across this story on the back page of my local newspaper, tucked away in the lower right-hand corner of the business section. The only reason I saw it at all was that the term “bureaucratic bungling” happened to catch my eye. In fact, the only reason I paid this much scrutiny to this meager (one page) attempt at business reporting was because I was searching to see if the editor had run a press release that I had sent them for a training initiative I’ve been working on, in Lewiston/Auburn. Not able to find it anywhere in local news, I thought there might be an outside chance it might make the business page, due to business-centered nature of our program.

The paper, probably in an attempt to fill some copy space (heck, they ran my 250-word press release, in its entirety, above the fold), grabbed this Newhouse News Service wire story and “buried” it. As hard as I’ve worked to get my current training initiative off the ground, in my opinion, this brazen bureaucratic snafu is more newsworthy than a local press release.

According to the Newhouse wire story, Johnnie Burton, Director of the Minerals Management Service, one of nine operating units that make up the Department of the Interior, failed to insure that 1,032 leases granted to oil and gas drilling firms contained royalty provisions and price thresholds, which would have allowed the IRS to properly collect some $10 billion dollars in royalties that the U.S. Treasury should have received under the 1995 Deep Water Royalty Relief Act.

Bill Walsh, a Newhouse reporter, filed the story, which reports that Inspector General Earl Devaney found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing but criticized the ``cavalier management'' of the director of the Minerals Management Service, who Devaney said ignored the blunder for more than a year.

In his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Devaney questioned whether, even now, taxpayers are getting what they are owed from private energy companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico. He called the royalty-collection process "basically an honor system," a characterization that sparked a strong response from Democrats.

“The IRS has no problem sending out a tax bill with interest down to the very penny, but we have a problem doing that with big oil companies,'' said Sen. Robert Menendez, (D-N.J.) “Ask the taxpayers how they feel about that.”

Since you asked, Mr. Menendez, this taxpayer, who now works closer to state bureaucracy than he cares for at times, thinks it is absolute BS!! Furthermore, as a small business person (micro-business, actually) who constantly has been harassed by the IRS over the past five years for minor issues that cost me more in time and money than they were probably worth fighting, knows firsthand the selective policies that the IRS administers.

In my opinion, rather than hassle and harangue honest business people, just trying to make a living, if you really want to put a feather in your bureaucratic fedora, then go after the real malicious cheats, the companies who are perpetuating fraud, or at the very least, getting a free pass from an agency that knows better, but seems to be serving the benefactors of the administration in charge, whether it be Republican, or Democrat.

In another tax-related story, the House voted on Thursday to roll back billions in oil company subsidies (or as I prefer to characterize them, corporate welfare). To Nancy Pelosi’s credit, this was the last of six high-priority issues that the speaker pledged, upon assuming her position, to push through during the first 100 hours of assuming control from Republicans.

Typically, oil-friendly Republican hacks, like Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) were found bitching and moaning about this possible new direction in energy policy.

Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) spoke for many Americans, at least folks who feel like I do, when he said, “The oil industry doesn’t need the taxpayers help…There isn’t an American that goes to the pump that doesn’t know that.”

While gas prices have fallen dramatically the past few weeks, it wasn’t long ago that most of us were paying close to $3/gallon to fill our tanks.

While I applaud Democrats for pushing this vote through the House, there is a lot more that they need to do before I’ll stand up and cheerlead for a party that too often appears more interested in keep bipartisan than it does on protecting us from the corporate bullies that keep stealing our lunch money and pushing us in the mud.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mush! Sledders trek eastward

What happens when you live in Maine, love snowmobiles and global warming has robbed you of your snow—hell, dude, head to Alaska—at least that’s what two Sanford snowmobilers have done.

Steve McKenna and Tony Wolfinger traveled to Alaska, where they have begun an epic journey eastward. They began their trek Friday and expect to arrive back in Maine after being on the trail for about eight weeks.

McKenna, a local contractor and Wolfinger, who owns Sanford Radiator, decided to do it for a variety of reasons. For Wolfinger, the trip is a “dream come true” for the longtime outdoor enthusiast, as he had hoped to make a trip across Alaska and Canada at some point in his life. McKenna, on the other hand, is no stranger to the open road. In 1992, while living in Hawaii, he shipped his motorcycle to Washington and completing a 9,500 mile trek cross-country to Maine. In 2002, he packed up the family in a motor home and took off on a 10,000 mile adventure, traveling through 23 states and 3 Canadian provinces.

If both men are able to complete the 9,000 mile journey, they will set a Guinness Book World Record.

While wanderlust and a healthy sense of adventure will propel these two hearty souls, they also hope to raise awareness about autism and have indicated that fans and interested parties may send donations to the Autism Society of Maine.

You can follow the trek via their website.

Monday, January 15, 2007

King's legacy: What it means for us today

When I was a young man, “Letters From a Birmingham Jail” had a profound affect on my developing worldview. Martin Luther King, Jr., in answering calls by local leaders of the clergy, to “tone down” his rhetoric and his direct action, laid the underpinnings of why he continued to fight for justice—both economic and racial—at a cost to himself and his family. In so doing this, he paid the ultimate price, by offering his life.

I wrote an op-ed back in 2004, about this great leader, and champion of causes that are still important today. This ran at the time in the Maine Voices section of the Maine Sunday Telegram. I reworked it a bit last year and posted it here. I’m proud of what I wrote, because I think it accurately reflects what King’s legacy means for us today.

As a nation, our materialism, our militarism and our racism (while much less blatant than during King’s day, but still a reality) all indicate a need to reexamine our priorities and focus on what King was talking about when he issued his clarion call for justice. As Americans, we ignore that call at our peril.

"The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and What It Means To Us Today"
by, Jim Baumer

Once again, we come upon the celebration of the birthday of a truly great human being, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It has been more than 30 years since an assassin's bullet stole from us one of our greatest champions of social and economic justice. Like many, I have been thinking about his legacy and what it means to those of us committed to building a just society today.

I think it is important that we not relegate his memory to the dusty corridors of history. While canonization may have been inevitable for one so prophetic in addressing a nation's besetting sins, we cannot allow the sanitization of his memory to lessen the intensity of his light, or to diminish the volume of his oratory.

While many today would laud King for his success in bringing about desegregation and championing civil rights, he spoke to issues much broader than race. And while race was, and still is a problem in America, to say that King was merely a champion for African-Americans in their quest for equal rights and access, is to rob him of the greater substance of what he stood for.

In an address delivered at the Riverside Church in New York, April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he would be martyred, King laid down what he saw as the triumvirate of sins besetting the American culture.

In his impassioned oratory, he lashed out at racism, rampant materialism, and militarism. In his unique and prophetic way, he made the connection between the obscene amounts being spent to bludgeon a culture across the globe in Vietnam, and our success in affecting the war on poverty at home. He saw that divisions between the classes, fed by greed and materialism, were just as ugly a scar on the American psyche, as divisions between the races.

It was an economic cause that brought King to Memphis on that fateful day of April 4, 1968. King had come to show solidarity for the 1,300 striking sanitation workers that led him to this southern city, where he was ultimately gunned down and martyred for his cause.

Many within the leadership of the civil rights movement were troubled by his belief that the most important issue affecting America was more than race. He was severely criticized by several prominent members of that very leadership, after giving his address at the Riverside Church. This criticism ate at King and kept him awake many a night in prayer and reflection. Yet, he knew his cause was just, and that it was greater than he was. It was the visionary character of King's message and his understanding of the issues that separated him from the pack.

Looking back at his life, what do we see today that needs our attention in order to properly honor his memory? Has his mantle been taken up? Unfortunately, I think that there is still much work to be done.

We have seen our nation plunged into a costly and unjust war in Iraq. We see economic fragmentation. The ever-widening chasm between the haves and have-nots has created the greatest disparity of wealth in our country in more than 100 years. Many of the poorest in our country go without because of our misplaced national priorities. Never before has conspicuous consumption been lifted up and exalted like during our present day. While more and more of our citizens lack food, shelter and clothing, there continues to be those that are searching for bigger and better toys. Sadly, we have not done a very good job at heeding the words of one of our nation's most prophetic voices.

If Dr. King were alive today, I believe he would be commenting on these very same issues—racism, militarism, and rampant materialism—social and economic justice. He wouldn’t be timid, either. He would offer us a voice of reason in a cacophony of madness, telling us that the only way to bring about peace isn't by sacrificing our young men, and killing all of our enemies. He would be a counter-weight to the cowboy diplomacy of our current administration.

Let us honor his memory by committing ourselves to the causes of racial equality, economic justice, and peaceful co-existence. We must build economically self-sustaining communities that are based on meaningful jobs that pay a living wage. To do anything less is to allow his light to flicker and fade from our national consciousness.

© Jim Baumer, 2006

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Weekends were made for...blogging?

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for a few days. It hasn’t been from lack of ideas for content, believe me.

On a daily basis this week, my brain’s been whirring with activity and proposed posts that just never found their way to computer screen. I haven’t done the “weekly recap” thing for awhile, but this seems like a good time to pull one out and end with a few tidbits of review.

Endless War

Not much to say here that hasn’t already been written about all over the internet, from right-wing, to left and all positions in-between. Actually, there really hasn’t been much variation, to be honest, at least from what I gather, sniffing around the mainstream.

With the war in Iraq not going particularly well and the president determined to go it his way, versus the way of the Iraqi Study Group and even members of his own party, the strategy seems to be for a “troop surge” of 20,000+, which somehow is supposed to turn this quagmire around? I don’t see how.

One interesting post that I read at Think Progress dealt with the term, “troop surge” and how it’s been picked up and run out ad nauseum by the MSM.

Speaking of the MSM, why has there been so little discussion about the economic fallout from the Bush administration's policy of perpetual war? With this new "bump and goose" trotted out, to the tune of $7 billion, btw, we are now looking at a total cost of the debacle in Iraq somewhere in the vicinity of $360,000,000,000 (lots of zeroes, eh folks?)! The real question here ought to be, how the hell are we going to finance it? Which leads me to my next point--

On the Backs of Gen Y, Baby!

Apparently, all that really matters to the 18-to 25-year-old crowd is being rich and famous. As reported in USA Today on Wednesday, Pew Research Center for the People and The Press conducted a recent poll in which 81 percent of this age group said that being rich was what it's about for them and another 51 percent said being famous was their focus. While that is an easy simplication to the Pew report, the snapshot that emerges when read shows that this group has some real work to do in coming to terms with the future that is being constructed for them. While Britney and Paris won't have to worry much, the average 20-something is in for a rude awakening, I'm afraid, if wealth and fame is what floats their boats. You can view the entire report here.

When you add the societal costs of perpetual war to the fact that most of these millenials will be graduating with greater amounts of debt from school loans (as grants and other funding keeps getting slashed to pay for the war on terrah'), tax shifting from the wealthy to the middle class and jobs leaving the country in droves (not to mention the fact that these graduates aren't even being prepared for work), it's pretty clear to me that focusing on money and fame isn't a winning strategy.

And last of all, why focus on doom and gloom of the real world when members of Celtic Nation have their favorite doormats to get them through the night--

The Luck of the Irish

As I alluded to in a recent post, I'm partial to loveable losers. For me, it 'ain't about winning so much, but how you play the game. While their play has been maddening on many occasions, this young group of Celtics has captured my fancy and when their one bonafide star player, Paul Pierce went down, fans got to see a future star emerge from the ashes.

Tony Allen, in his third NBA season, appeared ready to put behind him a previous injury and his penchant for getting into trouble. Beginning with the Celtics difficult road trip out west, it was obvious that with Pierce out of the picture, Allen was stepping up and taking the reins of leadership that young teams desperately need. Over an eight game stretch, Allen was averaging just under 20 a game, with six consecutive 20 point outings under his belt and on his way to a seventh on Wednesday night, at home against Toronto, when at 3:01 of the third quarter, the bottom fell out of Allen's and quite possibly, the Cetics' season. On his way to the basket, Allen was fouled and continued to the basket after the whistle to "throw one down." As he came down on his left knee, it folded like an accordion and anyone watching immediately thought, "oh no, not Tony!"

Allen tore both his ACL and MCL and is done for the year and who knows when he'll be back, if he is able to come back at all. With Allen's season ending in macabre fashion, he joins Pierce, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Brian Scalabrine (who sustained his injury Wednesday night, also) on the sidelines--these in addition to Theo Ratliff, who played all of two games for the Celts before going down for the year with a back injury.

Apparently some "fans," like Jeff, over at are celebrating the chance to be in the running for either Greg Oden, or Kevin Durant, next NBA draft day:

"About the best thing I can say for this season is this: We needed to bottom out at some point, it might as well be now. They don't exactly print that up on season ticket promotional flyers, but in the long run it might be for the best. Cleveland had to bottom out to win the LeBron sweepstakes. Even Denver and Toronto got turned around in that draft with Melo and Bosh. I think we are looking at another draft like that. Sure, we could miss out on the best talent and get Tim Duncan'ed again, but I'll take that gamble to get a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Oden or Durant."

I don't agree with his sentiment, but I sort of understand where he's coming from. As for me, I'm staying away from four leaf clovers for the immediate future.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Lying and dying

Once more, the American people are about to have smoke (or worse) blown up their asses by our dilettante of a president. His failed policy in Iraq, which he refuses to alter in any significant way, continues to breed discordance, disaster and death.

Given the opportunity of cover by the Iraq Study Group, an assemblage of minds, all with vast foreign policy experience that the American people bought into and respected, this president chose to dismiss their recommendations with his typical wave of indifference, tempered with his customary hubris. Once more, “Boy George” has to have it his way!

There has been a great deal of discussion among the usual talking heads and their paper surrogates about the president’s strategy. The new buzzword for Bush’s decision to prolong the clusterfuck in Iraq, is “troop surge.” Call it whatever the hell you want to call it, in my opinion, it is just Bush being Bush.

I listened with incredulity yesterday morning, while driving to work, as NPR carried a story about how the U.S. was going to “do it right” this time and send money and actually rebuild parts of Iraq. Apparently the $80 billion poured down a rat’s hole hasn’t been sufficient up to this point, to “do it right.” If you really want to see the current track record of reconstruction boondoggles, read T. Christian Miller’s book, Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq. His thorough investigation of this massive swindle of taxpayer money, which only further lines the coffers of large multinational defense contractors, like Haliburton, begs the question, do we want to continue to throw good money after bad? I mean, don’t we have better uses of our taxpayer dollars here at home?

Meanwhile, after much hoopla and pomp at the arrival of “Democrats to the rescue,” the word coming out of Washington is that while the Democrats by-and-large oppose the president’s “troop surge,” they won’t stand in the way of funding it. What a bunch of spineless hacks! Just another example of the delusion many suffer under, who think electing Democrats will make a bean’s worth of difference. I'm sorry, but Obama, riding in on his shiny white horse in 2008 won't save us.

On the Maine front, our two senators, Snowe and Collins, have been making the rounds, waffling per usual, talking out both sides of their mouths. While apparently expressing doubts about Bush’s plan, when all the votes end up being counted, you know these two ideological water-carriers will be in the Bush camp, signing on for more blood and bedlam.

While I grieve and empathize with the families of the 3,000+ American troops who’ve lost loved ones in Iraq, I know that number will have to go much higher before Americans turn the channel from their nightly ritual of tuning out and sit up and pay attention. While this number is too high already for my tastes and views about endless war, I also know that in Vietnam, the body count was in the tens of thousands, before Americans got off their asses and got into the streets—we’ve still got a ways to go.

I won’t watch tomorrow night’s address by the president. I refuse to accept any explanation for his continued policies of failure. I’d rather watch the 12-21 Celtics take another one on the chin, than listen to this pathetic failure of a president bumble through another exercise in lying to the American people.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A fan of the underdog

I know I’ve made the point several times about how professional sports, particularly baseball, no longer elicits the passion in me that it once did. While that statement is still accurate, by and large, I must confess that I’ve taken a shine to this winter’s version of the Boston Celtics.

Sporting an 12-20 record and minus their one marquee star, the very talented Paul Pierce, currently sidelined by injury, the undermanned Celtics are fun to watch. Young, passionate and appearing eager to learn the finer points of the professional game from coach Doc Rivers, one of the better “teachers” occupying the coaching fraternity, the 2006-2007 Celtics have a lot of “upside.”

I was recently musing with a friend about where my fascination with downtrodden teams comes from. I surmise that it may have originated back when I was 10 and developed a fascination with the woeful early 70s Texas Rangers, who had moved to Arlington, from our nation’s capital.

The years 1969 and 1970 hold resonance for me, as it was around this very time that my fascination with town team baseball and my uncle’s Roberts 88ers games began (which I’ve recounted in my book, When Towns Had Teams). Not only was I eagerly attending local town team games regularly, but I often spent Saturday afternoon watching the Red Sox with my dad, on our old black and white television. Even as a youngster, I was fascinated by the hulking star of the Senators, big Frank Howard, or “Hondo” as he was called. The 6’8”, 275 pound behemoth, was his era’s Bobby Bonds, swatting 40+ homers regularly. While those numbers pale compared to today’s steroid-enhanced homer totals, in 1969, Howard was “the man” when it came to power. Keep in mind that Howard played before the DH and regularly patrolled the outfield, until converting to first base, late in his career.

Unaware at my young age that New Englanders root solely for the Red Sox, I began to check the standings for the Senators, a perennial divisional bottom feeder in the American League. However, in 1969, under the tutelage of former Red Sox legend, Ted Williams, the Senators finished the ’69 campaign with an 86-76 record, resulting in Williams being named AL manager of the year.

The 1970 Senators resorted to their inept ways, as their record fell to 70-92. Word has it that Williams was a great hitting instructor, albeit a bit short on patience with his less talented players, but not much of a game manager.

In ’72, when the Senators relocated to the Lone Star State, I decided I’d order my own official Texas Rangers’ cap. Keep in mind that this was pre-internet, so one had to cut out an order form—in this case, courtesy of Baseball Digest—get a check from Mom and mail it off and wait eagerly, for four to six weeks until your package arrived.

That cap was my first official piece of MLB gear (to be honest, I don’t know if MLB had licensed their merchandise at that point—we are talking the 70s here, back before every iota of revenue was milked from professional athletics).

Around this time, I was following my own version of the underdog—our local American Legion team. This team was made up of a lot of raw 15 and 16-year-olds, who in another two years would form the powerful high school baseball team, the first of several that dominated the Mountain Valley Conference baseball wars, to each and every year, run into an equally more powerful Cape Elizabeth combine and fall in the Western Maine semifinals.

**[A bit of local baseball trivia here—who was the pitcher who finally beat Cape Elizabeth, in 1979, as the Greyhounds went on to capture the team’s first state championship in baseball? Answer to follow at the end.]

While following the Celtics isn’t quite the same as pulling for the 1972 Texas Rangers, the empathy for the downtrodden was firmly planted 30 years ago and still makes me choose teams that bring a certain futility to their sport.

Back in ’72, I had to rely solely on the newspaper, hand-me-down copies of The Sporting News, from my uncle and the ever-reliable, Baseball Digest, for my Rangers’ fix. Today, one can follow a club from the other side of the globe. Like my friend Dan, who can follow his beloved English soccer via the net, one is no longer limited by geography and distance for immediate information on favorite teams and players.

Just this morning, as has become my habit, I went online and read the Boston Globe’s articles on the Celts. It’s the same for any major professional sport that anyone follows. It’s made being a fan just a little less tough, but people’s passions for sports burn every bit as bright as they ever have. The argument could be made that as a culture, we’ve become too sports-crazy, although students of history know there are precedents for sports fandom that go back thousands of years. Hell, if the internet existed in the days of ancient Rome, one can only imagine the memorabilia that might have been the rage—I imagine someone would have been savvy enough to have auctioned torn and bloodied clothing from the Christians, after they were mauled by the lions in the Coliseum in Rome, all via eBay!

At some point, young players like Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Gerald Green will become seasoned and maybe, just maybe, the Celts will provide Pierce with the supporting cast to rise up through the NBA standings and join the likes of current top tier teams like Phoenix, Dallas, the Lakers and San Antonio. Until then, I’m savoring the occasional victories, waiting for Pierce to get healthy and basking in the enjoyment of listening to my two favorite sports play-by-play guys, Celtic stalwarts Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Gorman, as they enthusiastically call each and every game.

The rest of New England can have their Patriots, Red Sox and even Bruins—just call me a fan of the Celtics and I’ll be happy with that.

[Trivia answer: That Greyhounds’ pitcher was none other than yours truly, who spun a complete game, one-hitter, as the ‘hounds beat the Capers for the first time ever in the Western Maine finals, 3-0--the losing pitcher, Bob Raftice would later become a draft pick and pitch briefly in the minors for the Yankees. Two days later, with the Greyhounds' ace on the hill, sporting a 7-0 mark, Lisbon beat Stearns, to capture the 1979 Class B State Baseball Title, 8-5. Honestly, where else can you get this kind of historical minutiae?]

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Atta' boy, Keith!

If you happened to miss Keith Olbermann’s commentary last night, then you lost an opportunity to see what journalism can be, ought to be, but most often, is not. As editors and publishers nationwide continue to wring their hands about circulation losses and news chiefs continue to dumb down their broadcasting, they don’t understand that viewers (and readers) will pay attention to journalists who have something to say, aren’t afraid to take chances (at the risk that they’ll occasionally overreach and fall flat) and work hard at understanding the nuances and variants of a story.

Olbermann’s come a long way from the days when he was a witty, albeit snarky host of ESPN’s Sport Center. I’m sure many predicted his failure when he ended up leaving the world of sports and took his unique skills over to MSNBC. While the transition certainly couldn’t have been easy, it’s obvious to anyone who watches Countdown even occasionally that he’s grown into his role and last night’s commentary on the president’s impending announcement of increased troop levels was Olbermann at the top of his journalistic game.

Drawing on a BBC report that President Bush is planning on unveiling a “new Iraq strategy,” with a speech to the nation, which, according to a quoted senior American official, will be about troop increases and “sacrifice.” This from someone who knows the word “sacrifice” as it is defined in a dictionary, but has little, if any firsthand experience with the realities of that word lived out in real time.

This president, who could have taken the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, a gathering of men, with a combined experience and reputation that would be hard to argue against and by deferring to their recommendations, had an opportunity to not only save face, but change course and begin a gradual phase out in a country and a conflict that can’t be described as anything but a “clusterf#ck” of monumental proportions. Instead, in true Napoleonic fashion, this faux leader, this small-minded megalomaniac, continues to insist on having it his way, like the spoiled brat that he’s never grown up from being.

Speaking to the hubris of the president, Olbermann began last night with, “The president has delayed, dawdled and deferred for the month since the release of the Iraq Study Group. He has seemingly heard out everybody, and listened to none of them.”

Olbermann castigated the president on this idea of sacrifice, which coming from this president seems laughable, if it didn’t portend such dire consequences for the thousands of men and women, as well as their families, who will know the word intimately, in all its reality and heartbreak and misery it will entail for them.

Not content to merely affix his sights on President Bush, Olbermann also trained his laser on John McCain, who amazingly, after what this president did to him in the last presidential race, seems to intent on outflanking Bush on the right—what a man won’t do to attain power, I guess?

Apparently, McCain, at least according to former labor secretary, Robert Reich, told him that the “surge” would help the “morale” of the troops already in Iraq. What the f*ck is McCain smoking?

Olbermann again:

“If Mr. McCain truly said that, and truly believes it, he has either forgotten completely his own experience in Vietnam ... or he is unaware of the recent Military Times poll indicating only 38 percent of our active military want to see more troops sent ... or Mr. McCain has departed from reality.”

In my opinion, I’d say it’s the latter with McCain.

Olbermann was just warming up at that point. Speaking to both McCain and his craven attempt at scoring points with the folks on the right, as well as those, who like McCain, have taken leave from the real world and joined some apparent parallel fantasyland.

“To those Republicans who have not broken free from the slavery of partisanship — those bonded still, to this president and this administration, and now bonded to this “sacrifice” —proceed at your own peril.

John McCain may still hear the applause of small crowds — he has somehow inured himself to the hypocrisy, and the tragedy, of a man who considers himself the ultimate realist, courting the votes of those who support the government telling visitors to the Grand Canyon that it was caused by the Great Flood.

That Mr. McCain is selling himself off to the irrational right, parcel by parcel, like some great landowner facing bankruptcy, seems to be obvious to everybody but himself.
Or, maybe it is obvious to him and he simply no longer cares.”

Olbermann warned those Republicans of the consequences that await them if they continue to put ideology above the best interests of all Americans. He alluded to November’s election results, saying that this was a referendum on Bush’s Iraq policy, which by-and-large has been supported in lockstep by the party faithful.

Lest he be accused of perpetuating his own brand of partisanship, Olbermann didn’t spare the Democrats the ire, or his warning In a nutshell, he is telling them, be courageous, but don’t be duped.

“And to the Democrats now yoked to the helm of this sinking ship, you proceed at your own peril, as well.

President Bush may not be very good at reality, but he and Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rove are still gifted at letting American troops be killed, and then turning their deaths to their own political advantage.

The equation is simple. This country does not want more troops in Iraq. It wants fewer.

Go and make it happen, or go and look for other work.

Yet you Democrats must assume that even if you take the most obvious of courses, and cut off funding for the war, Mr. Bush will ignore you as long as possible, or will find the money elsewhere, or will spend the money meant to protect the troops, and re-purpose it to keep as many troops there as long as he can keep them there.

Because that’s what this is all about, is it not, Mr. Bush?

That is what this “sacrifice” has been for.

To continue this senseless, endless war.”

An immediate pullout would be welcome by many, including Olbermann. But even if we were to leave Iraq tomorrow, the damage has been done by this president, his administration and by those who’ve enabled them by their support.

You can say what you want about Olbermann, but you can’t fault him for his passion, his willingness to engage his audience by being provocative and his obvious desire to instill some professionalism to a profession that has lacked much of that quotient of late.

While many hail the John Stewarts and Stephen Colberts for supposedly engaging our nation’s younger set, irony and humor won’t get it done. 3,000 dead American soldiers, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilian deaths and billions and billions of U.S. dollars squandered to destroy a culture and destabilize a region is not the fodder of jokes and witticisms. It’s a pox that will haunt us for decades, if we have any shred of decency and integrity remaining in our national psyche.

The ratings of Olbermann’s program continues to trend upward, as does MSNBC’s overall returns, validating the idea that you can still do hard news, on TV and attract audience share.

All I can say is keep it up Keith—some of us are paying attention and appreciate your courage and journalistic panache.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Maine humah, Marley-style

I got my first live exposure to Maine humor god, Bob Marley, last night, at Merrill Auditorium. Marley, back in his home state for the fifth year in a row, headlining over the holidays, sold out all seven of his shows. Showcasing his Maine-derived humor, which relies heavily on nods to a certain caricature of Mainers and their idiosyncratic way of life, Marley had the audience in the palm in his hand for his hour-long performance. George Hamm, a talented performer in his own right, warmed up the audience, but it was clearly Marley they came to see.

That Marley is able to sell out the Merrill’s 2,000 seats, not once, not twice, but for four nights, including both performances New Year’s Eve, is truly amazing. I don’t know if there is another Maine performer who could pull this off. Even more incredulous is that Maine has never been a place known for comedy and where you’d be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of venues that book comedy of any type.

Lest you think that Marley is just a local yokel, or regional phenomenom, think again. He’s performed on Letterman, Leno, as well as Late Night with Conan O’Brien. In addition, he regularly performs at comedy meccas like Hollywood’s Laugh Factory, Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, as well as other clubs of national renown, such as The Improve in Washington, DC. Not bad for a guy from Portland who believed in himself, when many others surely encouraged him to get a “real job.” I mean, he’s got his own kiosk, at the Maine Mall, for Chrissakes.

Some of his routine relies on physical comedy, particular mannerisms and facial contortions that can best be called Maine hick chic. While Marley now resides in LA (that’s Los Angeles, not Lewiston-Auburn, for the locals) where he’s lived since ’95, he hasn’t lost his knack to know what people, places and Pine State reference points to mine, such as the Cumblin' Faya (that’s Cumberland Fair, to you flatlanders), bean suppers and restaurants like the Village Café and Captain Newicks. The Merrill shows were the fifth year in a row that he’s come back to Maine and headlined over the holidays.

It appears that Marley has become a Maine treasure, much like Stephen King. I’m sure he’ll be selling out shows in Maine as long as he cares to come back to his home state.