Baseball's Big Honor, 2017 (updated)

It’s time once again for my favorite blog post. It also happens to be the only one I write every year, but hey. Maybe someday I’ll get a consistent groove on.

Anyway. A reminder of where I’m coming from. Last year, my ballot was:

·         Ken Griffey - made it, with one of the highest totals ever. An obvious choice almost from the moment he made the bigs.

·         Roger Clemens - I don’t have much more to add that hasn’t already been said; a juicer, and an all-around asshole. Also a clear HOFer long before he started juicing.

·         Barry Bonds - ditto, to an absurd degree.

·         Jeff Bagwell - an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, was responsible for a huge number of runs. I said ‘easy in’, and I still believe that.

·         Mike Piazza - made it. At the time, I said he was one of the greatest-hitting catchers ever, which he was.

·         Trevor Hoffman - my disdain for closers is longstanding and intense. Still, Hoffman was one of the best ever, and for a good long time. Still in.

·         Tim Raines - I had to be convinced. Still do, on some level…but he was one of the greatest leadoff hitters ever, and when he added some pop later, he became a great all-around offensive player. Still in. I guess.

 

 

As to the holdovers from last year’s ballot:

·         Sammy Sosa - we wouldn’t even be talking about Sammy Sosa if he hadn’t juiced. Out. Obviously.

·         Lee Smith / Billy Wagner - again, closers. Both were good-to-great for a long time. I guess I can see Lee Smith based on his appearance on the all-time leaders lists, but still not on my ballot.

·         Larry Walker – I’m sorry, but I can’t get past the fact that his best years were all in Coors Field, at the height of its crazy offense inflation.  Dante Bichette was going 40 / 128 / .340, for heaven’s sake.  It’s unfair, but Dante Bichette keeps Larry Walker off my ballot.

·         Gary Sheffield – a personal favorite, but tarred by the juicers around him.  His numbers are terrific, but in the context of that era?  Out.  unfortunately.

·         Fred McGriff – a terrific hitter, put a bunch of runs on the board.  The canonical McGriff season:  .285, 75 walks, 35 homers, 100 RBI, and 6th in the MVP voting.  He’s hurt by the fact that he didn’t quite have that one blazing season – he had 35 homers four times but never 40, had 100 RBI eight times but never 110, finished in the top ten of the MVP voting seven times but never won and was never that close.  Close, not quite.

·         Jeff Kent – won an MVP, made a couple of other runs, but never led the league in a single offensive category, was so-so defensively and oh, by the way, was a colossal a-hole.  Out.

·         Edgar Martinez – I don’t know, man.  A great hitter that did a lot of things well, but a DH nonetheless…on some level I see DHs the way I see closers – partial players.  Martinez is obviously more qualified than any DH in history (up to and including Ortiz), so I can see it, but he’s not on my ballot.

·         Mike Mussina – see McGriff, Fred, above…some of the same conversation applies, although at a higher level.  Was a real hoss, consistent and an inning-eater.  Finished in the top seven of CYA voting nine times (!), including once as a 23-year old and once when he was 39 (also !).  Last year I took him off my ballot, but I’m going to put him ‘in’ again.

·         Curt Schilling – AGAIN, his peaks were very high…but he also had seasons of 2-8, 7-5, 9-10, 11-12, 8-9, and 8-8.  Very, very few HOF pitchers have that many mediocre-to-bad seasons.  His career totals don’t make up for that, at least in my book.  PLUS HE’S A NAZI-LOVING A-HOLE.  Out.

 

Now for the first-timers that are obviously out, with comments as appropriate:

·         Julio Lugo, Danys Baez, Freddy Sanchez, Aaron Rowand, Casey Blake – if I have only passing recollection of you as a player, you are by definition not ‘famous’ enough for a “Hall of Fame.”

·         Arthur Rhodes – he could be a valuable piece of your team, but you weren’t going to go in to the season thinking “man, we’re lucky we’ve got Arthur Rhodes.” Out.

·         Pat Burrell – a good player, but never great.

·         Orlando Cabrera – there was a point – 2001, when he was 26 – that Cabrera looked like a candidate.  .276, 14 homers, 96 RBI, 19 stolen bases, and a Gold Glove on a team with a lot of good young talent.  But he took a step back in 2002, and never quite got back to that level.  Out.

·         Jason Varitek – I always kinda liked him, even though I hated the Red Sox.  A good player, a major piece of the jinx-breakers, and a famous hardass, but not a HOFer.

·         Carlos Guillen – an important part of some good Tiger teams, made some All-Star teams, was a good post-seaon player...still, out.

·         Melvin Mora – yet another good player but not great enough to make the Hall.

·         Derrek Lee – had the one huge season – 2005, where he won the batting and slugging titles, hit 50 goubles, 393 total bases – and had a few other very good ones, but clearly a notch below the production a first baseman needs to make the Hall.  A good player – you could win a title with him, but out.

·         Edgar Renteria – after the 1997 season, Renteria was 20, with lifetime per162 averages of .290, 49 BB, 30 SB, and was a sometimes-dazzling shortstop.  If he had pushed his production to a higher level (and added some power, as he had none whatsoever), he might have had a shot.  And he did, but not quite enough.  His comps are guys like Trammell, Tony Fernandez, Barry Larkin, Pee Wee Reese, and Orlando Cabrera, which seem about right.  He was very good, but I don’t have him in.

·         Tim Wakefield – a knuckleballer, and who doesn’t love that?  Had a nice long, productive career as a #3 starter, and you’d be totally fine handing him the ball in just about any game.  But not a HOFer.

·         JD Drew – ah, yes.  JD Drew was good, and always seemed to be in trade and free agent demand…because everyone thought that this might be The Year.  The year that he doesn’t get hurt, that he’s not half-assing it, and bumps up from his annual .280 / 25 / 85 to .310 / 35 / 120…which he never quite did.  He was good, and you could win a title with him in right field, but you weren’t going to ride him.  Out.

·         Mike Cameron – He was good.  Good power, good speed, but low-average and struck out too much.  Never hit .300 (never hit .280. actually), never 30 HR, never scored 100, had 100 RBI once...out.

·         Magglio Ordonez – I always liked Maggs, even before he came to Detroit.  Got on base, drove in and scored runs, could run a bit when he was young.  Really just a flat-out good offensive player.  Won a batting title, consistent OPS+ over a 100, almost won an MVP.  Very good, but just a tiny bit below HOF level.

 

Now for the interesting ones:

Manny Ramirez was an absolutely devastating offensive player, and for a long time.  He never won an MVP, which is pretty surprising, but finished in the top-10 nine times and has the 3rd highest MVP award shares total of anyone who never won one (Eddie Murray and Mike Piazza were higher).  His 1999 season in Cleveland was truly spectacular - .333, 44 HR, 96 walks (only 9 intentional), and took the first run at Hack Wilson’s RBI record in decades.  He and Robby Almoar tied for third in the voting, behind Pudge Rodriguez (more on him in a few), and Pedro Martinez in one of the stranger votes in history.  Pedro and Manny were clearly the best players in the league that season.

So, why didn’t he ever win an MVP?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First, he was a legendary flake, and I don’t think the writers like to vote for those guys.  And he was a terrible outfielder – he put lots of runs up on the board for, you know, both teams.  And there was also already an undercurrent of the “yeah but” that you heard with other juicers, both confirmed and not.

So where do we land on him?  This one is tough…on one level, he was as scary a guy as you could see coming up, just super-powerful but also very willing to take a pitch and line drive it, and he could take a walk.  But he was a convicted juicer, too, and here’s where I pull out my trusty “would he have gone in without the juice” question.  Unfortunately, the Magic 8-Ball says “ask again later.”  I look at his minor league stats, and the thing is, he beat holy hell out of minor league pitching for 1 ½ seasons before coming up to Cleveland and continuing almost without missing a beat.  The guy hit everywhere, including as a 19-year-old in the Appalachian League.  I guess he could have been doing steroids in 1991, right out of high school, but it seems like a stretch.  Somehow.  And he didn’t really break down over time the way the “juicer and so he’s not in” guys like McGwire and Sosa…

Still haven’t answered it, huh?  I guess I have him as a grudging ‘in,’ yes?  No?  Yes.  In.

 Jorge Posada will clearly get in at some point.  The media loved him; loved that he played for the best team in baseball, loved that he didn’t hop teams, loved that his kid was sick, loved that he played catcher.  For my part (and I’m a Yankee fan), he was always a “meh.”  I mean, he was a good hitter, but not great (.273 / 24 / 94 per 162 games are not eye-popping numbers).  He had a good rep in the field, but was clearly nowhere near as good as Pudge.  His ten comps are four HOFers (Hartnett, Gary Carter, Bill Dickey and, for some reason, Joe Gordon), but mostly guys like Javy Lopez and Lance Parrish, all of whom were fine, but come on.  Hall of Famers?  Nope.  And that’s where I land on him, too.  Nope.

Pudge Rodriguez was as good a catcher as there was, for a good long time.  If he’d been a great hitter we’d be talking about him as one of the greatest *players* of all time.  As it is, he was…okay.  He’d usually hit about .300, but with precious few walks and just a smidge of pop.   He was okay.  He’d hit seventh on a really good offensive team, except for that one year that he hit .332 with 35 homers (a career best by 8), 113 RBI (career best by 22), 25 SB (best by 15)…and that year is dogged by rumors of juicing.

Still, an above-average hitter with 13 Gold Gloves?  As a catcher?  He’s in.

I loved watching Vladimir Guerrero play, both in the field and at the plate.  He had one of those all-time great arms in right field, for one, which has always been a weakness of mine.

But that bat.  And that swing – he was like Sheffield, in that you knew he was never going to get cheated up there.  He was going to hack, and if he hit it on the nose, it was going to be a rocket.  Just a delight to see.   The bat would go flying over his shoulder, and off he’d go, where he’d either stretch a single to a double or a double to an out.  So much fun to watch.

Beyond that, though, he was super-productive.  Huge power, could run, drew many more walks than you remember…he’s in, easily (for me).

 

So, my ballot:

Jeff Bagwell

Tim Raines

Trevor Hoffman

Roger Clemens

Barry Bonds

Mike Mussina

Ivan Rodriguez

Manny Ramirez

Vlad Guerrero

That's my ballot, but what I think will happen is this:  Raines, Bagwell, and Hoffman get in.  Clemens and Bonds get closer, to the point where they will both get in in 2018.  Pudge gets close, but not quite.  Mussina and Edgar Martinez get slight bumps but are not yet in range of election.  Schilling stays around 50% or goes down a bit - the writers like his stats but not his personality.  Ramirez starts out in Sammy Sosa land and will have a long way to go.  Vladdy is a weird one - something like Dale Murphy in that he was much loved and feared as a player, but the echoes are not loud.  Maybe 15% to start, with momentum bulding over the years a la Raines.

2018 doesn't bring a lot of new can't miss guys - Chipper Jones is about the only one with a shot at first-year induction; the rest are guys like Jim Thome, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones, good but not clear HOFers.

UPDATE:  close, but not quite.  Raines and Bagwell did indeed make it, but Hoffman didn't quite get there (missed by 5 total votes).  Pudge made it by a hair.  Clemens and Bonds made strides and Schilling went down a few points.  Vlad got a lot more support than I expected and will get in.  Posada won't - he didn't get enough votes to stay on the ballot next year, and nobody really mentioned him in the aftermath.  Weird.  Manny got more than i expected, too, and will have a shot.  Sosa ain't getting in, happily.

Interestingly, the "who's coming up in 2018" stories mentioned Thome, Andruw Jones and Chipper, sure...but also Omar Vizquel, which will be...interesting, at least to me.  Holy hell was he a terrible offensive player - was that enough to offset his supposedly great glove?  Not to me, particularly when his defensive stats are, frankly, not as spectacular as you might believe.  He played a ton of games at shortstop - the most ever, in fact - but is 4th all-time in assists and 11th in putouts.  He's - get this - SEVENTY-SECOND all time in PO+A/9 innings, which is a quick dirty way to measure overall range.  He led the league in double plays once, and he led the league in putouts once.  He just didn't turn that many base hits into outs.  He avoided errors.  That's it - and he did it by not getting to very many balls in the field.  He's an obvious out, and I'm already getting angry, dreading the idiotic "what about Omar" articles.  Argh.

B1G Preview

EAST

Michigan (11-1, 8-1) so let's check in on the defense, shall we?  One of the deepest, most talented lines in school history, capable of both stuffing the run (welcome back, Ryan Glasgow!) and getting to the quarterback? Check. Talented secondary, with the 2016 Thorpe award winner at one corner, a 2-year starter at the other and wonderfully boring safeties? Check. Linebackers are...okay. I like Ben Gedeon, and I think one of the freshman (Devin Bush?) will come on by season's end; the defensive line will be good enough to cover for the linebackers as they gel. Oh, and the #1 recruit in the country, wearing all the markings of a future top-five NFL draft choice. But it seems like I’m forgetting something else...what could it be? Oh, yeah, that Peppers guy, only the best all-over-the-field defender we've had since 1997 and another top-five NFL draft pick. This defense will rank among the best in school history by year end. Book it.

Offense is good, too - adequate line, the best receiving corps in the country, and a healthy group of running backs that can give just about any look you want. And the best quarterback coach in the world as head coach. This is a coach, staff, and most of the personnel that, once it got going, played very well against an NFL-laden Ohio State team (not kidding, by the way - check the stats.  Seven drives, zero three-and-outs, and three drives of over 10 plays.  We did bog down in the red zone, which killed us, and Rudock got knocked out early in the 4th quarter but overall we moved the ball pretty well) and then blew out Florida to end the season. I have a sneaking suspicion that we'll do the same this year, and the defense will cover us early.

Honestly - I’d like to predict 12-0, but the road schedule is just too tough. I figure we lose at Iowa.

Michigan State (10-2, 7-2) unknown quarterback, defense still in transition from the 2014 team...L.J. Scott is a good player and Malik McDowell is a beast, but the pass defense has really fallen apart (3rd in the nation in 2013, 61st in 2014, and an amazing 73rd in 2015), and while it might improve a bit on coaching alone, there are some talent deficiencies here.  There's nobody to point at in the secondary that you can say "ooh, that guy is going to be good, ala Darqueze Denard.

Let's not forget that Sparty could easily have been 8-4 last season - they lost to Nebraska, stole one at Michigan, had to score with under a minute left to beat Rutgers (!) and had to knock down a tying touchdown pass in the end zone against Purdue...can we not pretend that this was some kind of dominating season?

Sparty is really fighting a talent deficiency to Michigan and Ohio State. A huge coaching edge has allowed them to surpass Michigan for a few years, but going forward you're going to see extremely well-coached 3-stars vs extremely well-coached 4- and 5-stars. There’s no way to overcome that in the long term. Paranoia and a chip on your shoulder can only take you so far. we're not talking about big 2 and little 8 10 12, but I have little doubt that they will slip down a notch starting this season, and it's likely to last for the foreseeable future.

Ohio State (10-3, 7-2) ignore the "how will Ohio State replace all the nfl entries?" questions. You’re talking about replacing current NFL players with future NFL players, almost without exception; the talent level is that high. And they have one of the five best coaches in the country. That said, there are always transition costs; while I’m not a "who will step up, and what about chemistry" guy, in this case it's a legitimate question. Urban followed his first national championship with a mediocre 9-4 season in 2007 (featuring a Heisman winner at QB), and did a similar number in 2010; after going 13-0 and 12-1, they fell to 7-5 and Urb quit. He's not exactly built for the long haul – the meltdown at Florida happened in year six (really?  Only six seasons?); this will be his fifth season in Columbus.

Figure they lose at Oklahoma, to either Michigan or MSU, and have a "what the hell happened there" loss along the way. Don’t forget that this team was ever so close to losing a couple of times last season (against Northern Illinois and Indiana, no less) before the Urb brain fart against Sparty. Figure them to lose one they shouldn't this year.

Penn State (7-5, 5-4) when I first started thinking about this season, I figured that they'd be better. They are back to normal scholarship levels, they have possibly the best back in the conference in Saquon Barkley, and the defensive front should still be pretty good despite some losses.

But it's still James Franklin on the sideline, and if you look at the schedule it's pretty easy to find five losses. Michigan, Sparty and Ohio State are easy picks, plus one of Pitt or Temple and Iowa - that's five. They might get to 8 wins, but to do it they'll have to sweep the non-conference, and I don't know that they'll be able to do that with a new quarterback.

Indiana (7-5, 4-5) team chaos can be scary. Wide open offense, no interest in defense, so they're always interesting to watch. Roll the dice...they probably both win one and lose one that they shouldn't. In any case, non-conference (Florida International, Ball State, and Wake Forest) are probably wins, then add in Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue, and Nebraska at home and you're at seven wins.

Maryland (5-7, 2-7) I have no idea what to think here. 5 wins is probably too low, but when I go through game-by-game? Non-conference (Howard, Florida International, and Central Florida) are three easy ones, as are Rutgers and Purdue, but beyond that...I don't know. Minnesota, I guess, and Indiana, but beyond *that*...hard to see them beating Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, or Nebraska on the road. Seven wins max, and that's assuming they take one or two they shouldn't.

Rutgers (2-10, 0-9) I’m told that there's a school called "Rutgers" in the conference. I think this is some sort of mass hallucination, and I refuse to believe that it ever happened.

WEST

Iowa (10-2, 7-2) back in the early 2000s, Wisconsin was the ultimate fraud team. They’d beat a few terrible non-conference teams, pound on the conference patsies, somehow avoid playing the best team in the conference, and maybe steal one more, and before you knew it, a mediocre team was in the top ten and playing on New Years' Day, where they'd get their asses handed to them.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Iowa, 2015 and 2016. An almost entirely nondescript team with a nondescript coach, a maybe-good but probably generic quarterback and the easiest schedule you will ever see. They somehow avoid Ohio State and Michigan State and get Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska at home. Their toughest road game is...Penn State, I guess. Maybe they lose there and at home to Wisconsin, but honestly, I’m scrambling to give them two losses - they could easily go undefeated. That, my friends, is why conference expansion sucks. A 14-team conference is a conference in name only.

Northwestern (9-3, 6-3) I don't like this prediction, at all. There are two reasons for this. First, I think Pat Fitzgerald is just vastly, vastly overrated as a coach. I look at last year's team, which came in to Michigan undefeated and rolling with a supposedly terrific defense, then gave up a return TD on the opening kick and promptly checked out completely, I mean 100% gave up. it was over by the end of the first quarter. I see that, and the jumping around like a girl that he did on the sideline late in the 2012 Michigan game - worth watching here), and...well, it doesn't fill me with confidence that this will ever be a smart, disciplined team. And with the talent deficit (impossible to escape at northwestern), if you can't be smart and disciplined you're never going to get anywhere. With all that said, they're okay, probably capable of stealing a game they shouldn't win.

Wisconsin (7-5, 5-4) man, this is some division. What a bunch of leftovers.

Anyway, for the first time ever, Wisconsin has a tough schedule. LSU, at Michigan, at Michigan State, at Iowa. They do get Ohio State at home.

But it won't matter. Word out of Madison is that the offensive line is thin (ha! it's funny because it's WISCONSIN, the home of 350-pound sausage incinerators) and they'll have trouble running the ball. If Wisconsin can't run, they ain't shit.

For some reason the specter of Barry Alvarez hovers over everything they do here. It’s as if George Perles was still calling the shots in East Lansing. I mean, yeah, he was alright, I guess, but it's pretty hard to coach your team when a relic from the wing-t past is whispering "run, run, run" in your ears. But I digress.

Minnesota (8-4, 5-4) last season I think my entire preview said "I love Jerry Kill." and that still holds here, even though he's (sadly) gone from the scene. I really want this team to do well, for some reason, and I think they'll be pretty good. They have probably the second-best returning QB in the conference (J.T. Barrett is the first, obviously), and there's a grit to this team that's really appealing. I may be letting my heart override my head here, but I like their chances, and it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if they made a run at Iowa. The schedule is spectacular - they somehow avoid Michigan, Michigan State AND Ohio State - and get Iowa at home. If it's ever going to happen, this would be the year

Nebraska (7-5, 4-5) meh. Tommy Armstrong is still here to disappoint, but the schedule is not kind (they do miss Michigan and Michigan State, but play Ohio State, northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa on the road). They seem to just be spinning their wheels - as a Big 12 team they'd be a lot more interesting, but in the Big Ten they're just kinda there.

Illinois (5-7, 3-6) I think Lovie smith was the right kind of hire - he is the first professional coach they've had since..who? John Mackovic? And before that...my goodness, what a coaching graveyard.

And the schedule is not kind...they might start out 5-1 (Nebraska and North Carolina are essentially the only roadblocks...Western Michigan will give them a battle,too), but finish with Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern. Ouch. They’re probably a year away from turning the ship around.

Purdue (1-11, 0-9) I can't believe Darrell Hazell still has a job: 1-11, 3-9, and 1-11, with another miserable season ahead. Fun fact - Darrell Hazell got a 6-year contract worth 12 million dollars, and he's got three seasons left counting 2016. Ouch ouch ouch.

So we're left with Michigan vs Iowa in the B1G championship game, and it goes to the good guys, 31-7. On to the playoff!

 

Baseball's Big Honor, 2016

Greetings, it's time once again for my annual deep dive into Baseball's Big Honor, also known as the Hall of Fame (HOF or BBHOF from this point forward, because obviously).  For the newbies, I don't really talk about who I *think* will get the nod, but who I think *should* get it.  How my vote would look, if I had one.  Last year, my ballot would have been:

Randy Johnson

John Smoltz

Pedro Martinez

Craig Biggio

Jeff Bagwell

Fred McGriff

Mike Piazza

Roger Clemens

Barry Bonds

Mike Mussina

My prediction was that the first four would make it, and they did.  As to the remaining six,

Bagwell - Won a Rookie of the Year and an MVP, plus consistently showed up in the MVP voting.  Put a ton of runs on the board by both getting on base and pounding people home.  An easy choice.  In.

McGriff and Mussina - both had long, extremely consistent careers, and were both generally very highly regarded but never really sniffed "best in baseball" status and were never "man, that guy really scares me" guys.  I had them both 'in' a year ago, but wasn't all that excited about it.  Less excited today.  Out.

Piazza - I've had him as an easy 'in' since he showed up on the ballot, and nothing has changed.  One of the greatest hitting catchers ever (behind Bench and Berra, certainly, and - in my weird opinion - Ernie Lombardi), and that's a good enough qualification.  In.

Clemens and Bonds - similar in that they were easy, first-ballot HOFers long before they are believed to have started the PEDs.  Also similar in that they are both colossal assholes, but that's not a disqualification.

So we start with Piazza, Bagwell, Clemens, and Bonds.

 

As to my previous 'outs', some are still easy choices:

Lee Smith - closers, man.  can't stand 'em.

Edgar Martinez - a historically good DH...but what is that worth?

Alan Trammell - not without Lou Whitaker, who was a better player.

Larry Walker - pretty good, possibly great, but the fact that he was in Colorado makes me think his numbers were inflated.  No idea if that's actually the case, but that's reasonable doubt for me.

Mark McGwire / Sammy Sosa - good players who we wouldn’t be considering if they hadn't discovered PEDs.

 

Some are still 'out,' but I could be convinced otherwise...some have moved in:

Jonah Keri thinks it's a miscarriage of justice that Tim Raines is not in already, and while I loved the guy when he was playing, I'm just not 100% onboard.  One of the all-time great leadoff hitters, got on base like crazy and ran you ragged.  Put a ton of runs on the board.  Outstanding left fielder.  Okay, fine.  I'm in...but I don't think he's going to get there this time.  A jump from 55% to 75% in voting would be pretty unusual, although not unprecedented.

I can't stand Curt Schilling and his magic-markered sock, for one thing, but I'll point it out again - very, very few HOFers have ever had as many crappy seasons sprinkled among the great ones.  2-8, 7-5, 9-10, 11-12, 8-9, 8-8.  That's a lot of mediocrity.  If he wasn't such a douchebag, I might feel otherwise.  Still out, and I'm still not wavering.

Jeff Kent won an MVP, made a run at a couple of others, but make a wild guess on his black ink score - zero.  He never, not once led the league in a major offensive category.  A really good player for a good long time, but a mediocre fielder and legendary a-hole.  Comps are guys like Aramiz Ramirez, which seems about right.  Still out, and it's not looking too likely.

Gary Sheffield was tarred by the the crazy numbers around him, and unfortunately never had that one blast-across-the-sky season, but a tremendously intimidating and productive offensive player.  Played for eight teams - as good as he was, most teams just didn't want to keep him around.  A personal favorite, but still out.

Nomah left his HOF career in the trainer's office and inside a syringe.  These things are not related.  Will likely fall off the ballot this year, but man - for a couple years there he looked like a lock for the Hall.  What might have been...out, in any case.

 

NOW, the first-year guys.  First, the easy outs:

Brad Ausmus played for 18 seasons, won three Gold Gloves.  Terrible offensive player.

Once upon a time, for a few weeks, the possible trade destination of Mike Lowell was in near-constant rotation on ESPN.  ESPN is dumb.  Out.

From 2001 to 2003, Garrett Anderson's per-162 averages were .303, 85 runs, 48 doubles (!), 29 HR, 121 RBI.  That's an MVP-caliber player, if things break right, and if he'd had three more seasons like that, he'd be a strong candidate.  He'll get some votes, but not enough to stick around.

Randy Winn was good, but never great.  He was okay.

Luis Castillo was actually quite a bit better than I remember.  Had some .300 seasons, drew some walks, could run, won some gold gloves.   Had 1889 hits!  No power whatsoever.

I could've sworn that David Eckstein hung around for 20 years as a Enos Cabell-type clubhouse guy...in other words, grit and toughness but zero production.  I thought he had a longer career because I, you know, hated him so much.  Turns out he only lasted 10 seasons - how he concentrated that much slappability in such a short time period is beyond me, but seriously one of the worst players to ever appear on a HOF ballot.

I think of Mark Grudzielanek as identical to Eckstein, but he was definitely a better player.  Had some pop, could run a bit, beat into a ton of double plays for a guy that hit doubles but not much else.  A spare part.

Mike Sweeney was the best player on a whole series of lousy Royals teams, constantly mentioned as trade bait but toiled in obscurity for almost his entire career - his only postseason at bat was a pinch single for the Phils as a 36-year-old.  Got some MVP votes.  Most of his at bats were as a DH, and if Edgar Martinez isn't making it Mike Sweeney sure as hell isn't, either.

In 1999, Mike Hampton had one of the great fluke seasons of all time, going 22-4 with 2.90 ERA for the Astros, but still lost the Cy Young to Randy Johnson who went 17-9 with 2.48 ERA and 364 Ks.  The signs that it was a bit of a fluke were there - he allowed  206 hits and walked 101 in 239 innings - but he parlayed it into a huge contract with...Colorado.  Ouch.  He never got another Cy Young vote, at least partially due to the fact that he got hurt and missed two seasons, but he was already done by that point.  Think Steve Stone.

Jason Kendall once broke the record for steals by a catcher.  I think.  Was pretty highly regarded for a while, but I think it was because for several years he was literally the only good player on some legendarily bad Pirates teams.  Was never a great fielder or offensive player.  A good player, but clearly out.

 

On to the real conversations.

Billy Wagner was a little guy who threw really hard.  A closer, and a good one, for a good long time, and if he was never quite the best in baseball was still one of those guys that made you think 'game over' when he opened the bullpen door.  Can't bring myself to say yes, though, at least not with Lee Smith still waiting out there.

Troy Glaus was a big, bad masher of a third baseman, really a very good offensive player.  At age 23, in that weird 2000 season, he hit .284 with 112 walks, 120 runs scored, and 47 home runs (which led the league).  If he'd kept normal career progression from that point, he'd be in.  But that was as good as it got - .284, 47 HR and 120 runs were all easily his career highs.  And, it's hard not to notice that the AL home run champion with a 1008 OPS got a grand total of ZERO MVP votes that season.  Travis Fryman, Johnny Damon, and Mike Sweeney got MVP votes that year, but Troy Glaus didn't.  I wonder if a HOFer ever led the league in homers but didn’t get a single MVP vote.

Jim Edmonds was a good-to-great player, for a long time.  What made him really good was not that he was the best at anything, but that he did a lot of things well.  An outstanding center fielder who made some of the greatest catches you will ever see, could hit for average (sometimes), had very good double and home run power, drew a ton of walks, scored runs, drove in runs, generally avoided the double play.  A pretty consistent OPS of 900, all told.  Was in the mix for a few MVPs.  Legendary hard-ass, and I think it hurt him somewhat - he seemed to be running into walls constantly and had a bunch of injuries, large and small, which knock down his career totals a bit too much for him to make it.  But a very, very good, memorable player.

Trevor Hoffman is one of the five greatest closers of all time and was consistently at least the second-best in baseball for...what?  15 years?  He's in.

Ken Griffey is one of the biggest "no duh" selections ever.  One of the greatest centerfield gloves ever, won a whole pile of gold gloves, won an MVP, multiple home run titles, drew a ton of walks, stole bases, drove in runs, scored runs...pretty much the canonical Hall of Famer.  Too bad he played in an era where everyone around him was juicing, because otherwise we'd be looking at his numbers and saying he might be the greatest ever.  We've become numb to 50-HR seasons.  Thanks, McGwire, you overrated turd.

 

Anyway.  Here's my ballot:

Ken Griffey

Roger Clemens

Barry Bonds

Jeff Bagwell

Mike Piazza

Trevor Hoffman

Tim Raines

Prediction - Griffey and Piazza in, Raines and Hoffman just miss, Bagwell stays steady, and Clemens / Bonds drop from last year's totals.

UPDATE:  Got it mostly right, again.  Griffey and Piazza are in.  Raines, Hoffman and Bagwell all got a little closer and are now all at 65%-plus, the spot at which, if they have enough eligibility left, will probably make it. I'm guessing 2018 at the latest for all three.  Schilling bumped above 50%, so with normal progression he'll probably get in.  Mussina and Martinez also got good bumps, but stayed tuned.  The drumbeats are not deafening, not yet.  Nomar dropped off, as did Jim Edmonds (slightly surprised by that one).  Two idiots wrote the name 'David Eckstein' on their ballots.  A more damning indictment of the BBWAA you will not find.

The interesting ones are Clemens and Bonds - both bumped up again, to the point where it feels like the oppostion is softening and they'll probably get in.  At some point the BBWAA guys will remember that "hey, those guys were really great before they juiced," and start voting them in (we'll also see a shitload of revisionist history and sanctimony from those idiots, but that's another subject).

McGwire and Sosa both stayed constant at 12% and 7%, respectively.  They ain't getting in.

2017 looks interesting.  Let's say that Raines, Hoffman, and Bagwell get in.  First-timers include two juicers with otherwise good-to-great qualifications (Manny Ramirez and Pudge Rodriguez), a great, fun-to-watch player with major negatives (Vlad Guerrero), and the most overrated catcher of his generation (Jorge Posada).  All latin players, too, which brings up some...oh, how shall I it?  Let's just say that there might be an undercurrent of code words next year.  The best pitcher coming in is probably Javy Vasquez, and that ain't much.  I'm guessing that no newcomers make it - Manny and Pudge will have to endure a few years of handwringing (and Manny might not ever make it), and Vlad will need a couple years to get momentum.  Posada might make it on name recognition.

Guess I need to dig out my Ken Griffey rookie card and plan my trip to Cooperstown.

 

 

 

Culling The Herd: Crowded House, The Cult, Dashboard Confessional, Dave Edmunds, David Bowie

Crowded House, "Time On Earth" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

I feel like I'm supposed to like Crowded House, but I'm not really sure why I feel that way.  Neil Finn was the leader of Split Enz and has an undeniable talent for making really beautiful songs, but the albums never seem to reach out and grab me.  There are a couple of nice songs here ("Don’t Stop Now" and "Nobody Wants To"), but even those are low-key, with the exception of "She Called Up" which is a definite keeper.  Most are gone.

The Cult, "Love" - 2 stars.  Dump it.

A record we used to listen to quite a bit in college, and I remembered it as this great lost masterpiece of hard guitar rock.  And I have to say - I was absolutely stunned at how crappy it is.  This kind of stuff doesn't usually age all that well anyway, but there are maybe three songs that make the cut.  "She Sells Sanctuary" is one of them - what a fantastic running song.  The rest?  Crap.  Really terrible.

The Cult, "Electric" - 4 stars.  Hold it.

Also crappy, but in a kinda fun way.  The first six songs are actually pretty good, to the point that I almost never reach for the skip button.  ("Lil' Devil" is terrific despite the stupid stupid stupid title).  But "King Contrary Man" is just offensively dumb ( Lyric - "I saw the devil | The contrary man | I saw the devil down the long long road | He said to me | I want your soul" is  typical for that song).  It turns almost exactly 180 degrees around with "Love Removal Machine," which is a brilliant hard guitar rock song, but follows it with a completely disposable and unnecessary cover of "Born to Be Wild" that I've never not skipped.  Another 180 degree flip to "Outlaw," and a limp "Memphis Hip Shake" (great title, lousy song) to close.

So it's...a mixed bag.  High highs and low lows.  A surprising amount stays, tho.

Dashboard Confessional, "The Shade Of Poison Trees" - 3 stars. Hold it.

I keep using the Christine Perfect / Fleetwood Mac example...she was pretty great as a side dish / accent, but as an entree?  Meh.  That's something of the case here.  Some of the songs - "Where There's Gold", "Thick As Thieves" - are terrific emo alt-pop songs, sharply written and played, but a whole record beginning to end tends to annoy.  Part of the problem is the lead singer.  I get the pull here - part of Chris Carabba's allure is that quivery, trembly voice, all full of heartfelt misery and betrayal, but man - it gets OLD.  Again - as an accent to a playlist, it's nice, so a goodly amount stays, but I doubt I'll miss some of it, and I probably wouldn't listen to the record straight through again.

Dave Edmunds, "Anthology" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I don't much like greatest hits records, but that attitude is left over from my past life of vinyl records and CDs.  It was generally a pain in the ass to to change a record, so you didn't skip from artist to artist as much.  There's also some leftover 20-year-old pretentiousness at work here, as in "I want to experience the entire artistic thought and blah blah blah."  I make fun, but it's probably worth saying that some of my favorite records didn't grab me right out of the box - I needed to listen to the whole thing through to get it.  But now I rarely, if ever, listen to an album beginning to end (sigh), so a greatest hits record doesn't repel me as much.

Anyway, I like Dave Edmunds a lot, but I don't listen to this record much for that very reason.  That's too bad, because it's really terrific, and I mean beginning to end.  Some of these songs ("Baby Ride Easy", "Girls Talk", "Queen of Hearts", the unfortunately named "Deborah") might even be on Matt's all-time top 100 list.  Tremendous.

David Bowie, "ChangesOneBowie" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

Stream of consciousness from my first listen of this record, back in Couzens Hall as the dorkiest 19-year-old kid ever: 

"David Bowie?  He sucks....'Space Oddity'?  That sucked....'John I'm Only Dancing'? I don't think I ever heard that before, but that wasn't too bad. ..'Changes' wsn't too bad either...Whoa, "Suffragette City" was terrific, I guess Bowie isn't too bad."

Thus endeth my first live blog.  I would eventually come to love this record.  A lot.  We played it at every party, and he cassette was always within reach when I was working at the architectural school.  Always.

Speaking of parties, I may or may not have created a lip-sync routine to "Suffragette City" that John, Paul and I did at every party.  Thank god iPhones didn't exist, is all I have to say to that.  My life would probably be a lot different today.

Anyway, listening to it now?  Well, the high points  are still pretty high, and most of it stays.  A couple songs - mostly stuff I didn't like that much even back then ("Diamond Dogs", "Heroes") - go.

Culling The Herd: Neko Case

Bonus!!!  As much as I like the idea of doing this whole alphabetical thing, and as useful as the act of actually going through every single song in my library has been, sometimes I just want to, you know, listen to music. 

So I'm sitting at work, humming a song to myself, and I think, "hey, I should listen to that record.  No, wait, I can't, I have to get through...whatever is next up on my list."  It's true, I actually thought that, which is, you know, dumb.  Crazy.  Ridiculous.  "To hell with that," I think, "I'm listening to what I want to listen to."  Again, it's true, I actually thought that. 

So, not actually a "bonus," just a slight course change for today.  Herewith.

Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I'm not sure how I found Neko Case, although I have two copies of one of her songs in my library, one as a single and one as part of this album, which makes me think my first exposure was from a Starbucks freebie card.  In any case, she's flipping awesome, a brilliant songwriter that just so happens to have a spectacularly versatile voice, capable of a whispering sexiness ("Polar Nettles", "Fever" - hoo, boy...that one grabs me), straight crooning ("Vengeance Is Sleeping"), or straight-ahead alt-pop lead-singer-ey stuff ("People Gotta Lotta Nerve"). 

I could listen to that voice all day; I may or may not be deeply, deeply in love with her based on the voice alone.  "This Tornado Loves You" (one of my favorite song titles ever, by the way) and "People Got A Lotta Nerve" are both on my iPod running mix and I never skip either one.  A greater endorsement I cannot imagine.

It's not a perfect record.  There are a couple of songs that I tend to skip.  Still, pretty terrific, and they all stay.

Neko Case, "Fox Confessor Brings The Flood" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

More of the same, really - just a terrific album.  It does go into a semi-eclipse late, but the final song - "The Needle Has Landed" is a delight.

Oh, and also?  Not wild about the cover.  Someday I'll write something about music packaging, by which I mean actual, physical packages, as opposed to "packaging" in the sense of Taylor Swift "packaging" her "brand" or whatnot.  Yet another thing that digital music has changed for the worse.  Anyway, I can't look at the cover without thinking that the woman has this big, long hairdo, and it makes me like the record just a tiny bit less.  I'm weird.

 

Baseball's Big Honor, 2015

As is my custom for one of my favorite-est subjects, it's time to run down the 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame.  Previous rundowns can be found elsewhere on the site.

Steroids will continue to be an issue.  My original approach was that if I thought a player would have made the HOF without using PEDs, he was in.  Barry Bonds is in this category - Barry was on the verge of being an all-time great before he started using, but PEDs extended an already-great career and pushed his totals much higher than they would have been with normal career progression.  Ditto for Clemens.  On the other hand, if I thought they pushed someone from good to great, then no dice...McGwire and Sosa being the obvious examples.

That said, my thinking has evolved, at least partially due to the fact that obvious first-category HOF players - Clemens, Bonds, Biggio - have failed to make it.  I'm starting to think it's time to just acknowledge that the game was drowning in PEDs and that some of the stats from the period are ridiculous, but that these were still elite players.

It gets tricky with guys like Sosa and McGwire...my attitude has circled around to the point where I wouldn't just dismiss them for steroids alone.  I still don't think they should be in, FWIW.

Repeating my thoughts on holdover candidates:

  • In - Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mike Mussina
  • Close, but no:  Tim Raines, Curt Schilling
  • Out:  Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Mark McGwire, Don Mattingly, Sammy Sosa

So, to the obvious outs, with comments when I feel like it:

  • Eddie Guardado - I honestly have no recollection of this guy even existing, let alone for 17 seasons.  Wait, what?  17 seasons?
  • Tony Clark - a good player, could be a contributor on a championship team, never great.
  • Aaron Boone - Had one of the biggest home runs in Yankee history, but also never a great player.  Had more power than I remember.
  • Troy Percival - Closers.  Yuck.
  • Rich Aurilia - Blech.
  • Jermaine Dye - A nice career, but never all that elite.
  • Cliff Floyd - There was a time when Cliff Floyd was in high trade demand as a bat for hire.  Good times.
  • Jason Schmidt - had two straight huge seasons for the Giants, but mediocre otherwise.
  • Tom Gordon - A real good pitcher...if you think wins and saves are of equal value (they're obviously not), then Gordon had a hand in 296 wins, which is pretty good.
  • Darin Erstadt - A famous hard-ass, also had one of the all-time PED seasons in 2000, hitting .355 (his only season over .300) with 25 HR, 100 RBI, 121 Runs (second-best totals:  19 HR, 82 RBI, 99 Runs).  Voters of the time were so impressed that they voted him...eighth in the MVP voting.  Man, 2000 was a joke of an offensive season.
  • Brian Giles - more power than I remember (like all these guys, I guess, including the pitchers), got on base quite a bit, could definitely be in the center of a great offense, but a notch below elite.

I guess I felt like making lots of comments.  As usual.

The grey area guys:

  • Carlos Delgado - I spoke earlier about 2000.  In 2000, Carlos Delgado had 57 doubles, 41 HR, 137 RBI, walked 123 times, had 15 HBP, and hit .344, for an OPS of 1134.  He had 378 total bases.  He finished FOURTH in MVP voting.  For a time - let's say 1998 to around 2003 - he was an absolutely devastating hitter, as menacing a guy as you could find, even more so than guys like Jason Giambi or Rodriguez.  I don't remember much chatter about him being a druggie, but he does get tarred with the brush of the era, and if he's the first guy from the era that we let in, we're going to have problems down the road.  Verdict - I think of his candidacy like I think of Larry Walker's - terrific, but not quite, at least for now.
  • Nomar Garciaparra - Came up around the same time as Rodriguez and Jeter and appeared to be every bit the offensive player of either.  There's black ink all over the place through his first four full seasons, put an absolute ton of runs on the board.  Always injury-prone (steroids are a bitch, man), he hurt his wrist early in 2001 and his entire career changed.  He still had some pop and still got on base, but lost 50-60 points on his batting average, 70-80 points on his slugging.  In 2002 Theo Epstein took over the Sox, and a guy who didn't walk much (never had) and wasn't all that great with the glove who wanted a gigantic contract simply didn't fit in...he bounced around after 2004, and played well at times, but he never again played over 123 games in a season after he turned 30 and his career numbers aren't all that great.  Think of him like Cesar Cedeno - an unbelievably great start, but couldn't sustain it.  Verdict - out.
  • Gary Sheffield - see above, re: Carlos Delgado, in that he was as intimidating a guy you could find.  He'd stand there, stock upright, waving his bat like he just couldn't *wait* to beat holy hell out of something...a ball, a catcher, the hot dog guy, whatever.  He had probably the fastest bat I've ever seen, which gave him scary power.  Could hit for average, could run, drew a ton of walks...but something of a difficult head case that the Brewers couldn't figure out and bounced around defensively to the point where he wasn't really good anywhere.  But he hit, and hit, and hit, both pre- and post-PED era.  A tremendous offensive player, for a long period of time (his 2009, at age 40, is worth noting - superficially meh, with .276 / 10 / 43 triple crown numbers in 100 games, but he spiked it with 40 walks for an OPS of 823).  Verdict - out, but barely.

These are easy:

  • Pedro Martinez - First of all, as a Yankee fan I couldn't stand Pedro Martinez, and the Don Zimmer thing still bugs me...but man, what a wonderful pitcher, just an absolute pleasure to watch.  I never saw Marichal, but I imagine he was something like Pedro; not overpowering, a dizzying array of speeds, arm angles, and tempo, and before you knew it you were swinging at balls that were landing in the third row of the stands...he had entire seasons where he was virtually unhittable and didn't walk anyone.  His 4-year stretch from 1997 to 2000 (yes, that same 2000 season) ranks among the best in history - 77-25, 2.16 ERA, 288 Ks / season, 11.5 Ks per 9 IP, .925 WHIP, 11 shutouts...3 Cy Youngs, and could've won a fourth.  Then he got hurt and missed most of 2001 but came back and tacked on three more seasons just like the others.  Brilliant.  Verdict - In, obviously.
  • John Smoltz - in 1987, the Tigers were in a tight division battle with the Blue Jays, finishing off what would prove to be the last hurrah in the mostly underwhelming era (save 1984) of Whitaker, Morris, Trammell, and Gibson.  Needing an extra starter, they sent as-yet unspectacular 20-year old Lansing native John Smoltz to the Braves for Doyle Alexander, who promptly went 9-0 down the stretch and got the Tigers to a playoff that they lost to the first Twins World Series champs.  Alexander was a good pitcher, but he was done two years later as the Tigers' wheels fell off; he lost 18, the Tigers lost 103 and started a long, long spiral of terrible baseball.  Sparky Anderson, man...what an overrated hack.  But I digress.

Question:  would the Tigers still trade John Smoltz for that single division title?  You could probably still make that case through about 1992, when Smoltzie was a really good, if not quite elite pitcher with a 57-54 record and a couple of All-Star appearances but no Cy Young votes.  Maybe even through 1995 - 90-82 total with a couple of injuries and not quite the velocity he'd had earlier.  At that point, Smoltz was 28 and a good pitcher but you had to wonder if he'd ever be elite.  But the switch went on in 1996 and for the next 12 seasons he was brilliant...he missed one of those seasons with an injury that I've since forgotten, but he went 117-63 and struck out 8.5 per 9 innings.  For four of those seasons, he was a terrific closer.  Then he went back to starting and got a few more CYA votes that way, too.  The only hitch here is that his totals 213 wins, 3084 Ks, one Cy Young - aren’t as overwhelming as you might like, but he basically gave up four years as a starter.  Put him in the rotation for those four seasons and you're probably looking at 260 wins...as it is, he got 154 saves in those seasons; even if you don't give full credit for them, 367 wins + saves is a big number.  Verdict - It's interesting...he's obviously in, but as I said, it's not as overwhelming as I expected.  I think I have him mixed up with Glavine, which is part of the problem - that staff was so great that their accomplishments tend to run together a bit.

  • Randy Johnson - So, so obvious. The numbers - 303 Wins, 4875 Ks, 5 Cy Youngs (including 4 straight...just stop and think about that for a second) - are so spectacular that it's hard to overstate how great he really was.  He struck out a ton of guys, yes, but this was not Nolan Ryan-esque work, where he'd strike out 300 but walk 150 (which Ryan did.  Five times, including a remarkable 341 / 204 in 1977).  He'd consistently have K/W ratios of 4.5 and above.  He's 35th all-time, which for an extreme power pitcher is absolutely astounding.  I could keep rattling off numbers, but it's simple - he's one of the greatest left-handers in history.  Period.  Verdict - in, in, in.

So, my ballot this year:

  • Randy Johnson
  • John Smoltz
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Craig Biggio
  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Fred McGriff
  • Mike Piazza
  • Roger Clemens
  • Barry Bonds
  • Mike Mussina

Ten on the nose, right in line with the maximum allowed.  My prediction is that the first four get in, Sheffield, Nomar, and Delgado stick around for another year, and Sosa falls off the ballot.

Made it, with an hour or so to spare!!!  The streak continues!

UPDATE:

Got it (mostly) right...Johnson, Smoltz, Pedro, and Biggio all made it in, Nomar and Sheffield stick around (although Nomar only stuck around by 3 votes), but Delgado fell 6 votes short of staying on for next year.  I'm okay with that.  Mattingly fell off after 15 years, maxing out at 28% of the vote in his very first year.

Piazza went from 62 to 69%, Raines from 46 to 55%, and Schilling from 29 to 39%, but most others stayed relatively stable.  Mussina and Trammell both got about 5 points, both to around 25%, still not in range of election, and next year will be Trammell's 15th year - he's not going to get there.

Some others from my 'yes' list above should get in next year, as the only obvious new candidate is Ken Griffey Jr.   Some people will make a case for Trevor Hoffmann and his 601 saves.  Those people are idiots, of course, but you'll see the case made.

 

 

 

Books of Note

A few months ago, my niece Lauren - a real book-hound - tagged me in a Facebook post entitled "Ten Books that Changed My Life,” or some such.  The idea was that once you were tagged you had to write your own list and post it.  Well, things got away from me (see #10 on the list to follow), and I never got back to it.  But I was reading some over the weekend, New Year’s Resolutions yay, and it popped into my head again.

I think I’ve spoken of Annie Lamott’s “Shitty First Draft” concept before but if not, the idea is pretty simple.  Your first draft will suck.  That’s just the way it works…but without a first draft you don’t get to the second.  So once I started typing this I had to get it out.  Herewith.

  1. Bill James, “The Baseball Abstract.” – Multiple annual editions, starting in 1982.  This seems silly, but Bill James shaped the way I think about two of my favorite things – baseball and statistics – in more ways than I can count.  I was in high school when I started reading them, and he taught me to look at the numbers I was being presented (“Fernando Rodney has converted 47 of his last 48 save opportunities”) and ask a) whether the stat was actually meaningful, and b) whether there were some inherent biases that we weren’t seeing.  In Rodney’s case, he was being placed in situations where even the lousiest closer (let’s call him ‘Schmoe Schmathan’) would have numbers in the same general range as Rodney.  In many ways, Bill James taught me critical thinking.
  2. Douglas Hofstadter, “Godel, Escher, Bach” and “Metamagical Themas” – Hofstadter is a mathematician / computer scientist by trade, but these books – on creativity, music, and language – opened my brain up in ways I never expected it to be opened.  I still pull them off the shelves periodically and dive in.
  3. James Joyce, “Ulysses” – No, I’ve never finished it.  I’ve gotten a quarter of the way through it any number of times, but never been able to get over the hump.  So how has it changed my life?  By reminding me that, while I love a book that challenges me, I also read for, you know, pleasure.  And this one isn’t pleasure.  If I ever do finish it, it will be because I feel like I should do it.  Maybe someday.
  4. Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – I don’t know how many times I’ve read this, and I get something new every time.  It’s another of those books that pokes my brain in unexpected ways and inspires me to think differently.  For me, this book is like Velvet Underground records were to garage bands in the 70s;  the joke is that the Velvet Underground only sold a few thousand records, but everyone that bought a copy started a band.  That’s how I feel about this book.  It makes me want to write.
  5. Jostein Gaarder, “The Christmas Mystery” and “Sophie’s World” – tasty, twisty stories about the Nativity story and the history of philosophy, respectively.  The Christmas Mystery is an absolutely wonderful children’s book in which a little girl travels back in time to the birth of Christ, gathering angels and shepherds along the way, told through the eyes of a modern girl reading along via notes in a found advent calendar.  Just delicious, and the advent calendar structure of the book (each day a chapter) make it a perfect book to read nightly to children during December.  “Sophie” has the same sort of twistiness, in which a teenage girl learns the history of philosophy via cryptic stories delivered to her from a mysterious stranger that knows her father.
  6. Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist” – Coelho does the magical quest thing as well as anyone, and this book, about a shepherd who gives up everything to follow a recurring dream of finding his personal fortune in Egypt, is a great example.  He finds out (spoiler alert) that, essentially, his fortune has been within him all along…at least that’s how I remember it.  It’s been a while.  I sell old books from time to time, though, and this is one book I will never sell.
  7. William Gibson, “Neuromancer” – Gibson essentially invented cyberpunk science fiction, and while reading this (and all of his subsequent work) didn’t send me down any more sci-fi rabbit trails, this book is like a jolt of lightning.  Clean, muscular writing that holds up remarkably well, all these years later.
  8. “The MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia” – I found this in the library when I was about 12 and begged begged begged for my own copy until my parents finally broke down and spent the $35 (a huge amount for a book in those days) to get it...it’s basically just page after page of numbers, with almost zero actual "writing," but I literally wore my copy out and only kept it together with duct tape.  I copied those numbers into dozens of notebooks, creating various lists and doing my own calcs on them in dozens of ways.  In my first copy (I still have it), I went through all the best-of and award lists and highlighted every New York Yankee; if you held it vertically and just let it fall open, it went to the page that included Mickey Mantle.
  9. James Fixx, “The Complete Book of Running” – I have no idea how or why I got this book.  I remember running to prepare for football in high school and hating every step of it.  But at some point, I read this and it touched some part of me in a long, lasting way.  I still recall passages of it, almost verbatim – there’s a section on carbo-loading in which Fixx meets a friend to talk about a race to occur the following day, and his friend is eating oatmeal cookies.  “Hmm…compex carbs.  Interesting,” I think…and still do.  In another, he talks about running downhills to try to train himself to a longer stride, mostly to point out that we tinker.  Which I do.  Mostly, though, I just like to think that my legs kinda look like Fixx’s on the front cover.

  10. David Allen, “Getting Things Done” – another book I’ve read and re-read multiple times.  I will probably never, ever become a real productivity killer, but this book inspires me whenever I get stuck and need a boost.  It helps me break things down into small, bite-size chunks.

So that's my list.  Way more non-fiction than I would have expected, but hey.  First drafts, amirite?

Lauren?

Culling The Herd: Cracker

Read the original "Culing The Herd" post here.  Song / album titles take you to the iTunes store!

Cracker, "Cracker" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

David Lowery was the lead singer for the late, lamented weirdo new wave band Camper Van Beethoven.  After they (inevitably) blew up in a haze of pot smoke and internal squabbling, he hooked up with a childhood buddy and started touring LA...I found them through a Rolling Stone article that mentioned Lowery in (as I recall) a semi-disparaging way.  I had loved CVB, despite their loopy drugginess, and immediately bought Cracker's debut record.

And it's terrific - there are still some flights of fancy here, but it's generally just straight-ahead countrified alt-pop with some hooks ("Satisfy You" is a major highlight, hooks-wise...it's one fo those songs that I will sometimes re-play a second time, even after hundreds of listens).  Lowery still has the stoned surfer-dude vibe but this time around he sheds some of the crazy extended violin and mandolin solos for straight four-piece.  Still a really good record.

Cracker, "Kerosene Hat" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

Another terrific record, a little bit tighter with few more hooks.  Again there's an appealing surfer dude-ness (from "Movie Star": "Well the movie star | Well she crashed her car | But everyone said she looked beautiful | Even without her head" still cracks me up with its terrible black humor), but the singles - "Low", "Movie Star", and "Get Off This" - are flat-out terrific pop songs.  It doesn't hold up beginning to end quite as well as the debut record, unfortunately, as there are some real duds here.  "Kerosene Hat" is not great.  "Lonesome Johnny Blues" is a silly novelty, and there are a couple so-so songs, but they all stay.  I think.

Cracker, "The Golden Age" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

Disappointing.  "I Hate My Generation" is a great start, but the next song ("I'm A Little Rocket Ship") is a classic side-b novelty throwaway that you add when you're trying to fill out the record...the next seven songs feel like filler, then they rip into three really good songs ("Sweet Thistle Pie" and "Useless Stuff", and "How Can I Live Without You").   In the past, Lowery's loopy drugginess would be saved by a hook, but in this case, when he goes there he goes all the way down, and the hooks are reserved for the straight alt-pop tunes.  Hard to describe and weirdly inconsistent.

 

Culling the herd: Miscellaneous C

Read the original "Culling the Herd" post here.  Links take you to the iTunes store!

Cold-War-Kids-Mine-Is-Yours-Front-Cover-55018.jpg

Cold War Kids, "Skip The Charades" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

It's okay, I guess, good enough to listen to now and again, but it's a bit overly dramatic, both lyrically and musically, with over-miked drums and plaintive wailing vocals...and speaking of overly dramatic, how 'bout that last sentence?  Like I said, it's okay.

Company Of Thieves, "Oscar Wilde" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

Much better...classic alt-pop with a nice hook and clean sound.  The lead singer sounds *deeply* familiar, but a google search doesn't turn her up anywhere else.

The Connells, "Stone Cold Yesterday" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

The Connells, "Something To Say" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

My sophomore year in college, I moved from one dorm (a dorky one) to a cooler one with some guys from my high school.  During my freshman year I had transitioned from typical classic rock more into punk / alternative / "college" radio stuff, and I brought that with me.  The way I remember it, the guys were into Journey and The Tubes and Motown and...oh, I don't know.  Typical stuff for the time.  I like to think that I pushed them in a different direction, to the point where John eventually went past me to stuff I hadn't heard of.

So a year or so after I graduated, I went back down to visit John (who was doing his pre-med work), and he gave me a mix-tape that he called "Hard / Limp," full of cool stuff I'd never heard.  I loved that tape - John had this cool thing of doing two songs from each artist when he did a mixtape (an idea I totally stole) - but I eventually lost it, and years later I couldn't really remember what was on it, except the Connells.  So I dug up these two songs.  They're good to very good, classic late 80s / early 90s alt-pop.  I'm only just realizing now that neither of these particular songs were on that tape, but hey...they're pretty good.

Continental Drifters, "Vermillion" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

I generally don't like supergroups, even when, as in this case, I like the members (this one included Peter Holsapple of the dBs, Vicki Peterson of the Bangles, and a guy from Dream Syndicate, among others).  Most of those records never seem to hang together as well as those from 'normal' bands that have been together for years and year.  Think the Travelling Wilburys or the Warren Zevon / REM (minus Michael Stipe) side project Hindu Love Gods.

This one is different, and I think it's because of that very reason - this wasn't a one-off, get-in-and-get-out record.  Even though the lineup changed a few times over the years, they did stay 'together' for almost a decade, so there's a continuity and familiarity that other supergroups don't really have.  Even so, there's an appealing raggedness to it, too.  Really a terrific record.

Counting Crows, "Hanginaround" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

So there I am, working at Apple after closing time, cleaning up the schmutz that the animals leave on every screen, and the store sound system starts up with a great older song.  I immediately start bobbing my head, banging on the table in time, and Shazam-ing it, which gives me ...oh.  Counting Crows, huh?  Weren't they some sort of cheesy 90s band?  Oh, well, great song.  So I try to buy it, and I ALREADY HAVE IT.  How I got it, or when, I have absolutely no idea.

I should say - the only reason I give it 5 stars is because I CAN'T GIVE IT SIX.  What a great G.D. song.

The Cranberries, "Everybody Else Is Doing It, Why Can't We?" - 2 stars.  Dump it.

My memory of the Cranberries is based on the song "Dreams," which I really liked as a counter to the grunge era.  So I bought this, and...maybe it's because it's 20 years later, but I don't like it much.  "Dreams" is still a fantastic song, and "Linger" is truly a beautiful song, as well.  Dolores O'Riordan's voice is really a remarkable instrument, and I have this feeling that if I'd found it when it was new it might be one of my favorite records, but most of it goes.

Crash Kings, "Mountain Man" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

Don't know where this came from, and had no idea what to expect, but I hit 'play' on this one...and then hit it again.  What a terrific song, heavy and poppy, would fit right in on a White Stripes record.  I thought it might be a Jack White side project, actually, but it's not.  Anyway, just terrific, and placed firmly on my "check out more by this guy" pile.

Culling The Herd - Chumbawamba, City and Colour, Cigar Store Indians

Read the original "Culling The Herd" post here.  Album titles link to the iTunes store.

Chumbawamba, "Tubthumping" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

When I was in college, there were few songs that we would listen to at every single party.  Sometimes one of us would come up with some hand motions or something to match the lyrics.  The Tubes:

  • "Talk" ('talk talk talk' motion with your hands)
  • "2" (two fingers)
  • "Ya" (pointing at the person you were standing with)
  • "Later" (thumbs over the shoulder).  

We never got to the point of buying four crappy matching jackets and doing an entire routine to a Four Tops song, as Alan and his gang did (God no, those guys were total dorks), but there were a few songs like that.

So my ex-wife and are out with her super-cool brother, and this song comes on at the bar.  Jason:

  • "I get knocked down" (thumbs down, bouncing through the lyric)
  • "But I get up again" (thumbs up, still bouncing)
  • "They're never gonna keep me down" (palms down, arms waving in the universal 'field goal is no good' motion).

Proving that drinking leads to total dorkiness, no matter how cool you start out.  Funny total dorkiness.

So the song.  It's still a fantastic song that I love hearing on a run.  And it's still a terrible, terrible album cover.

It's also the source of this, which makes me smile every time I see it.

Go ahead and don't smile at that.

City and Colour, "Fragile Bird" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

Man, I'm continually surprised by some of this stuff. Again, I had low expectations for this one, and I have no idea why that is...and it's nothing really special or surprising, just a simple rock song with a hook.  I like it.

Cigar Store Indians, "el Baile de la Cobra" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I'm sure I'm going to screw up this story, but the way I remember it, my two readers Jim and Paula were in Los Angeles a long time ago, and one night they went out to a club to see these guys.  They came back, raving about how great they were.  "I'm sorry, who?" I asked.  "The Cigar Store Indians," they said, "they're a really great rockabilly band."  "Hmph," I said, as I am wont to do, "what a stupid name." "No really, Matt - here's a CD we burned.  Listen to it."

And holy crap.  As usual (well mostly usual), they were right.  What an unbelievably great record.  Not a single dud in the bunch.  Not one.

I've gone through a couple of computers over the years, and a couple of times I've had to re-create my music library.  On the last go-round, this was the first CD I ripped to iTunes.  I have no idea if that means anything - okay, I'm sure it means nothing at all - but it's a data point.  For, you know, something.

Culling The Herd - The Clash

Read the original "Culling the Herd" post here.

In some ways, The Clash are the reason I'm doing this in the first place.  They've been such a big part of my musical life, and for so long, and I have so much of them (although, as will become clear, less than I realized).  It's hard to imagine my musical life before I started listening to them, and it's hard to imagine my musical life without them now.

The Clash, "London Calling" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

We used to all stand in the main vestibule at Catholic Central after we ate our lunch.  Mostly St. Francis guys, but a few guys from Sacred Heart, a few from the MCC Junior High down the hall, but mostly St. Francis guys.  Not sure why that matters, but whatever.  So we're standing there one day, talking girls and sports and whatnot, and The Clash come up in the conversation.  At this point I was still into conventional WLAV-type classic rock, and something like new wave or punk was still something to ridicule.  Brad Winicki was there.  Brad was a bigtime classic rock fan, into Led Zeppelin and the like, and I secretly looked up to him, music-wise.  At the mention of The Clash, he sneered "Sandineeeesta," and that's pretty much all I needed to hear at that moment.  I was done with The Clash.

Eventually, though, I went to Ann Arbor and started veering toward "college" music into new wave and eventually punk.  Sometime during my freshman year in college, I bought London Calling, and I was done.  The pump had been properly primed, and it grabbed me immediately.  It was so new, so unlike anything I'd heard before, just so...*great.*  It literally felt like I was discovering a new world.

Listening to it now, it's amazing how fresh it still sounds.  I've listened to this record literally thousands of times, and I still listen to it, beginning to end, every time it comes up.  All 19 songs, every single one of which is at least 4 stars.  Most are 5s.

There's a scene in "Men in Black" where Tommy Lee Jones is showing Will Smith all the technology they've captured from the aliens.  He picks up a dime-sized disk and says "this will replace CDs.  Guess I'll have to buy the White Album again."  Which is *exactly* how I feel about London Calling.  I have listened to this record literally thousands of times and bought just about every possible medium possible; Vinyl first, then cassette so I could listen to it on the bus, then CD, and then high-bitrate digital.  If they ever come out with some sort of biological version of it, I'll be first in line.  Greatest rock and roll album ever.

The Clash, "Combat Rock" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

My high school has for many years had a mother-son dance for the senior boys.  I went, of course, with all my buddies and our moms.  I think we had dinner somewhere, then went to my friend Ralph's house and hung out and had a couple of beers...such simple times.  Ralph's sister Barb was home from freshman year at college and took it upon herself to get me drunk on tequila (it was probably two shots, given my light-weightedness at the time).

Okay, I'm back.  Anyway, so we went to the dance; at some point "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" came on, and my friend Bob Basta - a musical early adopter - immediately started jumping up and down like a pogo stick and running manically from place to place in our high school cafeteria.  I remember thinking a) what a lunatic, b) what a cool lunatic and c) man, that's a great goddamn song.  Why wouldn't you want to dance like that to a song that great?  I was not all-in on The Clash quite yet, however.

But by the time I bought "London Calling" a few months later, I was, and I bought "Combat Rock" in short order.  Pulling it out now, a few years away from a beginning-to-end listen, I expected to hear an artifact, but it holds up really, really well.  I'm not sure why that's the case - it probably has something to do with the fact that it's pretty well grooved into my brain, but it's also pretty fresh in that it grabs musical styles and references from literally all across the globe (there are African references here, and rap, and jazziness and a dozen other styles), plus it didn't get copied, and poorly, fifty different ways.  There aren't a lot of records like it, still, because there aren't a lot of bands that could pull it off.

"Rock The Casbah" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" are the hits, and rightfully so, but there are some other really great songs here, even in the face of some pretty over-the-top self-importance and "smarter-than-thou-ness" from Joe Strummer.  "Car Jamming" is a really fun, silly groove.  "overpowered by funk" opened side 2 on vinyl, and it still feels like that - a cold, bracing grab of the lapels reminding you to keep listening.  Even a truly weird song like "Ghetto Defendant" gets listened to, all the way through.  Still a great record.

The Clash, "The Clash" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

...and a year or two later I grabbed this one, The Clash' first  and most straight-ahead punk album.  There are songs here that are not much more than a couple minutes of (delicious) youthful rage over two chords.  But there are some hints of what they would become.

The Clash, "Pressure Drop" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I have three copies of this song...the original straight reggae version from the wonderful "The Harder They Come" soundtrack, by Toots and The Maytals, the Ska version, by the Specials, and this one, which kinda combines the reggae and worldbeat-type versions and layers a big pile of guitars on top of it.  So great.

The Long Run

I'm still not in 'long run' shape - I can do a comfortable 3 or 4 miles, but beyond that, I struggle during it and hobble for days afterwards.  Basically my knees are both adjusting to the fact that my right calf is still fairly flabby from three months in a cast.  My knees are never great, but when I'm favoring that leg (which I almost certainly do, without realizing it), it throws everything off.

So I'm trying to be smart and hold back from really hammering away.  This week's "long" run was to be a comfortable 4 miler; shortish, so no water belt or pre-run oatmeal.  Once I got to John Ball Zoo (my normal Saturday spot), I felt good, with a little spring in my step, which hasn't happened since my surgery.

A mile in, there's a fork, and I always go left.  It stays tight to the river and leads to an old train bridge that's been converted to pedestrian traffic.  It's one of my favorite spots on this or any route.  I always spit into the river.  The right fork goes wide away from the river but, according to one of the few maps in the area, ends up coming back to the main drag at the bridge.  So on a whim, and feeling good and saucy, I figured it was time to see a new route.  I wasn't adding miles, after all.

The "plan"

The "plan"

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.  I took the one less traveled by, and that made all the difference.  Because I got lost. 

Well, sorta.  I've been down most of the trails out there, but this time I missed the second fork, and before I knew it my watch said I'd gone 2 1/2 miles, and still no sign of the main drag or the bridge.  By the time I saw another map, I was over 3 miles and well past the bridge turnaround.  So I hopped a gravel road (new for me), slogged back to the main trail, and made it back. 

The execution.

The execution.

A shade under six miles when I planned a bit over four, despite no pre-run oatmeal or water on the trail.  I'm still slow, but I'm getting there.

An aside - dear Kent County, please please please put some maps up.  You've got a labyrinth of trails out there, help a body out.  Maybe someday I'll organize the Grand Rapids Running Club and RunGR groups and we can get a donation campaign going.  Or not.  Sure would be nice, though.

Culling The Herd - The Chieftains

See the original "Culling The Herd" post here.  A reminder - song and album links let you purchase from iTunes.

One of the first things that Camilla ever told me - via instant message, before we'd even met in person - was that she imagined a past life as a saucy English bar wench.  I literally smile every time I think of that.

Camilla and I have a lot in common.  Lots.  What we don't have in common, much, is music.  She's just a little older than I am, but those years were huge transition years in music.  She grew up musically pre-new wave and punk, to the point where that stuff must have sounded like nails on a chalkboard.  She's also the baby of the family, with an older brother that she absolutely idolized, who had and has a pretty voracious musical appetite, and whose records she was constantly hearing and stealing.

I, on the other hand, grew up musically during the last days of disco and the dawn of new wave.  Someone like the Stray Cats - one of my earliest forays outside of 'normal' rock radio - would never have made it on the radio during Camilla's youth, so I was exposed to a different group of artists.  Plus, I was the oldest, so I didn't have anyone playing their records in my ear - I was blazing my own trails, so to speak.

Fast forward, and as Camilla and I get to know each other better we start listening to each others' music.  There's not a lot of overlap (Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Peter Gabriel), but she's got some Chieftains CDs and I start listening to them a bit.  Irish music frankly doesn't do that much for me, but the Chieftains are musical chameleons and relentless collaborators.  They also tend to have themes to their records, so they really hold together well.

We've since seen them in Chicago a few times, which is great because we get to spend a couple days in Chicago and because they really are a delight in concert.  The first time we saw them, at one point I looked over at Camilla and she was absolutely glowing, just radiant.  That look is one of my favorite memories.

As to the music...

"Another Country" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

Something of a mixed bag - they pull in a bunch of traditional country artists, and the quality of the song depends a bit on who's guesting.  The Ricky Skaggs, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Emmylou Harris songs are pretty good, but the Chet Atkins and Willie Nelson collaborations just sit there.  Final tally is about half in, half out.

"Down the Plank Road" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

Another country record, but better than the "Another Country" attempt.  It seems sharper and more focused, for one, but the collaborators are a little better, and the song choices just seem to have more spark.

"Fire In The Kitchen" - 2 stars.  Dump it.

I keep saying this - it just kinda lays there.  As I understand it, the Chieftains were touring Canada, and recorded some informal sessions with the locals as they toured, then decided to release it as an album.  I like that idea, but I think that lack of focus shows, as it just doesn't hang together as well as some of their other records.  I've listened to it several times, and I can't honestly say I'll miss much of it.

"Further Down The Old Plank Road" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

This one, on the other hand, is sharp, focused, and hangs together wonderfully despite the varying voices.  It's still undoubtedly a country record.  Almost every song makes the cut.

Race Report - Reeds Lake Run

I'm generally not a dog person.  I don't dislike them, or anything, but they just don't really do much for me.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a serious dog person, just loves every single dog she sees.  At her mom's, she has a golden retriever named Benny who is, it can be said, just about the sweetest, greatest dog ever.  Playful, affectionate, doesn't bark very much, just terrific.  If I had enough room, I'd like a dog just like him.  I don't, but if I did...

Last Friday night, the kids were staying with me and their mother was going away for most of the weekend.  Ordinarily, she'd either board Benny, or the kids would make a couple of trips to her house to let him out, feed him and do dog owner things.  A couple days earlier Elizabeth had called and asked (not for the first time) if he could stay with us, and I agreed...I figured it was time to not be a hardass for once.  So I was a (very) short-term dog owner.

Friday night went fine.  Saturday morning, I got up early, ready to try a 6-miler, my longest run since my surgery.  Went through my normal pre-long routine, made some coffee, started my oatmeal and generally just lollygagged around.  Took Benny out to do dog things, and as I walked back in I saw someone wearing a Reeds Lake Run T-shirt.  "Hey, is that shirt from last year?"  "No, it's this morning."  "WHAT?  They changed the date this year?"

So I sprinted up the stairs, realized that there was late registration that closed in about 25 minutes, sprinted out the door to my car, sprinted to the high school, was literally the last person to register (they were packing up tables when I walked in), and found myself standing at the starting line before I had a chance to wonder whether I was ready to do a 10K or whether this was, you know, a good idea.

Not pictured - misery, despair, dead meat, etc.

Not pictured - misery, despair, dead meat, etc.

Well, it turns out that it wasn't.  I'm rounding into running shape, but I'm not to the point where I can do an unprepared 6 miles.  I had to walk for a not-insigificant portion of the last half of the race and finished in 1:10...my previous worst 10k was 1:03, and I actually ran my PR of 52:36 in last year's race.  I gots a long way to go, but I knew that.  The bright side was that I was racing again - three months ago, after tweaking my good knee on my first real run after rehab, I felt like it would never happen.  Being able to cross the finish line, albeit almost 20 minutes behind my PR of one year ago, reduced me to a grateful, blubbering mess.

That was a couple of weeks ago - I've since done a 6-miler in 59:58 (woot!) and a 7-miler in 1:10:51.  My shorter runs have stayed around 10-minute pace.  A long, long way to go, but it's coming.  Oh, yes.  It's coming.

Culling The Herd: Carlene Carter, The Cars, Cesar Rosas, Cheap Trick, etc.

Read the original 'Culling the Herd" post here.

And NOW, I've added iTunes links.  Click the title of the song / album, and buy it directly from iTunes!  Yay!

Carlene Carter, "I Love You 'Cause I Want To" - 4 stars, Dig it.

Carlene Carter is June Carter's daughter, Johnny Cash's stepdaughter, and was married to Nick Lowe...that's a pretty good pedigree, both genetic and not.  As is wont for that group, she's had some rough times with relationships, drugs, and bad press.  Anyway, I found this one during a dig into current (at the time) rockabilly, although she is almost invariably described as a country artist.  It's a good shouter of a song.

The Cars, "My Best Friend's Girl" - 4 stars.  Digit.

I had a friend in college that used to say that The Cars were the first new wave band.  He was wrong, of course, but they did help push rock / pop music a little bit further in that direction, and were one of the few true new wave acts to show up on rock radio.  Their first, self-titled record is chock full of staples from my high school dances:  "Just What I Needed" and "Good Times Roll" both immediately bring me back to the MCC cafeteria, in the dark, wishing I had enough guts to ask someone to dance.  For some reason, "My Best Friend's Girl" is the only song I have.  But it's a good one.

The Cars, "It's All I Can Do" - 5 stars.  Dig it.
The Cars, "Let's Go" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

I don't remember "Candy-O" as being as good an album as their debut (except for the cover art, of course), but the high points - the two songs here - are awfully high.  Great, great songs.

The Cars, "You Might Think" - 2 stars.  Dump it.
The song itself is okay, I guess, but I can't hear it without thinking of a bug with Ric Ocasek's face on it being swatted by a supermodel.  I don't want to ever think of that again...and for that image, it *has* to go.

Cass McCombs, "Don't Vote" - 1 star.  Dump it.

Some sort of political screed, too earnest by half.  Or more.  Gack.

The Cave Singers, "Leap" - 2 star.  Dump it.

Kinda just lays there.

Cesar Rosas, "Soul Disguise" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

If David Hidalgo is the Richie Valens half of the vocals for Los Lobos, Cesar is the rootsy shouter...his grit (and dirty guitar work) has always been a perfect counterpoint to Hidalgo's lilt.  I've written somewhat dismissively of 'counterpoint' types before - Christine Perfect's work with Fleetwood Mac being a perfect example of someone who is lovely in limited doses but kinda boring over a whole album.  That's not the case here, at all:  There's enough variation in approach and tone that it *never* loses vitality, and some of these songs - "Little Heaven", "Struck", "Shack and Shambles", and "Soul Disguise" are among my favorite songs.  The voice here is instantly recognizable, but it never seems like a group of Los Lobos songs or outtakes (see the John Flansburgh record "Mono Puff" for an example of this), but fully-formed and able to stand on its own merits.  The one slight exception is the affecting ballad "Better Way" - Rosas does a truly *wonderful* job with it (and, again - it's great on its own), but I can't help but wonder what Hidalgo's voice might do with it.  That doesn't even qualify as a minor quibble however.  This is a great record.

Chad and Jeremy, "A Summer Song" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

I'm not sure how this landed in my iTunes, but it's a classic 60s modpop song.  How can you not like this one?

Cheap_Trick_In_Color.jpg

Cheap Trick, "In Color" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

I think I've mentioned my love for Merlin Mann before...he's introduced me to many, many things that I might never have found without him.  Comic Books, for one.  GTD.  Lotsa stuff.  He's a big music fan / musician and has some of the same taste for hook-laden power pop that I do.  He mentioned this record a while back, saying that the band hated the original version (they thought it was over-produced) and that they decided to re-record it 21 years later.  This is that recording.
It holds up remarkably well, partially because they really know how to write a hook and partially because the (new) production is really quite good...sharp, clean, and simple.  There are some terrific songs here.  "Big Eyes" and "Downed" are both good.  "Southern Girls" is pretty good, "Come On Come On" too.  There's some cheese here, which is probably unavoidable, and a couple get the axe.  Interestingly, the one song I really wanted to hear - "I Want You To Want Me" - is probably the weakest song; where the live version is sharp and vital (still), this version is nigh unlistenable.  Still, a lost, rediscovered gem in general...

 

Father's Day, aka Why I Run.

The moment is burned into my brain.  It's a Friday afternoon, summer 1985.  I know, because we still lived in the house on Henry Street, and I was kinda old enough to have a beer with my dad (note:  not yet 21, as that didn't happen until the following summer, when we lived in California).  Dad ran the family water well drilling business, and I spent my summers sweating in the sun, digging ditches and hauling pipe and doing any other grunt work he could find me.  It was good, honest work, and sometimes I really miss it.

Anyway, we got home from the shop, still sweaty and dirty, and Dad opened the fridge, popped open a beer and - for the first time ever - offered me one.  I hesitated, but opened it, and we walked out the door to the deck.  That's it.  That's the moment.  The first time I remember him treating me like...well, not an adult, exactly, as there was still a subtext of me still being a kid.  Maybe it was the first time he'd treated me as a friend.  We had always gotten along famously, no matter what - on some level I had more in common with my dad than anyone I've ever known.  We always got each other.  But this was him wanting to hang out with me by choice rather than responsibility, and me doing the same.  I don't really remember much beyond walking out the screen door onto the deck.  I think I finished the beer and we BSed about baseball, or girls, or whatever, then I showered, we ate dinner as a family like always, and I went out with my friends.  But that single moment remains.

 

Seven years later, I'm in my last year of grad school.  I'm married, and my life has gone the way of most - I've gotten involved in my own busy and I don't get home to Muskegon as much as I would sometimes like.  Hey, Ann Arbor is the center of the universe, right?  It's a Monday morning.  Debbie and I had talked about going home that weekend, but we didn't, for some now-forgotten reason, so during a break in class I call home.  My dad's best friend Bernie answers the phone.  Weird.

"Oh, hey, Mr. McKenzie.  How's it going?"

"Oh, hey Mattchoo.  Here's your mom."

"What?  OK.  Hi, Mom, just wanted to say hey.  Sorry we didn't come home this weekend."

"Matt, your dad fell at work this morning, and he didn't make it."

...and that's all I remember about the conversation, except I told her I'd go get Andy from class and we'd be home that day.  Well, that and where I was standing in the architecture school building.  I never went down that stairwell again.

My dad had had a stroke (or something - it was a little unclear at the time, and to my shame I'm not sure if it was every fully diagnosed) during Christmas Break my freshman year, followed by bypass surgery during my sophomore year.  That he lasted as long as he did is, in retrospect, about as much as we could've hoped.  He never took care of himself, not really, or for any length of time.  He would eventually lapse back into sausage and bacon and eggs and...well you know.  The whole list.  I don't know that he ever said it out loud, but it was pretty clear - dad was going to live the life that he wanted to live, as long as he could, and be happy.

 

I'm a crappy father.  I'm wound way too tight in some ways, and I'm an infuriating flake in others.  I pout.  I complain, I rant.  I hold grudges.  I put things off.  I have less self-discipline than most people I know.  I will never think of myself as a good dad.

I literally only do one thing better than my dad:  I take care of myself.   I did the math; for me to live more days on this earth than my dad did I have to survive until December 9, 2016.  There is one reason, and only one, that I will be able to do that.

I run.  I'm a runner.

I am a runner because I miss my dad.  I like talk about how my whole day changes for the better when I run, and how running is the best cure for depression on this earth, and how I've never, not once, regretted going for a run after I got done with one, and that's all completely true.

But when I run, I connect with my dad.  I am asking him, over the years and lost memories, to take better care of himself so that I can get to see him for just a bit longer, so that he can be the greatest grandfather to my kids that anyone ever saw.  So he can meet Camilla - he would have absolutely loved Camilla.

Someday my kids will get married, and have kids, and come over to my house on father's day before they head out somewhere else.

I plan to be there - hopefully still wearing my running gear after an easy 10-miler.

Culling The Herd, continued

Whoa, lots of 'em.

The Black Keys, "El Camino" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

Damn, what a record.

I was buying a coffee at the Starbucks outside my Apple store, and they had one of those free download cards for "Gold On The Ceiling."  "Hm.  Black Keys.  I think they're a bunch of hipsters, but whatever."  Downloaded it, didn't think much more of it...then it came up on shuffle during a run, and I fell in love...hoo, boy.  Down and dirty, driving, heavy power pop with just a taste of...something.  Shimmer.  11 songs, all under four minutes (none of that 18-song epic shit for these guys), and not a bad one in the bunch.  Seriously, not a single one - even the late songs feel integral to the whole thing.  Spectacular.

The Black Keys, "Turn Blue" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

Darn, and I was so excited for this record.  It's not "bad," it's just tame and unfocused.  Listening to these records back to back, it's just blindingly obvious where one ends and the next begins.  The first cut, after all the tight songs on "El Camino," is a trippy 7-minute dirge.  Followed by a 4 1/2 minute callback to "Dead and Gone," even to the point of copying the exact melody as a background.  It's obviously a Black Keys joint, and there are some nice spots, but it never gets out of second gear until the very last song, "Gotta Get Away," a pulsating chunk of garage rock that wouldn't have made the cut on "El Camino."  A disappointment.

Bobby Womack, "Across 110th Street" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

So I was watching the frankly remarkable "Jackie Brown"; as Pam Grier drives away from the man she might be in love with, she pops this song in the stereo, and as the camera stays right on her face all the way through the song, she runs all the way from regret and sorrow to elation that she's starting a new life with a pile of money.  It's a great scene, and the song is just like that, slowly building and simmering into a real celebration.  Terrific.

The Bottle Rockets

"Welfare Music" - 3 stars.  Hold it.
"I'll Be Coming Around" - 4 stars.  Dig it.
"1000 Dollar Car" - 3 stars. Hold it.
"Indianapolis" - 4 stars. Dig it.

I've written about the Bottle Rockets before.  They opened for Marshall Crenshaw at a dive bar in Grand Rapids, and I bought all four of these songs while we watched.  As always, there's a difference between live music and the artifact - these songs were sharp, tight, and pulsating in that bar, but they're a slightly mixed bag on record.  They stay in the pile, if nothing else.  They're a bar band - a really good one.

Blues Traveler - "Four" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

Another mixed bag.  Some of it - "Run-Around," "Stand", "Hook" - is good (or, in the case of "Runaround", really great).  But some of it is terrible.  Just unlistenable.  Why these guys would ever slow things down and do a ballad ("Look Around", The Mountain Wins Again") is beyond me.   Three stay, the rest are gone gone gone.

Brandi Carlile, "Dying Day" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I didn't have high hopes, for some reason, but this is a fantastic song.  It's basically just her with an acoustic guitar, a violin, and some background singers, and she makes a whole bunch of noise.  Can't wait to buy the rest of it.

Caleb Rowden, "Love Song For A King" - 0 stars.  Dump it.

I hate Christian rock.  I'm not anti-religion, certainly, but rock and roll is about sex.

Califone, "1928" - 2 stars.  Dump it.

The name of the album?  "All My Friends Are Funeral Singers."  Want to guess the tone?  Exactly.

Carbon/Silicon, "The Last Post" - 3 stars.  Hold it.

I've written before - I love Mick Jones' post-Clash work with Big Audio Dynamite...but I think I wrote that Jones' creative peak is probably past.  Witness.

BAD was interesting and exciting for taking the Clash' world music influences, tossing some straight funk and electronic music on top...then adding a dance-hall groove to it.  That approach breathed new life into Mick Jones' penchant for fist-waving politics.  This record is somewhat cut from the same cloth, but seems like a retread.  "The News" is okay for a start, but the next two, "Magic Suitcase" and "The Whole Truth" are one-notes and don't go past that note.  The rest of the record follows suit.  Utterly forgettable, and it hurts me to write that.

Solitude.

My daughter Elizabeth has clinical depression; has had it for several years and will probably continue to fight it for the rest of her life.  It's been a long, wild ride with her...and during these years of struggle, when friends asked how Sam was, I always answered "Oh, Sam is great.  He's a lovely kid, never a problem, never a worry."  Well, he's turning out to be less simple than that.  We've found that he's been writing some pretty angry things on the internet, to the degree that we worry about whether he might hurt someone.  As usual in these things, there's much more to it and many more nuances and aspects to it, but it's been a little scary.  Now he's seeing a therapist to figure it out.  We're keeping Pine Rest open, I think, and the whole experience has been really tough on Camilla and my relationship.  Our respective reactions to this latest might be the thing that brings it all to an end, actually.  Sigh.

Anyway.

The kids and I went to a graduation party yesterday.  The original plan was to get there at around 4:30, stay for 45 minutes and bug out for the beach together.  It was tricky - be fully engaged with the kids and get out of my own head, or see my friends, who I really need right now.  Well, we ended up going a bit later so I could see Jim and Paula, and I'm so glad I did.  I wasn't able to tell them everything that's happening - it's so hard in a group situation like that - but it was enough.  Enough to remind me that there are things outside my brain, like lost parents, and lost pets, and kids getting 3.0 GPAs out of the blue (really!  Elizabeth!), and...well, it was lovely.  As always.

So we didn't get to the beach until after 8, by which time the sun had gone for the night behind heavy cloud cover; with no wind, the lake was completely calm, and between a grey flat lake and grey flat sky it was hard to even make out the horizon.  Sam immediately asked if he could go for a walk, which (finally) brings me to my point.

Betsy and I were just sitting and reading, and when I looked up a few minutes later he was just a tall, skinny, slightly awkward speck a few hundred yards away.  Just walking.

For some reason this soothed me.  Something about him just deciding to go his own way by himself...it made me think that he can figure things out.  Who knows.  I think of solitary walks as meditative, and maybe that's it - this didn't feel like withdrawal or isolation but more like something resembling self-interest.

After all the things we (and I) have been through lately, for some reason it felt like we're all going to be okay.  My heart will heal over, scarred and a bit tougher than before, Betsy will continue to find her voice and her path, and Sam will dig out of whatever hole this is.  He's a smart, funny, lovely kid that is looking for himself and trying to figure out what that even means.  Maybe that's what he's doing right now, plodding his way down the beach and out of sight.

Favorites

Lately you can't swing a dead "I Can Haz Cheezburger" cat on the internet without hitting a "Favorite X of each state" map of the US.  Favorite musical act (as an aside, I believe that the version I saw had someone or something called "Young Jeezy" as the favorite musical act in Michigan.  The obvious response to which is obviously "you're an idiot."), favorite movie, TV shows set in each state, blah blah blah.  Today Slate has a "United Steaks of America" map.

So, in that spirit, I present the "Favorite State Names of the US" map.

usa-map.jpg

There.  Now can we please shut the hell up about it?