Friday, March 10, 2006

Movie Review: "The Pride of the Yankees"

The Critical Fan
by Matt Sandler

As a die-hard Mets fan, I am constitutionally obligated to hate the Yankees, and I take this duty seriously. However, there are three times in my life that I have rooted for the Bronx Bombers. The most recent two were very begrudgingly. In 2003, I attended the game at Yankee Stadium where Roger Clemens notched his 300th career win and 4000th career strikeout. As much as it pained me to cheer for Mariano to get the save in the ninth, I wanted to see history, and I got my wish. Then, last year, I was at a game where Derek Jeter was up with the bases loaded, trying to end his record of the most at-bats by an active player without a grand slam. I cheered half-heartedly again, and got my wish again. But the first time I ever cheered for the Yankees, it was for a fictional character...well, a semi-fictional character. It was the first time I saw Gary Cooper star as Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and I was able to root for him completely, without any Mets-induced guilt.

Upon another recent viewing, I was able to recapture some of what I had remembered about the movie, while overlooking some of its flaws. The movie is very old-fashioned. You can check some of the cliches off of a list that you would expect to find in sports movies. Lou as a boy breaking a window with his unexpected power the first time he hits a ball. Babe Ruth and Lou promising to hit home runs for Billy, a sick boy in the hospital (why a little boy in a hospital in St. Louis is rooting for the Yankees is never quite explained). The chummy sportswriter who seems to be there for every moment in Lou's life, be it professional or personal. Despite these predictable moments, the movie retains a power due to its simple, well-told story of a good and modest man who got a very "bad break."

Lou is born the son of immigrants in upper Manhattan; his father is a janitor, his mother a cook at Columbia. His mother insists that he earn an education and become an engineer like his uncle Otto. He is clearly a mama's boy, and consistently refers to his mother as his "best girl." The only reason he signs with the Yankees out of Columbia is to be able to pay his mother's doctor bills. This leads to a tortured scene where he tells his mother that he is going to Hartford (for a Yankees farm team) and she thinks he is going to engineering school at Harvard. Even after becoming established with the Yankees (thank you, Wally Pipp), he still lives at home with his parents. He is so shy around women that he needs always-around sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) to serve as a matchmaker to hot-dog heiress Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright).

The best parts of the film are when it turns away from the slower domestic scenes and concentrates on baseball. We are introduced, if somewhat briefly, to some of the great names in baseball history: Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, and Babe Ruth, who plays himself, and in his first scene, is eating, of course. We witness some of the camaraderie of old-time baseball, when players played card games on trains and had "dames" in every opponent's city. Also evident is a strong note of patriotism, as Lou's mother says, "In this country, you can be anything you want to be." And there is heavy-handed foreshadowing when Lou is reluctant to come out of a game after being injured, and his manager says, "What do we have to do, kill you to get you out of the lineup?"

One of the baseball details is jarringly wrong. It occurs in the same World Series that we see Ruth and Gehrig visit Billy in the hospital. In front of a press contingent, Babe promises to hit a homer, and then the room clears, and Billy goads the modest Lou into promising to hit two homers. Then the action shifts to Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. Sam passes notes to a radio announcer to tell him about the home run promises. But here's the problem: the crowd, in St. Louis, is clearly rooting for Lou to hit the home runs! First of all, there is no evidence that the radio announcer is also serving as the public address announcer, which I know happens in some minor league stadiums. But even if he was, I have to believe that even in more civilized 1926, there is no way in hell that St. Louis fans would pull for Gehrig to hit these home runs. The rest of the baseball action in the movie is convincing enough, however.

Putting this quibble aside, the movie is still worth seeing. There are some nice old-fashioned scenes of Lou receiving a police escort to the game when he is running late in the middle of his streak; his wife compiling a scrapbook of his career highlights; and pages flying off the calendar as Huggins dies, Ruth retires, and Gehrig becomes the captain.

And then there is the great sadness of the final passages, as Lou starts to feel pain in his shoulder (presented in the movie, perhaps coincidentally, as occurring on the night of his 2000th consecutive game). He asks the doctor if his diagnosis is "3 strikes," and the doctor nods. Lou says, "All the arguing in the world can't change the decision of the umpire." He tries to withhold the bad news from his wife, but she can see right through his brave front. Then, in the most famous scene in the movie, he is honored with a day at Yankee Stadium. This scene feels oddly rushed at first, as we hear a radio announcer rapidly recount the speeches of various politicians and bigwigs in attendance. But director Sam Wood knows where the real crux of this scene is, in Gehrig's magnificent speech, which Cooper appropriately delivers with more heart than he has shown in the rest of the movie.

Baseball needs more players like Lou Gehrig, or at least the fictionalized version presented in this movie (although, by all accounts, he really was this modest and decent). Hardly anyone in baseball history has possessed the combination of talent and nobility that marked Lou Gehrig. In the movie, as he struggles through his final spring training when something is clearly wrong, a teammate says to him, "Maybe you're trying too hard." Lou replies: "You can't try too hard." Is all we are left with steroid-addled showboats and mercenaries who would probably rip into the press at their farewell speeches? Say it ain't true, Lou.

NOTE: I unknowingly rented the colorized version of this black-and-white classic. As a film buff, this is akin to blasphemy. If you rent it, make sure to rent the B&W DVD rather than the colorized VHS.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Roger Clemens, the Best of the Best

by Scott Silversten

When I think of Roger Clemens, two quotes come to mind. One is real, the other...well, it's sort of real.

The first quote came following the 1996 season that then-Boston Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette said of the future-Hall of Fame righthander, "He's in the twilight of his career." Since that infamous remark, Clemens has put together...a career!

Think about it. With stops in Toronto (1997-98), New York (1999-2003), Houston (2004-05) and his upcoming start for the United States in Friday's World Baseball Classic game with South Africa, it can be argued that what Clemens has done since leaving Boston would alone be enough to get him to Cooperstown.

Want proof? How about four Cy Young Awards, 149 regular-season victories, seven postseason appearances, five trips to the World Series and two championship rings since 1997. And even including his two 20-strikeout games as a member of the Red Sox, it wasn’t until 2000 that Clemens pitched the defining game of his career. With a one-hit shutout of the Seattle Mariners in Game Four of that season's ALCS, Clemens forever ended the cries that he was a mediocre postseason pitcher who had just ridden the coattails of the other Yankees to the 1999 World Series title.

Oh, and did we mention leading his home-state Astros to their first ever Fall Classic appearance last year?

As for that second quote, it comes from one of the great scenes in the movie Bull Durham. Crash Davis said to Nuke LaLoosh, "You got a gift. When you were a baby, the gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt."

With all that has been said and written about Clemens' unmatched work ethic, there are those who argue that it's not lunges or sprints that matter, it's the simple fact that Clemens was given a gift from the heavens. This is not to imply he doesn't work at his craft - or the fact that he has worked to maintain his body - but the truth is, no amount of heavy lifting can make just any pitcher a legend.

It has often been argued that Babe Ruth can be considered the greatest hitter of all-time- he played in an era where he would not only outhomer entire teams, he would double some teams' home run output. Well then, what about Clemens? He has pitched so well and so long - not in the Dead Ball Era and not pre-Jackie Robinson- but rather in the times of juiced baseballs, juiced players and shrunken ballparks. Ruth hit unbelievably well when no one else was hitting- that's his baseball legacy. Clemens pitched unbelievably well when everyone else was hitting- and that's his baseball legacy.

To steal one more quote - this time from The Natural - when Clemens walks down the street in the years to follow, fathers should turn to their sons and proudly proclaim, "There goes the best there ever was in this game."

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Mighty Dinger

Welcome to Wild-Card Wednesdays here at where we take the opportunity to present to you with a "surprise" column. On which topics you ask? Show up to find out! WCW will also be where you can find the lovely Fanatic's Wife - you can read her first column here.

This week, we pay homage to the home run. Sure, the star of the home run has waned recently in light of the steroid era. Not long ago, we lived in an time where guys like Brady Anderson could hit 50 home runs, or where Sammy Sosa could hit over 60 HR three times, and not lead the league any of those years. It took 37 years to break the single-season HR record in 1998 with 70 HR, and just three more years to do it again with 73. Of course, this obsession with power - both by players and fans- did come with a price. As baseball moves to rid the sport of the pox of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, it still has many questions to answer regarding its role in this whole mess- what it knew, and what it allowed to occur in spite of that knowledge. And as this recent article exposing Barry Bonds will attest, there's a lot out there that we never knew- and may never know. Perhaps we may never want to know- the scandal's too ugly, and baseball too pure.

Nonetheless, we still love the homer. The unethical actions of some cannot take away from the pure thrill generated by the shot outta the park. No single hit can change the outcome of a game as quickly- or as dramatically- as a home run. Whether you call it a homer, a dinger, a round-tripper, a four-bagger, a tater, a bomb, a shot or a jack, the home run still holds a mighty place in our hearts.

This week only, exclusively at Baseball For Thought, we have brought together some of the greatest players of all time to discuss- what else? The home run.

So tell me men- what's the secret to hitting a home run?:
1. Barry Bonds: "I think of myself as 'catching' the ball with my bat and letting the pitcher supply the power." (note: I thought it was Greg Anderson supplying the power? Sorry. I'll be quiet from now on)
2. Babe Ruth: "How to hit home runs: I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball...The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."
3. Sammy Sosa: "To tell the truth, I never think about a homer. I'm just thinking of the situation and what I've got to do when I go to the plate....I'm not trying for home runs. I'm trying to hit to right field more. When I do that, the home run comes."-
4. Mickey Mantle: "Somebody once asked me if I ever went up to the plate, trying to hit a home run. I said, "Sure, every time.""
5. Willie Stargell: "I'm always amazed when a pitcher becomes angry at a hitter for hitting a home run off him. When I strike out, I don't get angry at the pitcher, I get angry at myself. I would think that if a pitcher threw up a home run ball, he should be angry at himself."

Really. So how can I really get a hold of one?

1. Mark McGwire: "Some of the longest home runs I've hit, I didn't actually realize they were going that far. Everyone says, 'What does it feel like to hit the ball that far?' Actually, there's no feeling at all. I know when the ball meets the bat whether or not it's left the park. It's a nice easy thing."
2. Mickey Mantle: "When I hit a home run I usually didn't care where it went. So long as it was a home run was all that mattered."

I see. You know, most men will never know the thrill of taking a ML pitcher deep in a real game. Tell us, how exciting is it to hit a homer?
1. Reggie Jackson: "God do I love to hit that little round son-of-a-bitch out of the park and make 'em say 'Wow!'"
2. Hank Aaron: "The triple is the most exciting play in baseball...Home runs win a lot of games, but I never understood why fans are so obsessed with them." (source )

Totally agree, Reggie. Now here's an interesting question: Would you rather have a high average, or hit lots of dingers?
1. Roberto Clemente: "I am more valuable to my team hitting .330 than swinging for home runs."
2. Babe Ruth: "If I'd just tried for them dinky singles I could've batted around .600."

Oh, look at the time. Please, tell us more before we have to go...Closing thoughts? Advice? Observations? Stories? God, do we love the stories.

1. Frank Robinson, on the increase in home runs of late: "Probably the most dramatic change in pitching I've observed in my years in baseball has been the disappearance of the knockdown or brushback pitch. This is why record numbers of home runs are flying out of ballparks, why earned run averages are soaring, and why there are so few twenty game winners in the majors."
2. Babe Ruth, on the importance of education: "Reading isn't good for a ballplayer. Not good for his eyes. If my eyes went bad even a little bit I couldn't hit home runs. So I gave up reading."
3. Joe Dimaggio, on big ballparks: "I came up twice in the game with the bases loaded and both times I hit balls into the alley, four-hundred and fifty feet away. Home runs in any other park. Well, each time my own brother robbed me by making catches on the warning track. Instead of a possible eight RBI, or at least five or six, I got nothing. That night, Dom (Dimaggio) came over to my place for dinner. I remember letting him in the door and then not speaking to him until we were almost done eating. I was that mad."
4. Ralph Kiner, on the sheer complexity of the game: "Solo homers usually come with no one on base"

Thank you men, for your time.

The preceding quotations were courtesy of, unless otherwise noted.

Wild-Card Wednesdays appear every Wednesday

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Death of an Immortal

by Alan Eliot

On his Hall of Fame plaque, it reads:

Kirby Puckett
Minnesota, A.L., 1984-1995

A proven team leader with an ever-present smile and infectious exuberance who led the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. Over 12 seasons hit for power and average, batting .318 with 414 doubles and 207 home runs. Also a prolific run producer, scored 1,071 runs and drove in 1,085 in 1,783 games. A six-time gold glove winner who patrolled center field with elegance and style, routinely scaling outfield walls to take away home runs. The 10-time all-star's career ended abruptly due to irreversible retinal damage in his right eye.

Kirby Puckett died yesterday of complications from a stroke. He was eight days shy of his 46th birthday.

I am shocked. Saddened. The news is still just barely sinking in.

Few ballplayers received the reverance and respect that Puckett did during his career. The fact that his Hall of Fame plaque's first sentence includes the words "ever-present smile" and "infectious exuberance" speaks volumes. He was the pudgy player with the permanent smile on his face, who could play the game with such a mixture of confidence, grace and enthusiasm that it was impossible not to love him.

It is hard to believe someone so full of life can die.

It seems like just yesterday- I was 13 when Puckett robbed Ron Gant of what seemed to be a sure home run in the 1991 World Series- and when he led the Twins to the improbable wins of games six and seven. That picture of Puckett leaping at the wall is still the one etched in my mind when I think of him.

The death of a Hall of Famer always hits the baseball community hard. When he is claimed by old age, the sad news is tempered with a sense of fairness. "He lived a long life," you say to yourself. "And boy was he a good player." His glory days came and went long before you did- by the time you learned to love baseball, his stats were already part of the permanent record. As far as you know, he was always destined for baseball greatness.

The passing of Kirby Puckett, on the other hand, is much tougher to comprehend. At 45, he is the second youngest Hall of Famer to die- second only to Lou Gehrig, who lost his battle with ALS at 37. Untimely deaths of our sports heroes always sting more. You grew up with them. Their highlights are not in grainy black and white film, but in the full technicolor of your memory. You remember when those highlights were news. And you remember when this man reigned supreme over the greatest game.

And that's how it is with baseball greats. We place them on pedestals, until they are less mortal men than legends. In our imagination, they are always hitting .406, or belting #715. We can do this, because to us, at some level, these men will always be the young baseball players that they were. Their names and feats pass our lips with such a sense of timelessness that we make them- the plays as well as the players- immortal.

In his lifetime, Kirby Puckett the man was held to a standard even he couldn't live up to. Like all men, he was not perfect- as the allegations of misconduct that came out after his retirement will attest.

Kirby Puckett the legend, however, will forever be robbing a home run or standing stalwart at the plate, ready to go to battle. And among the pantheon of greats, he'll be the one with a grin so big you'll swear it's gotta hurt.

I'll part with an excerpt from Puckett's 2001 Hall of Fame speech:
There may be a few people out there who remember a time when the word on Kirby Puckett was that he was too short or didn't have enough power to make it to the big leagues...And I want you to remember the guiding principles of my life: You can be what you want to be. If you believe in yourself , and you work hard because anything, and I'm telling you anything is possible...And don't feel sorry for yourself if obstacles get in your way...And I faced odds when Glaucoma took the bat out of my hands. But I didn't give in or feel sorry for myself. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it may be cloudy in my right eye, but the sun is shining very brightly in my left eye.

Kirby, you will be missed.

Alan Eliot's column appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Longest Month

by Doug Silversten

I hate March. Always have. It is the worst month of the year. It is a simple case of process of elimination that brings me to this conclusion.

April through September: Clearly the preferred half of the year. During these months, we get to bask in the glorious six-month stretch we call "The Baseball Season." Day in and day out, there is baseball. Other than the painful 3-day break in July for the All-Star game, we never need to go more than one day without a meaningful baseball game. Nothing could be finer.

October: The anti-March. Probably the best month of the year. Baseball playoff month is so important, that all major events in your life need to be postponed. As my lovely wife early explained, I even insisted that my wedding not be held in October, especially late October, to prevent a possible overlap with a critical game. I am proud that I have my priorities in order.

November: Not the greatest month, as you realize there are a cold 5 months ahead. Bartlett Giamatti was right:

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come out, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."

However, if you are anything like me, the first few days are almost a relief. No fantasy team to worry about. No sweating out close playoff games. You almost need a week off. Plus, discussing and arguing over the MLB awards are nice little ways to pass a few weeks.

December: Your interest slowly turns to the NFL. Not even remotely comparable to baseball, but a nice little sport that helps kill time between baseball seasons. Plus the holidays are nice, and everything slows down in December. A nice little month.

January: Elimination playoff games in any sport are always fun and easy to watch. Hell, put on a badminton elimination match and I'll probably watch. The NFL provides a solid month of elimination playoff games. Too bad they are only on weekends.

February: Pitchers and catchers! Spring training begins! Baseball is finally on the horizon. The local newspapers finally have daily articles covering your team. You are so ravenous for baseball, any baseball, that you don't mind reading the plethora of "daily profile" articles.

March: Enough with these damn profile articles already!! It’s painful. Last week it was Julio Franco's day and the NY Times in-depth reporting came up with this brilliant line:

Franco's day always begins like this. He eats the first of five, sometimes six, meals before the sun has finished blazing over the horizon. Sometimes he adds vegetables, like bell peppers or spinach, to his egg whites or he substitutes a scooped-out bagel (he prefers cinnamon raisin) for the oatmeal.

What the hell? Enough! March sucks. It's a tease. Meaningful baseball is so close you can taste...instead you are reading about what Julio Franco is tasting. Ugh, and it's only March 6th. Still 26 days to go.

Doug Silversten's column appears alternate Mondays

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Yankees Suck, But We Knew That Already

Leave it to the Yankees organization and George to do something totally obnoxious and unnecessary. Look George, we know you don't like the WBC. We get the point. Now shut up and just deal with it. Is this really necessary:

Even before a pitch was thrown Saturday, the New York Yankees apologized to their fans.

The Yankees displayed a sign by the customer service booth on the main concourse, explaining it wasn't their fault Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Bernie Williams had departed for the World Baseball Classic.

"Thank you for expressing your concerns," the sign stated. "We are sorry that certain players will not be present for portions of spring training. These players have elected to participate in the World Baseball Classic. The World Baseball Classic is an event sanctioned by the commissioner of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. The New York Yankees did not vote to support this event. Any comments you have regarding the World Baseball Classic should be directed to the commissioner of Major League Baseball or the Major League Baseball Players Association."

God, do I hate the Yankees.

Malcolm Gladwell on Baseball

I've never been a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan. The Tipping Pointwas OK, but I never really bought into many of the arguments in Blink. However, we are on the same page when it comes to the major problem in our favorite sport as Gladwell discusses in Part II of his e-mail interview with Bill Simmons:

It came after the Blue Jays (my team) won the second of their World Series titles. Economic reality hit, and they basically stopped trying to compete at the top level, and I wondered to myself: Why do I care so much about a sport where some teams have $200 million to spend and some teams have $20 million to spend? I know, I know -- as Rob Neyer and others point out -- that there is no necessary correlation between payroll and success. It is possible, as "Moneyball" reminds us, to win with less by being smarter. But the point is not that if you have more money than someone else you automatically win more games. The point is that if you have more money that someone else you're playing a different game than they are. Wal-mart is not competing against mom-and-pop corner stores. They're in a different business. And it isn't fun, at the end of the day, to watch a mom-and-pop compete against Wal-mart. It's painful and pointless.

I loved "Moneyball." I thought it was one of the best books of the past decade. I think it should be taught in psychology classes and business schools as a treatise on the subtle effects of bias on expert decision-making. But do you think that Billy Beane, for a moment, wouldn't trade his situation with Theo Epstein or Cashman? To me, the hard cap in football -- and, to a lesser extent, the soft cap in basketball -- are what makes those sports so interesting. It's what makes them sports. Contests where one player has significantly more resources than another are not sports. They are marketplaces. To root for the Yankees or the Red Sox is the functional equivalent of rooting for Microsoft or General Electric. No thanks."
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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