Friday, April 07, 2006

Movie Review: "Bang the Drum Slowly"

The Critical Fan
by Matt Sandler

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) is more than a baseball movie; it is about mortality and friendship, and how when we face the former, the latter shows its true colors.

The film was written by Mark Harris, and is based on his novel of the same title. The main thrust of the story is revealed in the opening scene, as we see two men exit the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. These two men turn out to be pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) and catcher Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro) of the fictional New York Mammoths. We hear right away in Wiggen’s voiceover that Henry has been diagnosed with terminal cancer (we later hear it is Hodgkin’s disease), and the film tells the story of their friendship over the course of one baseball season. They are roommates on the road, and Wiggen becomes especially protective of his best friend, as Pearson awaits certain death. Wiggen’s narration adds an extra layer of poignancy, because from what he tells us and the way he describes the events, we know that this story will not have a happy ending.

The two friends are very much opposites. Wiggen is nicknamed “Author” because he has just published a well-regarded baseball book, and the character is soft-spoken, articulate, and intelligent. Pearson, on the other hand, is very simple-minded and not too bright. He is a friendly and open man in a genuine way, but he does not know how to handle the new emotions that are brought on by his diagnosis. The movie reminded me of the relationship between George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. While Pearson is not as mentally handicapped as Lennie, he is naïve in the world and needs to be sheltered by his more worldly friend.Wiggen takes it upon himself to be the protector of Pearson, who is the fourth-string catcher on the team. Wiggen is a shrewd negotiator, and after Pearson is diagnosed, he has a special clause inserted into his contract that he and Pearson must stay together, regardless of demotions, trades, etc. This is a gutsy move by Pearson because he is a star pitcher that certainly does not have to share the same fate as a backup catcher. Wiggen also tries to stop the relationship of Pearson and Katie (Ann Wedgeworth), because he fears that Katie wants to marry Pearson only to collect on his life insurance. And there is the symbolic gesture that Pearson is Wiggen’s personal catcher.

The two friends have agreed that they are not going to discuss the diagnosis with anyone, and even on a visit to Pearson’s parents afterwards, nothing is said about the disease. Wiggen finally caves and tells a teammate, and of course once that happens, it is only a matter of time before word starts to spread. There is a touching scene where Pearson’s father approaches Wiggen in the clubhouse after he has heard about his son’s illness, and he begs Pearson to take care of his son. After the father departs, we see Pearson smashing furniture, furious that there is nothing he can do to save his friend. Along the way, we see many familiar baseball scenes, which carry an extra degree of sadness, as we realize that Pearson will be experiencing these simple moments for the last time. We see the card games during rain delays, the guitar-playing teammate, the unintentionally funny inspirational speeches by the manager (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia), and the lifelong coach who cannot imagine doing anything different. (Someone asks him what he did before coaching, and he answers, “Before I was a coach, I was a baby.”)

Eventually, everyone hears of Pearson’s illness, and there is some awkwardness over how to behave. One teammate solemnly says, “Whatever Bruce says, I’ll do, because in my opinion, there’s no greater catcher in baseball today.” Pearson is invited to join a group on the club, The Singing Mammoths, which performs on TV shows. But other than Katie’s money-grubbing, all this behavior is portrayed as being performed with the best of intentions. If it is a cliché that the thought of death clarifies our thoughts and helps us put things in perspective, we here have that confirmed in a touching manner.

At the end, what happens in the movie is what must. (This isn’t called a "male weepie" for no reason.) Pearson’s play has started to decline, and he starts to feel especially ill, including during games. From then, it is only a matter of time before he heads to that big dugout in the sky.

Bang the Drum Slowly
demonstrates how sports allow grown men to more easily bond with each other. At one point during the movie, I thought of my grandfather, who died the year before I was born, and after whom I am named. Whenever my mother mentions him, the subject of baseball always arises. She always says how much he would have enjoyed watching baseball with me, and how I would probably be a Yankee fan instead of a Met fan if he had survived until my birth. I like to think that in one of his last years on earth, he saw Bang the Drum Slowly, and cried his eyes out.

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

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Can't Take Your Eyes Off Bonds

by Scott Silversten

This is a column about Barry Bonds. I didn’t want to write it, and you probably do not want to read it. But I did, and you will, because Barry Lamar Bonds is the most compelling athlete in sports history.

Bonds is the car wreck on the side of the road that backs up traffic for miles, or the gorgeous girl walking down the street who knows everyone is looking at her. It’s impossible not to stare and wonder what is going on inside his head, impossible not to gawk in awe during the remaining days of his career.

In the argument of most compelling athlete ever, there are others who are in the discussion. A case can be made for such legendary figures as Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Michael Jordan. However, Ruth was a larger than life figure because the era in which he played yielded limited access. Ali was as loved as he was despised, Brown shunned the spotlight and Jordan was mostly beloved by everyone except his opponents.

I will admit that the Tuesday night debut of "Bonds On Bonds" had slipped my mind, but I’m also not ashamed to admit that when I stopped on the ESPN2 show about halfway through, I could not turn away. And each time the man stepped to the plate in Monday’s season opener against the San Diego Padres, all activity halted.

It used to be said of great power hitters, "You don’t go to the concessions stands when he’s at bat." With Bonds, you can almost feel a hushed silence encompass every stadium the moment he walks into the on-deck circle.

While many just wish Bonds would go away, there is a reason Game of Shadowsis flying off the shelves, why he is pictured alongside Ruth on the cover of this week’s USA Today Sports Weekly, why “Bonds on Bonds” will become a watercooler event as the summer progresses. Love him or hate him, and there is no doubt that very few people fall into the first category, everybody talks about him.

If you didn’t see it, in the last few minutes of the debut of "Bonds on Bonds," the show’s star broke down crying about the weight he carries on his shoulders. That the tears seemed somewhat fake did not sway my willingness to watch the next episode’s airing. I need to know what he is going to say next – sort of sports’ version of American Idol’s Simon Cowell.

The tears will appear more like an Oscar-level performance after reading the opening pages of Game of Shadows,in which authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams detail how Bonds’ attitude throughout high school, college and professional stops in Pittsburgh and San Francisco turned everyone against him. Steroids aside, Bonds was despised by just about everyone long before he met Greg Anderson and Victor Conte, and there is little doubt he brought all of that upon himself.

And that is why Bonds has never been given the benefit of the doubt over the last few years, and why so many have clamored for the investigation into the past that Commissioner Bud Selig recently announced. Personally, I think the investigation is a waste of time. However, Bonds does not deserve to be targeted just because he is not a nice guy and was the most successful player of the steroid era.

If Selig wants to tell the world that Bonds has used every drug that Fainaru-Wada and Williams claim, that’s fine. But I also want to know of all those homers in recent years, how many came against pitchers that were also using steroids? I want to know what caused the bodies of "nicer" guys -- like Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas -- to break down during the height of their careers.

That is in no way inferring that Griffey and Thomas are guilty of anything, just that their personality has never raised suspicion.

The baseball fans, media and executive hierarchy need to move past this fascination with the record books. In its cover story, Sports Weekly debates how Bonds will be judged against Ruth. It’s strange how people forget that Ruth does not own the all-time home run record that belongs to Hank Aaron. It’s akin to asking how Pete Rose should be judged against the man who stands No. 3 on the all-time hits list. (For those that don’t know, Aaron also holds that distinctive place in baseball annals).

The fact that the baseball records are held in high esteem is great for the game, but without waxing poetic about a sport passed down from generation to generation, father to son, let’s not forget that records really can not be compared over different eras. Times change, and athletes of recent vintage have a lot of advantages over their past counterparts.

Ford Frick was wrong in assigning an asterisk to Roger Maris’ 61 homers in 1961 due to the lengthened season. Of course, he didn’t see it necessary to place an asterisk next to any other record set that year.

Whether he surpasses Aaron or not, Bonds does not deserve an asterisk next to his name either, and he definitely deserves a spot in Cooperstown alongside Aaron and Ruth. And let’s be honest, that will be one Hall-of-Fame induction that I would not dare to miss.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Lost Weekend

by Sarah (The Fanatic's Wife)

The Fanatic’s Wife offers a reality check to those men all wrapped up in fantasy.

Doug loves Fantasy Baseball. He counts down the days to his drafts, studies his websites and fantasy projections, and makes complicated spreadsheets that will help him put together the best possible team. I try to distract him with the whole nudity thing...hopeless. All this hard work and obsessive behavior comes down to a weekend that I lovingly refer to as "the lost weekend."

It is lost to Doug, to me, and frankly, it is lost to any shred of reality. These men sit around for hours drafting players who they will "manage" for the season. When we watch games that Doug’s players are in, he often yells at the players as if they can hear him though the screen ("Throw strikes! Keep that WHIP down!"). I glance over at him and shake my head...IT’S NOT REAL! His "team" doesn't exist anywhere but on Yahoo Fantasy Sports. Sometimes I think that serious fantasy players forget this incidental fact.

So what is a girl to do when the man in her life is off in this surreal male bonding ritual? Doug's mom, my sister-in-law, and I strongly believe in the benefits of the most real place we know: the mall. There's nothing like a credit card bill to make someone get back to reality.

Fantasies are healthy. I have one that I will walk into our apartment after a long day of work and find that Doug has a home cooked meal waiting for me. But alas, I highly doubt that this fantasy will ever come true. So for six months, I guess I can let Doug live out his fantasies of managing a Major League Baseball team. But guys remember: your fantasy players will never hear you screaming at them through the screen, will never know if you’re playing or benching him. Every once in a while, forget the fantasy and pay attention to reality (where women live!).

Wild Card Wednesdays appear every Wednesday

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Mets Fan in Philly

by Alan Eliot

It's a curious thing, geography. We'd like to think that our most deeply-held convictions are constant. We are strong-willed. We are free-thinking. We are opinionated. And we are so sure of ourselves that obviously we'd be the same person whether we grew up in New York, Los Angeles or Boise.


But what if we acknowledge that the ideals that we cling to so strongly, that ultimately define each of us, are products of happenstance and luck? What then?

It's no secret that with few exceptions, children who grow up in a particular metropolitan area end up rooting for that area's teams. I grew up in the New York area, and ended up a Mets fan. Jeremy Bird, a fellow columnist, grew up around St. Louis, and you'll be shocked- shocked - to learn that he's a die-hard Cardinals fan. We are crazy about our respective teams, and often get into benign, but heated discussions ripping into each other's beloved franchises (of course, given that the Cards have done significantly better than the Mets both recently and historically, I haven't got much of a leg to stand on. But what can I do? I'm a Mets fan. I love them. I can't help it). Of course, the funny thing is that had I grown up in St. Louis, and he in NY, we'd probably be having the same debates, just reversed.

My religion is baseball. My specific sect, the Mets. I could not stop rooting for them if I tried. When the Mets do well, I am happy. When we are on a losing streak, I get depressed. Like it or not, my fate is tied with the fate of this overpaid group of men, who wear different uniforms than the other overpaid groups of male baseball players who I happen not to root for.

Consider the case of David Wright, pride and joy of every Mets fan. Outside of his ridiculous on-field feats, and off-the-field good-guy attitude, he's given extra love from the fan base for growing up a Mets fan. In Virginia, no less! Surely a sign of how intelligent young David must have been. Such adulation is tempered by the realization that he grew up in Norfolk, home of the Mets' AAA affiliate, the Tides, and that the majority of baseball fans in Norfolk root for the Mets. Were Norfolk the minor league home of the Phillies, for example, he'd probably bleed red and white. Mr. Wright, then, is as much of a product of his environment as are we.

A little Baseball For Thought, as it were.

This realization- that my deep rooted obsession with the Mets is a product of completely random luck, based solely on locale- does little to change my current situation, however. Because I am a Mets fan. And now, I am in another locale- Philadelphia, to be exact. And while it's only 100 miles down the NJ Turnpike, it is wholly another world away.

I'm incredibly lucky in that Philly is a football town first. And second. And third. Baseball's not really on the radar here- it is E-A-G-L-E-S country, by far. And it's obvious- whereas sports talk shows in New York are dominated by baseball fans, baseball talk, and baseball chatter, the counterparts in Philadelphia are far less phanatic about their Phillies. It's E-A-G-L-E-S country, baby!

This allows me to walk around town in my custom-made Mets black Jersey, relatively unscathed. And while such freedom of expression is appreciated, and lack of fear of local retribution is nice, it's not the same as being in New York- once again, my geography has a greater impact on aspects important to my life than I'd like.

For one, I can't watch Mets games, except for the 18 or so contests between the Mets and Phillies. I won't be getting SNY, the new Mets network- I already checked. Out of service area. The local news, which growing up, and for years after served as a source of Mets daily highlights, now shows me Bobby Abreu's latest delivery into some unsuspecting upper deck. WFAN, my radio source for Mets games and news 24-7, is so fuzzy and full of static that Mike and the Mad Dog are no longer the most annoying noise coming out of the radio when I tune in. In fact, I love taking car trips out to to Southern NJ specifically for the stronger signal I get there.

Walking around NYC, there is an instant camaraderie present- you see Mets fans in Mets gear on every street corner- and now that I am not around it, seeing each and every one of them is an uplifting experience. I sorely, sorely miss that.

Destined by my place on the map to love the Mets. And now destined by my place on the map to be homesick for them. How terribly unfair. Like I said, who'd have thought environment would have so much influence on my very personal and internal love of baseball?

Life, however, isn't all that bad. I find ways to get my fix- I caved last year and got MLB Extra Innings when I could no longer take it- why should someone 30 miles north of me in New Jersey get 162 Mets game while I get 1/10th of that? And of course, when the Mets are in town, I take the SEPTA over to Citizens' Bank Park (10 minute subway from city center as opposed to 45 minutes for Shea) for a delightful evening with my favorite overpaid group of baseball players.

One particular night, in late 2005, with the Phillies in the heat of the Wild-Card race, I went to see a game in my favorite Mets jersey. Usually, there are lots of Mets fans at these games, sometimes even more than Phillies fans. However, I ended up in a particularly Phillies-packed section, and was on the receiving-end of some relatively weak attempts at heckling. To the dismay of those around me we won, and played spoiler to the Phillies' playoff hopes.

On the subway, which was now packed with none-too-happy Phillies fans, I bumped into a local Mets legend: cow-bell man. He's attended virtually all Mets home games and some away games since the mid-90's, and gets the crowd going with the beat of a drum stick on his bell. He was a calm island of blue and orange in a sea of angry red. Elated from the victory, we shmoozed about his life (he gets neither money nor tickets from the Mets), and myself being starved for all things Mets, cow-bell man, a fanatic clearly more fanatic than I, was a welcome sight.

And so it went that night, that my batteries were recharged by a random conversation I had with a Mets fan on the train. "Next year", we'd agreed, "we'll be awesome."

I got off at my stop, and left cow-bell man to continue his journey back to New York- to that random piece of the world where I'm understood, where things make sense, and where years of fanatacism and imprinting have left me starving, always, for just a little bit more Mets.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, April 03, 2006

Of Course It Matters

by Doug Silversten

To get ready for the baseball season, I began reading Scott Gray's The Mind of Bill James
a few days ago. One of the things I love about James' writing is that he often is able to point out things that should be obvious to people but somehow don't get across. In an early one of his now extinct Baseball Abstracts he takes on the Rey Ordonez types. The traditional reasoning, of course, is that it doesn't matter if they don't hit since they make up for it in the field. Here is what James has to say on the matter:

I can’t stand it when people say that if he does the job with the glove it doesn’t matter what he hits. Of course it matters what he hits.... Whenever you hear that when you have one thing, this doesn’t matter or that doesn’t matter, and you’ll hear it fifty times this year, you’re listening to baseball games go flying out the window.

As a Met fan who lived through the Rey Ordonez years, I can relate to the above. And you know what, it is happening again in MetWorld.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Mets batting order – and where future Hall of Famer David Wright should bat – that everyone has been missing the part of the order which will most critically affect the Mets chances of scoring runs this season: the leadoff spot.

Throughout this season, I’m willing to wager that many pundits will excuse Reyes’ low OBP with statements such as:

“He makes it up on the basespaths.”

“He has one of the best arms at short in the game…and saves tons of runs in the field.”

“His speed distracts the pitcher.”

All in all, you’ll hear countless excuses for why Reyes’ inability to reach base more than 30% of the time is not that critical to the team’s success. They will claim that as long as he steals his 70 bases and performs in the field, it doesn’t matter what he hits.

Of course it matters.

This team is built to win now. Reyes may certainly learn some plate discipline over time, but have him learn it from the 7th or 8th slot. Look, we are not the Royals trying to see what some of our young guys do. We need to put our best lineup out there everyday. And while I believe, like most Met fans, that the health and effectiveness of our starters is key, we don’t have that powerful of an offense to have a leadoff hitter that is the league’s worst. Yes, the worst.

Reyes led the NL in ABs last year...and was 61st in OBP. 61st! And while those 17 triples sure were exciting, they only helped contribute to a weak .386 SLG...good for 55th in the league. Geez, Vinny Castilla reached base more often than Reyes.

Put simply, the Mets cannot afford having a leadoff hitter that gets almost 750 plate appearances reaching base only 30% of the time.

Yes, call me crazy. Tell me Reyes is the future and we need to wait till he develops. You can tell me that, and I am going to tell you are wrong. I hope Reyes develops quickly. I hope he learns how to take a pitch. I hope he gets his OBP to respectable levels. I hope.

However, while I keep hoping, Reyes should not be our leadoff hitter.

Doug Silversten's column appears alternate Mondays
"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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