Friday, May 05, 2006

Movie Review: "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings"

"The Critical Fan"
by Matt Sandler


There has been renewed talk lately of the Negro Leagues, with much outrage that renowned baseball ambassador Buck O'Neil failed to be elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee. One of the best and most good-hearted baseball movies is about the Negro Leagues, the comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976).

The movie takes place in 1939, and the pre-war period is cleverly established with a fake newsreel that opens the film. We see real events from that year (Hitler invading Czechoslovakia), which segues into fake B&W footage of Negro Leaguers playing in Yankee Stadium. It is a short scene, but quickly establishes the jazz-infused and high-energy times in which the rest of the action takes place.

The next scene shows an exhibition confrontation between ace pitcher Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) of the Elite Aces and slugger Leon Carter (James Earl Jones) of the Elite Grays. Carter gets the best of Long, and later provides the impetus for the rest of the film. In a post-game conversation, he mentions the works of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois, about the needs of the workers to “seize the means of production” from the owners. This inspires Bingo to create the group of the title, throw off the shackles of the (black) Negro Leagues owners, and go barnstorming across the country. Many of the best and most independent-minded players are recruited from across black baseball, including Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor), who optimistically believes he will one day play in the white major leagues.

The action of the traveling troupe is inter-cut with the team owners (one of their teams is called the Atlanta Black Crackers), who debate how to deal with the renegades. One owner suggests playing the All-Stars with the best of the remaining players, but another argues that if the All-Stars win, every player will want to join the “revolution.”

We get to know a lot of the routines of the All-Stars. One of the running jokes is Snow trying and failing to explain how to calculate batting average to the mute batboy, Rainbow (DeWayne Jessie). The team literally dances its way into each of the cities in which they play. They recognize that they are not just athletes, but have some of the same instinct for showmanship as the Harlem Globetrotters. The toughest game for the All-Stars is against a team of white players, where the All-Stars face a steady stream of abuse, including the dreaded “n” word. Bingo wins over the fans with a gag played on Carter; all the players demonstrate unfailing good humor and composure under sometimes trying circumstances. We also recognize that similar to major leaguers, they have no shortage of women from which to choose, including one of the team owners. We hear a lot of talk of having a woman in every city, and we remember that before the talk of “brotherhood” and “revolution” that these are men first.

Pryor gives an interesting performance in the film. We are used to some of his manic performances in his movies with Gene Wilder, but here he gives a funny but often subtle take on his character. He thinks he’s a ladies’ man as he uses the Cuban alibi of Carlos Nevada to try to convince white women that he is Hispanic rather than black. (Later, his “Aryan proclivities,” as Carter refers to Snow’s preferences, will cause major trouble for him.) It is not one of Pryor’s most well known roles (as it is only a supporting turn), but it is some of his best work in movies.

There are some very funny moments in the movie, including the sight of an Orthodox Jewish team (the House of David) playing the All-Stars; they vend bagels in the crowd. The All-Stars also are low on money, and are reduced to working in an Amish potato field to make some cash. But the best thing about the movie is the tone that is maintained throughout. These players certainly have an unfair lot in life. Besides the general racism they face in society, they are unable to maximize their incomes in the whites-only major leagues. Furthermore, they are oppressed by their owners of the same race, and face many hardships along the way. But perhaps because they realize how lucky they are to be making a living (for the most part) at a boys’ game, they generally keep a positive outlook.

Despite the occasional promotion at a major league game involving throwback Negro League uniforms, this part of baseball history remains largely unknown to all but the most die-hard fans. Certainly Bingo Long would not hold up as an historical artifact, but it is a warm and comedic look at this period in history, and a reminder that something called “barnstorming” was once a major aspect of baseball.

Matt Sandler's column "The Critical Fan" appears alternate Fridays. He can be reached at mjsandler@gmail.com

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Red-hot Reds

by Scott Silversten

Who is on first. What is on second. I Don’t Know is on Third.

I’ll say it again...Scott Hatteberg is on first, Brandon Phillips is on second and Edwin Encarnacion is on third.

It might as well be an Abbott and Costello routine, because the success of the Cincinnati Reds so far this season must be a joke. Picked by most to finish in last place in the National League Central this season, the Reds swept a two-game series from reigning division champion St. Louis earlier this week and are currently in first place with a 19-9 record.

Tuesday’s victory over the Cardinals was exactly the type of game the Reds were not supposed to be able to win. It was a pitchers duel. Dave Williams allowed just two runs over 6 2/3 innings, the bullpen was flawless the rest of the way and back-to-back homers by Encarnacion and Adam Dunn in the sixth propelled Cincinnati to a 3-2 triumph, their eighth in nine games.

While the Cincinnati pitching staff on a whole has not been stellar, it has kept the team in games and the offense has done the rest even with center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. sidelined since mid-April with a right knee injury. Behind Dunn’s power hitting and the contributions of fellow outfielder Austin Kearns, Encarnacion and shortstop Felipe Lopez, the Reds are the surprise team in the NL through the season’s first month.

And while it may be too soon to start daydreaming about a Cincinnati-Detroit World Series – it might be dubbed the “Sparky” Series after former Reds and Tigers manager Sparky Anderson – there is renewed hope in the Queen City that it could be a summer of fun after all.

In response to the surprising early success, on Tuesday it was announced by Fox Sports Ohio that 14 additional games have been added to the Reds’ 2006 TV schedule. In addition, May presents a fairly favorable schedule for Cincinnati, which throughout the month will face teams most would consider mid-level or worse in Colorado, Arizona, Washington, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs.

The Reds’ team-record 17 wins in April tied the Cardinals and Chicago White Sox for most in the majors and they also established new club marks for the season’s opening month in runs (149) and RBI (134) while falling three homers shy of the 39 that were hit in 2003.

With Cincinnati standing as baseball’s biggest surprise team thus far, the Reds have also produced the biggest individual surprise in right hander Bronson Arroyo, who after tossing a four-hit complete game to beat St. Louis, 6-1, on Monday now stands at 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA in six starts.

It was Arroyo’s second complete game this season. Entering the year, he hadn’t gone the distance since he was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001.

The Reds’ trade for the 29-year-old Arroyo might have been the deal of the winter. Acquired from Boston for outfielder Willy Mo Pena, the man named for actor Charles Bronson has worked at least eight innings in three straight games. It is the longest such run by a Reds pitcher since 1994 and seems to support that notion that it is much easier navigating through NL lineups.

“This guy is not a fluke,” Reds manager Jerry Narrron said following Monday’s game. “He’s got a great feel for pitching. Anybody that changes speeds out there with the breaking ball like he does has a chance to be successful. He’s used to pitching to good lineups. In the American League, it’s up and down the order. You don’t get any easy outs.”

In addition to his guitar-playing skills, Arroyo also has a touch of big-game experience, having appeared in the last three postseasons as a member of the Red Sox.

“He just brings that personality of being from a winning team,” Lopez said. “He has a lot of experience, obviously, in the postseason. We’re feeding off that.”

In addition to Arroyo and Williams, the rest of the Reds’ current rotation includes Brandon Claussen, Aaron Harang and Elizardo Ramirez.

Who?

Indeed.

The Reds have also undergone changes off the field that should help future optimism even if the lack of talent catches up with the team as the long season progresses.

In January, ownership changed hands to a group of Cincinnatians led by Bob Castellini, who is now installed as the team’s Chief Executive Officer. And then in February, Wayne Krivsky was hired as the new General Manager, bringing three decades worth of front office experience to the franchise. Krivsky’s success as Assistant GM with the small-market Minnesota Twins in recent years made him an ideal choice.

At his introductory press conference, Krivsky made it clear that the 72-win average of the last five seasons was not good enough for a city as steeped in baseball history as Cincinnati.

“This is the beginning,” he said in the cold of February. “I’m not going to be satisfied until the day comes we’re a consistent, quality ballclub and organization, and a contender.”

Three months later, the Reds seem to be on the right track.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Baseball's Unbreakable Records

In this edition of Wild-Card Wednesdays, we examine the most unbreakable baseball records:

With Barry Bonds closing in on Hank Aaron (yes, I still believe he is going to get there), another of baseball’s cherished records is on the verge of being broken. All this record-chasing has got us thinking: which of baseball’s famous records are in no danger of being broken anytime soon? Without further ado, here are, in one columnist’s opinion, the top 5 baseball records that will never be broken:

5) Cal Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games
Many usually list this one near the top, despite the fact that Ripken relatively recently set the record. They say “the game has changed” and another player will never get the opportunity. Well, I say, what makes you think the game won’t change again? Still, this one will be tough to top. The current active leader, Miguel Tejada, will break 1000 consecutive games some time in early July. When you consider he would still need to play over 10 more seasons to catch Ripken, the difficulty of Ripken’s feat really stands out.

4) Ty Cobb’s .366 career batting average
Wow. .366. It is not too often that the batting champ even bats that high. Ichiro Suzuki, who basically entered the majors in his prime and thus avoided the typical early career slumps, “only” had a .332 average entering the season. Many pundits often discuss if anyone will ever bat .400 again. I think it will happen eventually. But for someone to end their career with a .366 average again? Not anytime soon.

3) Nolan Ryan's 7 no-hitters
Nolan Ryan was a freak of nature. For another pitcher to break Ryan’s record and get to 8 no-hitters, he would need to be a freak as well. You would need there be an overpowering hurler with the ability to stay healthy and pitch effectively for a really, really long time. Roger Clemens anyone? Well, guess how many he has? Got your guess yet? The answer is…zero. None. Zippo. Actually, Clemens has never thrown a no-hitter at any level: majors, minors, college, high school, amateur or little league. Ryan’s got this record for quite awhile.

2) Cy Young's 511 wins
I know I responded early to the “game has changed” theory by arguing that it is possible for the game to change again. I guess, but I can’t see it changing enough for someone to approach this record. Say an average pitcher nowadays gets 33 starts a year. Say he is the second coming of Sidd Finch and wins all 33. Every year. For 15 years. That is basically what it would take. Think that is happening anytime soon? If we take away the Sidd Finch scenario, a pitcher would need to average 25 wins for 21 years. That’s nearly impossible. Actually, the Cy Young record that is even tougher is his 749 complete games. Think about that for a second. The complete game leaders in 2005 had 7. If they keep that pace up, they’ll break that record in a mere…107 years. That record really would be #1 on this list, but I wanted to stick to the more famous records.

1) Johnny Vander Meer’s Back-to-Back No-Hitters
You basically would need to be Sidd Finch to break this record...or at least an incredibly lucky pitcher. Why luck? Because a big component of no-hitters is exactly that: luck. A little bloop here, a squibber there, bye-bye no-no. Let me break out my statistics ability to demonstrate the impossibility of breaking this record and getting 3 straight. Let’s take the all-time leader, Nolan Ryan. He got to 7 in 773 career starts, or by averaging a no-no about one every 110 starts. Assuming the chance of him pitching a no-no remained constant and independent during his career, the odds of him pitching 3 in a row are approximately .0000007426. There is a better chance of the sun rising in the West tomorrow.

Wild Card Wednesdays appear every Wednesday

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

It's All Baseball, Really

by Alan Eliot

Baseball is America's pastime. As such, its magic lies partially in its ability to keep us on our toes for at least 6 months out of every year, with the dizzying highs and lows of the season as it unfolds. Many sports have become popular since baseball was branded the "pastime", namely the other three major sports- and granted, many would argue that baseball is not the most popular sport in the US anymore. However, let's face it: basketball, football and hockey may be exciting, and may even be "faster-paced", but while they spend the fall and winter bickering amongst themselves for fan attention, baseball stands alone much of the spring and summer (Arena football and WNBA notwithstanding).

And that's important.

For baseball fans, this is pure heaven. No having to wait through boring Tampa Bay Lightning highlights- "SportsCenter" and "Baseball Tonight" are pretty much the same show for months on end. For more than half of the year, only two days are without professional baseball games- the day before and the day after the All-Star Game. And if you grow up a baseball fan, this is a lot of baseball to take in- unchecked, at that. How can it not leave an indelible mark in the collective imagination of the youth that grow up around it? Over and over and over. Baseball, baseball, baseball.

For non-baseball fans, I would imagine the reaction to this annual basketball/football drought would be less than enthusiastic. But think for a minute of the non-stop hardball playing on repeat- even for the child who will never grow to love it, just by exposure alone it becomes part of you and your upbringing.

Baseball seeps into everything. That is something very quintisentially American.

What do those poor British children use as a system to brag to their friends about their youthful conquests? Certainly they don't tell each other about getting to first base. It's a rare child in the US indeed who doesn't have some rudimentary (if oft-mistaken) understanding of the ubiquitous baseball = sex metaphor. So engrained is this little nugget into our culture that Meat Loaf himself used it in his hit "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" - when he overlayed a play-by-play of Phil Rizzuto describing a player making his way around the bases, just as Mr. Loaf describes himself as a teen trying to awkwardly seduce a girl.

And when that same British boy gets negged for a date, would his friends understand that he struck out? I guess that would depend if she were in his league. Would California's "three strikes" legal system make as much implicit sense to a Parisian? If that Parisian (who spoke fluent English, of course) were in a business meeting, would she ask her colleague to touch base with her, about an offer that she wants to make off the bat? Of course, the other side of the negotiation could throw her a curve, reject her offer and decide to play hardball.

So it's clear. Baseball's influence on each of us goes well beyond the game itself. The truth is, where there's an American, there's baseball. It's in them- fan or not.

Of course, for those lucky enough to also understand and enjoy the game, i.e. the fan, comes an extra part of the American experience: making baseball out of nothing. For the fanatic, following the game and knowing pop-culture references referring the game are hardly enough. Those who truly love the game know that there's baseball always a moment away, always waiting to be played.

The baseball's in you.

As a college sophomore, the wall behind my residential building was both sturdy and functional. For all we knew, it had never been put to any decent use other than for its intended purpose. However, for myself and a few friends, we put it to fine use as a home run fence in our weekend wiffleball home run derbies. And the funny thing is, from the moment we eyed it, a grey, slightly mossy, dirt speckled wall perhaps eight feet high, we could see no other purpose for it than for baseball.

I recall studying for an embryology midterm late at night with a friend, Tristen, in a student lounge. When fog of mind made FGF and Hox genes and VEG-F's all start to sound like the same substance, we decided to break. And there, in the deep pit of an empty college building, baseball was born. A ping pong ball was found. An impromtu strike zone was created out of a bulletin board and some paper. Time magazine made a fine bat. Rules were designated. Outs were defined. And baseball was played. I couldn't touch his fastball- the whoosh of the "bat" would embarrassingly coincide with the knock of ball on wall. And my curveball, with a big sweeping downward motion of the shoulder, was a thing of beauty- unhittable, but always in the strike zone.

This country, then, is lucky to have a sport as engrained in its national identity as baseball. Generations of children will follow the game, play the game, identify teenage milestones with the game, and generally do as we've done before them.

And for those who fail to appreciate the nuances of the finest game? Who insist that basketball or football are superior sports?

Tell those screwballs that their ideas are way out in left field. Be careful, though. They might not get it.

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

Monday, May 01, 2006

Pedro is a God

by Doug Silversten

I admit it. I was one of them.

When the Mets signed Pedro Martinez to a 4-year, $53 million contract following the 2004 season, I, like countless other Met fans, questioned the move. While this clearly wasn't going to be the second-coming of Bobby Bonilla, this wasn't as sure of a thing that it now seems in retrospect. People with selective memories may forgot, but there were plenty of people calling WFAN and worrying that the Mets had once again paid too much and committed to too many years for an aging, past his prime superstar.

And I was one of them.

And I was wrong.

Pedro is a god. Yes, that's right: a god. Blasphemy? Heck no. Have you seen Pedro pitch? Even the God that parted the Red Sea can't dominate a game, and play with a crowd of 50,000-plus at the same time, like Pedro Martinez can.

With apologies to Mike Piazza, the Mets haven't had a superstar like this since Dwight Gooden. A player you can’t take your eyes off. Social calendars throughout the tri-state area are revolving around this guy. Mr. and Mrs. Smith invited you and your wife to dinner on Friday? Oh, sorry. We can’t make it. It's a Pedro night.

All the possible negatives people were discussing at the time of his signing have turned out to be way off the mark. Fans were worried that he was a ticking time bomb, that his right arm was going to fall off one day soon. Well, I realize we are only a little more than a year into the 4-year contract, but I haven't read too many arm concerns lately. In fact, for some reason people seem to think Pedro has this long injury history, when in reality he is one of the most durable pitchers out there. Only once in last 10 years has Pedro failed to reach 180 innings. Six times during that stretch he was in the top 10 for the league in innings pitched. Oh, and during that time he also won 3 Cy Young Awards, led the league in ERA 5 times, strikeouts 3 times, WHIP 6 times, and even complete games once. Injury history? Baloney.

The next fear was that Pedro was going to be a "cancer in the clubhouse." At least I can proudly say that I never bought into this one. It's funny that Met fans even brought this up, considering we were only a few years after Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson playing cards in the clubhouse during the Mets ouster in the 1999 playoffs. Whatever the opposite of "cancer" is, that's Pedro. He has livened up this clubhouse, this team, this franchise, and this city like no Mets player has ever has.

I love how he plays with the crowd. I love that you can't knock that smile off his face. I love how he handles the media. Yes, it's a man-crush.

Pedro is a god.


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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