31 July 2008

"The Teammates" by David Halberstam

The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship
Written by David Halberstam
Date of publication: 28 April 2004
Cover price: $13.95
217 pages

David Halberstam's--I'm sorry, Pulitzer Prize-winning David Halberstam's--book--I'm sorry, New York Times Bestseller--The Teammates is an account of the last time Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky drove down to see Ted Williams before the Splendid Splinter passed away. Little of the book itself is actually about the drive or the visit, but rather a biography of each of the three, along with teammate Bobby Doerr (unable to make the trek, as he was needed at home with his ailing wife), and the telling of how they became lifelong friends.

Out of reading this book alone, my estimation of Ted Williams has gone from The Greatest Hitter of All-Time to a guy whose only real difference between himself and my grandfather is that his sports were baseball and fishing, and my grandfather's are drinking betting on the ponies. By every account in The Teammates, Williams was a foulmouthed, at times stark-raving tyrant who "won 33,277 arguments in a row...because he shouted all the time and appointed himself judge and jury at the end of each argument to decide who won." Each person's testimony about Williams is always tempered by vouching for his generosity, but actual examples are few and far between.

The downside is that by the time DiMaggio and Pesky get to Williams's home in Florida, as a reader it's almost hard to even care or like the guy. Reading through the lenses of today's pop pyschology, one wants to insert oneself into their lives and tell them, "You're all co-dependent on a man who browbeats you! You put up with him more out of fear and habit than devotion!" By contrast, the other three men--DiMaggio, Doerr and Pesky--are each, by all accounts, decent, likable men, part of a dying breed.

30 July 2008

"The Complete Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis
Written and Illustrated by Marjane Satrapi
Date of publication: 30 October 2007 (movie tie-in edition)
Cover price: $24.95
Oldham County Public Library - Volume 1, Volume 2

The Complete Persepolis collects both parts of a two-volume memoirs, written by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi is an Iranian woman who came of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, but whose studies were made in Austria as she entered adulthood. Her family is liberal--especially for Islamic Iran--and so she grows up idolizing her grandfather, a betrayed and imprisoned prince, and an uncle, imprisoned for his participation in a revolution. In Europe, Satrapi endured guilt over not being at home, hip deep in the same atrocities as were her family and friends. The absence of such daily violence in Austria created a bubble around her classmates, making difficult the prospect of forming meaningful relationships.

Living through finding a bracelet still attached to a dismembered part of your childhood friend as you survey the damage to the home next to yours from a missile attack is not something that most people have experienced. Coming from two different worlds while feeling at home in neither, however, is a theme with which many easily identify. I, for one, grew up with my mom's side of the family quite urban and liberal in most things, and my dad's side quite rural and conservative across the board. Over the years, this has bred in me a frustration with people who only think in abstract terms as well as those without enough imagination to think in the abstract at all. I can, like Satrapi, exist in both environments, yet I find myself feeling out of place in either.

These memoirs are absorbing, engaging, inspiring. I, for one, finished reading the entire 300-plus page volume in one reading. Having taken the courses I took at the University of Louisville, coupled with my own working knowledge of Iran, I was not particularly surprised by anything Satrapi covered. Many, though, will find this work illuminating; imagine, Iranians who are not extremists or terrorists! They really do exist, and Satrapi has done an excellent job of conveying this. One of the best moments comes as she watches TV with her dad, and they see Europeans panicking to stock up on supplies as the Gulf War breaks out. Having been desensitized to the violence, the prospect of people living much farther from the conflict going into a state of pandemonium is too much for the Satrapis and they proceed to laugh heartily. So did I.

There is a film adaptation of this work, and while I wholeheartedly recommend it, I strongly advise anyone who is interested in Satrapi's story to read the graphic novel. To meet the demands of the different medium, the film abandoned many parts of the graphic novel's narrative. They may not be essential, but once you've read them, you notice their absence. It's up to you to decide if you'd rather read the fuller story first and be potentially disappointed by the briefer film, or see the film first and be rewarded by the expanded narrative of the graphic novel.

23 July 2008

Film: "The Dark Knight"

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman
Theatrical Release Date: 18 July 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Intense Sequences of Violence and Some Menace)
Cinescope Personality Types: Chosen Adventurer

Since the birth of superheroes in 1938 with the arrival of Superman in Action Comics #1, the idea has always been to create visually appealing characters and put them in action-oriented (and interesting) situations.  The stories and characters involved in Batman stories for nearly seventy years have created a legitimate mythology, and The Dark Knight greatly succeeds in honoring the mythology that birthed it, while also contributing.

Symbols are important in mythology, and the entirety of Batman's mythos is built around them.  Batman has long been depicted as the symbol of justice; often compatible with law, but not always.  The Joker, meanwhile, has been Batman's antithesis, favoring absolute anarchy.  In Christopher Nolan's film, The Joker (Heath Ledger*) has no backstory, or at least not one backstory.  In fact, spinning various "origin stories" for various people has become a hallmark of The Joker in the mythology over the years.  No; where he came from really doesn't matter.  What does matter is what the people of Gotham City do with him now that he's here.
Addressing Batman, The Joker notes that the mob hired him thinking that he would set back the clock to before the Dark Knight came on the scene.  An insight he failed to share with his employers, though, is that there is no going back.  "You've changed things...forever," he confides.  Is this an allegory for September 11?  Many radical Islamic militants believe that if they can force the United States to withdraw its presence in their part of the world, then their daily life can become what they imagine it to have been for their ancestors.  One imagines Osama bin Laden leaving a meeting of radical Islamists with their money, laughing to himself that they believed it possible to undo the presence of the western world.
The Dark Knight is chock full of scenes of what can best be described as terror; there is a depravity to this Joker that will likely stun audiences not familiar with the Joker of the comic books.  Countering this horror is the parallel story concerning the rise of District Attorney Harvey Dent.  His symbolic value to the people of Gotham City is weighed often by Batman and Lt. Jim Gordon.  Bruce Wayne becomes convinced that, with a man like Dent putting his name and face out there for all to see while simultaneously prosecuting Gotham's criminal element to the fullest extent of the law, that he might not need to continue his crusade as Batman.  It's the same thought process behind asking the Iraqis to take control of their own country; if they do it successfully, then we can completely withdraw.
Perhaps such real-world situations were not even on the minds of Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Jonathan Nolan as they crafted the story and screenplay of The Dark Knight.  Perhaps it's meant to simply be a fun action film with as strong a villain as they thought they could get away with (and still earn a PG-13 rating).  The characters, though, and their symbolic meanings, lend themselves quite well to leaving the cinema with us as we walk around our own Gotham City, realizing that we can never go back to what things were like before the arrival of Batman--or The Joker.
*For months, all anyone has wanted to say about The Dark Knight has been about Heath Ledger.  There is certainly some bandwagon glorification of the actor; had he died after making, a movie without the association to something like Batman, one wonders how many cinematic gawkers would have just stayed home.  Still, there can be no dismissing the performance that he turned in as The Joker.  His Joker can terrify you, and make you feel bad for laughing at some of the things he says and does.  In short, a truly great performance, even after deducting points for nearly alienating hype.

14 July 2008

2008 Home Run Derby

So...Alex Rodriguez is a selfish prima donna. That seems to be the big news about this year's Home Run Derby. ESPN's Jayson Stark blogged all about it today (access it here). My response? Get ready...here it comes...and, yes, you can quote me on this: "Yawn."

We've known for years that Alex Rodriguez could likely be clinically diagnosed a narcissist. There's nothing special about that fact. Stark complains that, since he refused to participate in the Home Run Derby, it left the HRD without a Yankee in Yankee Stadium. Atrocious! But, you know, the last time I checked, Derek Jeter was still a Yankee and still on the All-Star team. Does he post league-leading home run stats? No, but not every guy who has done so has made the All-Star team, anyway. And if Stark's problem is that there are no Yankees in the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, then perhaps he should be frustrated that no one made an effort to rope Jeter into it.

The problem is that there are two ever-conflicting schools of thought about the All-Star Game, including the Home Run Derby. One school of thought suggests that the spirit of the events is simply to wow the fans; give the fans what they want. Clearly, the fans want to see Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter start at third base and short stop for the American League. The fans want to see a lot of towering home runs hit in the Home Run Derby. They'll get both.

The other school of thought is that, with home field advantage riding on the outcome of the All-Star Game, that this is no longer an exhibition for the fans. Remember, "This One Counts!" The problem is that players seem to want to complain that Bud Selig has unfairly burdoned them with this aspect, while simultaneously tying one hand behind the All-Star managers's backs by letting the fans choose in a popularity contest which players should start the game. And, yes, that argument has merit. But let's not overlook the impetus behind adding these stakes to the ASG: Players blowing it off because they would rather go fishing than play in the All-Star Game to which they had been voted by adoring fans.

What has changed? Precious little. Players may attend more than they would like, but now they seem to resist participating in things like the Home Run Derby out of spite. It's like a kid saying, "Fine. I'll go, but I won't like it." Most comments I've heard or read by players about the All-Star Game have been along the lines of wanting to get it over with and get back to their regular season. They're hoping their team's star pitchers don't get hurt by breaking their normal rhythms to pitch one inning. And, again, these are legitimate concerns.But what aren't the players saying? They're not saying, "This year, the National League will win one." Old school guys like Lou Piniella, who will be coaching the team this year, have expressed that interest, but not the players. Ever since the edict came down to tone things down following Pete Rose's mauling of Ray Fosse, players have approached the All-Star Game the way a driver approaches a deer in the middle of the road: They want to just get through it without any injuries and don't care about anything else.

Until baseball teams recruit more passionate players and cultivate a climate of passion for the game again, nothing Bud Selig's office decides will change the way these events go. Tony LaRussa had the chance to win last year's game, but refused to bring into the game his stud, the guy he loves having come to bat with his regular season games on the line. Manny Ramirez was nursing a sore something-or-other and thought it best not to play last year. The consequence? The American League won (yet again) and Manny's Red Sox got home field advantage in the World Series, no thanks to their star slugger.I say they need to restructure the All-Star Game dramatically. Here's how I would do it:

Round One: Players who wish to play submit their names for consideration. Only these players go onto the official ballot.

Round Two: Employees of Major League Baseball, from owners to players, from scouts to janitors, get to cast one ballot each, and fans get to vote twice: One paper ballot, one online. This idea of 25 online ballots does nothing but enable ballot-stuffing by rabid fans, and this is why this year's AL team has 2 Yankees and 3 Red Sox.

Round Three: From the cumulative vote, the top vote-getters at each position are the starters. The manager then has his choice of how to build the reserves, regardless of number of votes. For instance, if the top thirteen vote-getters are all outfielders, he should be able to disregard that fact to bring on a second firstbaseman, even if the second highest firstbaseman has much fewer votes than anyone else on the ballot.I would also not put the ballot out until mid-May at the earliest. Letting fans vote in April is stupid. They will most likely vote for either members of their favorite team, or members of their fantasy team, and few teams's rosters are the same by late May as they are in early April. Don't let anyone vote until enough of the season has been played to let fans really get a sense of the players for whom they are being asked to vote. Reds fans, for instance, didn't get a chance to vote for Jay Bruce except as a write-in. Other fans may have punched his bullet on the ballot, but they're much less likely to write in his name.

Additionally, I would do away with requiring a representative of each team. I would, however, mandate that the host city's fans would get to vote--on a paper ballot only, not online--for a representative of their team. This way, when Tampa Bay eventually hosts this thing, if they're not playing then like they are this year, they still get a guy on the roster. I would even be open to each league's champion team getting to send a player, too. So this year, for instance, Yankees fans would get to vote a Yankee onto the team since they're hosting, and the Rockies and Red Sox would also get to vote onto the team one player because they made it to the World Series last year.As for the Home Run Derby, from the list of guys who made the All-Star team, I would then form a ballot of volunteers willing to participate. This ballot goes online, say the week before the event. The top eight vote-getters are your guys. In the event that at least one guy from the host city's home team is in the running, he should make it and the other seven guys would be selected by number of votes. This way, Mr. Stark would get Jeter instead of Rodriguez, but he wouldn't get to complain that the host city's team was absent.

If they still want to let ASG victory determine home field advantate for the World Series, that's fine, but they should revise the process. For instance, it used to be that the leagues alternated hosting the ASG, but that hasn't been the case of late. I say let the ASG victor get home field advantage for the World Series, but let the reverse also be true. Let whomever wins the World Series get to host the next year's All-Star Game. I know, these things are scheduled years in advance. Why? If they can piece together all that goes with the World Series in the span of a few weeks, certainly they can still coordinate hosting an All-Star Game between October and July. Let each league put together their pecking order for host ballparks, and whichever league wins the World Series gets to go to that list and whichever is on top, gets the ASG the next year.

So, again, let's go back to last year. The American League won the ASG, so the Boston Red Sox got home field advantage for the World Series, which they won. Instead of the All-Star Game already having been decided by the commissioner's office long before, though, they would not have known until October, when the Red Sox won the World Series, that whichever team was next on the AL's list of host cities would actually have the ASG this year. Let's say that next on that list was Yankee Stadium; so far, nothing has changed from their current formula. But what if the Rockies had won? Then, Yankee Stadium closes without hosting the All-Star Game in its final season, and a National League park instead would have hosted.