Friday, April 27, 2007

Classic card of the week

Jim Pankovits, 1989 Upper Deck
*Special Friday edition

Jim Pankovits was caught off guard by this particular photo. And Jim Pankovits didn’t like it. Not one bit. The Astros were about to start taking batting practice during a beautiful May afternoon back in 1988. Pankovits, as was his custom, walked towards the center field fence to relieve himself. Yes, he could have used the clubhouse bathroom, but two weeks beforehand, a noticeably drunk Pankovits had peed himself during a game, to the delight of his teammates. The Astros, who were struggling mightily at the time, went on to win that game in extra innings. The superstitious Pankovits promised the team that he would urinate on the field before every game, in order to keep the streak alive. And it worked, because at the time this photo was taken, the Astros had won 10 straight games. Anyways, Pankovits had just finished his business, and when he turned around to zip himself up – baseball pants traditionally don’t have zippers, but Pankovits made a special request as a result of his promise – an Upper Deck cameraman was right there to capture the moment. Pankovits’ reaction went from shock, to disbelief, to straight-up anger, homey. An unzipped Jim Pankovits attacked the cameraman Kenny Rogers-style, but the x-rated nature of this particular scuffle prevented it from being featured on the bloopers part of “This Week in Baseball.” As for why Pankovits was carrying two bats at the time…On the first occasion that Pankovits purposely peed in the outfield, he came in afterwards to partake in BP, but none of his teammates would let him touch any of the bats, since Pankovits had obviously not washed his hands in the sinkless outfield. From that point forward, Pankovits always carried two bats with him, which he would use for batting practice, and then sign, and give out to unsuspecting fans. On one particular occasion, after receiving an authentic batting practice-used bat, a 9-year old boy named Daryl was overheard saying, “This bat smells like pee-pee. And who the hell is Jim Pankovits?”

Did you know?
As a result of the fight, Jim Pankovits became the first known person to have an unintentional vasectomy.

Note: Sorry for the blurry nature of this card, but this is the very first reader-requested classic card! So thanks, “Anonymous,” for your hard work in finding this beauty online, and for the suggestion…

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

RFK, Nats blown away, what else do I have to say?

Our baseball trip this year did not stop in Philadelphia. Since we were staying local, my wife and I decided to kill two birds with one stone and head down to Washington, DC, and catch a Nationals game as well. I had never spent significant time in our nation’s capital, and subconsciously associated the city with only two things: a) the President, and b) murder. Since I don’t delve into politics here, I will not make a joke wondering whether or not those two things are mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, because of the murder part, we were trying to be careful about where we were going to stay. My original intent, quite foolishly, was to stay as close to RFK Stadium as possible, since, during our four-day stay in DC, we would be going to one game there. I know, it makes no sense, and I’m glad somebody alerted me to that beforehand, because when we did go to RFK, the surrounding area looked considerably less presidential than one would think. We ended up staying in the Dupont Circle section of the city, which I came to learn is the San Francisco of DC, if you know what I mean. And that was fine with me. Also, we stayed at the Hilton Hotel, a.k.a. “the Hinckley Hilton,” which is where Ronald Reagan was shot. This, of course, seemed to reaffirm my original impression of DC, since it included both presidents and murder, even if the murder was only “attempted.”

We had three days to spend in the area before the Nats game, and like any two upstanding American citizens, we decided it would be great to see the sights. To my surprise, one of those sights was going to be a smorgasbord of cherry blossom trees that only bloom once a year, and then are destroyed by an army of bulldozers when they stop being pretty. It was always my lifelong dream to walk amongst the cherry trees, so this trip was going to be better than I thought! Unfortunately, Lucky for me, people came from far and wide to see the cherry blossom trees, and as anyone who has spent significant time in a touristy area knows, people definitely know how to walk, act, and how to control their children in such an environment. Yep…definitely. Also, my likeness is now in approximately 2,500 pictures currently being developed in Asia, because I had the audacity to walk while other people were trying to capture a moment in picture form instead of experiencing it in real life. But I digress. Honestly, the cherry blossom trees were really beautiful, and actually ended up being the best attraction of the week. Plus, I would later learn that inanimate cherry trees can actually hit better than the Nationals, but I’ll get to that later.

I should also mention that the reason we chose this week in particular for this trip is because my wife works in a school as a Speech Pathologist, so her Easter break is the week we go away each year. Probably because I associate vacations with summertime, I always think in the back of my mind that we are the only two people on earth that are on vacation that week. Well, Washington, DC, was a wake-up call, because every single person in the universe who had the week off decided to go to DC - and bring 12 kids with them - which was just fantastic.

We tried to see the sights. Honestly, we did. But everywhere we went was crawling with hoards and hoards of confused people, yelling, screaming, crying, pushing, shoving, eating, walking aimlessly in the middle of traffic…absolute mayhem. Our first stop was the Museum of Natural History. Trying to walk through that place was like trying to get on the subway during rush hour. I learned absolutely nothing. In fact, I think I walked out of there dumber, since the only verbal correspondence I had to relate to what I was seeing were passing conversations about how Billy just pooped himself, and needs to be changed. It was like Disney World in there, but instead of waiting in line to get on the Tea Cups, you waited in line to read a paragraph about the origins of the wooly mammoth, but you couldn’t even do that, because some kid sneezed all over it. And don’t get me wrong – I love kids. I really do. I just don’t like a lot of kids, in any situation, but especially when I’m trying to learn about dinosaurs.

A stegosaurous? I have no idea...

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the National Air & Space Museum was like Woodstock for 7-year-olds. We pretty much walked through the museum in a circle, and then walked right out. And that took about three hours. To boot, all of the cool interactive stuff was crawling with kids, which meant that even if I waited in line to try it out, I would look like a complete moron doing it, a 6’3” tall idiot in a “gravity-sphere” amidst a sea of fourth-graders. Whatever.

The Lincoln Memorial was very emotional, especially the part where a group of kids bounced a rubber ball off the foot of Abraham Lincoln’s perch. I think I shed a tear on that one. And watching kids race through the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery certainly added to the somber, reflective mood associated with being present in such confines. Seriously though…love those kids.

But enough about the sites. The fact of the matter is that it was great to finally see all of the stuff I had only heard about, no matter the circumstances. DC also has some great restaurants, and their Metro system is second-to-none. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Wait, this is supposed to be a sports column. Why are you talking about subway systems and dinosaurs?” Well, truth be told, when it comes to the Washington Nationals, there’s just not much to say.

This was our first trip to RFK Stadium, and also our last, since the stadium will be no longer be used for baseball next year, and the Nats will move to the their new home, “Hillary Rodham Clinton Field,” or whatever they decide to call it. The draw of the Nationals among the locals can best be summed up by two factors: a) we were among the 117 fans who showed up for the game, b) they were selling Robinson Cano jerseys outside of the stadium.

The fans pack it in to watch the Nationals practice not hitting...

It was the Nationals versus the Diamondbacks, a potential NLCS preview. For 2023. If the Nationals make it that far. Two of my friends from college met us there – bumping up the attendance 12% - and one of them, my friend Mike, hooked us up with tickets. They were really good seats, which was cool. Bad news? It was freezing. I mean, literally, it was freezing. Like, 25 degrees, maybe. I don’t know how the players Diamondbacks played in such conditions.

Consider this when it comes to the Washington Nationals: The team finished in last place in the NL East in 2006, a full 26 games out of first. Since then, they lost Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Russ Ortiz, and Hall of Fame manager Frank Robinson, receiving an ol’ “atta boy!” in return. They have a first-year manager in Manny Acta, and their best offensive player – Ryan Zimmerman – is only in his second year in the big leagues (and has zero protection in that lineup). Their best player, arguably, is their closer, Chad Cordero, which in nice, since he should get about three save opportunities this season.

I was content however, because I was going to see two of my fantasy players in this game: Zimmerman, and Diamondbacks’ rookie shortstop Stephen Drew. Drew did not play because of the flu, and Zimmerman went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, one coming with the bases loaded during the Nationals’ only recognizable attempt at a rally. The Nationals lost to the D’Backs 7-1, and were shut down by a guy named Micah Owings. The highlight of the game came in the fifth inning, when four giant-headed presidential mascots raced to home plate, with Teddy Roosevelt earning the victory. We even met him afterwards in the stands. He was nice.

Zimmerman gets the "strikeout" sign from the dugout

I would end this column with a point, if I had one. Instead, I’ll just reiterate that my wife and I had a great time in DC, despite the mayhem, and that the Washington Nationals have the opportunity to be really, really bad this year. Like, historically bad, which is appropriate, since they play in DC. Apparently, there’s a lot of history there.

Told you he was nice

Monday, April 23, 2007

Classic card of the week

Jack McKeon, 1989 Topps

The original “grumpy old man,” Jack McKeon looks like the 70-year-old offspring of Yogi Berra and Walter Matthau in this picture. He doesn’t look anything like the Jack McKeon who resurrected the 2003 Florida Marlins just in time for them to win the Wild Card and eventually the World Series. Until, that is, McKeon immediately wore out his welcome with incessant ramblings about expensive sneakers – “In my day we attached thumbtacks to the bottom of cardboard boxes and called ‘em ‘spikes.’ You kids are a bunch of spoiled sons of bitches!” - the Japanese, and the unheralded dominance of Three Fingers McGee. Originally from South Amboy, NJ, McKeon earned the nickname “Trader Jack” after he dealt away a rare Walter Johnson-used stirrup to the British for an area of land now known as “the Jersey Shore.” After several unsuccessful attempts to ban, among other things, bikinis (“too revealing”), beach balls (“too big and unpredictable”), pretzels (“too knotty”), and water (“just annoying”) from his newly acquired shorelines, McKeon would eventually trade the Jersey Shore to D’Jais club in Belmar in exchange for a 1991 Stevie B remix CD, which he immediately had destroyed. McKeon’s interesting background aside, in looking at this card, I am reminded of the utter ridiculousness of managerial baseball cards. Really though – look at this card. Think about a 10-year-old kid opening a fresh pack of baseball cards in anticipation of finding a few of his sports heroes, only to come across this. What the hell is somebody supposed to do with this card? It’s just a random picture of an old man, when it all comes down to it. I just don’t understand why baseball card companies bothered making cards for managers. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved. Although, even if it was unforeseen at the time, it should be stated that this 1989 Jack McKeon card has found a home, on a blog, accompanied by a completely baseless and rambling story about McKeon himself. Unfortunately, Jack McKeon hates blogs, mostly because he thinks computers are evil, communist robots.

Did you know?
According to the police report, Jack McKeon is the last person to have seen Carl Pavano.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Classic card of the week

*Special Friday edition
Lance McCullers, 1988 Score

Hey, listen, I’m no baseball coach or anything. But this just can’t be the way you’re supposed to pitch a baseball. Arm moving violently forward, body moving backwards, eyes pretty much closed…I don’t know, maybe I’m the crazy one. But it seems like Lance McCullers – immediately after the pitch has left his hand – is already recoiling in horror at the idea of where the pitch may end up. It does not appear, as I was once taught many years ago, that Lance McCullers is going to finish his motion in position to field a ground ball back to the pitcher. It appears as if Lance McCullers is going to finish his motion on his back, doing reverse somersaults into center field. Then again, it could be that Lance McCullers’ fastball is so fast, that it blows even him away. The back of the card elaborates: Lance…enjoys challenging hitters with his blazing fastball. Well then. That explains it. But let’s find out more about Lance: He was used as a starter in emergencies in ’86, but did his best work out of the bullpen. The Padres finished 74-88 in 1986, so they classified emergencies as “games,” which means that Lance McCullers started every game for the Padres in 1986, and also sometimes came out of the bullpen, which is quite astounding. But it is true that McCullers was a solid relief pitcher. He even pitched for the Yankees later in his career, until, due to his unorthodox throwing motion, he had to have surgery on his entire body. This revolutionary surgery was coincidentally called, “Lance McCullers surgery,” and involved the reattachment of the back and arm to the rest of the body. Now as common as a root canal, many modern-day players are opting to have Lance McCullers surgery at the slightest hint of uncomfort. Mark Prior, for example, has had five of them.

Did you know?
As you can see, Score awarded Lance McCullers three stars for his performance, making Lance McCullers considerably better than "Norbit."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On the road as the Philadelphia inquirer

My wife and I continued our quest to go to a new ballpark each year, and two weeks ago, we went to Philadelphia’s new Citizen’s Bank Park for Opening Day. As it turns out, Citizen’s Bank is actually nicer than the Vet, if you can imagine. Instead of being a bland, dark abyss of rat-infested, artificial sludge, the new Phillies’ home is open and inviting, with a noticeably absent detention center, something the infamous Vet could never boast. But this trip in particular wasn’t as much about the stadium (although, let it be known that this park is on par with Camden Yards as one of the most beautiful on the East Coast) as it was about attending a Philadelphia Phillies’ game with a true Philadelphia sports fan - my ol’ college roommate, Brandon.

If our paths never crossed at school, I might feel the same way about Philadelphia sports fans as most people from this area do, which is to say, I would utterly despise them, condemn their incessant booing directed at the likes of injured players and Santa Claus, scoff at their infamous impatience, and label them as the worst sports fans in America. That is, after all, their reputation. But besides getting an inside perspective on their sports consciousness by living with one of their own for several years, I never really hated Philly sports fans that much in the first place. Before any other local sports team, I’m a Yankees’ fan, so I never really developed a hatred of Philadelphia sports. Sure, I love to see the Giants beat the Eagles, but I don’t hate the Eagles as much as I do the Cowboys. And my disdain of the Cowboys isn’t even in the same ballpark as my loathing of the Red Sox. So, I’ve always been able to approach the Philly sports scene with an open mind.

An interesting case study in his own right, Brandon both defies and encompasses the perception of the Philadelphia sports fan. On one hand, he’s logical, knowledgeable, and has a respect for other teams and their fan bases. On the other hand, as we were sitting in our seats watching batting practice, with the Eagles’ home, Lincoln Financial Field, just across the street, Brandon explained to me that during an Eagles/Giants’ game this past season, he, literally, urinated on the Giants’ fan in front of him. According to Brandon, the guy deserved it. Funny too, because knowing Giants’ fans, I believe him. “He was wearing a big leather jacket, dude...He didn’t even feel it.” And now that I think about it, Brandon probably does very little to shed the Philly sports’ fan infamous rep. But he didn’t pee on anyone during this game, which was nice.

And hey, I’m certainly not judging an entire city based on my friendship with one Philadelphia sports fan. I’m not even judging anything, really. I just always find it interesting to gain perspective on other American cities’ sports cultures. Brandon doesn’t represent all of Philly, but in a lot of ways, his points of view echo what I’ve already understood to be common knowledge throughout the city of brotherly love, which may be the most contradictory city slogan ever as it relates to sports.

Like a healthy chunk of Phillies’ fans, Brandon can’t stand Pat Burrell. Can’t stand him. I’m pretty sure he was more excited to boo Pat Burrell as he was being introduced for his first at-bat of the season than he was to watch the actual game. (Unfortunately, he forgot, and was getting a beer when Burrell was first introduced. Brandon has ADD. Then, he booed the fact that he wasn’t there to boo.) In Philly, Pat Burrell gets as much negative attention as A-Rod in New York, except he’s considerably less talented. Like me, an objective observer, Brandon doesn’t understand what Charlie Manuel is doing managing this team. “He sucks. We used to call him Elmer Fudd because he looks and talks like him. Then, after he openly admitted that he did not know what a double switch was, he became Elmer Befuddled.” And while he acknowledges that this season is the most anticipated Phillies’ season in recent memory, his excitement is tempered by the subtle reminder that these are, in fact, the Phillies.

The glass shields the lower decks from splashing pee-pee

A great, passionate sports town, Philadelphia has been without a championship since 1983, when the Sixers captured the NBA title. Before that, the Phillies won it all in 1980. It’s been almost a quarter-century since the city of Philadelphia has experienced a title, a fact that’s made all the more frustrating when you consider that the city is never bereft of good, competitive sports teams. For 24 years, nobody has come through when it mattered - not Barkley, not Iverson, not Roenick, not McNabb, and sure as heck not Mitch Williams. The fans’ frustration has festered for years, leaving them with little hope to believe that anything will ever change, which may serve to explain the perceived negativity the city blankets itself in. But unlike Boston pre-2004 (which, lest we forget, experienced a basketball dynasty in the ‘80's), the city and its fans aren’t defined by this drought. They’re not losers, and they’ll kick your ass if that’s what you think. Or, at the very least, they’ll pee on you. To boot, I’m not even sure that success would alleviate the city’s harsh personality. On our way into the stadium, my wife asked Brandon to take a picture of her and I in front of the statue of Mike Schmidt, who Brandon called a “jerkoff.”

That Schmidt-led 1980 team aside, the Phillies epitomize the city’s frustration like no other local team. They are such colossal underachievers that it borders on comical. (The underachieving part is how Burrell earned his scorn.) They will never exceed expectations, and the fans have countered by not expecting much. That said however, with last season’s trade of Bobby Abreu (quoth Brandon: “He’s so soft. Never had a big hit here. You can have him.”), the emergence of NL MVP Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels, and the second-half surge that almost - almost - vaulted the team into the playoffs, expectations have (gulp) inevitably resurfaced. Which brought us to Opening Day.

Even America likes the Phillies' chances this year

Brandon and I both agreed that it was in the Phillies best interest to get off to a good start this season. Their penchant for making a second-half run only to fall short simply was not going to fly this season, not with the Mets looking as good as they do, and not with the talent that this Phillies team boasts. So after Atlanta’s Brian McCann put the Braves on top 2-0 with a fourth-inning home run off of Brett Myers, it wasn’t looking as if the Phils had the same mind set as we did. To make matters worse, two Atlanta Braves’ fans, with jerseys and all, celebrated the home run a few rows behind us, which infuriated Brandon to no end. “Are you kidding me?” Probably more so than anywhere I know, you just can’t go into Philly and openly root for the other team without repercussions. When Jimmy Rollins cut the lead to one with a solo shot in the fifth, Brandon stood up and sought out the Braves’ fans behind us. He clapped in their direction, told them to go back to Atlanta, and warned them that he’d be on them all game, and he wasn’t the only one in our section dishing it out. When hits by Wes Helms and Philly favorite Aaron Rowand put the Phils up 3-2 in the sixth, Brandon turned around again to talk some smack, but the two Braves fans were gone, which was probably a good thing. Friggin’ Braves’ fans…ugh.

Rollins hits a home run...Charlie Manuel immediately benches him

So here were the Phillies, up 3-2 with two outs in the eighth inning, with a pretty good closer, former Yankee Tom Gordon, waiting in the bullpen to seal the deal on what was a gorgeous day, and what should have been a positive start to the season for Philly. Then Edgar Renteria hit a game tying, solo home run off of Myers to tie the game at three. A “here we go again” sigh echoed throughout the stadium, as everyone around us questioned why Manuel hadn’t relieved Myers, whose surrendering to Renteria was his 106th, and final, pitch. Matt Smith was brought in to finish the inning, one batter too late. Elmer Befuddled.

The game went into extra innings, with no Phillie able to come through in the clutch. In the tenth inning, with a runner on, Renteria was up again, and in an attempt to move the runner over, he squared to bunt, but failed to execute the bunt twice. Now with two strikes, Renteria was left no choice but to swing, and when he did, he hit a go-ahead, two-run home run that would eventually give the Braves a 5-3 victory. Since that opening game loss, the Phillies have won just three ballgames, and sit at 3-9, good for last place in the NL East.

We left the park amidst the groans and curses of angry Phillies fans, but we were on our way back to McFadden’s bar, so all was not lost. As we were walking throughout the stadium, the four of us noticed an exit door that was guarded by an elderly man, who was at least 70-years old. Brandon tried to go through, but the old guy stopped him and asked him to show his ticket. “We’re trying to leave, buddy.” But the guy blocked the door and told us again that we couldn’t go in. Possibly out of frustration by yet another inauspicious start to yet another Phillies season, or possibly just because, Brandon, with a full head of steam and smoke coming out of his ears, stepped back, looked straight at the old man, performed what I would describe as a double chop-down groin thrust, and did what any true Philadelphia sports fan who was denied access to an exit would do. He called the old man a douche bag. Only the way it came out, as he simultaneously and disrespectfully thrust his crotch in the old man’s direction, was, “You’re a DOOOSH-bag!”

And on that note, we left Citizen’s Bank Park, and eventually, the City of Brotherly Love, a little more confused by the city moniker, and a little more comforted by the fact that we don’t root for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Navy parachuters flew down with the game ball...they were booed.

Inscription: Here stands Mike Schmidt: MVP, World Series Champion, Hall of Famer, Ambassador to the Game of Baseball, jerkoff.*

*Not my opinion, just what it says.**

**Not what it says.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Classic card of the week

Jose Cruz, 1986 Fleer

Reporter: So, Jose. Great game today. I’ll try to keep this short since I know your wife’s waiting for you over there. By the way, is that your brother or something that she’s with? They seem to get along well. But back to the game…
This is Jose Cruz, and he is going to rip your heart out of your chest the second this interview is over. You might want to get a head start. This is, of course, a “league leaders” card, and in 1985, Jose Cruz led the league is statements that began, “If looks could kill…” Actually, in looking at his stats for the previous season, it’s hard to figure what, exactly, Jose Cruz led the league in. A .300 batting average, 69 runs scored, nine home runs, 79 RBI…I’m at a loss. My guess is that once Jose Cruz found out that a league leaders set was coming out, this ensued:
Jose Cruz: I understand that a league leaders set is coming out. This is good news, since I led the league in batting average last season.
Fleer executive: Yeah, we – huh? Jose, you batted .300 last year. Willie McGee hit .353. What are you talking about?
Cruz: I don’t think you heard me, essay. I led the league last season!
Fleer executive: Oh, uh, yeah, yeah! Now that I think about it, you DID lead the league last year. Hold that pose Jose, cause I got my camera right here…
Besides winning every staring contest he participated in since he was 5-years-old (with several being to the death), Jose Cruz was also a latter-day Julio Franco. Born in 1893 in Home Arroyo, PR, Cruz spent 60-plus years in the big leagues, almost all with the Houston Astros. In fact, Cruz played for Houston before the team even existed. Originally called the Colt .45s, the team changed its name to the Astros in 1965. When the new team finally arrived for Spring Training that year, Jose Cruz was already waiting for them, taking batting practice while decked out in a multi-colored Astros uniform he had knitted for himself 12 years earlier. He said, “What took you guys so long?” Then everybody laughed. Except Jose, who was pissed, because he wasn’t joking.

Did you know?
Jose Cruz killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Classic card of the week

Joe Bitker, 1991 Fleer

Joe Bitker was the only guy to show up for picture day. Not many people realize this, but Major League Baseball designates one day a year during Spring Training as picture day, and allows a cavalcade of baseball card companies to come by in order to get the shots that they need for their upcoming sets. Unfortunately, because many of the players feel that picture day is stupid, no one ever shows up. It’s sort of a tradition, in fact, to blow off picture day. The players think it’s funny to force the card companies to come out to them, and take action shots from difficult angles. Such was not the case however, with Joe Bitker. There are a couple reasons why Joe Bitker, as opposed to every other player in baseball, may have been anxious to arrive for picture day. For one thing, Bitker had just spent approximately 37 years playing in the minor leagues, and most likely viewed picture day as the one opportunity to get a piece of concrete evidence that he ever actually made it to the big leagues. That, or nobody told him. Either way, Joe Bitker was looking his Sunday best in this particular photo, which was actually the 17th shot taken, because Bitker had his eyes closed for the first sixteen takes. Joe Bitker was also this close to choosing the popular laser beam-themed background, but eventually settled on plain white, so the focus was on him, and not the lasers. Grandma Bitker ordered two sheets of the wallet-sized photos to hand out to her friends at bingo, and the largest photo, the famous 8x10, sat on top of the grand piano in the Bitker household for 12 years, until the house was ravaged by wild coyotes. Also, after this picture was taken, Joe Bitker was sent back down to the minors, leaving him to incur the cost of having the photos delivered to an out-of-state address.

Did you know?
Joe Bitker wore spikes to his photo shoot, just in case.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Talkin’ hockey with…Joe!

Okay, so the Masters is over, and the next golf major isn’t for like, another seven months. The baseball season is too young to get into right now, and who really cares about the NBA, am I right? Obviously, this gives me a chance to talk about yet another sport that I know nothing about. On the heels of my first-ever NASCAR column from a couple of months ago, I’d like to introduce you to my first-ever hockey column! No, seriously!

Of course, since there’s an excellent chance that I actually know less about hockey than I do about cars, we had to bring in a recruit. So please put your hands together for the biggest only hockey fan I know, Joe, my brother-in-law. Joe is a die-hard Rangers fan, and he hates the Devils and Islanders as much as I hate the Red Sox, which is nice. And, like any true fan, Joe oftentimes hates the Rangers as much as I hate the Yankees. But not this year, because the Rangers are headed to the NHL Playoffs, which are just getting underway. Also, let it be known that, as opposed to the usual interviews we conduct around here, which are completely fake and worthless, this one is actually real. And worthless. But that’s probably because Joe is not famous. Yet. Let’s get started…

Me: Joe, your welcome for having you. First question: Hockey. Explain.


Joe: Fastest team sport in the world, and people think it’s boring just because the score isn’t 150-120. Plus, did I mention fighting is only a 5-minute penalty and an integral part of the game?

Me: No, you didn’t, because we just started the interview. But that’s a good segway. Hockey has gotten a lot of publicity this year because of violence, and by “a lot of publicity,” I mean very little. Your Rangers have been on both ends of the spectrum, with one dude taking a stick to the face, and another knocking out a Flyer’s goon cold with one punch. Do you think there’s too much violence in hockey, or are people like me ignorant pansies for even posing such a question?

Joe: Pretty much the latter is true. Like I said, hitting and fighting are parts of the game and a good way to build momentum or protect your star players. I mean, in baseball you throw at a guy’s head and he can’t do anything about it. Solution: bench-clearing brawl. In hockey, you hit our star too much we get one guy to go up to him and have a little conversation. Solution: two guys go head-to-head then get minutes to cool off.

Me: If Ron Artest played hockey, do you think he’d be able to climb that hard plastic shield and make it into the stands to do a little damage?

Joe: Hey, it’s been done before, but he’d be especially dangerous because skates are sharp. Just ask Clint Malarchuk.

Me: Believe me – I will. Can that guy even talk yet? Whatever. Have you, personally, ever poured beer on an opposing player who was sitting in the penalty box, and, if so, when did you get out of the hospital?

Joe: I can’t afford those seats.

Me: I always hear “penalty minutes” listed among players’ stats, as if they’re a good thing or something. What’s up with that shizz?

Joe: They’re not really such a good thing, but they’re not really frowned upon either. Now that you mention it, I’m not really sure, except I know they are good for my fantasy team.

Me: So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here. Honestly – why don’t sumo wrestlers play goalie?

Joe: Ummm, reaction time, Mike. And the equipment is only allowed to be a certain size. Plus, sumo wrestlers are big, but a net is only 6-feet wide, so the logistics don’t work at all.

Me: Stupid logistics. You used to play goalie. I know this because every time we go to your parent’s house for dinner, I get at least one good whiff of your old hockey equipment in the garage, and I want to throw up. How does a goalie sweat so much when he’s just, like, standing there?

Joe: You should try it out, Mike. The equipment weighs 30 pounds, which is enough to make you start sweating even before the game starts. Then tell me when you see Sidney Crosby flying towards you at 15-20 MPH with a slap shot at around 70-80 MPH that you’re not going to sweat a little.

Me: I’m sweating now just thinking about it. Thank God for Certain Dry. Joe, the NHL Playoffs are about to get underway. The hockey regular season is so friggin’ long, yet the postseason is even longer. The playoffs are like, six months long, and almost spill into the next season. How many days off do the Stanley Cup champs get? The following Monday? Is that it?

Joe: Wait, so 162 games is not long and drawn out? The basketball playoffs are the same length. Plus, playoff hockey is far superior to regular season hockey, which is already far superior to any other sport besides the World Cup. I think it’s too short.

Me: I agree. Hockey should be every four years like the World Cup. Let’s talk about the playoffs though. Who’s the team to beat, and why should we listen to you, and not Barry Melrose?

Joe: Don’t knock Barry. He’s the only guy on ESPN who even knows what hockey is. That being said, Buffalo lost a tough semifinal match to eventual champion Carolina last year and came out of the gate fast this season and it carried through the year. In the finals I think they will meet Dallas, who has the experience and is finishing off the season very strong. The Sabres will finally bring a championship to Buffalo just like the Bills never could, beating the Stars in the finals.

Me: The Bills...ha. They're so stupid. The Rangers are playing really well heading into the postseason. Henrik Lundqvist has been virtually unstoppable, and, as I understand it, the Rangers have other players as well. Do you think their showing in the playoffs this year will be better than last year, when they got swept because Jamir Jagr broke his arm trying to check air?

Joe: Their showing will definitely be better because it is not possible to be any worse, unless they somehow manage to duplicate last year’s result against the Islanders.

Me: Your friend Glen is a Devils fan. What would you say to him about his team’s chances in the playoffs if he were sitting right here?

Joe: The Devil’s time is fading. Buffalo! Buffalo!

Me: I should probably take this time to alert all of the readers that are saying, “What is this guy from Jersey doing dismissing the Devils and rooting for the stupid Rangers?” that Joe is originally from Brooklyn. Joe, would you like to take this opportunity to tell the readers to go to hell?

Joe: You have readers?

Me: That was a zinger. Joe, who is your favorite New York Ranger of all time?

Joe: Mike Richter.

Me: If Mike Richter wasn’t such a dude, would you have married him instead of my sister?

Joe: He’s already married.

Me: Joe, not only are you a huge hockey fan, but you also play fantasy hockey. I would imagine that a fantasy hockey league is just a bunch of guys sitting around not watching hockey, because that is about the best darn fantasy I could ever imagine when it comes to hockey.

Joe: Ignorance is bliss, and you seem happy today, Mike.

Me: Well, thanks for stopping by, Joe. You have truly shed some light on the sport of hockey for the millions of three sports fans who read this column, and who were looking for another ice-related sport to get into. We should get together again this week. A new episode of “The Office” is on Thursday – you guys should come over.

Joe: But the playoffs are on this Thursday.

Me: What? What playoffs?

Joe: The hockey playoffs.

Me: You’ve got to be kidding me.

Joe: Halloween, 1991

Monday, April 09, 2007

Classic card of the week

Derek Bell, 1999 Topps

This is Derek Bell during Phase One of Operation Shutdown. For those who may not recall, Bell rather infamously created “operation shutdown,” as a term for exactly what he would do if he, ya’ know, felt like it. Actually, let me be honest here – this is Derek Bell shutting down before (or, in preparation OF) Operation Shutdown, as the term itself would not be coined until a few years later, as Bell’s threat to the Pittsburgh Pirates in response to the team not blindly awarding him the starting job in right field. Quoth Bell: “If there is competition [for the starting job], they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me. I ain't never hit in spring training and I never will.” Considering that Derek Bell was coming off of a season in which he hit .173, he was also refusing to hit during the regular season as well, which greatly complicated things for the Pittsburgh hierarchy. Besides giving up at the slightest hint of competition, Derek Bell was famous for many other things, including arriving out of his mother’s womb as a 41-year old man. Derek Bell made Greg Oden look like Freddy Adu. But back to the above photo. One could easily assume that this is a shot of Derek Bell right after being called “out” after a slide into home plate. That assumption would be false, however. In fact, Derek Bell had just flied out to shallow right field and, in lieu of wasting energy by pointlessly running it out, Derek Bell dusted off home plate, sat down, and watched the opposing team run back to their dugout. The Astros’ batboy then had to run out onto the field, take Bell’s helmet off, hand him his hat and glove, and cool him off with a giant handheld fan for 45 seconds, or until operation shutdown was deemed complete. Quoth Bell after the game: “I ain’t never run to first base when I didn’t have to, and I never will.” But Derek Bell was not just a representation of all that is wrong with overpaid, American athletes – he was also a fashion judge. The back of this card explains: In 1996, Derek was a judge for People magazine’s 10 Best and Worst Dressed Celebrities issue. Bell, however, would only name three celebrities for each category before declaring Operation Shutdown, a result of People magazine’s refusal to let him use the women’s bathroom.

Did you know?
In 2002, President Bush declared “Operation Shutdown” a success, even though it is still going on today.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Classic card of the week

Jose Oquendo, 1988 Topps

Before starring in the movie “Boogie Nights,” Jose Oquendo was on the fast track to baseball stardom. For one thing, he definitely had the look of a pro ballplayer – the oversized hat, wispy ‘stache, and, of course, the uniform. The uniform was crucial. Maybe more important than that though, was the fact that Oquendo had the demeanor of a ballplayer – that special and unique quality possessed only by the select few athletes good enough to make it to the major leagues. Some would describe it as cockiness, that “Clear the way, pro ballplayer coming through!” kind of mentality that makes women – and sometimes dudes - go crazy. In Oquendo’s case, the demeanor was slightly different – sort of a, “Yo, man…What the hell is going on here? Where am I? What day is it? How did I get here? Who ARE you?” aura that seemed to captivate baseball fans. And Jose Oquendo’s connection to the fans was unparalleled at the time. During a Cardinals’ spring training game down in Fort Myers in ’87, a young fan approached Oquendo and kindly asked for his autograph. Not knowing who, exactly, the kid was, Oquendo proceeded to stare at him suspiciously for 18 minutes, at which point the youngster finally went away. It was that kind of accessibility that earned Oquendo the nickname, “Clueless Jo…se.” From a pure baseball perspective, many in and around Major League Baseball believe that, if it weren’t for the fact that position players were required to bat, Jose Oquendo would be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. The back of the card elaborates: He led AA shortstops with 591 Total Chances at Louisville in 1985 season. That’s a lot of chances. And while it remains iffy as to what Oquendo actually DID with those chances, the fact remains that he HAD the chances, which is all that matters, when you really think about it. Offensively, Oquendo did not get many chances, as his 138 total at-bats in 1986 ranked last among Puerto Rican utility players (PRUP). But when he did get to bat, Oquendo made the most of his chances, and by “the most of his chances,” I mean outs. And after every out he made, Oquendo stared at the opposing player who made the out suspiciously for 18 minutes, in an attempt to process what had just happened. Then, manager Whitey Herzog would have to snap him out of it by kicking him in the balls, which made for many a baseball blooper.

Did you know?
Dwight Gooden is the all-time MLB leader in Total Chances.