Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Week (and a Half) in Sports

I just wanted to make three quick points that were tangentially related to three recent events in the world of sports while there were at least mildly relevant. Each of them individually would have been too pithy to stand on their own so I figured why not haphazardly combined them into some sort of unholy Frankenstein post?

1. Farewell Manute Bol
Former NBA player and overall gentle giant (but really are there any other kinds of giants? Like mean, hateful giants? I always thought former Jazz big man Mark Eaton didn't look too friendly) Manute Bol unexpectedly passed away two Saturdays ago at the age of 47. While nowhere close to what one would consider a "good" NBA player during his 10 years in the league, he is a definite first ballot hall of famer in turns of sheer uniqueness. Sure Gheorghe Muresan was taller and there were better blockers but Manute will always have two particular records that will probably stand until the end of time: 1. He is the only player with more career blocked shots than points scored (a true testament to his amazingly one dimensional skill set) and 2. His glorious 1987-1988 circus sideshow season with the above pictured 5'3 Muggsy Bogues was the greatest height difference between teammates on an NBA team. In addition I will also remember him for his bizarre SNL cameo.

2. One More Game
By the unfortunate virtue of being played mostly during USA's thrilling yet ultimately futile extra time victory against Algeria in the group stage of the World Cup and just being tennis, the surreal, endless, first round Wimbledon match between Nicholas Mahut and John Isner did not get the proper spotlight it really should have. The whole thing took 3 days and over 11 hours of playing time, but that second day on the 23rd with the 118 game fifth set that took up 7 of those 11 hours was the thing to watch. I just followed the updates while in school so I couldn't tell if both players were that evenly matched or were both so inept/exhausted that neither of them could win two consecutive points to end the madness. The match oddly reminded me of the old commercial for the Fisher Price 3 in 1 Tournament Table which involved two kids eschewing basic food and sleep while locked in a never ending death match involving pool, table tennis, and air hockey (man did I want that sweet table growing up; definitely one of my top 5 Christmas wish list toys). I like to think that nearly 20 years later, those kids are still locked in eternal combat in that tense, dark basement; with the family dog eagerly following the action.

3. 0-0
Let it be known that I'm essentially a hater when it comes to soccer (and yes I'm calling it soccer, not "football"). I'll take it in as a novelty every four years and the national rooting interest helps, but really anything beyond that is an unbearable amount of "the beautiful game" to me. I'm not going to go off on one of those anti-soccer rants that many people do. We all know the classic knocks: low scoring, ties, lack of strategy, excessive flopping, foreignness, etc. What really sums up a lot of the worst elements of soccer to me is the 0-0 game decided on penalty shots like the one between Paraguay and Japan today. A soccer fan may categorize it as a tense, suspenseful duel, but for me it's over 120 minutes of total futility. In over two hours of play, some of the best players in the world couldn't muster one goal? I know scoring is at a premium but both teams should be ashamed of themselves. Even if it was a 1-1 draw or a 2-2 draw, I would give them some credit, but really not one goal? On top of the insult of a scoreless draw, instead of forcing the teams to man up and keep playing until one of them takes a lead, it goes to the shootout; which is like the equivalent of everyone agreeing that after regulation and overtime, neither side is capable of scoring a goal under normal conditions so we have to literally have the two teams take turns shooting in controlled, unfettered situations. It's like a little league game that gets converted to a t-ball game since no one can hit or a bowling match that turns into bumper bowling since everyone is chucking up gutterballs. I mean, even tennis will force its players to keep playing to the point of total exhaustion until things are settled.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man

With all the excitement from all the 1-1 and 0-0 ties of this opening week of World Cup games (although I do have to note South Korea did win their opener against Greece 2-0, which is probably like a 25 point blowout in basketball terms), I must apologize profusely for my belated condolences for the recent passing of country singer, actor, and sausage magnate Jimmy Dean; a true modern day renaissance man. While not exactly a "triple treat" in the traditional mold of multi-talented entertainers like Gene Kelly or Mitzi Gaynor or Usher, for me personally he's made a lasting impression in every field he's been involved in.

In country music, his original trade, he topped both the country and billboard charts with his signature hit "Big Bad John"; one of my all time favorite country story songs (and believe me there are A LOT of country story songs) and definitely my favorite song involving pick axe sound effects.

In his brief foray into acting he had his memorable turn as reclusive billionaire Willard Whyte in "Diamonds Are Forever". Generally considered one of the worst of the Bond films, but I kind of liked the intentional campiness of it (am I the only one that liked Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd?). In the incredibly specific field of one-shot Bond allies I would have to consider Jimmy Dean as one of the best.

Of course, Mr. Dean's later innovations in the breakfast foods industry needs no exposition. I certainly had more than a few breakfast croissants growing up.

One of the sadder facts of the passing of Jimmy Dean is with the sharp decline of Kenny Rogers Roasters and what I'm pretty sure is the complete bankruptcy of Ted Nugent's licensed beef jerky product "Gonzo Meat Biltong" (seriously I can't even find of picture of it on the internet), it appears the days of the singer/actor/food baron seem to be going the way of home telephones lines and movie rental stores. On the other hand though it's a true testament to the admirably prolific and accomplished life the man lead.

Happy trails, Jimmy Dean

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Picture This!

I'm sure somebody has already mentioned it, but if a rushed, exploitative made-for-tv movie is ever made of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Disaster the obvious choice (if the producers could swing it in the budget) to play vilified BP CEO Tony Hayward would be:

Academy Award nominated British actor, Colin Firth. I even have the title already thought up: "Black Gold: The Gulf Oil Spill Disaster". You better believe the title credits would begin the with second tier Soul Asylum hit "Black Gold". Even way back in 1993, the band was able to predict that our exponentially demanding modern day energy requirements would soon lead to increasingly riskier and extreme energy extracting operations and greater environmental trade-offs...in an accessible, mainstream radio friendly, alternative rock sound. If this current disaster does indeed get turned into a movie and Mr. Firth gets on board he could take great pride in being the latest in a long and distinguished line of "made-for-tv movies about unlikable corporate CEOs" like:

"MASH" regular Mike Farrell as former Enron CEO Ken Lay in "The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth about Enron". Until I recently looked it up, I thought Brian Dennehy played the Lay role, but it turns out he played some over-the-top fictional character in the film called: Mr. Blue:

And Anthony Michael Hall as the Machiavellian founder of Microsoft Bill Gates in "Pirates of Silicon Valley"; a film that really jumped the gun in proclaiming the ultimate demise of Apple Computers. Considering that at the time of the film, 1999, everyone was rocking Windows 98 and the iPod was still two years away from coming out, it wasn't the most ridiculous of assessments. Also, Hall as uber-nerd Gates was a brilliant return to form for anyone who still had lingering doubts that he could still play geeks after his shocking turn as the evil jock antagonist in "Edward Scissorhands".

Thursday, June 03, 2010

J'accuse!: The Ending of "The Scout"

Purely obligatory (and frankly unnecessary) "spoiler alert": For all those people who have "watch the 1994 Albert Brooks/Brendan Fraser baseball comedy 'The Scout'" on their bucket lists, perhaps you should sit this post out (and seriously question why you have this on your bucket list). For everyone else on the fence, I just want to note that it's a pretty shitty ending anyway (hence the blog post) so you're really not missing out on much by having it "spoiled".

Obviously the biggest story in baseball right now is unfortunate Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga losing his historic perfect game bid yesterday due to an unambiguously blown call by the first base umpire (boy did Griffey really pick the wrong night to retire). This would have been the 21st perfect game in the history of Major League Baseball, the 3rd in the last 25 days, and the 2nd in 4 days. Try as I might at this time I still cannot muster the proper perspective yet to truly appreciate the fantastic odds of having two (almost three) perfect games, a confluence of circumstances so rare that in the hundreds of thousands of games of baseball played in the past 130 plus years it has only happened 20 times, in such a brief span of time.

This ludicrous rash of recent perfect games also reminded reminded me of the above pictured mediocre mid-90s baseball movie: "The Scout". As a kid, I actually liked "The Scout", it didn't reach the upper tier heights of 90's kid baseball fantasies like "Rookie of the Year" or "Angels in the Outfield" but I found it most definitely watchable. Brenden Fraser's usual affable mimbo charm, Albert Brooks playing the same self-obsessed, neurotic, poor-man's Woody Allen character he's played for the last 30 years, the multiple Oscar winning talents of the inexplicably present Diane Wiest, the ass load of baseball player cameos; all these combined to at least create something one wouldn't mind watching for an hour and a half. I'd say it's somewhere below "Mr. Baseball" and above watching 3 half hour episodes of "Arli$$" which sort of follows this formula (replacing Brooks for the even lower quality Robert Wuhl, but upgrading Wiest with the foxy Sandra Oh).

The thing about "The Scout" however is that the more one follows and learns about real-life baseball, the more insultingly ridiculous the movie becomes. Obviously sports movies are given some degree of artistic license and the classic kids baseball movie get a free pass because they're obviously for kids (although "Little Big League" comes off looking like Ken Burns' "Baseball" when compared to "The Scout"), but often a movie like "The Scout" stretches the bounds of plausibly to the point where you wonder why they even went through the trouble of incorporating real sports teams and players and setting it in our universe. I could probably write an even longer, more detailed "J'accuse" about the entire movie but it's really the ending which provides a brilliantly ridiculous climax built upon a mountain of flimsiness.

Unfortunately no clips outside of the trailer exist for the film, a testiment to either it's forgettable mediocrity or Twentieth Century Fox's skills at downplaying their film mistakes. We'll have to rely on my descriptions based on my memories built over many a repeat watchings of it on Comedy Central. To quickly summarize the film, Albert Brooks plays the titular baseball scout for the Yankees who after his latest can't miss prospect spectacularly washes out in his debut, is fired and ends up in some far off amateur baseball league in Mexico. It is there that he find Brendan Fraser, who is essentially an invisible baseball dominating robot who literally strikes everybody out with his consistent 100+ mph pitches and also homers in every at bat (I mean he's obviously supposed to be really good, but he borders on the absurdly superhuman). Of course there's a slight catch, apparently Brendan Fraser's character has some deep mental issues, I think some childhood abuse trauma (they really do a poor job of explaining it) that psychologist Dianne Wiest is hired to help with but really does nothing throughout the film aside from looking concerned.

In the movie's second most ridiculous sequence, Albert Brooks bring Fraser to America where he (as an unemployed, failed scout) manages to set up an individual tryout for Fraser in Yankee Stadium with with every MLB GM showing up to evaluate and eventually bid on this nobody from Mexico with absolutely no known past. In addition, he gets Keith Hernandez and Brett Saberhagen for him to strike out and hit towering homers against respectively. Somehow striking out a 41-year old Keith Hernandez who had been retired for 4 years at the time and hitting dingers off Brett Saberhagen, coming off his infamous "spraying bleach at reporters" season with the 103 loss Mets (in an even year no less!), impresses the GMs so much that they erupt in a huge bidding war. The Yankees end up winning by giving Fraser the biggest contract in baseball history (by far the most accurate part of the film) with the crazy stipulation that he will start the first game of the World Series if the Yankee make it.

Against all odds, the pre-dynasty era Yankees make it to the Fall Classic (mildly unbelievable at the time) against the Cardinals and Fraser is called in to pitch (which I'm sure to the resentment and disdain of no one on the team). Fraser's ambiguous mental demons initially prevent him from starting but eventually after a heart-to-heart with Brooks he makes his debut and pitches THE MOST RIDICULOUS BASEBALL GAME EVER!

Now there have been perfect games (even one in the World Series), there have been 20 strike out games, and pitchers occasionally hit home runs. Given all the scenes of Frasor's dominant baseball skills and the events that transpired in the film already I would not have found it too unbelievable that he does all those things in the game; which he does. What really breaks the camels back, obliterates the camels back, grinds the remains of the camel into a fine mist of bone and tissue, is the manner in which he does it. In addition to providing the only 2 runs of the game on a home run, he throws a perfect game by striking out all 27 batter on 81 consecutive strikes. So he never threw a ball and no one even managed to make contact with a pitch. He essentially obsoletes the game of baseball. In addition why didn't the writers just made him pitch to himself? Or have him strike out three people in succession with one slow pitch as well? Or catch a home run by following it to the top of the Empire State Building and throwing his glove in the air? All these options are just as cartoonish and impossible as this perfect perfect game he just threw.

As if the whole thing wasn't already enough of a farce, the film manages to somehow outdo itself once again by dementedly trying to instill suspense and tension in the last at-bat against the dangerous...Ozzie Smith ("Go crazy, folks!"). The same Ozzie Smith who was elected to the Hall of Fame overwhelmingly on the strength of his defense. The same Ozzie Smith who had 28 career home runs. The same Ozzie Smith with a career .262 batting average. The same Ozzie Smith who was 39 at the time and in the twilight of his career. He was a bigger threat to break up the perfect game with a bunt single than with anything else. I understand that the mid-90s Cardinals weren't exactly stacked with mashers but the producers really couldn't have gotten a slightly more plausible hitting threat ("Hard Hittin'" Mark Whiten? Ray Lankford? Todd Zeile?)?

You would think that director Michael Ritchie who also directed the "The Bad News Bears", a classic baseball movie with a notably unconventional ending, would have objected to such a ridiculously contrived conclusion. Maybe the ending was intentional, like some high-concept, absurdist, take on the typical Hollywood happy endings of sports movies that subversively mocked the concept by taking it to its grotesque extreme. Or maybe Jason Donald really did beat the throw. For a completely implausible sports movie ending that somehow manages to outdo an already implausible sports movie, all I can say is: "J'accuse!"