Saturday, October 28, 2006


What do desserts and comedy have in common?

Foodies think of food as an art form. I have no problem with that. Indeed, I came to a similar conclusion toward the end of an excellent meal at a hot new restaurant in town that was topped off by extremely disappointing dessert and lousy coffee.

I've had this experience more times than I can shake a stick at: incredible, creative appetizers and entrees followed by overwrought desserts that just fail. Why does that happen? Why is it that, 9 times out of ten when I order dessert at a fine restaurant, I wind up thinking I'd have been better off going out for donuts?

The following set of food-literature analogies popped into my head.
Wine is like poetry.
The main meal is like drama.
Dessert is like comedy.
What do I mean by all this? Let's start with poetry. There is great poetry, and there are truly insightful literary critics who can enlighten us about it. But there is a metric buttload of just okay or mediocre or plain old bad poetry, and an equally sizeable buttload of poseurs who get up on their hind legs and lay claim to insight and expertise and tell us how good it is. Like wine snobs.

Drama criticism is more straightforward. The medium is more accessible. The critics have something to tell us, but at the end of the day, they have to acknowledge that moving the audience matters. It's not only about good taste, it also has to taste good.

Have you ever noticed that there are no "comedy critics"? Or put another way, we are all, each of us, comedy critics. Basically, if the comedian doesn't make us laugh, he's not funny. Can you imagine some know-it-all critic explaining how this comedian really was funny, and we'd have laughed our heads off if only we had a more sophisticated palette?

That, my friends, is the problem with fancy dessert. You can hire the most exquisitely trained pastry chef but what the hell good is his fancy dessert creation if you don't enjoy it as much as you enjoy the big chocolate chip cookie from the coffee shop down the street?

Dessert and comedy -- trying too hard just doesn't work.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Where are all the women from Venus? I'd like to meet some of them

The argument of the self-help classic, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, is that the two sexes have different communication styles that create an obstacle to their compatibility.

As a key example of this difference, the author John Gray argues that when men complain, they are seeking solutions to their problems and when they hear complaints, they snap into problem-solving mode and offer solutions. In contrast, women who complain want empathy, and they offer empathy when complaints are described to them.

But in my experience, the "men problem-solve, women empathize" generalization has no truth whatsoever.

For starters, I find there to be no single dominant male response to complaining about or to hearing other people's problems. When I complain, I'm more likely to be looking for a good listener to say "that's really too bad" or be a sounding board to help me think something through without telling me what to do. I'm not a big advice seeker, and I haven't noticed any tendency of men to be seeking advice with their complaints.

As for hearing complaints, some men try to problem-solve some of the time, sure, but men are just as likely to emphathize -- "yeah, that really bites!" -- or to react with some version of "why are you telling me this?" followed by an uncomfortable effort to change the subject.

Women, on the other hand, are the problem-solvers. I've had many conversations with many women friends over many years in which I've described something that was bothering me in the hope of getting empathy. But instead, I get problem-solving, almost every time.

In my experience, if you say to a woman, "I'm really tired," her response will be "well, then, get more sleep!"

If you describe a relationship problem or a workplace problem, women immediately launch into "strategies" for how you can communicate better or how you can reconfigure your life. Women do not say, "poor baby!" unless they are making fun of you. Women just don't have any special empathy gene as far as I can tell.

I see three possible explanations for this divergence between the Mars-Venus thesis and my personal experience.

1) Maybe the Mars-Venus thesis is just a bunch of self-help-book BS.

2) Maybe my women friends are not a representative sample of their sex. Maybe, my population of women friends are overrepresented by the well-educated and career-oriented compared to the general female population, so that they're more likely than women in general to be "problem-solvers" rather than "empathizers."

3) Maybe women empathize when hearing other women talk about their problems, but go into problem-solving mode when hearing men talk about their problems. I find this the most interesting of the three explanations. Basically, it hypothesizes that women view complaining in men as a sign of weakness. Male complaints are a sort of trigger that brings out the domineering mother in women: "Okay, here's what you need to do, you whiny little boy."

Can you help me figure this one out? Or maybe just empathize?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006



Yesterday, I saw a seeing-eye dog being taken outside to pee. I'd never before considered the fact that seeing-eye dogs are still dogs with basic dog needs. But it stands to reason, I guess.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The fine art of baseball commentary

Part 2 of 2: The Wrong Story

One of the delights of post-season baseball is the way the each series seems to take on elements of a narrative. Each series has a story in itself and is part of the longer unfolding story of that season. Vin Scully, one of the greatest baseball broadcasters ever, was perhaps the most adept at finding and bringing out the story in a series -- even in a single game. Bob Costas, in his more studied, corporate way, developed that skill fairly well too.

Usually, the broadcasters plant the seeds for several story lines and then wait and see what develops. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver have embarrassed themselves -- and demonstrated what I call Exhibit A in my charge that they are showing their pro-Cardinals rooting interest -- by jumping prematurely on the wrong story.

The Cardinals bullpen had shut down the Padres in the Divisional Series, and by the end of game 2 of the Mets-Cardinals NLCS, Buck and McCarver had unveiled their choice for "the story" of this series: "The Ironic Bullpen Switcheroo."

In this story, the Mets bullpen, best in baseball for the entire season, finally breaks down from overwork, while the Cardinals bullpen shines. We are told how genius manager Tony LaRussa, like the Wizard of Oz, created a bullpen out of nothing by magically transforming some old uniforms stuffed with straw into living relief pitchers.

McCarver and, especially, Buck have been all over this story, gleefully highlighting it with stats about how the Mets bullpen was blowing itself out by making twice as many pitches as the Cardinals, who as of the end of Game 3 had still "not given up a single earned run."

But the actual facts suggested the story was exaggerated. In Game 1, a 2-0 contest with the only runs coming on Carlos Beltran's home run off the Cardinals' starter Jeff Weaver, neither bullpen gave up any runs. Same in game 3, where Darren Oliver came out of the Mets pen to throw 6 shutout innings after Mets starter and wimp extraordinaire, Steve Trachsel, melted down.

The entire case for this great story line was the failure of the Mets bullpen to hold the lead in Game 2. Ugly, to be sure, but a trend?

Anyway, then came Game 4, in which Buck and McCarver ended up with so much egg on their faces that they will not need to eat breakfast until after the World Series. Genius manager Tony LaRussa went to his unhittable bullpen in the 5th inning, with the game tied 2-2. After three innings of work, the Mets put up 10 more runs.

So what's that Cardinals' bullpen earned run average now? (Answer: 7.50, up a tick from 0.00.)

You gotta wait for the story to unfold. My two leading contenders are (1) "how the Mets won the pennant with one Major League-caliber starting pitcher" and (2) why is Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan content to live out his professional coaching life in Tony LaRussa's shadow? Speaking of Homers, I see Duncan as a sort of "Smithers" to LaRussa's "Mr. Burns."

But I'm not committing to either of these story lines yet. Still a lot of baseball left to be played.

Monday, October 16, 2006


The fine art of baseball commentary

Part 1 of 2: the Homers

I was initially pleased that Fox deployed its "A-team" to broadcast the Mets-Cards series, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver with the commentary. Buck is smart and funny, with a rich voice and an upbeat but modulated energy level -- really a perfect play-by-play guy. And McCarver -- despite an irritating penchant for bad puns and a tendency to get stuck on a point and obsess about it -- is the man who first brought "inside baseball" to the color commentary job and is still, in my book, state-of-the-art.

But Buck and McCarver are having a mediocre series at best. They're screwing up two fundamental parts of their job.

First, I'm disappointed, if not shocked and appalled, to be getting a clear sense that these consummate professionals have been unable to suppress their Cardinals' partisanship.

There are two varieties of broadcasters, "homers" and national. Homers are hired by the ball club itself to do local broadcasts for the team's home-t0wn fan base. They are supposed to be partisan, but in a dignified way, acknowledging the highlights of the other team and revealing mild disappointment when the home team fails.

There are of course homers who do this badly, and the worst offenders I've ever heard, ironically, were the Atlanta Braves broadcasters -- ironic, because the TBS superstation put them on national airwaves. If a Braves opponent hit a triple, you could count on these guys to say something like "Andruw Jones did an excellent job throwing back to the infield to prevent an inside the park home run."

McCarver and, particularly, Buck are sounding like talented homers rather than national broadcasters. Their chagrin came across clearly last night in the Mets 12-5 blowout win. Buck got far more excited about each of the Cardinals' three meaningless solo homers than about any of the big blows that put the game away for the Mets. McCarver's bias is much more subtle, but he tends to criticize and snipe more at Willie Randolph's moves than Tony LaRussa's.

I have mixed feelings here. It's understandable that someone who loves sports enough to make his living in the sports industry would still have the team of their heart; I want them to be human in this way.

Buck grew up in St. Louis, where his dad Jack was the longtime Cardinals homer, a job which Joe himself eventually took over before going national. McCarver was a longtime star catcher for the Cardinals and, though he got his big break in baseball broadcasting with the Mets, may have some lingering bitterness after being let go from that position.

So the partisanship may be understandable -- but when my Mets are involved, I want them to put a damn lid on it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Tried it!

The "Luther burger" -- i.e., a bacon cheeseburger on a Krsipy Kreme donut bun.

But I figured, why drive all the way to Dectur, Georgia, or to Sauget, Illinois (home of the Luther-Burger-servin' Gateway Grizzlies), or wherever, to get one?

So I made it at home. And from really high quality ingredients: organic ground beef, RGBH-free cheddar cheese, nitrite-free bacon. Even the donut was from the local classy Kosher bakery. These ingredients are so good, the thing was practically "heart-healthy"!

I find it fascinating that when I blogged about this before (here and here), and when I tell people about it now, the reactions I get are so strong -- a kind of amused outrage. What's that about? Envy?

Oh, and the verdict on the burger: tasty, but not something I need to have again.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Can we please watch the damned game?

In listing my sports pet peeves, I think I forgot to mention my second biggest one:
The cameras scanning the crowds at the ballpark for striking-looking women, cute little kids, celebrities, the team owners, and sundry strangely-attired or strange-looking people.
My distaste for this is second only to:
the broadcasters commenting on said people in the crowd.
Yet this is standard fare in baseball broadcasts, particularly, it seems in the post season when there is even less call for it. Post season games, which are often closely played and exciting in themselves, also reflect the built-up drama of the long baseball season. There is a ton of baseball for the announcers to talk about... why divert time and energy to making fun of a fat guy wearing body paint and a fright wig?

Last year, viewers of a game I watched on TV were treated to an ugly spectacle, as the broadcasters repeatedly made fun of an odd looking fan in the stands who was obviously disabled. It was obvious to me anyway -- the announcers themselves seemed quite ignorant. The details -- what game, what network, and what was odd-looking about the man -- escape me; maybe I've put them out of my mind. But the announcers just couldn't let go of their unfunny jokes and even returned to the man after a commercial break. It was almost unbearable.

Well, it happened again the other night, during game 2 of the Dodgers-Mets series at Shea Stadium. A fan in the stands had what looked like a kind of Viewmaster contraption rigged over his eyes. The cameraman played over this guy as announcer Tom Brenneman made fun of him for wearing funny goggles. B, watching next to me, shouted that the man was obviously seriously vision-impaired. After quick-cutting to some baseball action on the field, the camera crew and Brenneman went back to the blind guy for a few more jokes at his expense.

Either B's shouting got through, or someone else did, because Brenneman issued a spirited apology in Game 3. As Brenneman briefly described this man's condition of near-blindness, the camera actually showed him again (dogged Mets fan that he is, this guy followed the club to LA to attend the game in Dodger Stadium).

Maybe this little incident will put a stop to the stupid practice of announcers making jokes about fans in the stands.

Probably not.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


The 50th anniversary of '56

As a baseball history buff from New York, I still find it painful to contemplate the moves of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to California. MLB should have blocked the moves of at least one of those teams -- probably the Dodgers, whose identity was much more strongly rooted in Brooklyn than the Giants were in north Manhattan -- and located an expansion club in California.

That's water under the bridge. But I found it intriguing to contemplate that in the 2006 season, the two best records in Major League Baseball were held by the Yankees and Mets. The last time that two New York teams pulled off that feat was 1956, when the Yankees faced the Dodgers in the World Series. After that season, the Dodgers moved to LA.

There would have been some historical neatness to having another subway series on the 50th anniversary of that storied 1956 season -- the Dodgers' last season in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson's last season in the Majors, and the epic, 7-game World Series that included Don Larson's perfect game for the Yankees, the only post-season perfecto in baseball history.

Historically neat, yeah. But screw it! It is SO SWEET that the Yankees got squashed by the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs. Add to that George Steinbrenner fuming about his team's "sorry" and "unacceptable" performance, his veiled and self-destructive threats to fire his extraordinarily successful and well-liked manager Joe Torre, the failure of the club to win the World Series since buying up Jason Giambi and A-Rod, and the ridiculously-highly-paid A-Rod's own epic failure to perform in the post season -- cream in my coffee!

Way to go, Tigers!

Friday, October 06, 2006


Existential Friday: near miss

One of our regular hockey players left the scrimmage 20 minutes early.

Boy, am I glad I did not say, "Leaving early? It better be because you're injured or someone died! Ha ha ha!"

Instead I said, "are you okay?"

To which he responded -- quite seriously -- "Yeah, but I have to go and be a pallbearer."


Existential Friday: fate

Dodger first baseman Nomar Garciaparra left NLDS Game 2 early with a leg injury. I don't have the least sympathy for competing teams losing key players to injury at this point -- not after the Mets lost their top two starting pitchers in the week before the playoffs.

The Mets are vulnerable to left-handed pitching, so it was a blow for the Dodgers to lose their key lefty reliever, Joe Beimel, who cut his pitching hand on a glass in his hotel room the night before the playoffs began. Weirdly, Beimel dropped the drinking glass, tried to catch it, and apparently ended up mashing his hand down on it as it broke.

There is karma in that story. The last time the Mets played the Dodgers in the playoffs, it was 1988. The Mets dominated the NL that year, and the Dodgers (winning 11 of 12 regular season games against the Dodgers). The Mets were clearly the stronger team, and, with their 1986 World Series victory, it seemed as though a pennant win would put them well on their way to nice run of success.

But the Dodgers -- who have had more than there fair share of success since stabbing their Brooklyn fans in the back and moving to LA -- eked out a win in the seven game series and went on to win the World Series, and all the announcers went on about the Dodgers "season of destiny" and all that crap.

The fact is that the Mets were one starting pitcher short in that series. You see, a couple of days before the playoffs, the Mets' ace lefty, Bobby Ojeda, cut a finger of his pitching hand with an electric hedge trimmer. What the hell was he doing trimming his hedge right before the playoffs?

So as I see it: bizarre injury to your key lefty's pitching hand means your opponent is the "team of destiny."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


An outrage

Why didn't I take Brock 20s advice and quit watching the boneheaded broadcast of ESPN's "Baseball Tonight"?

I figured that with a two-hour broadcast supposedly giving a rundown on the 8 teams in the post-season, the Mets would get at least, I don't know, 5 minutes of coverage? I don't think they hit the five minute threshold, but what was much worse was this incredible display of conscious disrespect for my beloved team:

The four ESPN pundits unanimously picked Joe Girardi of the Florida Marlins as their choice for National League Manager of the Year.

Let's gather the facts.

What are the criteria for the "Manager of the Year Award"? I don't know what they are officially, but it seems to me that it can be boiled down to three questions:
1. Was the team successful?
2. Did the team exceed expectations?
3. Did the team overcome adversity?
It seems to me that the answer has to be yes to at least two of these questions, and you can play around with the weight to be given the answers.

The Marlins finished the year at 78-84, meaning that they lost six more games than they won, and finished fourth. This isn't success. Nor did they exceed expectations -- they were uniformly picked to finish in fourth place out of five teams in the NL East, and that's what they did. They seemed to be flirting with a shot at the Wild Card spot for a while, but that was an illusion -- they ended up 10 games behind the wild card winning Dodgers.

The most you can say about the Marlins is that they suffered the "adversity" of playing like crap for two months and then "overcame" that by playing halfway decently afterwards to finish with a losing season but not a horribly losing season. But if Girardi was such a good manager, why did they start the season losing something like 70% of their games in April and May?

I'm sorry, but "adversity" can't mean your own team playing poorly. It has to mean things like injuries and other outside factors that would hinder the team's ability to win. That wasn't the Marlins' problem -- they just stunk at the beginning, and stunk less the rest of the way. What kind of basis is that for identifying mangerial excellence?*

Now let's look at the Mets and their manager Willie Randolph.

The Mets were obviously successful. And they exceeded expectations. Of the 19 "analysts" listed on ESPN's website only 7 picked them to win the NL East. (Just about everyone else picked the Braves, who also had their first losing season in 15 years.) While 9 others picked them to win the wild card, only 3 picked them to win the pennant.

The Mets were expected to succeed, but no one expected them to dominate. Yet they finished with the best record in baseball (tied with the Yankees), dominated their division, which they essentially wrapped up by early September, and won 9 more games than the next best NL team.

This alone might be enough for Manager of the Year, but the Mets Willie Randolph led the team to a dominating season without a single dominating starting pitcher. Only one starting pitcher, Steve Trachsel, who is no one's definition of an "ace," was injury-free, and no starting pitcher on the team could or can consistently go past the 6th inning. The Mets had 12 different pitchers starting at least four games on the mound, which has to be a record for a division-winning club.

And the team also had significant injuries in the bullpen, and to starting position players at second base and at all three outfield positions.

Much is made of the strong seasons from fill-in players like Jose Valentin (2d base) and Endy Chavez (outfield), and the great bullpen. But these occurrences, while lucky, are the kinds of things for which a manager deserves some credit. Valentin and Chavez blossomed because Randolph as manager perceived their ability to contribute and gave them big opportunities to play. And the bullpen? Every season, some team's talented bullpen breaks down due to mis-handling by a manager. Handling the bullpen and the bench are two of the manager's most important functions, and these were keys to the Mets success this year.

So Willie Randolph is my easy choice for Manager of the Year.

The only other NL manager even worth discussing is Bruce Bochy, whose Padres won the division after being universally picked to finish fourth or fifth. But they had a set pitching staff the whole season, and no major injuries to contend with. And of course, they won their division last year (albeit with a mediocre 82-80 record).

Grady Little of the Dodgers gets an honorable mention for his team's impressive comeback, but they didn't particularly exceed preseason expectations. They had a couple of major injuries, but did not play well through them, bouncing back when their injured players returned and when they acquired pitching ace Greg Maddux in a mid-season deal.

In any event, the choice of Joe Girardi is just idiotic. ESPN clearly has some "thing" against the Mets, which makes it all the more irritating that they have broadcast rights over the playoffs.

*Girardi managed a team with the lowest payroll in baseball. While there is a very rough correlation between payroll and success, there is no evidence that 78 wins on a low payroll is an unusually over par performance. The ESPN guys may also have been tweaking the Marlins management for firing Girardi as a scapegoat for the team's disappointing season.

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