Friday, March 31, 2006

Solsbury Hill

I'm losing my job today. My employer has chosen to shutter its Minnesota operations and those of us who were unable to relocate to distant Oregon will be out of work on Monday morning. It's not a sad thing, per se - business is business and my employer is making a rational decision, even if it causes me to endure temporary hardship. Peter Gabriel wrote one of his best songs on the occasion of his departure from the band Genesis. Following are the lyrics:

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
(I) just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
"Son," he said "Grab your things,
I've come to take you home."

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
"Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" he said "Grab your things
I've come to take you home."(Back home.)

When illusion spin her net
I'm never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" I said "You can keep my things,
they've come to take me home."

Gabriel's departure from Genesis is one of the greatest examples I know of the notion of "addition by subtraction." Genesis became a much more successful band after he left, while his own solo career has completely eclipsed his efforts with Genesis. Sometimes it's like that. You have to face whatever's ahead, with your heart going "boom boom boom," but it's always better to look ahead and trust that better days are coming. Because they are.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Valhalla, I am coming

Half a million strong, they march through the streets of Los Angeles. Thousands more in Chicago, and Denver, and Phoenix. Some want justice, some want Aztlan, some conflate the two. And thus the political issue of the year arrives full force.

My natural inclination is to have great sympathy for immigrants. What makes our nation great is that we have generally accepted those who seek a better life. Whether Irish from the coffin ships, or Bavarian Catholics escaping the Kaiser's conscription, or Jews escaping the furies of European pogroms and the Holocaust, or Italians, or Poles, or Cubans, or Vietnamese, or Hmong, there has always been room in America to accommodate those seeking a better life. I admire anyone with the gumption to pull up stakes and leave horrors behind, betting on a brighter future.

But the tension always comes - all these newcomers are different. They speak a different language. They have different customs. Their foods smell funny. They don't accept our notions or our values. They take away our jobs. So sayeth the critics now, echoing the complaints of the Know-Nothings 150 years ago.

How dare we call them Know-Nothings? After all, the millions who are here illegally are here illegally, doncha know? They are criminals, we are told.

The marchers respond, "somos ilegales, no somos criminales." They are not criminals, just illegal. Distinctions, of course. We must make distinctions. Unsophisticated Red State rubes! Can't understand, won't understand. Tancredo, that demagogue! Might this be racismo? Claro, es obvio.


Are things really different now? And are these latest immigrants different? The impulse, the noble striving, that drives the immigrant to cross the border, to board the raft, to overstay the student visa, is the same as always. People do want a better life. The Rascals sang it way back in '68 - People Got To Be Free. It's such a cliche that Garry Trudeau put the words in the president's mouth in a Sunday cartoon not long ago. The problem we face -- how do we, all of us, define better? Do the sojourners who risk so much accept the American ideal? Or do they come and follow the dictates of the professional grievance mongers, the cult leaders of identity, La Raza? And how do they choose?

How do we choose? When half a million people are marching on the streets of Los Angeles, it's not a rent-a-mob. We have to make intelligent decisions about how we deal with the 11 million people who are here, who live in the shadows, who find their way to El Norte. These immigrants are not simply sent back across the border. It doesn't work that way. It won't happen. We don't have the means. We don't have enough guns and bayonets. And if we did, this would no longer be America.

But if the people are coming, how do we teach them what it means to be an American? We have such difficulty deciding these most basic questions; civics classes are anything but civil. The word that hangs over all, a giant wall cloud flashing with electricity and pregnant with flooding rains, is assimilation. How do we ensure that those who come to America become Americans?

We need to answer this question first. Otherwise we are, at best, Quebec. At worst, we become Iraq, or Kosovo, or Darfur. We live in an existential era, where we face existential threats. But do we recognize the work ahead?

Monday, March 27, 2006


We are now in one of those times during the year where there is a surfeit of sports. Some of the most compelling events take place during March and April, including high school tournaments, collegiate winter sports championships and then the Masters in April. Some amazing things this weekend, including:

  • George Mason to the Final Four. While the notion of Cinderella is part of the mythology of the NCAA tournament, Cinderellas usually don't get to the Final Four. Most years, the teams in the final are large, famous universities - the Valparaisos and Murray States might win a game or two, but usually see it end the second weekend. This year the lineup of teams in the Final Four includes the usual array of heavyweights, including the University of Florida, Lousiana State University (better known as LSU) and the University of California, Los Angeles (a/k/a UCLA). These are all long-standing members of the college basketball aristocracy, especially UCLA, the most storied school of all. Then there's George Mason University, an obscure Virginia commuter school with almost no claim to fame. But the Patriots beat such worthies as Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut to get to the Final Four. This may be the greatest run in the history of the tournament, and that's saying something.
  • Cooper High School gets to the MSHL finals. If you were to look up "also-ran" in the dictionary, you'd find Cooper High School. Cooper is a first ring suburban high school that serves Robbinsdale and New Hope. For years, Cooper was the poor sister of the powerful Classic Lake Conference, where they regularly got their butts handed to them by prosperous suburban schools like Edina, Minnetonka, Hopkins and Wayzata. This year, though, it was different, until the end. The Cooper Hawks came flying out of their new league, the North Suburban, with a glittering 25-3 record. They then fought their way all the way to the state finals, where they faced mighty Hopkins. Would the Hawks finally claim revenge over a longtime nemesis? Would Cooper finally bring home the big hardware to their, barren windswept trophy case? Unfortunately, the answer was no, but after all the years of mericless thrashings, it was nice to see the long-suffering Cooper kids kids get a chance to enjoy just a little bit of glory.
  • How do you lose to the College of Holy Cross? If your team is Middlebury, or Plattsburgh State, or Tufts, it would be easy enough to understand. But if you are the University of Minnesota, crown jewel of the STATE OF HOCKEY, it's about as embarrassing a development as possible. Somehow the mighty Gophers, featuring a glittering array of talent bound for the NHL, lost to the team fielded by a school whose greatest athlete is Bob Cousy, a basketball player from the 1950s. Hockey hubris, pure and simple. The Gophs didn't take Holy Cross seriously. Big mistake. You can hear the taunts of the North Dakota Sioux fans echoing all the way down I-29.

It's almost too much sports to deal with. But goodness knows, it's fun. And next week it continues. Climb on board the George Mason bandwagon, everyone....

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Fast Times at Roseville High

Two separate events at Roseville High School are worth a look.

  1. A male student is in custody for blackmailing a younger female student. The male student apparently had videotaped the younger student performing a "sex act" and had threatened to post her exploits on the Internet. In order to forestall that, the male student had demanded that the female student perform "sex acts" on him and, apparently, one or more of his friends. He then expanded his demands that she provide him with gas money. Police have apparently confiscated several tapes from the male student.
  2. Meanwhile, an ever-popular pedagogical chestnut went wrong during a "dramatization" for "Banned Books Week." Apparently a RHS librarian, attempting to show what happens when books are banned, began tossing copies of books into a box that was decorated with flames. The books included perennials such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "A Catcher in the Rye." But then the librarian went too far. He tossed a copy of the Koran into the box, then a Bible. Among the students attending the spectacle was a Muslim student, who apparently felt that tossing a Koran into a box decorated with flames represented desecration of the Sacred Koran. She went to an outside Muslim advocacy group, which demanded, and got, a public apology from the school district for the librarian's heinous crime. He has also been ordered by the school district not to comment further on the matter and apparently has some cultural sensitivity training on tap.

So what do these two events have in common? I've been trying to figure it out, but I think the common thread is coercion. It's obvious in the first case - teenagers are awash in a culture of sex and apparently it's quite difficult these days to avoid getting involved with sexuality at a very young age. It's easy to blame all this on the usual bad example suspects (Bill Clinton, Britney Spears, various Minnesota Vikings, etc.), but ultimately the issue is not bad behavior by public people as much as it is confusing freedom with license and, in the end, entitlement. I've always had misgivings about the sexual revolution. While I understand that young people are going to experiment and that a "just say no" approach won't stop kids, I think the freedom to explore sexuality has become a license and potentially a requirement. It's not cool to say no and it would be easy to imagine that the young female student felt coercion to perform well before she was caught on tape and then faced the overt coercion of a blackmailer. You can call this atmosphere a lot of things, but it's not freedom.

Then there's the matter of the Koran incident. It's evident that the librarian was trumpeting free speech in his own tendentious way, but he ends up getting silenced. Free speech certainly includes the right to complain, so I don't have an issue with the Muslim student complaining about the demonstration per se. What concerns me is that the school district felt compelled to publicly apologize for the librarian's actions. Why should anyone apologize? And why announce the show trial results for the librarian? If the argument is that people should be more sensitive, again, the question is, why? The unsubtle point the librarian was making is that there are those who would censor books because their goal is to censor thought. And as the riots and violence surrounding the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed amply demonstrate, there's pressure on the larger Western society to accept Islamic strictures on speech and behavior. If we are serious about free speech, that means we can't have educators apologizing for championing free speech. And we need to remain vigilant. Kids quickly understand the distinction between the lessons that are taught, and the lessons that are learned. And Roseville High School seems to be teaching a lesson here. It's one that blackmailers implicitly understand.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Darling, you've got to let me know

Should he stay or should he go? If he stays there will be trouble. And if he goes it will be double. You've got to let me know, should he stay or should he go?

My apologies to The Clash. So, what is the deal over at the U? Unsurprisingly, last night the Gopher men's basketball team gets drilled in a meaningless NIT game against the Cincinnati Bearcats. The morning edition of the Star Tribune arrives on my front porch with a jumbo front page headline that men's basketball coach Dan Monson has been relieved of his duties, but it appears this morning that athletic director Joel Maturi didn't follow through on actually capping the coach. This morning the Star Tribune website reports that Monson has not resigned or been fired and plans to return. And no one knows whether Monson is a dead man walking or if the Strib has a "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment on its hands. Meanwhile, Sid Hartman probably has to hit the speed dial to Lubbock, Texas several teams to keep his "close personal friend" Bob Knight apprised about the bungee coach.

How embarrassing for everyone involved. Monson twists in the wind, Maturi looks ineffectual and the Star Tribune has to backtrack. Credibility is hardly a growth industry these days, but even by the increasingly bizarre standards that govern sport, this is an especially egregious sequence. If the U wants to get rid of Monson, that's fine -- while he has run a much cleaner program than Clem Haskins, Jim Dutcher and Bill Musselman ever did, the Gophers have been left behind by the other Big 10 schools under Monson's watch. But if you intend to fire a guy, at least fire him. If they are in a firing mood over on campus, perhaps someone should fire Maturi as well.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I Pity The Fool

That is what the cartoonish actor Mr. T used to say. Well, I pity the fool who has to replace the real Mr. T -- Paul Tagliabue, that is. The longtime NFL commissioner announced his retirement yesterday, ending an amazingly productive 17 year run as the leader of the most successful, well-run organization in sport.

Ever since Pete Rozelle took the reins of the NFL in 1959, the league has become an amazing force in popular culture. While pro games were on television prior to that time, Rozelle was able to get the disparate, fractious owners of NFL teams to pool their resources and sell themselves as entities within a league, which has led to amazing profits and growth for all of them. Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was decidedly a mom-and-pop organization prior to 1960, are now financial powerhouses. The Rooney family, which still owns a controlling interest in the Pittsburgh franchise, is now fabulously wealthy. Tagliabue took Rozelle's vision and ran with it, presiding over 17 years of labor peace and great wealth for all who participated, owners and players alike. Could you even imagine a community owned non-profit team like the Packers even existing, let alone thriving, in any other sport?

It didn't have to be this way - back in the 1950s, college football was still king and the NFL was essentially a regional operation; most of the country did not pay attention to the comings and goings of the pros. Now the NFL is almost inescapable. Here in Minnesota, if someone from Winter Park clears his throat, five television cameras and fourteen reporters seem to materialize on the spot. While the Twins, Timberwolves and Wild struggle to get on the front page of the sports section, minor Viking personnel moves run above the fold. How does this happen? Because the people who run the NFL have made it part of our lives. Millions of people are currently gearing up for, and planning to watch hours of, the NFL draft, which is an administrative exercise.

Tagliabue, like Rozelle, was key in the packaging of pro football and brokering its insertion deep into the American psyche. It's an amazing achievement, especially to this baseball fan, and Tagliabue deserves a lot of credit for it.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Luck of the Irish

So, it's St. Patrick's Day, once a somber religious feast honoring one of the most venerated of Catholic saints, now an excuse for the pipe fitter's union to march through downtown Chicago and for frat boys to vomit on their shoes. In honor of the event, let's take two angled glances at the St. Patty's day conundrum.

First, consider this now-classic "SNL" bit, featuring John Belushi's enlightened musings on the "Luck of the Irish"

Then, we return to William Butler Yeats, this time to his recounting of the events of Easter Rising of 1916

Much of the romanticism attached to Ireland stems from the almost endless supply of cruelty and misfortune the Irish have suffered, both at the hands of oppressors and through the disastrous choices that so many Irish have made in response to their circumstances. Like many Americans, my ancestors, bearing the surnames of Donovan and Murphy (among others), emerged from the coffin ships and found nurture in this new land, where their descendants have found better opportunities and better lives. They chose not to stand like MacDonagh and MacBride, Connolly and Pearse, but instead fled the darkness of the Emerald Isle. The irony is that they had to leave places like Wexford, Sligo, and Cork in order to experience the Luck of the Irish, understanding that Branch Rickey was right -- luck is the residue of design. On this St. Patrick's Day, I remain grateful for their sacrifices and the risks they took during their passage, so that I, their great-great-grandson, could enjoy a better life.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


How many things can the human brain process at once? Sometimes, you have to wonder. This morning my co-workers and I were participating in one of those interminable conference calls that litter the schedules of corporate America. There's a standard protocol; the meeting organizer tries to keep things on track, asking questions that are often met with awkward silences. The organizer then might call out someone's name, a la the Ben Stein character in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and the the person either fails to respond, or says, not necessarily sheepishly, "sorry, I was multi-tasking."

The amazing thing is, "I was multi-tasking" always seems to be an acceptable excuse for not paying attention. You immediately wonder why the meeting is even taking place if people aren't required to even follow along, let alone participate. You also wonder what on earth the "multi-tasker" was doing. Typically, "multi-tasking" is some combination of the following:

  • Sending instant messages to other participants, commenting on how lame the meeting is
  • Browsing websites
  • Reviewing e-mail
  • Getting actual work done

It's amazing, the wondrous tools that are typically available to the typical American office worker. My computer allows me to "multi-task" in all of the listed ways, plus others that I haven't mentioned. But sometimes I wonder if having the ability to do many things prevents us from accomplishing anything that really lasts, that really matters. But hey, at least I can follow the NCAA basketball tournament on one webpage today....

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Hot Stove League

Let's consider where we're at. Spring training is in full swing. The NBA and NHL are in high season. Arguably the most enjoyable event of the sporting year, the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, is now underway. The Masters is less than a month away. So, of course, it's time to write about football.

It's an amazing thing, but the off-season maneuverings of the Vikings are crowding all the other events from the front of the local sports pages. In the past week the Purple has managed to take away the the field goal kicker from the Packers (Ryan Longwell), sign a rising young linebacker (Ben Leber), add a talented running back (Chester Taylor) and sign an offer sheet for the best offensive lineman available in the free agent market (Steve Hutchinson), then follow those moves up by trading away the player widely viewed as the franchise, Daunte Culpepper. An amazing series of events in the past four days, all brought about by a team that won't even take the field for nearly six months. If one ever doubted the level of interest in the National Football League, this off-season should blow away those doubts.

The Culpepper trade is probably the most interesting development of all. Daunte's fall from grace was almost Aristotelian in scope. The proud leader of the Vikings was brought low by poor performances, an ill-advised boat trip and a devastating knee injury during the star-crossed 2005 campaign, followed by an increasingly bizarre semi-public e-mail exchange with the new management of the team. Now he has been sent packing to Miami, leaving the ancient Brad Johnson and potentially two of Brett Favre's lesser-known caddies (J.T. O'Sullivan and perhaps the visiting free agent Craig Nall) as the only backups available. One has to wonder how that will work.

Having said that, at least the Vikings appear to be doing something. My beloved Packers have nearly as much money to spend, but have spent hardly any, only retaining the services of the diligent but modestly-talented Aaron Kampmann thus far, while losing Longwell and others. Meanwhile, all eyes in Wisconsin continue to be trained on Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where the sainted, grizzled Favre licks his wounds and ponders his future. I don't think inertia will goad the legendary competitive juices of ol' number 4 to go out there one last time, especially when Fox and/or CBS likely have a standing offer of a comfy chair in either their studios or press boxes. The 2006 season may be six months away, but our gaze remains fixed on the empire of Tagliabue....

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tail Gunner Russ

I grew up in Wisconsin and we have an unfortunate tradition of sending demagogues to the U.S. Senate. The most infamous example is the now-reviled Joseph McCarthy, who emerged from my hometown and blustered his way to fame and then ignominy through his crusade against Communists. A combination of overreach and the withering exposure afforded his campaign through the scrutiny of journalists like Edward R. Murrow brought this alcoholic small-town lawyer low.

Next Wisconsin sent a different type of demagogue, William Proxmire, to the Senate. Proxmire was an inveterate publicity hound who monthly regaled his pet journalists with the "Golden Fleece Awards," where he publicly "shamed" his colleagues by shining a light on their pet projects. While Proxmire was largely correct about many of the boondoggles he spotlighted, he never did anything about actually taking these items out of the budgets. Things would pass anyway and he simply earned a reputation as a gadfly. Meanwhile, any initiatives he might offer were simply set aside by the Senate leadership, making him the least effective senator in Washington throughout his career.

Comes now Russ Feingold, emerging from the back bench with a resolution to censure President Bush for authorizing the NSA eavesdropping on conversations involving American citizens suspected of contact with Al Qaeda. Link is below:

Feingold is convinced that Bush broke the law. It's not at all clear that he did, of course. Existing case law is at best inconclusive and the 1978 FISA law has not faced constitutional scrutiny. I personally think it's time to challenge FISA and the mechanism behind it. The money graf is this:

"Congress has to reassert our system of government, and the cleanest and the most efficient way to do that is to censure the president," Feingold said. "And, hopefully, he will acknowledge that he did something wrong."

While Congress has always wanted to conduct foreign policy, authority to do so has always resided with the executive branch. And for good reason - if Congress controls foreign policy, it puts decisionmaking into the hands of 535 individuals with competing agendas. For a country to have an effective foreign policy and face it offers the world, it needs to speak with one voice. If Feingold thinks current policy is wrong, his task should be to get to the hustings and offer his vision to the voting public. Congress can hardly "reassert" something that it does not have authority to do. I can assert that I am the King of Spain, but that doesn't mean I'll be able to get free tapas in Madrid any time soon.

Ultimately, Feingold's compadres understand that his proposal is silly, which is why minority leader Harry Reid was backpedaling from the proposal yesterday. You have to wonder why my fellow cheeseheads continue to send morons to the World's Greatest Deliberative Body.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Under Ben Bulben

William Butler Yeats has always been one of my favorite poets. One of his last poems was "Under Ben Bulben," a poem meant as his own elegy. Its tone and form is quite different from some of his other works, especially the gripping "Easter 1916," which described the Easter Rising, when Irish nationalists sought to pull off the yoke of the British, with disastrous results. In "Under Ben Bulben," Yeats, arguably the greatest Irish poet, offers the following advice:

Irish poets, earn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up,
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then,
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers' randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.

Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.

No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

I've always believed that Yeats was on to something important here - while he faced death, his gaze was straight ahead. He understood that the challenges for those he left behind would still be there, long after he took his final resting place in Drumcliff churchyard. Yeats would be amazed at the modern Ireland, now at the vanguard of Europe, prosperous and cosmopolitan. Ireland has progressed further in the past seven decades than it had in the "seven heroic centuries" that Yeats recounts.

Kirby Puckett's death last week has brought on a lot of singing of praises for the heroic decade he spent as the center of the Twins. But it was fitting and proper that one of the Puckett Scholars played a prominent role in the memorial service held yesterday at the Metrodome. The Puckett Scholars program provides scholarship monies to minority students attending the University of Minnesota. Programs of this sort are forward thinking, looking straight ahead at the future.

Yeats's command is that we understand the resonance of the past, while keeping our gaze fixed toward the future. While we should enjoy the romance of a wonderful, thrilling baseball career, still fresh in so many minds, we need to cast a cold eye on both life and death. While Kirby's life will forever be part of local legends, his enduring legacy will stem from the performance of the Puckett Scholars. The future awaits - Horseman, pass by!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A nice glass of port

I've been trying to stay away from politics, but the apparently resolved Dubai Ports World dispute is just too juicy to ignore. Briefly, it looks like DPW will not be taking over managing six U.S. seaports, instead turning over their interests in these locations to a yet-unnamed American company. What do we learn from this?

  • No one is much afraid of W. After the president threatened to veto any bill that interfered with the transaction, Congressional leaders simply shrugged their shoulders and passed it anyway, with the House committee involved voting something like 65-2 in favor of scotching the deal. I'd dearly love to see Bush veto something, especially with the amount of pork that's been coming through Congress lately, but he hasn't, which remains one of the most puzzling things about this presidency.
  • Islam is not winning any p.r. battles. Dubai is as close to an actual U.S. ally as anyone in the Gulf region, but even they are viewed with great suspicion these days. I don't think anyone is buying the "Islam is a religion of peace" trope any more. And that has implications well beyond this particular incident.
  • The Department of Homeland Security is the Holy Roman Empire of government. As was pointed out back in the day, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. I don't know what DHS is supposed to do, but there's little evidence that it does much of anything well. The perception out there is that we as a nation are no more safe now than we were on 9/10/01. And billions of dollars have been allocated to doing little more than moving around office furniture in the federal bureaucracy.
  • Demagoguery is always in season. One thing I can guarantee is that DHS could definitely not protect anyone standing between Charles Schumer and a microphone.

Well, on to the next manufactured crisis.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Meanwhile, in other news...

We find that the latest expose on Barry Bonds is about to hit the stores. "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports," co-authored by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, is scheduled for publication March 27 by Gotham Books. In it, Fainaru-Wada and Williams provide copious details about Barry Bonds's motivation to take a variety of performance-enhancing drugs (apparently, jealousy of slugger Mark McGwire); his efforts to find a drug that would help him avoid injuries while packing on additional muscle; and his sometimes bizarre relationships with his personal trainer Greg Anderson and Victor Conte, head of the now-infamous BALCO, preferred supplier of all manner of performance-enhancing drugs.

Let's stipulate that everything in this book turns out to be true. And let's imagine that Bonds is only one of the many people who apparently put their souls out for lease with an option to buy. I still wonder what we do with the information. I continue to suspect that the records that Bonds, McGwire, Sosa et al. achieved in what's now known as the "Steriod Era" will trade a deep discount. But I also suspect that all three of these gentlemen (and I use the term advisedly) will merit inclusion in Cooperstown some day. Bonds was well on his way to Cooperstown long before he is alleged to have begun taking these drugs. I am still persuaded that, given the amount of rogues who are already safely in the Hall, it will be well-nigh impossible to keep Bonds out. I guess they could open a separate wing for Bonds, Cobb, Speaker and some of the other bad dudes and offer disinfectant to people who visit the area....

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

More Puck

A.E. Housman's poem "To An Athlete Dying Young" is a good place to start today:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields were glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

Puck lived long enough to avoid the fate of the Shropshire lad who is the subject of Housman's poem, and it is clear that his name will not die "before the man." In fact, his name will live on, not only in Minnesota but everywhere people who love baseball gather. One day on, it's not any easier to think that Puck is gone.

The tributes and enconia are everywhere - be sure to read both Star Tribune sports columnists (Jim Souhan and Patrick Reusse), both with deeply useful meditations on Puckett's too-brief life and legacy. We pass quickly over the past few years, post-Cooperstown, when it all seemed to go so wrong for Puck. If you want the details, Frank Deford's merciless 2003 SI piece is still out there on the internet, but you don't really want to know. Not today, at least.

Early though the laurel grows, it withers quicker than the rose.

In our increasingly impatient, iconoclastic world, heroes are hard to find. But maybe heroes aren't what we need so much as we need humans, with all their imperfections, their appetites and their dreams. It takes a big dream to get from the projects of Chicago to the Hall of Fame. Puck's greatest legacy may be that he had the wit and imagination to find a role that was well beyond what anyone might have expected - not baseball player, but purveyor of joy.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Okay, every blogger in Minnesota is probably writing about Kirby Puckett today, but how can you not? Despite his fire hydrant shape, his recent personal foibles and his sudden, Howard Hughes-like disappearance from the public eye, he still towers over the local sports scene in countless ways. And the universal emotion seems to be great sadness.

There's never been a player quite like Kirby Puckett. He had a squatty build, most like Yogi Berra or maybe the old Houston Astro Jimmy (Toy Cannon) Wynn. But he was a different personality - voluble, friendly, endlessly amusing. And he could do the most amazing things. You never thought he could get to the line drive hit in the gap, or the towering fly ball that would barely clear the center field fence. But he did. And he hit nasty line drives no matter where the pitch was delivered, in the strike zone, over his head, off his shoetops. All the kids wanted to play like Puck. All the kids wanted to have the zest for life that Puck had.

And when the moment mattered the most, when the Twins had their back to the wall, he carried the team on his broad shoulders. Game 6 of the 1991 World Series remains one of the greatest personal showcases of one man in the history of baseball, comparable in legend to the 1932 "called shot" of Babe Ruth, or the 1977 "Mr. October" performance of Reggie Jackson. The most unlikely looking hero of all. But that's who he was. A true life force - happy to be alive, equal to the challenge; when Puck hit the game winning homer that sent Braves hurler Charlie Liebrandt skulking off the field and the 55,000 Twins fans into a frenzy that night, it was just right.

And now he lies near death in a Scottsdale hospital. Only 45 years old, but likely stilled by a massive stroke. And I think a lot of us feel a lot older than that today. I know I do.

Update: Word came last night that Puck passed away yesterday afternoon. Only 45. Our theoretical sadness now turns to the real thing, as we contemplate this loss.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that American lives do not have second acts. It’s easy to misinterpret the meaning of that statement, but in the case of Kirby Puckett, it turns out to be true. As important and special as his baseball career was, he had more work to do, the second act work of raising children, sharing wisdom and leaving even greater footprints. And now that work remains unfinished. As Puck pointed out in his farewell to baseball speech in 1996, nothing is promised in life. And in the end, that may be the best wisdom and the most fitting legacy he can provide to his grieving fans. Meanwhile, I assume he’s busy giving St. Peter and the various archangels and seraphim the needle. And that should make all of us smile.

Friday, March 03, 2006


Alternate title: Acronyms Are Our Friends.

So the Twins opened up their spring training schedule yesterday with a nice, workmanlike 6-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox. The Twins started their ace, Johan Santana, who got his work in as he prepares for the 2006 season. Nice to see, but now Santana, Carlos Silva, Justin Morneau and various others disappear for 2-3 weeks. Why? Because it's time to play the first World Baseball Classic (WBC), silly!

Before this 16-team contrivance, the acronym WBC was best recognized as one of the alphabet-soup boxing commissions that crown champions based on bribes, er, I mean pugilistic glory. But now WBC stands for a tournament in which countries that don't actually play the sport are entitled to field a team with excess, ethnic sounding Americans. The Italian team is relying on 3rd and 4th generation U.S. citizens, while the Netherlands is using players that sound vaguely Dutch, but may be German. After all, who can tell? The Italian team in particular is amusing - they approached Yankee righthander Mike Mussina to play, since his name seems like it could be Italian. Turns out that Mussina has no identifiable Italian ancestry at all. In sum, the tournament is essentially as international in flavor as the International House of Pancakes is.

So the WBC is silly and harmless, right? Would that it were. While the teams from the Netherlands and Italy are less genuine than the famous Jamaican Bobsled Team, the teams representing two actual baseball hotbeds, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, are fielding strong teams that will likely compete with great ferocity. Santana and Silva will likely be the front line pitchers for Venezuela and this concerns the Twins greatly. While players now train year-round, pitchers rarely cut loose until the end of spring training, so they do not strain their arms. If Santana or Silva were to be injured because of this tournament, the effect would be devastating for the Twins and their chances for success in 2006. Although pitchers are supposed to be on a pitch count in the tournament, do we honestly believe that the Venezuelan coaches wouldn't ask Santana to pitch to just one more batter in order to defend the national glory? And would Santana defy the request?

There's nothing inherently wrong in trying to get a tournament of this sort going, but the time to have it would be after the season. And rather than making it a 16-team tournament and including ringers, it would make more sense to limit the tourney to those places where baseball is actually played (e.g., the U.S., Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Japan, etc.) If any team suffers a loss that hurts their chances, there will be hell to pay.

Oh, and one last thing -- I wouldn't call anything a "Classic" until such time as it has achieved "Classic" status. This time around it should have been called the World Baseball Tournament, or something like that. That would be more polite than calling it what it really is.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Forget the steroid allegations

Here's something far more disturbing. And there's video, too.

I'm just trying to imagine what John McGraw would have thought about this. Wow.

Barry Bonds will be one of the biggest stories in 2006, no matter what. He is quite likely to pass Babe Ruth and he will have a chance to approach Henry Aaron's all time mark of 755 home runs. There remains a lot of controversy over the sluggers of this era, especially given the apparent prevalence of steroids and other performance enhancing substances in the modern era. While I remain plenty skeptical about the moralism that underlies many of these controversies, the records of Ruth and Aaron are about as lofty as anything in sports. How does Bonds stack up? It will be interesting to find out.