Sunday, March 22, 2020

Remembering Kenny

Little boy…in a baseball hat

Stands in the field…with his ball and bat…

That’s the opening from Kenny Rogers’s song, “The Greatest.” My son Gabe played baseball for two seasons (2000 and 2001) at Sacramento City College. Union Stadium sits in the heart of the Sac City campus. It is a fine stone and steel structure with a beautiful green diamond, and a public address system capable of breaking your eardrums.

As loyal parents and avid baseball fans, Barbara and I attended every home game, arriving early to get good seats and enjoy the pregame activities. The students who manned the enclosed press box played an eclectic mix of music as we waited for games to begin. The playlist included the usual rock anthems, including of course, John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,” but always seemed to conclude with Kenny’s “The Greatest.”

The song tells a universal story about childhood belief and dreams and unshakable confidence. The little boy throws the ball up into the air, swings and misses three times. Strike three. Then his momma calls him in for supper. The closing line says it all:

I am the greatest…that is a fact

But even I didn’t know…I could pitch like that.  

Many times that song put a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. Now Kenny Rogers is gone. When most folks hear his name, they will likely think of “The Gambler,” or “Lucille,” or maybe his duets with Dolly Parton. Not me. I’ll be thinking of sunny days at Union Stadium and that little boy in a baseball hat.

Rest in peace, Kenny.


Friday, March 20, 2020

Taking One for the Team

by Waymon Destrange

The news last night was shocking: Senator Richard Burr has been accused of insider trading. It seems that after receiving “senate only” briefings on the COVID-19 crisis, he bailed out of his stock holdings, liquidating as much as $1.6 million by February 13, 2020. At the same time, he was reassuring the American public that the federal government had the situation well in hand; no need to panic.

But wait, it gets worse. After a briefing on January 24, senators Dianne Feinstein, Kelly Loeffler, and James Inhofe “…each sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in equities” based on classified information they received.

How could this be? I had to reach out to my friend, Morrie the Mop, a janitor who works on Capitol Hill.

Destrange: Hey, Morrie, how’s it going?

Mop: I’m hangin’ in there, Waymon. How’s by you?

Destrange: Listen, Morrie, have you heard about the insider trading scandal involving a bunch of senators?

Mop: Oh, yeah. It’s a hot topic up here today.

Destrange: Geez, Morrie, you don’t seem very concerned. I thought you’d be outraged.

Mop: Come on, pal. You’re smarter than that. We’re talkin’ business as usual here.

Destrange: Really?

Mop: Of course. You’re looking at it the wrong way, Waymon.

Destrange: How’s that?

Mop: Look, if we are going to come through this pandemic, we are going to need wise leadership, not only today, but on the other side of the crisis as well. These senators have shown wisdom, the good, native intelligence to process information and act decisively.

Destrange: But what about insider trading laws?

Mop: Those laws apply to the schmucks, the lower level traders and the like. Oh, every once in a while, we have to nail somebody to make an example. Remember Martha Stewart?

Destrange: But…I feel violated, like they’ve bent me over and put it to me.

Mop: Let’s face it, Waymon. In this country we have a few smart 'fuckers’ and a whole lot of ‘fuckees’. No offense, pal.

Destrange: So, how about you, Morrie? Are you gonna survive?

Mop: Got it covered, Waymon. I upgraded my resume to list my expertise in deep cleaning. I’m in full ‘personal protective gear’ even as we speak, on my way to wipe down Mitch McConnell’s office. Gotta run, buddy. Be sure to wash your hands and shelter in place.

I need to calm down and make a list: wash hands, use sanitizer, shelter in place, facetime with grandkids. Do I dare go down to Costco and try to score some toilet paper?


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

There is something about this COVID-19 crisis that bothers the heck out of me. It is the fact that, by definition, I am in the “vulnerable” or “at risk” population. How can that be? Just because I’m seventy-seven and had bypass surgery fourteen years ago, does that make me vulnerable?

All evidence to the contrary, I’ve always thought of myself as a world class jock, and therefore, invincible. Strong, fast, well-coordinated—I could master any sport. Okay…let’s forget about golf for the moment.

I think back to all the wonderful athletes I competed with and against in my hometown, Vallejo, California. Many of them are members of the Vallejo Sports Hall of Fame. There’s Joe Rapisarda, Jack Kelly, Billy Himes, and Hank McGraw. Roger Ashlock, Jerry Warren, Al Manfredi, and Jim Eaton. Bruce Bigelow, Eddie Hewitt, Russ Sturgeon and Joey Butler. I can go on: Clyde Huyck, Larry Himes, Bobby Mansfield, Willis McJunkin, Bobby Campo, and Brian Biggs.

That’s a damn fine list, and I know some names have slipped my mind. How can those guys be vulnerable?

Okay, so I’ll stay home and wash my hands and use the sanitizer. But I’m not at risk.

Am I?


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

In Praise of an Editor

I have become addicted to the literary journal Typishly. Through the submissions manager aptly named Submittable, Typishly puts out daily calls for manuscripts. It may be poetry, flash fiction, non-fiction, or garden variety literary fiction, but the call is there each day of the week.

The amazing thing about Typishly is that it promises 24-hour turnaround. Say What? That’s right, 24-hour turnaround on your submission in a business where an author can expect to wait up to six months to hear whether or not a piece has been accepted. Or rejected, which is the norm.

The Founding Editor of Typishly is Jon, and though his replies come with a polite rejection, he always signs off in a cheerful, encouraging manner:

Thanks for sending us your writing. Regretfully, we won’t be able to publish your work this time. Only a fraction of what we receive is selected for publication, so even strong writing must sometimes be left out.

Be well. Be creative. Enjoy a sunrise.

Jon, Founding Editor

But here is the reason I’m addicted: Jon always comments on my submission, proof positive that he actually read the dang thing! This is beyond encouraging. It lights a fire and makes you try again, and again. Wow! An editor is actually reading my stuff and commenting!

Here are a few examples:

“Surviving Dawn”: Smiled at: 'It might as well have been a hubcap.' Cleverly expressed: 'my New Year’s Eve blab ’n grab.' Well told, entertaining story.

“In His Hands…”: Classic insensitivity to women: 'We just thought Gary was the right man for the job.' Sounds like a cool duo: 'a mid-thirties gay white man, and a twenty-six-year-old black woman.' Smiled at: 'partly cloudy with a chance of earplugs.' Clever: 'I changed the name at the top of the page from Tamara Jayne McMahon to T.J. McMahon.' Liked Tamara's can-do spirit.

“Phantom of the Blogosphere”: Clever and timely story. Well written 'news' articles. Chilling: 'ANNONYMOUS: Did you really think changing passwords would stop me?' Good twist ending: 'Well, there you go, Randy. Payment in full.'

“Shoe Dog”: Good teaser: 'It had to be one of the early shift guys. Didn’t it?' Enjoyed: 'I decided to pad my resume with my brother’s experience.' Playful deception: 'Ma’am, Mr. Stark here is our children’s shoe expert.' Surprising: 'I really thought it was you, Chet.'

“Mixed Signals”: Good teaser: 'I know I’ll have some explaining to do.' Nice payoff: 'He’s got me. It was just me and Ari, like we were playing two-man football...' Smiled at: 'wearing your iron shorts....' Striking moment: 'calling Ari a sissy Jew boy, and a hebe, and a kike...' Nice acknowledgment: 'you might think about law school. That was some rebuttal in there.'

So, to all my fellow scribblers out there, open an account with Submittable and send your work to Jon at Typlishly. At least you will know your babies—those stories you sweated and cried over—will be read and appreciated. And all of that within 24-hours. 

Thank you, Jon!


Saturday, March 7, 2020

Houston, You Have a Problem

by C.W. Spooner

Remember that group from the ’70’s, Tony Orlando & Dawn? They had several smash hits, including one called “Knock Three Times.” The chorus went like this:

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me

Twice on the pipe if the answer is no

Oh my sweetness, (thump, thump, thump) means you’ll meet me in the hallway

Twice on the pipe means you ain’t gonna show

With the opening day of baseball season rapidly approaching, I think we should commission Tony Orlando to record a new version in honor of the 2017 Houston Astros. The new chorus could be the following:

Knock three times on the trash can for a slider

Twice on the lid means a curve ball is due

One hard bang says a fastball is a-coming

Rat-a-tat-tat, here’s a changeup for you

Tony is still around and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is a Dodgers' fan. I think this idea has legs!


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The CASEY Award for 2019

by C.W. Spooner

If you caught my blog post of January 27, 2019, you know that I served as a judge for Spitball Magazine’s CASEY Award. The award is presented in March to the author of the best book about baseball published in the prior year. Of the twelve nominees for 2019, my two fellow judges and I were nearly unanimous. The following are reviews for the top three books.

The #1 book for 2019 was Oscar Charleston – The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest
Forgotten Player, by Jeremy Beer. The review by judge Michael Leahy says it best:

Sometimes a book appears that feels like the product of a miraculous archaeological dig -uncovering a largely forgotten community and its people, leaders, and legends. Such is the power of Jeremy Beer's Oscar Charleston -his biography of the tragically little-known but extraordinary Negro League titan whose baseball talent ought to place him among the game's immortals- that we feel Oscar's on-field intensity, his off-field joys and frustrations, his anger, humiliations, and ultimately his dogged triumphs. Beer's unadorned, often raw prose carries a power that makes it the perfect match for his blunt and resolute subject. Oscar Charleston is an outstanding work richly deserving of the CASEY Award.

The book that finished #2 was Let’s Play Two – The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks, by Ron Rapoport. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I thought I knew a lot about Ernie Banks. Not so much. His story stems from humble beginnings in Dallas, Texas, follows his path to a brief stay with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, then on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs. The Ernie I knew was all about his sunny disposition, the constant smile, and various iterations of his catchphrase, “Let’s Play Two.” But there is so much more, including failed marriages, strained relationships with his children, and his struggles to find a suitable role when his playing days were over. There’s plenty of heartbreak to recount. The section of the book that recaps the 1969 season—the Cubs collapse and the Mets triumph—is worth the price of admission. This is a great story and Mr. Rapoport tells it well.

Book #3 for 2019 was The MVP Machine – How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data
to Build Better Players, by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik. If you pay much attention to Major League Baseball, you are aware of the tidal wave of technology that is sweeping the game. In ballparks throughout the country—major and minor league—every pitch is captured and its outcome tracked. Velocity, spin rate, trajectory and break; exit velocity, direction, launch angle, height and distance—all of it is captured and stored, what is now referred to as Big Data. This mass of data has spawned a corps of “stat heads” that populate the front offices of every team. Their job is to analyze that data and turn it into information, information that can be used in player development and in-game strategy. Lindbergh and Sawchik do a masterful job of laying out the development of this trend, building the case anecdote by anecdote, much in the style of Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame. It is a fascinating read.

The MVP Machine was at the top of my list for a while. And then the news broke about the Houston Astros cheating scandal. Beginning in 2017, the Astros found a way to use the center field replay camera to decode the catcher’s signs and relay them to the hitter. This effort was aided by the geeks in the front office who developed an algorithm to decode the signs. Wow! So, all of that wonderful technology can also be used to cheat? The 2020 season will begin with baseball sporting a big, fat black eye. Perhaps baseball needs to get technology out of the dugout and the clubhouse. Let it be used before and after a game for analysis and player development, but never during a game.

And there you have it: the CASEY Award winner and the runners up. I recommend all three for the diehard baseball fan. Enjoy! 


Thursday, January 30, 2020

Remember When…

By C.W. Spooner

“Sly walks in and says, ‘Does anybody sing harmony or are y’all going to sing melody?’”

-          Charlene Imhoff Davidson

That was the In the Beginning moment for a doo-wop group that came to be known as the Viscaynes, six kids from Vallejo, California. “Sly” was Sylvester Stewart, known in his community as a musical prodigy. Guitar, keyboards, horns—was there an instrument he could not play? And there was the voice that could hit the sweet high notes when they were needed.

Frank Arellano and Charlene Imhoff had a group and showed up for talent contests. That’s where they first heard Sly, a classmate, Vallejo High Class of ’61. Frank asked for help to “get our harmonies together,” and Sly said “sure.” The group grew to six members, including Charlie and Verne Gebhardt and Maria “Ria” Boldway. They began to meet in the Gebhardts' rec room, equipped with a piano and encouragement from Charlie and Verne’s parents. Along the way, Mike Stevens joined to play piano. They’d stay in that room for hours.

All that practice paid off and they began to win talent competitions. In the spring of 1961, they auditioned for the Dick Stewart Dance Party, the San Francisco equivalent of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. They were accepted. The television appearance and talent show wins led to recording sessions in San Francisco where they cut a series of 45-RPM sides, including “Yellow Moon.” That tune became a hit in the Bay Area, reaching number 16 on radio station KYA’s Top 60 chart.

This backstory is meant to call your attention to a reissue of those venerable tracks recorded in 1961. It is titled The Viscaynes & Friends, and it’s available on MP3, CD or vinyl. Amazon delivered my CD a few days ago and I’ve been spinning it ever since. Songs like "You've Forgotten Me," "A Long Time Alone," and "Heavenly Angel" take me back to a simpler, brighter time when absolutely everything was possible. My only complaint is that two of my favorites are missing: “Stop What You’re Doing,” and “I Guess I’ll Be,” both featuring Charlene’s clarion voice. You’ll have to go to YouTube to hear those two.

As we know, Sly went on to fame and fortune as the star of Sly and the Family Stone. But fame and fortune cuts both ways, especially in the music business. Sly has seen some very hard times, but the latest word is that things are a little better. Will there be a happy ending? Let’s hope so.

None of that dims the legacy of the recordings that will live forever with the release of The Viscaynes & Friends. There is a quotation in the liner notes that captures the pure joy of the ride home from a recording session. It could be attributed to any member of the group, because their collective memory is as tightly woven as their harmony:

“We did not come home until five o’clock, six o’clock in the morning, because we recorded all night. Coming home, it was the coolest image ever. I close my eyes and I can see it, all seven of us, in Mike Stevens’s dad’s convertible. We are coming across the Bay Bridge, and the sun is coming up, with the top down, singing to the top of our lungs. It was the coolest thing ever.”

I highly recommend this album. Put it on, close your eyes, feel the wind in your hair, and watch the sunrise over the East Bay hills.