Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Training: What Does it All Mean?

200 hits and another losing season.  Mark it down in your book Ichiro.
 We're nearing the last week of spring training, and Mariners continue to have plenty of unanswered questions.  Can Justin Smoak hit in the middle of lineup and be a consistent run producer is probably the biggest?  Only slightly less important is whether Milton Bradley's bat can return to form, and can he stay healthy enough to play left field?  The infield situation seems to sorting itself out with Jack Wilson's move to second with Brendan Ryan at short, and Adam Kennedy on the bench.  Things get messy when Dustin Ackley is called up and Wilson seems to be the man without a position. 
Dustin Ackley is coming to Seattle.  We just don't know when, or how it will shake up the current interesting infield situation.
Catcher was looking sloppy with Miguel Olivo's groin injury.  Adam Moore and Josh Bard were not exactly floating my boat despite Moore's good spring at the plate.  Olivo and Moore is somewhat better but not exactly enough to set the world on fire.  Nevertheless, it has to be better than last year's triumvirate of Rob Johnson, Moore and Bard which not only didn't set the world on fire, but gave off the light and heat of a neutron star. Catching is better than it was last year, but it wouldn't take much.

Jack Cust leads the team in spring home runs and avoids any entries in the Slip and Fall to Hurt Your Back Olympics.  I always liked Russell Branyan.  Thought he was a good guy and believed his homers were so long and tall they were art.  I also believed he was one twitch away from season ending back surgery.  I wish him the best, but I think the Cust signing will give the M's the kind of consistency they need.  You know what I'm talking about--when Jack Wilson, Adam Kennedy or Ryan Langerhans are forced to DH for a week. Cust will homer, walk and strikeout, keep the clubhouse loose, stay healthy and improve the position over the past three years or so.  Just not by a lot.
See that glove on Jack Cust's left hand.  Kiss it good bye.  You will know disaster has struck if you see Cust in the field.
Hitting on this team is going to be bad, as in not strike fear in the heart of your opponent bad.  As in not strike fear in your son's little league team bad. But they aren't going to be as bad as last year. They lack a real number four hitter and they are depending on folks who had poor seasons to do better, especially before Gutierrez is healthy and Ackley is on the field. Bradley, Smoak, Saunders, Olivo and Figgins are all question marks in my view.  If they all hit poorly, it's another 100 losses.  If they all hit to their historical averages and Smoak improves to say .260/.350/.460 the M's could be a .500 team and compete for third in the AL West. I'm talking incremental improvement here.  
If Smoak can relax and just hit, the M's could have a good season.  If his development is slow they'll struggle.
I like the starting rotation.  The big positive surprise of spring was the health of Eric Bedard.  If he can stay healthy, and Michael Pineda develops as a big league starter that's a huge bonus to combine with Vargas and Fister and of course Felix.  Was moving Pineda into the five spot the right move?  Compared with the alternatives, French and Pauley, absolutely.  It does shove Fister up a notch, and I do think he's more of a five than a four, but we'll see.  The M's may not have as deep a rotation as the A's, but I do think it's all around decent.
Like Smoak, Michael Pineda is a question mark.  The M's are asking him to develop at the major league level.
The bullpen, sans Aardsma and Shawn Kelly is a question mark.  I'm not a big Brandon League fan.  I think he's one of those physically talented guys without the makeup to win with the game on the line.  I'm afraid the M's will struggle depending on League to close and the Chris Ray, Josh Lueke, Jamey Wright trifecta who will set up.  Wilhelmsen making the team is a great story.  Let's just hope Cinderella can keep the glass slipper.

Bedard and Wilhelmsen are the big surprises of spring training, and if both can stay healthy they'll help the Mariners.  The most fun story of the spring however is that the Mariners have indeed won something:  the Carlos Silva/Milton Bradley bad contract series.  Thus far MB has almost been a choir boy with his attitude off the field and performance on the field.  Silva waddled into camp out of shape and pitched terrible ball, convinced the 5th starter's job with the Cubs was his.  It wasn't.  I hate to chortle and be spiteful, but I endured two years of overpriced, crappy Silva outings and it's nice to see some other team see his true character.

My prediction for the AL West--A's, Rangers, Angels, M's.  I have the M's pegged at 72 wins.  That said, I'm excited for the season to start in Seattle, and I think Tacoma should be pretty fun to watch too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I ain't no swamp running n_____, I'm a man: Sergeant Rutledge

Poster for Sergeant Rutledge.  Note that Woody Strode's billing is eeny teeny.
I promised one final look at a John Ford movie sans John Wayne, and I chose Sergeant Rutledge.   It's a film unlike many of Ford's movies in that it examines a serious issue, racial prejudice. Embedded in the context of a more comfortable genre, the western, and produced smack in the middle of the civil rights era, he hits the right notes.  While Ford's effort is flawed, it is a good effort.  
Sergeant Rutledge quiets Mary Beecher as Apache warriors prowl nearby.
This 1960 courtroom drama is told through flashbacks and implicates highly respected Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode) in the 9th (colored) U.S. Cavalry Regiment in murder and rape.  These being the times they were, little consideration is given for the truth, and Rutledge, convinced he'll be lynched by the public flees Fort Linton.  At the same moment as the murder, young Apache warriors bolt the neighboring reservation and begin a reign of terror on nearby ranches.
A courtroom scene with Hunter as Cantrell, Strode as Rutledge and Young as Shattuck.
The story continues as Rutledge is captured by his commanding officer Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter).  When he rides out to assist a mortally wounded comrade, Rutledge sees his opportunity to escape, and he rides off only to uncover an Apache ambush set for his fellow troopers.  Rutledge returns to save his men, and ride back to the courtroom. The courtroom interactions between Cantrell as Rutledge's defense counsel and Capt. Shattuck (Carleton Young) as the prosecutor are steeped in the innuendo of racial bigotry.  It must have seemed quite unsettling for audiences at the time of the movie's release.  When Shattuck accuses Rutledge of returning to his unit to warn them of the Apache ambush Rutledge's response froze my blood:
It was because the Ninth Cavalry was my home, my real freedom, and my self-respect, and the way I was desertin' it, I wasn't . . . nuthin' worse than a swamp-runnin' nigger, and I ain't that! Do you hear me? I'm a man!
The story ends very Perry Mason-like when the post's sutler confesses to the crime, and Sergeant Rutledge is seen riding off with his command to the melody of "Captain Buffalo."
Jeffrey Hunter as Lt. Cantrell, Rutledge's defender.  Yawn.
 Of all the performances, Strode's is the most impressive.  He gives Rutledge dignity and respect, as well as a knowledge of how the world worked in 1880's.  There is no fawning, no victimhood. Sergeant Rutledge is indeed a man.  The other performances are less impressive.  Jeffrey Hunter is okay as Cantrell, but doesn't leave a lasting impression.  Constance Tower as Mary Beecher is just eye candy.  The most interesting supporting performance is by 76-year old Billie Burke as Cordelia Fosgate, wife of the president of court martial.  One can't have too much of Glinda the Good Witch.

Filmed in Monument Valley, the movie is beautiful.  Unfortunately it can't disguise some of its problems.  This is a serious movie with a serious theme.  Yet, Ford persisted in playing a good deal of it for laughs.  Lots of drinking jokes, lots of silly patter between the members of the court-martial are unfunny and unnecessary.  The lame attempt at romance between Cantrell and Beecher goes nowhere and is uninteresting.  The ending in which the true criminal is revealed feels tacked on and unsatisfying.  The portrayal of some of the black cavalrymen seems stereotyped and one dimensional. 

 Yet, for all that, Ford took on an important topic for its time.  He portrayed a subject, African Americans in the frontier U.S. Army which few people knew about in 1960.  Ford took Rutledge's character and together with Strode gave him dimension.  This is a difficult DVD to find.  It is only available as part of the John Ford Collection, but it is definitely worth your time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Swan Song: The Shootist, John Wayne's last picture show

The Shootist was John Wayne's last movie.  Released in 1976 and directed Don Siegel, the film was one version of how art imitates life.  Wayne, who died of cancer in June 1978, plays J.B. Books, an aging, notorious gunfighter who is diagnosed with a tumor.  He travels to Carson City, Nevada, an up and coming town in the 1901, to meet with Doc Hostetler, an old acquaintance, played by James Stewart.  Hostetler confirms the diagnosis, and assures Books his end is inevitable and will be agonizing. 
Wayne as gunfighter J.B. Books. "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them."
With a bottle of  laudenum in hand, Books looks for a place to live out his last days in peace and dignity.  He settles in at Bond Rogers' (Lauren Bacall) boarding house, trying to keep his identity a secret.  However word gets out that J.B. Books is in town, and visits by the local yellow press and the town marshall (Harry Morgan) are followed with exits by Rogers' boarders. Books strikes up a friendship with Rogers and her teenage son Gillom (Ron Howard.)  Gillom is starstruck by Books' past, the men he's killed and his skill with guns.  While Books is slow to warm up to the young man, they form a friendship that only deepens when Books drives off attackers in his room one night. 
Wayne and Stewart
When Hostetler stops by to examine Books again, he assures the shootist of his end, and the assured pain he will suffer:
"You know, Books; I'm not an especially brave man. But, if I were you and had lived my entire life the way you have, I don't think that the death I just described to you is not the one I would choose."

Knowing what lies ahead, Books plans for one more gunfight, and rides off into the sunset, in a metaphorical sense. 

John Wayne is great in this movie as a proud man, having led a life carefully bound by rules of pride.  "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them." Forced to confront his imminent mortality, Books must make connections with Hostetler, Bond and Gillom Rogers.  He earns their respect, then their friendship, before taking the streetcar to meet his destiny.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Bacall was nominated for a BAFTA award as best actress, and Howard received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor.  Stewart's Hostetler is honest and forthright as a man who does not flinch at Books' condition. 

If there is something missing from the movie, its the development of those Books will battle in the climactic gunfight at the Metropole.  Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brien, and Billy McKinney are just cutout characters, lured to the excitement of dispatching a legend of the Old West.  We don't really understand their motivation for wanting to shoot it out with Books, but they do anyway. 

The Shootist is John Wayne's last movie.  It was a fitting and touching memorial to a man that bestrode Hollywood for so many years.  For a man whose career was filled with good, not so good and godawful movies, this is definitely one of the better ones

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Here Kindle, Kindle, Kindle

Li'l ol' Kindle.  Got bunch of books inside little machine

How many of you have bookshelves that look like an explosion in a bible factory?  Pages everywhere, books askew, stacks of volumes on the floor so high you can't see what's in your bookshelves.  Me neither.  At least not at the moment, but I have certainly had times like that. Fortunately I've now added bookshelves on every free wall in the house.  No, really there are no more free walls for more bookcases.  The really bad news is the shelves I do have are 95% full.  Mostly with my books.  It's sad.  What will I do?
My really big bookcase full of lots of books and little room to wiggle.
Corner bookcase with books and stuff.  Look, there's some space (but I think it belongs to Lorri.)
I've gone through episodic buying and purging and I always feel like I'm giving away my children.  What would I give up next?  My 100+ Osprey books.  (No way, it's important I know all three different permutations of American riflemen in the War of 1812.)  Or should I part with one of my three baseball encyclopedias?  I don't think so. Lewis and Clark books? Nope.  Richard Sharpe novels, huh-uh.  100 Years War collection? Non.  Tolkien's History of Middle Earth?  No way.
It's a good thing it wasn't the Hundred and Ten years war because I don't have room for the extra decade. 
Wargaming Bookcase looks pretty full.  I might be able to squeeze in an extra set of rules or so.
 This is all compounded by the realization that of all my vices, buying books is the most pernicious.  I've cut back buying movies by streaming Netflix.  I've reduced, though not eliminated, my military miniatures purchases-mostly because I have so many laying in various places crying out to be painted and played with. But books--they're my worst spending habit.  Not that books are bad, or reading isn't a pleasure that shouldn't be indulged.  But I've got lots, plenty that are unread, and I just need to throttle back--at least until I figure out where to put them.

But there's hope.  Casey, not a reader, passed along his Kindle to his mom, not reading much recently.  Seeing it unhappily laying around by itself I decided I needed to experiment with it.  A few weeks ago I downloaded a collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories for a buck and a half, and I've spent the last three days reading "At the Earth's Core," one of his Pellucidar stories.  I have to say it was a very pleasant reading experience.  Casey also purchased a very nice cover for the little machine with a nice, lightweight book light.  The most attractive part of the Kindle, however, is that it stores books and therefore I don't have to search for space to house mine.

That doesn't mean that everything is roses.  Kindle editions of books are not cheap.  In fact it isn't unusual for electronic versions of books to cost more through Amazon than the print versions.  Case in point.  I have seen Reza Aslan, the Iranian author and commentator, on television a number of times commenting on his books.  One of those that interests me is No God, But God, on Islam and fundamentalism.  I bought the Kindle version because I really wanted to give it a whirl.  The cost was $11.66.  The print version was under $10.  There are many ways to spend piles of money on your Kindle, downloading magazines and blogs, which you might otherwise be able to access for free.  Caution: black hole of outward cash flow ahead.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Don't you think it's wrong . . .

That Howlin' Wolf's version of "Smokestack Lightning: is the theme song for Viagra?  Yes, I'm sure the Wolf was the picture of virile masculinity, but not "Smokestack Lightning."  It's probably one of the greatest vocal performances of all time.  If you've heard it and shivers don't run up and down your spine, check your pulse.  Definitely one of my top five songs of all time. If you've never heard it, run straight to your iTunes store and spend a buck. I promise you won't regret it.

A theme for erectile dysfunction medications; how the mighty have fallen.

So to speak.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Snyder Vs. Phelps and why it's the right decision even if it makes us nauseous

Westboro Baptist Church hater-in-chief, the "Reverend" Fred Phelps
The boobs who populate Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas are hate-filled wretches who make me want to puke.  Their demonstrations at the funerals of returning soldiers with signs shouting "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" despite the fact the soldiers had nothing to do with the homosexuality they fear, they don't understand, and refuse to accept, is ridiculously intolerant for Americans who claim they love their country.  Such views have much more in common with fundamentalist Islam than 21st century America. 
Who actually does this?  Westboro Baptist Church has 80 members including young children that also wear hate attire.
Unfortunately, when a jury awarded $5 million to Albert Snyder, father of Mathew Snyder, a young Marine corporal, killed in Iraq in 2006, I could see the handwriting on the wall.  These foul demonstrations, orchestrated by Pastor Fred Phelps are reprehensible and should disgust us.  Yet they represent political speech on a public issue and as such must be protected by the Constitution.  When the court ruled in favor of Phelps 8-1, my only surprise was that the decision was not unanimous.  The written decision by Justice Roberts as well as Justice Breyer's concurrence both indicate a certain amount of disgust and nose holding while bolstering the rights of unpopular minorities.  While I'd like to praise Justice Alito's sensitivity in his dissent, it's just wrong, sadly.

 So Phelps and Westboro stand with their 1st Amendment protections intact.  It is as it should be.  However, dear readers, that does not invalidate your own rights on this issue.  Don't hesitate to express your own views on the Westboro practice of plaguing the funerals of those they don't know or care about.  Don't hesitate to use cyberspace to dismiss Fred Phelps and his followers as moralizing neanderthals representing nobody but those within their church's walls.  And for god's sake don't hesitate to contact your congressional representative to question the tax free status of any church demonstrating so publicly regarding a political issue.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My Favorite Movies: The Quiet Man

Movie poster from the Quiet Man

My attachment to The Quiet Man goes back a long way.  I remember watching this as a boy on a black and white set on a Saturday afternoon.  I miss those days of free television with lots of movie re-broadcasts.  My mother, with her father a native of County Cork, never let us forget we were Irish, and there is something charming about this John Ford/John Wayne collaboration.  It earned Ford an Oscar for best director, as well as another for best cinematography, and another five nominations.  The Quiet Man was another successful pairing for Wayne with co-star Maureen O'Hara. 
Sean Thornton (Wayne)  spies "White of Morn," the family home for the first time with Michelene Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald)
Made in 1952, Wayne plays Sean Thornton of Pittsburgh who has returned to the old family home in Inishfree. A negotiation with the wealthy Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick)  lands Thornton his home "White of Morn" but sparks conflict with landowner and neighbor Redwill Danaher (Victor McLaglen) who also covets this land.  The animosity deepens when Thornton is smitten with Danaher's lovely sister Mary Kate (O'Hara.)  Danaher initially rebuffs Thornton's advances, but falls for a scheme orchestrated by the local matchmaker (Barry Fitzgerald) and supported by the village priest (Ward Bond.)  Though Sean and Mary Kate were wed, Squire Danaher's anger at his deception denies them Mary Kate's "fortune," which leads the couple to all kinds of ill will. Thornton's secret is revealed.  He is "Trooper" Thorn, a boxer in America who killed another fighter in the ring.  Though an accident, Thornton was never able to forgive himself, and fears fighting any man, even the deserving Danaher.  The climax of the movie comes on a knock-down drag-out display fistfight between Thornton and Danaher that seems to range across the entire county.
Thornton and Flynn ask Danaher's (Victor McLaglen)  permission to marry his sister, as Mary Kate (Maureen O'Hara) looks on hopefully

On so many levels this is an interesting movie.  The story is complex with subplots.  Thornton's secret.  Danaher's pursuit of the Widow Tillane.  The conflict of customs between America and Ireland.  Mary Kate's need to possess her fortune in her own right.  However the best aspect of the movie are all the interesting and quirky characters.  McLaglen is fabulous as Danaher, and Bond is wonderful as Father Lonergan.  Another standout is Arthur Shields as the Reverend Mr. Playfair and Eileen Crowe as his wife.  The most charming of the cast is Fitzgerald as Michelene Og Flynn, the village matchmaker, who is as elfin and Irish as can be.  O'Hara is smart, tough and beautiful, a perfect match for Wayne's brooding physical presence and conflicted combative character.
The fight of the century ends suddenly here, at Cohan's Pub

The Quiet Men, from left: Francis Ford, John Wayne Barry Fitzgerald (front), Victor McLaglen, John Ford (director.)  McLaglen was nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Redwill Danaher.
There are many memorable scenes. One of my favorites is the horse race for the Inishfree Cup.  The women of Inishfree offer their bonnets as favors for the finishers.  Six racers, seven bonnets.  One is left at the end--you guessed--it Mary Kate, while the winner, Thornton carries off Tillane's bonnet, much to the chagrin of Danaher.  Lots of pouting and the plot to free Mary Kate from her brother's house is hatched.  The best part of the movie is the ending fight between Thornton and Danaher.  Beginning with Thornton retrieving Mary Kate from the Dublin train, dragging her back to her brother's house and the ensuing melee, the show lasts about fifteen minutes.  It ends at Cohan's pub when Thornton says two simple lines-"Barkeep, bar towel.  What time is it?" and with the response blasts Danaher through the pub door as the tour buses line up to see the fight of the century. 

It's a fun movie, a feel good movie, that portrays Ireland of the 50's as a paradise that it almost certainly was not.  It was likely much closer to Angela's Ashes than the Quiet Man.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting story with quirky characters and great performances.  I don't ask for much more.