Friday, December 29, 2006

Taking stock in '06

I still don't know all the words to "Auld Lang Syne," so we'll skip that and just get on with it.

What a year this has been. Lot of good memories.

You gotta start with your family, and what a good one I have. Glad for everything. My grandfather has just survived a cancer scare and for that we are grateful. My mom's side of the family are all out in Wyoming, playing cowboy. Will be glad when they return. Christmas wasn't the same without them.

And my friends. Well, what can I say, except I have the best friends in all the world. They've made me laugh, cheered me up, rooted me on, laughed at my bad jokes and provided me with a lot of good times. Don't feel like I deserve them, but I'll never be able to say enough how much I love them.

I'm especially thankful for all those old friends who I've gotten to know again. That's been a true delight, and still boggles my mind. Of all the things that happened in the past year, that's probably what I'm most thankful for.

Two thousand and six will be the year the Tigers got good again. And the year the Braves' dominance finally came to an end. Well, you take what you can get. Easy come, easy go. I'm already counting down the time till Opening Day.

This was the second consecutive year of kidney stones. I can sure do without that.

I'm forever grateful that I made it through the two or three bad go-arounds with the Black Dog. Those of you close to me know what I'm talking about. Chances are, you helped me through it. I can't say thanks enough.

As the year comes to a close, I look forward to '07 and to having more laughs, more good times, listening to more music, raising more Cain and getting into more trouble. Life is an everyday adventure. More often than not, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

I've always felt like I've led a charmed life. Nobody should have ever been allowed to have this good a time. I often don't think I deserve it, but I thank you for coming along for the ride with me.

Here's to a good year. And here's to many, many more.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

So long, Jerry

The 38th president of the United States is dead. He was 93, and was the oldest living leader in our nation's history.

I never met Gerald Ford. But I did visit his library in Grand Rapids, Mich., last year. What I found there was the story of a decent guy, Mr. Middle America, who was a superb athlete at Michigan (not the clumsy clown who fell down the steps of Air Force One) and a dedicated small-town leader.

Ford was a popular Republican in Congress, well-liked by members of both parties. He was immediately seen as a welcomed alternative to Spiro Agnew after becoming vice president in October 1973 and later to Richard Nixon himself.

When Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford declared "our national nightmare is over" as the only man never elected to either office became president. His decision to pardon Nixon that September probably cost him the presidency in 1976, but the move is almost universally lauded today.

He was never flashy, never all that polished, probably were it not for Watergate would have ever become vice president, much less the leader of the free world. What he always wanted was to be Speaker of the House. But that was a dream never meant to be.

But he was honest, decent, very much in love with his wife and one of the few good guys in politics. He'll be remembered for steering the ship through some rough waters.

So long, Jerry. Godspeed to you, Mr. President.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The sound of the stillness

THERE IS A STILLNESS that happens the day after Christmas.

It's as if the earth takes time to pause, to slow down and remember the words, before hurrying on to the next chapter. Oh, the shoppers rush back to the malls and to the stores, in search of rebates and returns. But for those who have the good sense to stay away from all that, the reward lies in the quiet.

Even at the office today, nothing much stirred. Some woman called (yep, you guessed it, the child's mother) wanting to know when a particular school's spelling bee winner would run. Somebody else had ordered Marvin West's latest book and hadn't received it.

I typed in a few obits, made the usual rounds telling jokes and inquiring about coworkers' Christmases, then found my way to the car by 3 p.m. This was for the birds. I had a nap to take and an episode or two of M*A*S*H to watch.

Ahh, yes, Alan Alda's great gift. Four years and nearly 251 episodes after buying Season 1, I hate to see the 4077th shut its doors for the second time. (Has it really been 23 years since the last episode?) Rarely does a show surface that makes you laugh, cry and think about things --- all in 24 minutes. I'm in danger of becoming a humanist in my old age, but I love the show. Particularly the later, sentimental ones.

Tonight was Allison's lasagna and good conversation round the table. Dean says the supper table can be found in the most sociable room in the house and tonight anyway he's right. We talk movies and make fun of each other, laugh a lot and bask in the glow of each others' company. It's a good night.

Then it's on home for another quick M*A*S*H (what's this? Winchester falls in love??!!) and I doze in the chair while reading Stephen King's latest.

Well. Guess a bunch of stuff happened today after all. Who knew?

It was hard to tell over the sound of the stillness.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Jake's early Christmas present

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And this year, he's wearing an Atlanta Braves cap!

Gather round, friends, and order what you'd like. This round is on me. Do I have a Christmas present this year!!

I spent most of '06 down and depressed. My old friends, Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren, weren't doing many Braves telecasts this year for reasons explained in earlier blogs. Instead, it was torture having to listen to Fox announcer Bob Rathbun. I never thought anyone could make me purposefully skip a ball game, much less a Braves game. Well, Rathbun succeeded.

My post earlier in the week hinted at this very topic. I was contemplating spending 2007 without my beloved team, the one thing that has remained constant in my life since childhood. It was a bleak forecast, indeed.

And then came Dewayne Lawson's phone call and the story in today's paper. It may have been raining this morning, but the sun was shining at the Mabe house.

What's this? Rathbun and his partner Jeff Torborg (who I must say is a fine baseball guy and a decent color commentator) are out. Our old friend Joe Simpson from TBS will be doing the majority of the games next season with a newcomer, Jon Sciambi.

Thank you, Santa!

Simpson is a good guy and a longtime Braves announcer. He knows his stuff. I don't know Sciambi, but a blind man with a bad cold could do a better job than Rathbun. He won't be Skip, but trust me, I'm not complaining.

Joe will also be doing TBS games with Chip Caray. And our old friends Skip and Pete will be just a dial away on the radio and Skip will show up to do a dozen or so games on Turner with his boy Chip.

Call me crazy, but I feel like I've won the lottery.

I got my team back!


Thursday, December 21, 2006

'Rocky' climbs back in the ring

Somewhere amid all that “Italian Stallion” mumbo-jumbo and wastes of time like “Cliffhanger,” Sylvester Stallone learned how to act. And direct.

Don’t laugh, but “Rocky Balboa,” the latest, and hopefully last, chapter in Stallone’s career-making franchise, is a fine picture.

The film opens as Balboa (Stallone) is mourning the loss of his beloved wife Adrian, who succumbed a few years back to what Rocky calls “the woman cancer.” He lives in a little rundown house in South Philly, owns an Italian restaurant (called Adrian’s) and tries his best to reach out to his estranged son Rocky Jr. (Milo Vintimiglia).

But he admits to his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) that he’s got “stuff in the basement,” demons needing to be exorcized. All that remains moot until ESPN simulates a fight between Balboa and the current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver).

Balboa wins. Dixon, criticized for not fighting worthy opponents, is in need of a PR triumph. Rocky is looking for a road back.

And so an exhibition fight is set up in Las Vegas and thus, too, is set the crux of the film. Rocky climbs back in the ring for one last round.

What makes “Rocky Balboa” so good isn’t the climactic fight. Rather the film’s success lies in the scenes leading up to the climax—Rocky struggling with Adrian’s death; his touching “adoption” of Marie (Geraldine Hughes) and her son Steps (James Francis Kelly III); the gulf of emotions separating Rocky and his son.

In scope, feel and aesthetics, this film is the true sequel to the first “Rocky” film. These movies have always played on America’s sentimental fascination with the underdog. For the first time in 30 years, Balboa is just that – and it works quite well.

There is less of an emphasis on the star spangled patriotism or professional wrestling gimmicks that marred the mid-1980s sequels. No, this film is about that guy we fell in love with years ago — the simple dude from Philly who worked his way to the ring the old-fashioned way.

Rocky has always been Stallone’s best role and his take on the aging champ is real and believable. His direction is understated—at least until the fight, where the strange, “you’re watching this on HBO” technique falls a little flat. This may also be the best acting performance of Stallone’s career. Really.

The whole thing feels like one big nostalgic trip, back to the days when movies were designed to make you feel good, and stories could be told without one pyrotechnic show after another. It’s familiar and refreshing, right down to Bill Conti’s familiar score and Stallone’s trek—this time with a dog—up the steps of the art museum.

The ending is somewhat clichéd, and maybe even underwhelming. But somehow it all works. The final scene, and indeed this entire film, is a fitting epitaph to a beloved American character.

I didn’t have high hopes, but “Rocky Balboa” succeeds brilliantly. After all these years, “Rocky” is still the champ.

“Rocky Balboa” is now playing. It is rated PG.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Counting the days...

Where is that blasted game when you need it?

Never fails. About this time of year I start feeling antsy.

I plop in front of the tube about 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and flip on the infernal machine. "Where's Skip and the Braves?" I wonder for a millisecond.

Then I remember. It's December. Instead, I get Joe Buck calling a pro football game on FOX.

Which is OK, cause I love football. But it will never take the place of my first love.

I can still see Murph playing right field. I used to idolize that man. I'll never forget his goofy grin and clean-shaven All-American looks. Part of me never has forgiven Dave Justice for taking his place in right. And I've been trying for years to forget that Murph was traded to the Phillies --- and ended his career in Colorado.

He's always a Brave. He's forever wearing those hideous powder puff blue unis. And he's running in from right at the end of the inning, when Skip or Pete tells you the score and you wait about two minutes while the TBS promos fly by.

So much of that is gone. Murph, of course. And Bob Horner and Claudell Washington and Gene Garber and Bruce Sutter and all those Braves.

So, too, for all practical purposes, are Skip and Pete, and games starting at 7:35.

And I can't stand it. I'm mad, depressed even. I'll only watch the Braves 35 times this coming season --- the 35 times they are on TBS. Time was, I'd see about 100 games a year. I'd even record them if I was going to be out. But no more. I refuse to suffer through bad baseball, which is what Fox Sports and Bob Rathbun offer.

I'm flirting with the thought of buying UT or Smokies season tickets this year. Just to keep me near the game. I'll admit the luster has worn off of the majors. A part of the game (and a big part of me) died during that strike year. Barry Bonds, Bud Selig and steroids have done nothing to help.

Even that brief, wonderful, "Yes, this game is still the greatest" interlude that was the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998 is now a forgotten mirage, full of lies, smoke and mirrors. This may be the first season in years when I don't bother buying opening day tickets in Atlanta. Just don't seem to see the point.

On nights when nothing is on TV (which is just about every night of the week anymore), I'll put on the Ken Burns documentary and watch Babe and Mickey and Duke and Campy and Denny McLain and Christy Mathewson and the other ghosts of the game rise from the mists of memory once again. It reminds you of what was once good, and could be again.

Minor league ball has become a favorite in recent years. For about $10, you sit right at field level. The hot dogs are a buck on Monday nights and the players still give a damn. Every now and then, you'll see a kid wearing a tee-ball uniform with a fresh face and a little glove on his hand. He's about seven and in love with the game and it reminds you of childhood, as well as why you still adore this silly 'ol game.

But here it is December. The college game begins in a couple of months, high school starts in March, the majors in April. Until then, you get by on pro football and college basketball and count the days until spring training.

Get here as fast as you can, springtime. That's all I want for Christmas -- for the sun to be setting just as the first pitch is thrown. The weather is always sunny and in the 70s (hell, that was today) and the game is always a 2-1 pitchers duel that isn't settled until the last frame.

Bring me a bat and a glove, Santa. I'm ready to play ball.

Monday, December 11, 2006

This is driving me crazy..

OK, quick. Have a seat and let me tell you about this. Cause it's driving me crazy and I can't keep it to myself anymore.

Heard this song today. Well, not for the first time, because I've known about the song for some time. But it came on the random shuffle this morning and I've never been able to figure out what the song is totally about and it's DRIVING ME NUTS!

The singer is Johnny Mathis and the song is called "Yellow Roses On Her Gown." Some of you may have heard of Mathis (if you haven't, he was a pop singer who scored his biggest hits from the late 1950s to the late 1970s). I know plenty of Mathis fans, but I've never met another soul who has ever even heard of this song.

I found it in a collection of Mathis CD's I bought eight or nine years ago. I gather the track was never a big hit. It may never have even been released as a single.

But it's a hauntingly beautiful song about a guy who watches as his parents' marriage collapses. That much I know. What I can't figure out is why and what exactly happens to the mother.

The song is a strangely crafted piece of music. There's no chorus, no bridge, no "payoff" at the end. It is, however, a haunting lyric combined with a beautiful piece of music.

I've only come across three references to the song online in 10 years of looking (not counting CD sales of the Mathis album it's on.) One was a review by a Mathis fan who heard him sing it in concert nearly a decade ago. The other is in a review of a new show by a guy named Marcus Simeone, who performs a few Mathis tunes in his New York nightclub act. I've e-mailed Simeone to see if he knows anything about the song.

The final reference is an fan review from a guy who correctly says this song is the apex of the Mathis discography. But even he makes no comment on the song, other than it's a fine piece of music.

In the liner notes to the album, Mathis says he likes the song because of its word pictures about northern California and its sentiment about the mother, which he says expresses a lot of his feelings about his own mother. He says he's never met the writer of the song, who is only listed as "M. Moore."

This is one of those quixotic journeys that only obsessed music lovers will understand, I guess, but it's making me crazy. If anybody has ever heard the song "Yellow Roses On Her Gown" by John Mathis, or otherwise has any idea about the lyrics of this song, drop me a note at

I'm also going to get a couple of friends whose musical expertise I admire to listen to the song to see if they can make heads or tails of what's going on.

Here's to tilting windmills...

Friday, December 08, 2006

A night for heroes

It was a night for heroes. Pull up a chair and let me tell you about it.

The annual Halls B&P Christmas banquet is one of those things you complain about having to go to, then when you get there, you love it. That was indeed the case tonight.

Start with the speaker. John Ward is just what St. Mary's guy Jerry Askew says he is -- a living legend. Volunteer football and basketball just hasn't been the same since the venerable play-by-play announcer hung his microphone up for good in 1999.

I used to sit on the sideline at the old Brickey Elementary School and "call" basketball games during Mike Ogan's gym class. Every basket was a "bottom." During football, every touchdown meant you had to say "Give Him Six!"

Ward is a class act, no doubt about it. His word pictures brought the gridiron and hardwood Volunteers to life for two generations of Tennessee fans. Hearing that voice again was something else.

But wait. It gets better.

The B&P always picks a Halls Man and Woman of the Year. We've had some good ones down through the years, people who literally built the community into what it has become. But this year's recipients are that rare, precious commodity --- fine human beings.

Donnie Ellis and I once spent an evening going through old Shoppers in his basement. He was Sandra Clark's first Shopper guy. He did a little of everything, but his heart bled Big Red football. He covered the Red Devils for 25 years --- stopping ironically enough the year before Halls won the state championship in 1986.

I've driven with him to upper East Tennessee to tag those No Ugly Trees, I've sang Southern Gospel music with him, even got to sit in his cool Red Hummer when he first bought it. Donnie's a good one. I'll be forever thankful we became pals.

And, gosh, what to say about Millie Norris.

I told this tonight at the banquet: I'll never forget the first time I met Millie. She came up to me at a Halls High banquet a decade ago.

"I just gotta get my picture taken with Elvis," she said, making references to my then occasional appearances as The King around Halls.

In the proceeding 10 years, I have never once seen Millie without a smile on her face. She's one of those gentle souls we all wish we could be --- you always leave her presence feelin' good, and consider yourself blessed just to know her. If anybody ever deserved to be Halls Woman of the Year, it's Millie.

When you're a kid, you admire the big league ballplayers, the talented performers, all those great actors you see on TV and in the movies. But they aren't really heroes.

That word should be reserved for the people who get up early on Saturday to pick up trash. They are the volunteers who sit with the elderly or take meals to those who can't do for themselves. You can find them in every community, although they don't usually draw attention to themselves. We've got two good ones here in Halls.

And, boy, you gotta use the word hero when you talk about them, now.

Cause they are. Yes, indeed, they are.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's a wonderful life (and film)

OK, have a seat and we'll talk about one of my favorite little movies, since it's getting to be Christmas and all.

(Am I the only one who gets nauseated at the thought of going to the mall this time of year? I swear, it's enough to turn Mother Teresa into Ebenezer Scrooge. Definitely doesn't say much for humanity. But I digress.)

I had to whip up a quick column to fill space this afternoon, so I chose a discussion of a charming little picture, Frank Capra's 1946 classic "It's A Wonderful Life." Who can resist James Stewart as the small-town hero George Bailey -- the type of guy we all hope to be and down deep inside know we aren't.

Never will forget that scene at the end, when Stewart and Donna Reed gather together with their onscreen children around the Christmas tree, with all of Bedford Falls in the parlor, proclaiming George "the richest man in town."

OK, it's corny. Yeah, it's overtly sentimental. But it's Christmas. Isn't this the time for such things?

Whatever idealism is still left in me hopes that my town is still like that. The cynic in me knows better.

But wait. This is Halls. So a little of it is true. Folks stop by here just to chat. Jay Newcomb and Tud Etherton regularly bring vegetables that I take to my grandparents. Dwight Smith stopped by on Monday for no other reason than to talk baseball for an hour. Kind of makes up for the people who show up to complain or yell at me for something I did (or didn't do).

My friend Chuck Maland, gentle sage and film studies professor at UT, says he frequently sees his students well up with tears after he shows "It's A Wonderful Life" in class.

"The movie presents a vision of community where people really do care about each other," he says. "The fact that people often end up crying tears of warmth is because they are responding to that part of American democracy that we could do well to cultivate more."

I guess I've got my rose colored glasses on tonight, but isn't it something to think that one little guy changed an entire town simply because he took the time to care about others?

Something to think about here at Christmas, even when you already lead one wonderful life...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

My kind of guy

File this one in the "My kind of guy" department. You're going to like this story. Pull up a seat 'cause this one's on me.

Bryan Curtis has an amusing little post on about a former Philadelphia Phillies southpaw, Don Carman, who finally got around to granting his request for an autograph --- 16 years later.

Curtis was like another guy I know. He used to send ball players letters, with cards and self addressed stamped envelopes included, asking for autographs. Every so often he'd receive one.

I laughed out loud at one of his lines. He said he figured the way to get the best response was to avoid members of the All-Star Team.

"Gods may not answer letters, but middle relievers generally do."

My favorite players as a rule were always the guys who just went out there and did their job. For every Dale Murphy and Pete Rose I loved, there was a Mark Lemke and Otis Nixon lurking in the shadows. I think my favorite pure hitter from childhood may still be Tony Gwynn.

Anyway, back to the story.

Curtis received a letter at his mother's home the other day. It was from Carman. Seems he'd been cleaning out his garage and found a box --- with about 250 letters he'd never gotten around to returning.

Carman must be a good guy because he didn't have the heart to throw the letters out. So he paid his son, Jackson, 8, to sort them. Carman then responded to each note.

One was from a man whose terminally ill wife Carman had visited in the hospital. He wrote that man a three page letter and is still waiting to hear from him.

They say baseball is a game for children. A big fan I know still gets razzed by his friends for continuing to believe in the game they all gave up years ago, after the strike.

But if what Don Carman did comes with being a kid, tell me where to sign up.

I think I have a new favorite baseball player...

The entire Slate article can be read here: