Thursday, July 31, 2008


Several of my co-workers, all from the sales department, like to laugh. No, I mean they really like to laugh.

Sometimes, often on Thursday nights, they'll gather in front of somebody's office and do their thing, the conversation peppered with raucous laughter. It makes me forget about deadlines.

Kinda bummed today. One of my favorite co-workers, Jessica Pinson, left to take a great job at Christian Academy of Knoxville. She'll be missed.

I'm still thinking about last Sunday's shooting.

The Tigers lost to the Indians 9-4.

It's been that kind of day.

Then I remember I'm getting paid to write. I think about singing last Sunday night with Robinella. It brings a smile.

Plus, good buddy Tim Reeves is coming over tonight for a bull session we had to reschedule when I got too sick to watch the All-Star Game. His wife Michele is graciously watching the girls tonight so Tim can come by.

Oh, life is good. It's hard to stay bummed for long.

Sometimes, though, I think I'm so close to something -- and, yet, it might as well be a million miles away.

Don't ask me to explain that. I'm not sure I know myself.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Long-ago mystery keeps Jake awake

So you sit down to read a little while and all hell breaks loose.

Plopped down into my recliner about 9 p.m. last night. Wanted to make a big dent in this Sam Sheppard murder trial book that's keeping me up late ("The Wrong Man" by James Neff).

Got all comfy. Worked my way through a few pages. Sam is in jail, the trial is about to start.

Then the phone rings.

So, I make it through one conversation, then the call waiting buzzer sounds. Off I go to conversation number two.

Then I smell a strange odor. I look up, and see smoke coming out of the top of my halogen lamp.

I think the thing is on fire, so I turn it off, and unplug it. "Nah," Dewayne Lawson says via Macon, Ga., "you've just got a fly in it."

Sure enough, I did. Didn't see it at first, but it was quite dead when I looked this morning. I'm chucking the lamp anyway. Gonna go get a LCD after work tonight.

Crisis averted, calls completed, I finally get back to the book.

The Cleveland prosecutors at the time were, according to the author, shameless. The local press didn't help much. The deck, shall we say, was very much stacked against the good Dr. Sheppard.

Even the late Dorothy Kilgallen, then a star columnist for Hearst and my favorite panelist on "What's My Line," missed a major scoop. Turns out that the judge, Edward J. Blythin, told Kilgallen during a private conversation before the trial began that Sheppard was "guilty as hell." What's even more amazing is that Kilgallen, a sharp reporter, didn't reveal this nugget until years later at a press banquet in New York.

Well, I got up to the point at which the prosecution rested its case. I'm eager to see how this goes from here, because right now, the prosecution's case seems totally based on hearsay and circumstantial evidence. I do know this: given the climate of the time, I can't believe that Sheppard wasn't granted a change in venue. Seems like the whole town wanted him to fry.

Anyway, I got to bed about 1:30, which wasn't too bad. Sadly, I had dreams that I was somehow caught up in the middle of the Sheppard murder.

I'll be glad when I finish this book. It's starting to consume my life.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Somewhere amid the madness

It's got to stop. We've got to make it stop.

You live out in the 'burbs, kind of carry a naive view of the world with you anyway, love black-and-white movies and don't get into too much trouble. Life, for the most part, is good.

Then something like yesterday's church shooting happens and all that gets thrown out the window.

Words fail you at a time like this. A loner, apparently bitter with rage over perceived slights by the "liberals," opened fire on a sanctuary full of innocents yesterday in West Knoxville -- during a children's play.

Thank God no kids were injured. But they witnessed this tragedy. And, now, two people are dead.

Reports are surfacing today that the accused shooter's ex-wife was a longtime member of the church. The alleged shooter, apparently, hated "blacks, gays, anybody different from him."

How does something like this happen? How can somebody become poisoned by such animalistic rage, such utter contempt for their fellow human beings, that they decide to do something so utterly unthinkable?

What I hope comes out of this is the same thing I hoped would happen after 9/11: that we tone down the rhetoric, stop yelling at each other, sit down, and listen. Just listen. One person starts talking, the other one listens. Then you flip flop and repeat the process. We've got a whole lot more in common than the things that divide us, I promise you.

I got home last night and read a few pages from the latest Newsweek about a kid who was shot to death in a California school because of his sexual orientation. I turned out the lights and thought about things for a long, long time. My last conscious thought was, "What kind of a world have we created?"

It's difficult to understand the anger. All you have to do is watch people drive down the street. God forbid you pull out in front of them. You might just get shot.

My work takes me into the schools from time to time. Some of the ugly things you hear children saying to one another will shock you.

I don't know where all this comes from. I don't so much buy into the "blame the movies" bit. One of my favorite films is "Death Wish" and I've never once felt the inclination to take to the streets to kill criminals. After watching a beloved Bugs Bunny cartoon, I've never once hit anybody with an oversized mallet. I don't know what the answer is.

But, I do know that somewhere amid the madness, we've got to start to listen to each other. We've got to quit insulting. We've got to stop getting angry over nothing, harboring resentments for years, and make things right and try to love each other. The sad fact is we're not guaranteed tomorrow. We may never get another chance.

I think I've finally figured out why I love old, sappy westerns, baseball, black-and-white TV from the '50s and going to hear Robinella sing on Sunday nights. In part, I think it's because I need something I can count on, something that will give me the illusion of continuity, something that will make me forget about the world and its harsh realities for an hour or two.

I'm corny. I like movies with happy endings. I like TV shows about families that could never have existed anywhere in America. I like it when John Wayne catches the bad guys at the end of the picture. I like Robin's sweet songs about love and loss.

I don't like the anger I see around me. I don't like to hear about a shooting -- in a church sanctuary, of all places.

I am moved at the heroism of the man who put himself in harm's way yesterday to literally take a bullet for his congregation.

But I hope with all my being that we do everything we can to create a society in which such sacrifice is never needed.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

'These dreams of mine'

I honestly don't think she knows how good she is.

Sat at the bar tonight. Hadn't planned on coming, but I didn't want to go home. And somehow, for some reason, I just needed to hear her sing. Maybe it was that terrible shooting, I don't know. I just felt like I should be here.

So I sat at the bar, watched the girls, talked to Mike, who's here all the time, and to Andrea, who came later. Robinella did her thing, as she always does, the beauty of a thousand summer sunsets encapsulated in that voice.

Andrea wanted to hear "Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down," so Mike asked for it. Robin sang "Left, Right, Back, Together" and I swayed to and fro, amazed that someone this talented lives right here in our neck of the woods.

"You know, Mike," I said, "I've paid $65 to see people sing before, and here I pay 5 bucks. I feel like I'm ripping her off."

Mike nodded. I lost myself in the beauty of Robin's voice.

Wanted to hear something sad, so I walked up to ask her to sing one of her originals, "These Dreams of Mine."

"So are we going to sing tonight, or what?" she says.

I grin, absolutely amazed, and say, "Well, yeah, if you want to."

So we did. I had to pinch myself, still unable to believe I am on the same stage with this kind of talent.

After "Amanda," she sang my song, and I floated away somewhere, that place to which I always ascend when she makes her music. I tried, as always, to stop time, but it ended, as it must.

I walked out into the summer night, thanking God for bringing this special soul into our midst, for giving her the voice of an angel.

Thanks again, Robin. You're the best.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

My favorite curmudgeons

Some people call me a nice guy, but deep down, I'm a curmudgeon. Or, at least I'd like to play one on TV.

The folks at work kid me about identifying with the crusty old man in every TV show. A few examples: Col. Potter on "M*A*S*H." Lou Grant on both "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Lou Grant." Perry White on "Superman." Mr. Pitt on "Seinfeld." Everybody Loves Raymond's dad.

Really, I just get a kick out of watching some classic old guy get pissed off.

My favorite big-league managers (Earl Weaver, Bobby Cox, Billy Martin) threw legendary fits. Cox leads the league for most ejections. Weaver was the most colorful, but Martin was the champ -- hands down.

I slept late this morning and stayed in bed even longer -- but was delighted to discover free episodes of "Lou Grant" available on the internet. I watched the first one, where he takes over as the city editor of a Los Angeles daily. Made me remember why I love my job.

Now, I'm watching the Tigers losing another one to the White Sox. But, it's Negro League Night, so both teams are wearing cool unis. I wanna go to that museum in Kansas City. Always wanted a Monarchs hat.

Speaking of the Monarchs, we got to see Buck O'Neil in Knoxville a few years ago. What a treasure he was. Why on earth they didn't put that man in the Hall of Fame is beyond me.

How did I go from curmudgeons to Negro League baseball?

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Holy picture show, Batman!

So I've had nearly 24 hours to digest "The Dark Knight," the new installment in the Batman franchise, now directed by Christopher Nolan.

Here's what I'd say: Brilliant. Amazing. Unbelievable. Stunning.

Even all that, somehow, seems inadequate.

This is a wonderful film. Mainly thanks to the late Heath Ledger, and his absolutely fantastic portrayal of the Joker. Let me get this out of the way quickly: if Ledger doesn't win an Academy Award, that process has become a bigger joke than the Heisman Trophy.

But, beyond that, "The Dark Knight" transcends the comic book genre, and becomes something quite good, something to savor, something to think about on cold, rainy winter days. It's the best -- by far -- of the "Batman" movies made to date, and I dare say is the best film ever adapted from a comic book.

Here's the thing: Ledger drowns himself so much into this role that you forget all about Heath Ledger. Ditto Christian Bale and Batman/Bruce Wayne. Back in '89, when Batmania swept the nation for the first time since the Adam West heyday of the mid-60s, I couldn't get it out of my head that I was watching Michael Keaton. You don't have that problem here.

In this outing, the Caped Crusader is overshadowed in the hearts of the Gotham faithful by the hot-shot new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is promising to rid the city of the crooks and hoodlums who are overrunning the joint. Many, in fact, have come to view Batman as a nuisance, a vigilante, more of a hindrance than a help.

Dent has even stolen Batman's girl, Rachel Dawes, played here by a mighty fine Maggie Gyllenhaal, who takes over for the departed Katie Holmes. Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) is back, as is the great Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler and the peerless Morgan Freeman as Lucias Fox, the keeper of the Batcave.

And that's about as far as I'm going with plot summary. Ledger's Joker raises hell, has a great time in the process, and we love watching it. I didn't think it was possible to outshine Jack Nicholson, put Ledger makes you forget all about Jack's decent turn as the Clown Prince of Crime in Tim Burton's earlier flick. Eckhart's turn as Two Face won't haunt your dreams, but it's a nice surprise.

I can't say one bad thing about this movie. It doesn't fall apart in the middle or sink at the end, as so many of these things do (think about the last third of "Superman Returns.") It holds your attention despite a lengthy running time. It makes you forget all about what you have to do tomorrow, which, after all, is the point of a summer blockbuster.

Blockbuster this is, but let's not downgrade it by trying to lump the movie in with the usual crap that comes out when school's out. No, "The Dark Knight" is something to remember, something to put on the top shelf of the DVD closet. It's damn fine moviemaking, too. I can't wait for the next one.

That's enough, though, because my pitiful words can't do it justice. Just go see it. And, after that's done, go see it again.

It's that good, folks.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Major league wusses

The real story behind the New York Mets' vintage meltdown last night at Shea Stadium isn't the meltdown itself. (It's been that kind of season for the Mets, which blew a 3-run lead in the 9th last night to lose 8-6 to the Philadelphia Phillies.) No, the question -- submitted for your approval -- is why interim manager Jerry Manuel didn't let starter Johan Santana (who'd been brilliant through 8 innings) complete the game?

And that leads to an even bigger question: when did major league pitchers become such wusses?

OK, I'm not a major league pitcher. But, I am something of a historian. And history tells me that this wasn't always the case in our national game.

The whole notion of a reliever (a pitcher who comes on in relief of the starting pitcher) is relatively new to baseball. Sparky Anderson was the first manager I know of to utilize relievers on a regular basis. The longtime Reds and Tigers skipper pulled pitchers so often, in fact, he became known as Captain Hook.

But once upon a time the starting pitcher was expected to go the full 9 innings. It's just what you did.

One of my heroes is former Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich. He wasn't as flashy as the big stud of that rotation, the brilliant-but-troubled Denny McLain. McLain is the last 30-game winner in the majors. A fan favorite, McLain used to play organ in Motown nightspots after games and was something of a bohemian. (He also allegedly consorted with gamblers and has led something of a troubled life after baseball.)

But it was Lolich who carried Detroit to the 1968 world championship. Lolich started three times (three times!) in the 7-game World Series that year. He was a blue collar type of guy, had a slight paunch, and just went out there and won games, often with a "I'm just punching a time clock" mind-set. There was no closer. Lolich took care of bid'ness himself.

Mickey earned the win, and clinched the championship, in the classic seventh game. He's the hero of that series in my mind. Oh, and Lolich also had six hits and a 2-run homer in Game 2. (Yeah, they let AL pitchers hit then, too.)

Complete games were still common up into the 1990s, at least if Nolan Ryan was on the mound. Former Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon brought the practice back into vogue a few years ago. His talented young guns took the team all the way to a World Series championship, and didn't seen to be phased by having to work the distance on a regular basis.

But it's become gospel in baseball to pull a starter after 100 pitches. Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox is a faithful disciple. You can just about set your watch to it.

I hear a lot of talk claiming that this practice keeps a pitcher's arm from giving out too early. But didn't Ryan pitch well into his 40s? And he still regularly threw no-hitters, too.

Seems to me that instead of cursing the bullpen, Mets fans should ask Manuel why he didn't let Santana finish what he started. The MLB should rethink its 100-pitch limit.

And big-league pitchers should quit being such wimps.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A little case of murder...

If you want to get a good night's sleep, don't start reading an engaging murder mystery at bedtime.

Tried to wind down last night with "The Wrong Man," James Neff's fast-paced, well-written account of the infamous 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard in the small suburb of Bay Village, Ohio. And, I proceeded to become enthralled in the tale for the next 5 or 6 hours. So much for slumber.

Most of you know, or have heard about, the story. Dr. Sam Sheppard was a well-respected osteopathic surgeon in a small bedroom community near Cleveland. He was a town big shot, friends with the Cleveland Browns quarterback, (Otto Graham) and the village's mayor, a neighbor.

And it was to the mayor that a distraught Sam Sheppard called for help in the early morning hours of July 4, 1954. Sheppard claimed that an intruder had knocked him out twice a few hours earlier and bludgeoned his wife Marilyn to death. The crime scene was a blood bath.

Those who immediately arrived at the house were sympathetic. Sheppard, himself injured, was taken to his family's hospital. But the county coroner, no friend to the Sheppard family, judged the good doctor to be guilty almost from the get-go. Hot shot Cleveland detectives came to the same conclusion. Both quickly began leaking to the city's three daily newspapers.

Sheppard's forthcoming trial turned into a media circus, the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. Famed Hearst columnist Dorothy Kilgallen showed up to cover the trial, took up Sheppard's cause, and later said she was "shocked" at the resulting guilty verdict. (Kilgallen later revealed that the judge told her that Dr. Sheppard was "guilty as hell.")

After serving in prison for several years (Sheppard narrowly missed the death penalty by being found guilty of second-degree murder), a then-unknown lawyer named F. Lee Bailey took up the doctor's cause. His conviction was overturned and declared a miscarriage of justice. Another trial was ordered; a jury acquitted Sheppard of the murder in 1966.

Forever haunted by the experience, Sheppard died, of liver failure, in 1970. Reports claimed he'd become an alcoholic, drinking as much as two-fifths of liquor a day. His last years were spent unhappily as a professional wrestler.

I've only made my way through the first part of Neff's book, but it appears that the author is setting out to forever prove that Sheppard was indeed innocent. I'll file a final report after I finish the book. The trial became part of popular culture, reportedly inspiring the classic 1960s TV series "The Fugitive" and the later Harrison Ford film based on the series.

There's nothing quite like a little case of murder to get the blood boiling. Just don't delve into it right at midnight, that is, if you plan on getting any sleep.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

One hell of a scribe

I've written a lot lately about my favorite writer, but I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that today would have been the 109th birthday of Ernest Hemingway.

It's difficult to know why one develops attachments to various authors. With Hemingway, I think it's first and foremost because, at his best, he wrote better than anyone else. Period. He's great training for a newspaper writer. Tough, terse prose. Short, declarative sentences. Highly descriptive.

My first contact with him was through "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" in an American Lit class at UT. About that time I also watched an A&E "Biography" on "Papa," narrated by his granddaughter Mariel Hemingway. The following Memorial Day weekend, I sat out on the deck at the cabin, engrossed in "The Sun Also Rises." By then, I was hooked.

Hemingway has been called a lot of things. Overrated, for one, by jealous critics. A genius by others, closer to the mark. No doubt he revolutionized American, indeed world, literature by ushering in the modernist movement -- Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson and a few others.

I'm forever haunted by his depression, by his enveloping madness, by the loss of his ability and, of course, the 1961 death by his own hand. I wonder what could have been. I'm grateful for what was.

It's hard to pick a favorite. "The Sun Also Rises" is quite special. So is "A Farewell to Arms" and "The Old Man and the Sea." I can pick a favorite short story. Hands down, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." Brilliant.

That being said, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" will haunt your dreams. Hemingway once wrote that "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened." Let's just say I felt like I was on that safari, and nearly broke out into a sweat when it finished. I won't say more in case you ever read the piece, which you should, if you haven't.

So happy birthday, Ernie, wherever you are. You were one hell of a scribe, I know that.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

The last innocent summer

So how pathetic is this?

I'm curled up in my recliner, wearing PJs at noon, watching "Dark Shadows" and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I'm feeling better, but still not great, and so here I sit, watching this nonsense ("You can't kill me. I'm already dead!"), eating a kid's meal. After awhile, I'll turn the clan from Collinsport off and watch Justin Verlander and the Tigers stare down the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.

Funny, but this is close to how I spent an entire summer, 15 years ago. Well, minus the migraines.

No, I didn't get headaches back then. Didn't really have a care in the world. That summer, the last innocent summer you might say, I slept late, read books, immersed myself in Dan Curtis's crazy dream each weekday morning at 11, and watched baseball in the balmy evenings.

Looking back, I guess it was a lonely summer, but it didn't feel that way then. I didn't have a point of reference to know any different.

I call it the last innocent summer, because soon after that I met this dark-haired girl, fell in love, and, well, life never has been quite the same.

But that summer, I cared about Fred McGriff coming over to Atlanta from Toronto. I lived and died with the Braves then, TBS, 7:35 p.m. Eastern, Skip and Pete, Don and Joe. Terry Pendleton at third. Dave Justice (damn him for taking Dale Murphy's place) in right, Marquis Grissom, Jeff Blauser, the Lemmer, Tom Glavine on the mound.

And, "Dark Shadows," my goodness. I knew more about Barnabas Collins than I did about the neighbors across the street. It's silly to think about now, the devotion that only a child can give to a TV show. Every now and then I'd get bored and watch a John Wayne western. "El Dorado," for about the 100th time. In the afternoons, I'd sit in the sun, and read books. I've forgotten what -- I'd graduated from the Hardy Boys by then -- but the titles are lost to time.

But the summer ended, as they always must. Then my dad sold his house, and I didn't get the Sci-Fi Channel and "Dark Shadows" anymore. I kept the Braves, but that fall I met that little dark-haired girl with the perfect teeth, and my priorities changed, probably for the worst.

Now I'm 15 years older, but still watching baseball, immersed again in "Dark Shadows" (thank you, Netflix), am madly in love with several dark-haired girls.

What is it they say about the more things change...?

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Not today

Not now. Please, God, not now.

Of all days. You go two years and then, on a week when all hell breaks loose, you get it. Could it be because of tonight's full moon?

Migraine is back. With a vengeance. Last night's lull was just that.

I'm here in the office, trying, failing miserably. Nick's mother passed away. I'm trying to keep that perspective.

I can't read without becoming nauseated. Two guys are bouncing around on the roof, cleaning gutters, making it worse. I want to go home. I want to go to bed. I want the pain to go away.

And I wish she were here. With all my being, everything in my soul, I wish she were here. I want to put my arms around her, feel her touch against my skin, drown in the warmth of her being.

But she isn't here. And I can't go home.

And the pain, hidden or otherwise, won't go away.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

A novel idea...

Been awhile since I've had a migraine. Almost two years. Here's hoping I don't get another one until the 12th of never. Cause, you know, that's a long, long time.

OK, now that's out of the way, let's get back to livin'.

So, here's a novel idea for you.

I'm going to take the plunge. Finally getting serious about it. Yes, I'm going to sit down and write the novel. The story. The idea that's been bouncing in my head for years.

It's started out as a gift for a dear friend. But, it's just the inspiration I've needed.

The idea came to me after watching "Lost in Translation" back in '03. I'm starting there, and mixing in a little bit of Bernard Slade's "Same Time, Next Year" along with my own high school reunion, a little bit of Larry McMurtry and whatever else comes pouring out of my screwed up brain.

It may end up being a short story. It could be a novella. I'm hoping it will turn out to be the Great American Novel. Whatever the case, I can use the experience. It's one thing to whip out the 500-word column each week. It's quite another to go for the big one.

My goal is to get up, work out and then write for at least one hour each morning. That's doable, right?

As long as the headache stays away, I plan to start this weekend.

Wish me luck. I'll need it.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

'Mad Men' saves the day

Update: "Mad Men" has been nominated for several Emmy Awards, including Best Drama Series, a first for a basic cable TV series.

So, I don't have much to say tonight. Been sick the last couple of days. Somebody shoot me. This sucks.

But, I needed to duck in here for a few minutes. I miss writing. It's like breathing, or eating, something you do to survive. Such is my life.

The best part of the last two days -- other than spending an hour with the gentle soul that is Roy Mullins for an interview -- has been getting to watch an episode or two of the finest program currently on television, Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men." If you haven't seen this A-No.1 piece of entertainment yet, put it at the top of your Netflix queue, run don't walk to your local DVD retailer or be in front of a TV when the show rolls out its second season later this month on AMC. This is good stuff -- no really.

I feel too poorly to look up the show's details, but "Mad Men" focuses on a group of hot-shot advertising executives at a Madison Avenue firm (hence "Mad Men") in the early 1960s. In many ways the show is a male fantasy. It's set in the politically incorrect, sexist Manhattan of 1960 -- pre-women's lib -- when secretaries were objects of lust, philandering was almost required, and everybody drank like fishes and smoked like a sieve.

But, it's more than that. At its best, "Mad Men" shows the stifling frustration of such a life for its female characters. It shows the duplicity, and unhappiness, of many of its leads. And, frankly, it's just a well-acted, well-written show, a novel trait itself in this vast wasteland of reality series and game shows.

OK, that's enough for now. I think I'm going to turn in early. Thanks for listening. I've missed talking to you.

God, I need something for this headache. Oh, well. Goodnight.

Season 2 of "Mad Men" begins Sunday, July 27, on AMC.

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Monday, July 14, 2008


Times have sure changed.

Hard as it is to believe now, baseball players once had to take jobs during the offseason to make ends meet. Roger Maris, the year he hit more single-season home runs than Babe Ruth, made less than $40,000. Heck, back then baseball was *the* sport. Nothing else came close. Now, that too, has changed.

Went over to Doug Harned's house tonight to show him "61*", Billy Crystal's excellent 2001 film that highlights Maris's run for the record. Doug had never seen it. Which surprised me, given what a big baseball nut Doug is.

He enjoyed the film. And, I must say, it's only improved with age.

After the movie ended, Doug went back into his bedroom, promised his wife Mary Jane that he'd go over to vacationing son Dean's house to feed the dogs, and came back out with a vintage Life magazine from 1961. Sure enough, grinning on the cover, is Maris and Mickey Mantle.

I thumbed through the pages, marveling at the pictures, shaking my head. In '61 you could order a year's worth of Life for $1.98. Big ads graced the pages for everything from Lucky Strike cigarettes to products that don't exist anymore.

And, in the middle, is cool photos of Mantle checking his swing and Maris running the bases.

If I knew where former baseball commissioner Ford Frick is buried, I'd probably go spit on his grave. Maris didn't deserve the asterisk beside his record. Yeah, so he played in 8 more games than Ruth that season. Well, Ruth didn't have to play at night or travel to the West Coast. Fay Vincent had the good sense to remove the asterisk in 1991. Too bad it came six years after Maris's death.

Maris didn't deserve the treatment he received, from either the fans or the New York press. So goes the territory, then as today, when one plays baseball in the Bronx. Some things never change.

Came back home and didn't bother with the home run derby. No, I was lost somewhere in my nostalgia, landing tonight back in 1961, when baseball was still king, and the M&M boys graced the cover of Life.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

You gotta wonder...

You gotta wonder about people sometimes.

Ate brunch at my favorite spot downtown today. Ordered the usual: mountain eggs, mixed fruit and brunch potatoes. Favorite server Lindsey waited on us. Found out she's working toward a doctorate in forensics at UT. She wants to go into law enforcement.

Headed over to McKay's with time to kill before "Vertigo" at the Tennessee Theatre. Found a couple of good pieces on Hemingway, a travel book on Vietnam, a memoir I'd read good reviews about, and a Lost Generation classic.

While strolling down the biography aisle, I noticed two roughnecks, out of place, hastily coming in my direction.

"I didn't know this many people read," one said, loudly, to the other.

I looked up, sporting what I'm sure was an angry look.

"Yeah, it's great. Some of these books don't even have pictures!"

During the movie, a couple of hours later, the guy two seats down from me actually laughed -- loudly -- when the police officer falls to his death off a roof at the start of the film.

"I didn't know this was a comedy," said I to the person on my left.

"Me either. What a moron."

Still, it's difficult to ruin the screening of a Hitchcock classic in an old-time movie palace. I went home happy, still wondering, though, about the guy who laughed out of place.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

'The Last Picture Show'

Some movies stay with you long after the lights go up, rattle around in your head for days, make you think about life and love, the agony and the ecstasy and how the weather was.

So it is with "The Last Picture Show," Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 masterpiece, based on the Larry McMurtry novel. Watched it last night after reading McMurtry's new novel, "When the Light Goes," which returns to the town -- and to some of the characters -- featured in the film.

Although Duane Moore (called Duane Jackson in the movie) became the focus of both McMurtry's 3 sequels and the 1990 film sequel "Texasville," "Picture Show" is really Sonny Crawford's story. He's Duane's best buddy and they both come of age, with a few bumps and bruises, in the small West Texas town of Anarene (called Thalia in the novel and based on McMurtry's hometown of Archer City) in the early 1950s.

Sonny (brilliantly played by the underrated Timothy Bottoms) is a somewhat tragic figure, stifled by the rigid confines of his hometown, unsure of where he's headed. Duane (Jeff Bridges) is his cocky, somewhat unlikable best friend. They're both in love with Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, in her film debut), the flippant rich girl in town.

When they aren't playing football or making out with girls at the picture show, the boys hang out at the pool hall owned by town patriarch Sam the Lion (the late, great Ben Johnson). Johnson won an Academy Award for this role; it is the finest of his distinguished career. The scene where he's talking with Sonny at the water tank about a long-ago romance is one of American cinema's finest moments.

Anyway, Sonny has an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the high school coach's wife; Jacy gets Duane to sleep with her long enough to lose her virginity so she can impress a local rich boy; Duane and Sonny split over Jacy -- and on it goes. This sounds like "Peyton Place," but in actuality is the most realistic portrait of small town life ever put to film.

Bogdanovich wisely shot in black-and-white and used no score; instead, he peppers the film with music from the period, especially Hank Williams tunes. It carries with it a stark, documentary feel.

I don't know why I love this film as much as I do. It had to be controversial for its time, given the nudity and the frank portrayal of what kids do together when they're alone.

But it's honest, it's sad, it comments on the despair that lies below the surface of many human lives. More than that, it's an homage to the ending of an era, a good-bye if you will, to the golden age of American cinema.

Bogdanovich was a movie critic before he became a director and was obviously influenced by Orson Welles, John Ford and some others. The last picture show of the title, shown the night the town's movie house closes, is Howard Hawks' "Red River," ironic because that film also portrays the ending of an era.

The cast is superb. Bottoms gives the performance of his life. Bridges somehow manages to make Duane likable. I've already told you about Ben Johnson. And Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan nearly steal the movie as the three older women of the picture. Shepherd is the weak link, although is very much the sultry temptress here, perfect for her unlikable character. Randy Quaid makes his film debut here and Clu Gulager has a fine supporting role as the older town stud.

It's one you have to see to understand, although I must tell you that whatever is at play here once caused me to drive all the way to Archer City, Texas, to see the filming location. Sad to say, the real picture show burned. The building now has a gaping hole in its side.

Which, somehow, is a fitting epitaph.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Back to Thalia

Tonight, if I ever escape this insane asylum called work, I'm going home, fixing dinner and spending the evening with some old friends in Texas.

Not literally, of course. I'm still here in Halls, doing what I love and loving what I do.

But author Larry McMurtry has released the apparently final installment in his long saga of the life of Duane Moore that began years ago with "The Last Picture Show." And, tonight, before I tackle the American Revolution and John Adams, I'm going back to Thalia. The book is called "When the Light Goes."

I'm quite hesitant to return to that sleepy little Texas town. McMurtry is notorious for taking characters you love and doing crazy things with them. (Read "Streets of Laredo," his bizarre sequel to "Lonesome Dove.")

They're his characters. I guess it's his right. But they've bounced around in my head so long I feel some kind of claim on them, too.

Return I will, though. I once drove, as part of a vacation, all the way to Archer City, Texas, McMurtry's one-stoplight hometown and the model for his fictional Thalia, on some kind of crazy, quixotic odyssey.

I ducked into McMurtry's delicious antiquarian bookstore hoping I'd see him, but he wasn't around. I left on the shelf a first edition of James Reston Jr.'s biography of former Texas governor John Connally -- a move I've regretted for four years.

(Film buffs will know the town. Peter Bogdanovich filmed the cinematic version of "The Last Picture Show" there in 1970. I still contend that's one of the finest films I've ever seen.)

It's funny how books, and characters, can grab you. One of my editors, Larry Van Guilder, says they become like old friends, members of the family.

So it is with Duane. When last I left him, he was living in a cabin, going everywhere on foot, in love with his shrink, reading Proust at night.

I feel like this book is going to leave me terribly depressed. But, off I go, back to Texas, to spend a few hours with an old pal.

Mark this down: writers -- and readers -- are a sick bunch.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

There used to be a ballpark

And there used to be a ballpark
Where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I'd never seen.
And the air was such a wonder
From the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used to be a ballpark, right here.

-- Frank Sinatra, "There Used to be a Ballpark Here," 1973

The gaping hole in the side of old Tiger Stadium this morning has nothing on the gaping hole in my heart.

I finally made it to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in the late summer of 1999. It was the last year for baseball at the beloved ol' stadium in Detroit. Me and a buddy from Halls, Drew Weaver, made the 8-hour trek to Motown to say good-bye.

The Tigers were awful that year, as they so often were from 1988 to 2005. But, on this magical Saturday afternoon, they beat the Baltimore Orioles. I've forgotten the score. Cal Ripken Jr. wasn't playing that day, but he brought the lineup to home plate before the game.

It was a special moment in several ways. That game marked the beginning of my enduring friendship with two special pals, Michigan native and "Magnum, p.i." guru David Romas and his wife, Jennifer Bondy. It was also my first -- and only -- visit to the grand ol' girl that was Tiger Stadium. The last home game at the Corner was played that September; the Tigers moved to big new Comerica Park downtown the following year.

We were the last fans to file out of the stadium that Saturday night. We stayed and stayed, not wanting to say good-bye.

I looked out over that green field, thinking about Cobb and Kell, Kaline and Cash, Lolich and McLain, Tram and Sweet Lou. I looked up at Ernie Harwell's broadcast booth and wondered if he'd go to the new park. (He did, finally retiring in 2002.)

I thought about Tom Selleck, who for all practical purposes introduced me to the Tigers through Thomas Magnum in the '80s. And I knew with all my heart that I'd never step into another park quite like this one.

Several groups tried to save the stadium over the last 8 years. Meanwhile, she sat and rotted, cracking at the seams -- sad, lonely, neglected. The wrecking crew tore a big hole in her side yesterday. Looking at the pictures on the internet made me want to throw up.

A group is still frantically working to save the field, the dugouts, 3,000 seats and Ernie's booth. I don't know. From what I understand, it hinges on government money, so I'm not going to hold my breath.

But generations of Michiganders -- and even a Tigers fan from Tennessee -- will forever have their memories. I'll never forget that Saturday at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull for the rest of my days.

"Yes," Sinatra sang, "there used to be ballpark right here..."

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Borne back into the past

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby."

Sometimes it is an escape.

I love history. Hell, I should love it, since I majored in it during college and spend a good portion of my working life writing about it.

But it's more than a vocation. It's very much an avocation. It's a passion.

A few weeks ago, while checking out at a store, I noticed the clerk had been reading David McCullough's biography on John Adams. So, we struck up a conversation. And I realized, while talking about our nation's founders, that part of the appeal lies in the fact that so many of these great characters from history are exactly that -- characters.

No novelist, not even Shakespeare, could dream up the rise and fall of Richard Nixon. Horatio Alger has nothing on Harry Truman's ascent to the White House. Even Dickens couldn't come up with as colorful a character as Teddy Roosevelt.

The American Civil War? My goodness, what to say about that? And we haven't even mentioned European or Asian history yet.

For me, though, I think history is also an escape. To what I'm not exactly sure. I think it gives me an illusion that things were better once, more romantic, more noble. I sometimes get depressed because I look at our current era and its great challenges and fail to see the hero on the horizon who's going to help us fix the mess.

And so, like Fitzgerald's boat against the current, I escape back to the past, back to something I've never known, back to a time of great ideas, back to the interesting, flawed men and women who shaped the American experience.

I like what I find there. But, does it make me crazy if I tell you that sometimes I don't want to return to the present?

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Papa's last summer

They are running with the bulls this week in Pamplona. Which, of course, always makes me think of my favorite writer.

Spent a rather quiet evening at home last night after working out and enjoying dinner at Calhoun's. The Braves were playing on the West Coast and the Tigers were off, so I eased back in the recliner and continued reading A.E. Hotchner's superb memoir of Hemingway's twilight years, "Papa Hemingway."

It's an engaging story, seeing the famed author "behind the scenes," figuratively watching his eyes light up over good wine, bullfights, friends, African safaris and solitude in Cuba. But, it's a sad tale, too.

Hemingway lost something after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1954. He continued to write, but never published another novel during his lifetime. Pain from various accidents suffered during the '50s all but incapacitated him.

I drifted off to sleep just as Hotchner was describing Hem's last true, enjoyable summer -- 1959, the bullfighting trip that was eventually chronicled in the posthumously published "The Dangerous Summer."

Was kinda glad I stopped there. I don't want to read what's coming -- the final summer in Ketchum, Idaho; the shock treatments; the enveloping depression; the suicide.

No, I prefer to think Hemingway is still writing early in the morning in the upstairs bedroom office of his beloved finca in Cuba. Or he's sipping on fine wine somewhere in Paris. Or he's enjoying the year's best matador at the bullfights in Spain during the fiesta.

He will forever live on through his words, but I just wish he'd have lived to be an old man.

Sobering thoughts for a would be writer on a muggy Tuesday morning.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Thoughts at twilight

Fiction, perhaps...

Thought about her last night as the sun dipped over the horizon.

I remembered how beautiful she looks during this hour, felt the familiar longing, not trying for once to push it away.

I want to hold her until the sun returns from its slumber; I want to see her face at first light.

I took another sip of the sugar water, felt the pleasant burn, wondered for the millionth time how something so sweet could hurt this much.

I come here sometimes to sit and think awhile. You can clear your head here, relax, figure out what it is you need to do. I made a mental note to bring the wood up from the side of the cabin. I would need it in the morning for breakfast.

It's peaceful here. But, it's lonely, too.

Life is full of mystery. People come, people go. Sometimes they return. Sometimes they don't.

The phone rang in the other room. I didn't answer it. Didn't want to talk.

Instead, I thought of twilight, of how beautiful she looks in the dark.

But it was time to push such thoughts away. I rose, snuffed out the flickering flame, shut the door.

Sleep refused to become a companion.


Sunday, July 06, 2008

Saying thanks to Pete

ATLANTA -- The man was sitting by himself just outside his barbecue joint. I debated on whether to bother him, finally decided I needed to say thanks.

Several years ago, when they first told me about the Black Dog, one of the things that got me through a rough period was listening to Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray call Atlanta Braves baseball games. I'd been a fan from way back, before anybody came to watch the Braves, back when the team often found itself lodged in the cellar of the National League West.

Pete and Skip called every game on the old WTBS Superstation. You could count on them being there, season after season. After a few summers, they began to feel like old friends.

Pete was the serious one. They called him the professor. His concise delivery contrasted nicely with Skip's acerbic wit. I guess I've spent more time with Pete and Skip (3 hours a night on average, six months a year, for about 20 years) than anybody else outside the family.

Things changed, as they always do. For awhile, the Braves became one of the best teams in baseball. Then that, too, changed.

Pete and Skip are no longer on TV. (Skip does call a few games on Peachtree TV). WTBS doesn't even carry the Braves anymore. Pete hangs out solely on the radio.

Last night, I walked up to him, introduced myself, shook his hand and told him how much he and Skip have meant to me down through the years, especially during the dark days. He smiled, said "wow" and "thanks" and shook my hand.

Thanks for everything, Pete. You're the best.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

The livin' is easy

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- What a week.

Sure has been one to remember. Singing with Robinella, hangin' out and talkin' with a good friend for hours on the deck, Biltmore Estate, bistros in downtown Asheville, barbecue with pals on the Fourth.

And now, baseball, the Braves and Astros, in the ATL.

Don't like the drive. Had some time to kill, so we bypassed the Indy 500 that is I-75 and came down Highway 411, through south Maryville and down through Tennessee into Georgia. Nice jaunt through the heartbeat of America.

"You know," J.M. says, "the president and everybody in Washington should have to drive down a stretch like this at least once a month. Just so they see how most Americans live."

We passed an old A@W drive-in. I was tempted to get a root beer, but we kept going. Drove by the little theater in Etowa, where I once heard several groups sing that good ol' gospel music, back in the day.

Saw a place advertising glider rides and figured that would make a good story. Wonder if I could talk Scripps into paying me to drive around the backroads, looking for people, telling their tales?

Nah. Gas is too expensive.

We're chillin' at the hotel before navigating I-75 into the ATL. The Braves managed to win one last night. They are 4-7 during their last 11. The Astros have lost four straight.

I left my Braves Hawaiian shirt at home. But, I've got a pencil, a scorecard and money for something cold to drink.

Summertime, and the livin' is easy.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Finishing touches

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Mayfel's advertises blue plate specials and burgers on its window.

Ducked in after the Tourists' game tonight (Asheville hangs on to beat the Rome Braves 4-3). I'm getting a little light headed because lunch seems a long time ago.

I'm also miffed because the joint doesn't allow separate checks without a $1 fee, but I order a Dixie Lager from New Orleans and watch people go by while waiting on my burger.

Listen closely and you can hear snippets of conversation.

Some samples:

"Look at your leg," one guy says to another. "You've got the bite to prove it. I'd kill that dog."

Just after 10, two guys walk up with two girls from out of town. But serving hours are over.

"They're closed," one says. "Nothing stays open late here through the week."

"Man, they're going to think this town sucks."

But it doesn't, and it's the seductive power of this place that leads you back downtown, even after a ballgame.

The server is named Elizabeth. She's got pretty eyes and a great smile. I forgive her for not taking separate checks.

A little later I order a PBR, toast a dear soul with it, and put the finishing touches on one of the most relaxing vacations I've taken in years.

Thanks, Asheville. You've made another fan.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Blue city thoughts in a red state

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- I'm sitting in a joint called the Bier Garden watching girls make their way down Haywood Street.

Downtown Asheville is a happening place, even on a sleepy Wednesday night. Folks are everywhere. A series of shops, bistros and cafes pepper the place. It can give a guy from Knoxville a complex. Or at least a sense of envy.

The big news in the local alternative weekly is that a new book, Eric Weiner's "The Geography of Bliss," declares Asheville a happy place to live. And why not? I know I could stay here awhile.

The author will be here tomorrow night, across the street from the Bier Garden, signing books at the quaint Malaprop's. I ducked in before dinner and almost bought Weiner's tome just to see what the fuss is about.

Found the regional authors section and was tempted by a Thomas Wolfe novel I don't have, since he's a local and all. But I shied away from the $50 price tag and snagged instead a 50th anniversary copy of "On the Road." Kinda in the mood for Kerouac.

It's beautiful here tonight. Mid-70s, not a cloud in the sky. This is to-die-for weather, a "Please, God, don't let this ever end" kind of a day. I'm tempted to sit here the rest of the night. Curiosity gets the better of me, though, and I settle the bill and explore.

A little later I pass an art gallery I wish hadn't closed an hour before. I listen awhile to the street musician near the bookstore play his banjo. I laugh at a local newspaper's moniker. (Think "Superman.")

And I'm glad I found my way to this eclectic little blue city snugged into the western mountains of this ruby-red state. For the second time in three days, I shake my head, and wonder what could have been back home.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

'What if'?

CHATTANOOGA -- Spend a few hours here, and a fella from Knox Vegas can't help but ask, "What if?"

AT&T Field is nudged comfortably into downtown, as all ballparks should be, just a stone's throw from three hotels and up the hill from that cool aquarium. It's within walking distance of several restaurants. You can get to and from the interstate with ease. People are actually walking around downtown on a Monday night.

Ahh, our neighbor to the south has one-upped us.

We arrived at the ballpark an hour or so before first pitch. I walked into the gift shop and secured a Lookouts hat that I'd wanted for several years. Then I walked around the concourse for a few minutes before stopping to flirt with the girl working the Yuengling table.

Our seats are on the first row, literally behind home plate. I chew on my burger, fill out my scorecard and again ask myself, "What if?"

"Man, if the Smokies played in a park like this downtown, I'd be there every night during the season."

But, they play in Kodak, another county away, and gas is four bucks a gallon. Sigh.

Chattanooga jumps out to a 4-0 lead in the second over the visiting West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. Looks like a blowout's brewin', but Jaxx starter Travis Chick settles in and doesn't allow another run during the five other innings he works. The Lookouts, in fact, fail to score again.

But the Jaxx whittle away, taking advantage of those dreaded late-innings walks. Their cleanup hitter, right fielder Mike Wilson, sends a shot out to left-center in the fourth, providing the offensive highlight of the game.

The Lookouts have to send five pitchers to the mound, but they stave off the comeback, and Derrik Lutz wiggles out of a jam in the 9th to win 4-3.

We walk into a picture-perfect summer night amid happy partisans. Several hop on a trolley waiting at the bottom of the hill. Others head toward one of the hotels.

I walk in the direction of the parking lot across from the aquarium and curse Victor Ashe for the 100th time for letting my team escape to Sevier County.

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