Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fit for a King ...

Thanks to my brother Ryan for remind me, via the "quote of the day" on his blog, that today is kind of a big one in the history of this nation.

His quote? It's kind of a long one. It's Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in its entirety, as it was delivered at the end of the March on Washington 44 years ago today.

And how are we doing four-plus decades on? Not bad, considering a black man is a viable candidate for president of the United States, African-Americans have become major movie stars (and Oscar winners), and arguably the most popular person in the country is a black woman who also happens to be a billionaire-with-a-B. Then again, there are still many of us mired in poverty and unemployment, not to mention stuffed in the nation's prisons. Not to mention idiots like Michael Vick. So, there's still a way to go. I think if Dr. King were still alive today, he would be both proud and shamed at the same time.

Lots of ground covered, long way to go still - for all of us.

Keep the dream alive, guys.

Monday, August 27, 2007

To the Dogs (or, Don't Be Like Mike)

Today was Michael Vick's turn. In the tradition of such luminaries as Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback became the latest celeb in 2007 to throw himself upon the mercy of public opinion. Just hours after Vick pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges - charges he had boastfully denied up until now, charges that he lied to the NFL commissioner, the owner of his football team and nearly everyone else about - he did his best to appear contrite and shameful in front of the press and the world.

He said all of the right things. He apologized to everyone he had misled. He said he had found God (convenient, no?) and that he would redeem himself - not as a football player, but as a human being. And he did it all without a written statement prepared by his lawyers in his hands.

And I didn't buy a word of it.

Why didn't I? What was it about Vick's words, spoken in a way that seemed unrehearsed and from the heart, that failed to touch my heart? Why do I still look upon him as a fraud, not just a felon? Maybe because the switch had been flipped too readily. How convenient for Vick to say he was sorry, that he had found religion and seen the error of his ways, now that his ass is literally on the line. His freedom is a foregone conclusion - he's going to jail, even as pundits say that today's press statement (and the inevitable TV interviews - who will get the first one? Katie? Larry? Oprah?) are part of a campaign to rehabilitate Vick's image before the judge presiding over his case sentences him in December. Word is that his lawyers are hoping to get away with probation or maybe house arrest, but that's a pipe dream. He's going away - maybe for a year, maybe longer - and not to Paris Hilton jail either. This is federal, so Vick is going to a real prison - a "Prison Break" prison, if you will, and there's no full-body tattoo that's going to get him out of this one.

More is on the line for Vick, of course. His NFL career as he knew is is done as well. He's been suspended indefinitely by Roger Goodell, the still-green commissioner of the league who already has shown himself to be a hard-ass when it comes to discipline. Vick not only participated in illegal behavior, he gambled on it as well, and gambling is the third rail of professional sports. All of the leagues are deathly afraid of the taint of gambling, of what it can lead to - the very corruption of their sports. And the leaders of said leagues will do whatever it takes to keep the stink of gambling out of their houses. Just ask Pete Rose about that one.

Vick's suspension is lifetime in everything but name. It's Goodell's call whether Vick even gets the chance to play again in the NFL - and considering Vick lied to his face about the dogfighting charges within days of apparently taking an active part in killing fighting dogs with his own hands, I doubt if the commish is inclined to let Vick back into the club for the duration. (Even if Goodell goes ahead and bans Vick for life, the QB could file for reinstatement down the line. This is a standard rule throughout most of the pro leagues - even Rose has filed, so far unsuccessfully, to get his baseball life back. It's a fact that my friend Beth finds frustratingly stupid, and we had an energetic conversation about it earlier today.) But say Goodell does tell Vick in three or four years, 'OK, you're back in.' Some team still has to give him another chance, another contract, and that's going to be a hard sell to make to the community that team is part of. An over-the-hill, convicted felon who murdered defenseless pooches with his bare hands - yeah, this is the new face of your team!

Michael Vick was the face of the NFL, let alone the Atlanta Falcons. He was the most exciting player in a decade, a running-and-gunning quarterback who ran for 1,000 yards in a season - a living video game who was a dangerous weapon on the field. He had the richest contract in league history - $130 million over 10 years. And he pissed it all away for an activity he knew was against the law. And now he wants us, suddenly, to feel that he is sorry for what he did? Uh-uh. Vick is sorry he got caught, and that isn't good enough. His "act of contrition" tour is more about saving his butt and his career more than anything else, the equivalent of another football player searching for the "real killers" and a certain starlet turning her back on partying in favor of good deeds. In other words, total crap. God may forgive Vick, but he's going to have to work a lot harder to get the rest of us to buy his latest scramble away from this trouble.

Don't drop the soap in the slammer, Mike.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

756*: The View from the Stands ...

Thanks to the emergence of the Internets and their cousins, the Google and the YouTube, events that once were the confines of the instant replay on our big TV things have now become part of our domain. And the citizen journalists were out in full force last night in San Francisco to watch Barry Bonds join the famous (and infamous) legends of baseball with his 756th home run. Here, for your watching pleasure, a sampling of the fare that was captured by You the Public in AT&T Park, from just about every angle possible. Pay particularly close attention to the very last video, which shows in vivid detail how average humans can go batshit crazy over a single baseball when the mood strikes them.

Barry Clever ...

You know what I've always liked about the New York tabloids? Their subtlety and light touch.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

756* (Or, Can We Get On With Our Baseball Lives Now?)

And so, like so many things with baseball, with the crack of a bat, it is ended. One home run king steps aside, another takes his place. Barry Lamar Bonds, for better or worse, is the the new all-time home run leader in Major League Baseball. And, believe or not, the game of baseball did not collapse onto itself the moment Washington Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik's fifth inning, 3-2 offering traveled 435 feet into the stands at San Francisco's AT&T Park. The game, and the games, will continue.

In many ways, Bonds' 756th blast was anti-climatic. It wasn't a matter of if he would usurp Hank Aaron's 33-year-old record, it was when. Baseball fans who couldn't stand Bonds for whatever reason - the suspicions about his alleged pharmaceutical assistance, his less-than-cordial relations with the press, the fact that he comes across as not so nice (i.e. an asshole) - had to prepare themselves for the cold, hard truth that Aaron's hold on the homer mark was finite. It had to be tempered with the realization that Bonds, physical appearance and other factors notwithstanding, is still innocent in the official eyes of baseball, having never failed a drug test. That, even if it's likely that he has stuffed steroids or human growth hormone or God knows what into his system, that he is far from alone in the annals of baseball in doing so. That the Hall of Fame is filled with less-than-savory folk, including drunkards, thieves and Klansmen, not to mention Ty Cobb, who didn't get where they were because they were nice guys. That with all of Bonds' faults, and there are plenty of them, what he was on the verge of accomplishing was still pretty damn cool.

So Bonds did it, smashing that specially marked baseball into the cold Bay Area air, plunging a fan (in a Mets jersey, no less!) into his 15 minutes of fame and Bonds into immortality (again). The event was marked with delirium in Bonds' home ballpark, but also with reverence, especially when, in a surprise move, the Jumbotron played a message from Aaron himself, who showed his usual class in heartedly congratulating his successor. (Aaron himself was in a self-exile of sorts in Puerto Rico, escaping the clamor and the inevitable question he would get about whether he thought Bonds had cheated - a question that Aaron can't win for answering no matter what he says.) Then Bonds was handed a microphone by his godfather, one William Howard Hays, and Bonds did something that he very rarely does - he spoke from his heart, thanking his teammates, the San Francisco fans, even the Nationals for understanding what this moment meant to him, and finally breaking down when referencing his family and especially his late father, Bobby. At that moment of rare emotion, I thought of Bob Dole in 1996, who could never overcome the albatross of being a mean old man until the last days of his campaign against Bill Clinton when, the race already lost, he loosened up and relaxed and showed his softer side. Had Bonds been this open with the rest of us all along, I wondered, would we be so hard on him today? Would we have given him more of the benefit of the doubt?

Anyway, it's over now. Sure, Bonds will break the home-run mark with every four-bagger he hits for the rest of his career. But for now, there are bigger fish to fry. There are pennant races that are shaping up to be barnburners - including, shock upon shocks, my beloved Cubs, who are only one game out of first place in the NL Central as of today. And ESPN can let go of their Giants caravan after airing a last-place team's games for several nights in a row. And baseball, always the national pastime, can continue. Because it's bigger than one man, or even one record.

P.S. Don't feel bad for Mike Bacsik, for even as he joins Al Downing, Steve Trachsel and Ralph Branca as the footnote for a historic home run. There are pitchers in the minors who would kill for the chance to be such a footnote in the big leagues. But consider this - the moment I read the article earlier today about how Bacsik's father kept Hank Aaron from hitting his 756th home run in 1976, I knew it was going to happen tonight for Bonds. 'Cause that's how baseball works.

P.P.S. You can speculate all you want about whether Aaron should have physically been at AT&T Park tonight to see his record pass to Bonds' mantle. But Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, had no excuse for his absence. His contempt for Bonds - and his devotion to Aaron, his friend and former player when the slugger wrapped up his career with Selig's Milwaukee Brewers - are well-known. But sometimes you have to be bigger than the moment, and bigger than your own feelings. Worse, Selig's no-show brought back memories of when Aaron was snubbed by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn the night he passed Babe Ruth with homer No. 715 in 1974. That faux pas stung more, but Selig not being in San Francisco was almost as unforgivable. The day he gives up his title will be a great day for baseball. He can't be gone soon enough.

P.P.P.S. ESPN reports that Selig called Bonds in the clubhouse after Bonds left the game in the sixth inning. Boo freaking hoo.