Dracula or Legos

January 23, 2013

Legos are amazing – and going a little too far. I don’t know who created them but that person has probably worth a couple of billion dollars. And, the same person could be both a hero or scourge in your household.

Andrew received a Legos set (is an individual Legos a Lego?) for Christmas.  It is a 1962 Volkswagen T1 Camper Van. The Legos folks can be – if nothing else –  good with the details.

It hasn’t always been that way. I recall the original “sets” challenged your creativity because it was difficult to distinguish pieces. A foot was a head was a leg unless they were painted. Now Legos has engineers and architects to create life-like models. The Camper is so realistic you would think it was designed in Stuttgart. There are 1332 individual pieces and when completed it will be a foot long.

The VW Van used in Tom Wolf’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” had fewer 125 parts.

More than two scores ago friends and I made plastic models. You got a box with all the pieces to assemble a figurine. Cars were big of course. But there was a wave of World War II airplanes. And I recall tanks were big. Mine was an British military vehicle used in beating back the Germans.

Monsters came in a series and everyone made their favorite. Mine was Count Dracula. But there was Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Creature, and the Mummy. They are yawners in a decade featuring Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

My biggest modelling accomplishments were the USS Constitution and Yankee Stadium. Actually I never finished “Old Ironsides.” The rigging was too much for my lack of patience (a life-long short coming). Yankee Stadium was a lot easier. The field, seats and stands were a walk in the park, so to speak. It was all about the prominent facade that distinguished “the House that Ruth Built” – home of my Bronx Bombers.

Unlike Legos, model pieces were glued. Many a model was destroyed by glue smeared or left too weak. Decals were critical. They had to be centered and not ripped.  And a great model required painting. You had to be careful to paint just enough copper on the ship’s hull or get the right green to make sure the Creature didn’t look like Kermit the Frog.

Legos eliminate some of those risks. The pieces fit together as if locked. I haven’t seen any painting. And the VW doesn’t have any decals. It costs $200.

But maybe I’m an old curmudgeon.

Andrew completed an airport and a police station before knocking out the Seattle Space Needle and the Guggenheim Art Museum. Legos Mega stores are in almost every major city. Are they for kids? My 6-year old grandson wanted one for Christmas. A friend’s 25-year old son – with a science degree from Cornell – wanted one for Christmas. Legos may be a vacuum cleaner’s worst enemy but I guess they are also the models of Andrew’s generation.

I wonder if they have a Yankee Stadium set.

A Look at Ebbets

August 22, 2011

I’m lucky to have gone to games at both the “old” Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. Dad would take my brother and me to see the two. He didn’t have a lot of time for the Yanks. But we got to go anyway – Mom was a native of the Bronx. Dad grew up a Giants fan, adopted the Mets, and took us to the Polo Grounds.

But I never saw Ebbets Field. The Dodgers had left for the coast playing at Wrigley Field in LA (taking the Giants with them) before I knew of baseball.

Now my cousin’s son Heinz can give us an idea of the site and place. Check it out.  

                                       http://newyork.untappedcities.com

Feeling the Magic?

August 19, 2011

The Milwaukee Brewers look like they could win the National League Central Division. They have a 6 1/2 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. They have only 38 games left.

Brewers fans are getting excited. They are starting to talk in hushed tones about the teams Magic Number.

In Major League Baseball parlance a team’s Magic Number is calculated using the number of games left and the lead a team has in the race. If a club leads the race by 3 games and there are 5 games left, it’s magic number to win is 3. And, a club’s number can be reduced when opponents lose.  

By Labor Day all but a few teams know their number will never be called.  Some teams never get a real shot for a Magic Number, like the ’62 Mets and, well, nearly every Cubs club. 

I’m getting nervous. It’s too early to start doing the math. Yet twice in the last 24 hours the Magic Number was referenced.

First, there were some Milwaukee sports radio guys. “So, there’s only 40 games left …… and they have series with the Mets, Pirates and Cubs …….. so you figure……. it would almost be impossible to miss the playoffs….” Similar extrapolations were being conjured using the more complicated two-team method. “OK, the Crew gets the Mets, Pirates and Cubs for 10 games but the Cardinals get the Cubs, Reds and Astros……so the Brewers should get 4-6 wins out of that week while the Cards can expect…….” It’s beginning to sound like winning the division is a foregone conclusion.   

But there are 38 games left.

The Brewers have a miserable road record and they’ll be playing in New York and Pittsburgh the next 7 games. They get at least three games left with St. Louis. They could face a hot club on the road. And injuries can crop up.

They have been scoring only 2-3 runs a game over the past month. They won a 1-run game last week by pulling off 3 double plays and one triple play. They won another when their runner moved from first to third on a passed ball. He then scored the winning run from third on a passed ball. The runner? Their catcher, batting 7th in the order. 

There are 38 games left.

The Brewers could collapse like the ’51 Dodgers. Or the ’64 Phillies. They could choke.

There are still 38 games left, people are calculating Magic Numbers – and I just received an invitation in the mail to purchase playoff tickets.

They have no chance.

A Sinking Feeling

July 28, 2011

It’s a little league axiom: “Every kid wants to pitch.” 

Andrew is no different. He had pitched over the past two years, getting through 3 good stints and getting roughed up once. He had completed 4 innings benefitting from nervous hitters and line-drives ending innings.

Sure it was modest success, but his record was better than mine. At his age I was pitching in the Ho-Ho-Kus (NJ) little league, 4 or 6 team.  I was the Falcons’ best starting pitcher. In fact, the only pitcher. And I still share the worst win-loss record for little league in New Jersey history – 0-10 or .000. So when Andrew announced he wanted to pitch I wasn’t going to tell him he couldn’t.

But I was concerned. First, he is an 11-year old in a league for 11- and 12-year old kids. They get first shot. Second, the A-Train is neither big nor aggressive. Finally, he just didn’t look like he had the arm strength.

With about 5 games left Andrew told his coach he wanted a chance to pitch. All kids in the TOSA league are given a chance to play any position. The coach assured Andrew he’d get a chance.

There were three games left – a scheduled game for Monday; a rain-out on Wednesday; the season finally on Thursday. We would be vacationing Thursday. Andrew expected to pitch either Monday or Wednesday.

Now the most important thing a little league pitcher can have is control. Most players at 11-years old are unreliable fielders. Most catchers are sentenced to the position. Walks abound. Runners frolic around the bases. Andrew’s Red Sox had won a game 20-13 and lost another by 15 runs.

But success could come by knowing half the batter are hesitant (scared), doesn’t have a swing (hacks) or don’t know the strike zone. If a pitcher throws strikes he can get by or better.  

Andrew, Micheal nextdoor, and I prepped him. I paced off the 50 feet creating a chalk spot on the drive way for the rubber to a plate. We eliminated the “windmill” his wind up and faced him at the plate. He’s righthanded so we pushed him to target the plate by extending his left arm using the “eagle spread.” Turn the hip, follow through and touch the ground with his right arm. Easy.

Sure. Right.

Time for the secret weapon. Andrew would grip the ball to create a “sinker” effect. And it worked. He threw 30 over two days. Seventy-five percent  dropped. He was ready.

Wednesday night came. Andrew informed his coach he was ready. His coach told him he wouldn’t be pitching. He didn’t even have Andrew in the line-up. The coach had Andrew down as on vacation.  

Andrew didn’t know what to say or do. It was all I could do to rip the guy’s head off.    

But the Red Sox had a bigger problem. The game was scheduled for 6pm. At 5:30 there were three teams limbering up. The coach had the boys at the wrong field. The Red Sox forfeited.

The coach pronounced was a great opportunity to practice with a scrimmage. They would play 6-a-side and a Dad would ump behind the mound. Teams would change after 3 outs or 4 runs. The coach divvied up the teams as the 11-year olds vs the 12-year olds. Great.

In the first inning the younger guys went down with out a run.

The coach for the youngsters club announced, “Andrew, you are the starter.” I quietly blessed him.

Andrew trotted out like Tim Lincecum – without the stuff. He warmed as we had talked. The batters were snickering.

Then Andrew was quickly up 0-2 on the first batter. The older boys were laughing at their peer before he hit it hard back at Andrew. He muffed it.

The runner got to 3rd on the next two pitches – both strikes. The third pitch was a strike but fouled off.

Andrew was throwing strikes and the sinker was working.

The next batter popped the ball up ten feet among the first basement, second baseman and Andrew. It’s little league. The three of them allowed another to call it. None made the play.

Two errors. A run in. A man on first. 

Andrew coaxed Cameron to produce the same pop-up. This time the first baseman called the pop – and dropped it.

Three errors. Two runs in. A man on first. 

The next pitch resulted in a ground ball for a force at second. Andrew was throwing strikes. The ball hadn’t left the infield, and the big guys were having a tough time. The sinker was working.

Big Charley stepped in. The kid could hit, evidenced by his home runs during the season. He would belt one in the playoffs.

But Andrew didn’t seem impressed. He was focused. And he and Charlie battles for about 5 pitches, all strikes. Andrew didn’t have the velocity for a strike out. Charley couldn’t make good contact.

The A-Train threw Charley one more sinker……..and it didn’t. In fact the fighter squadron at Mithell Field tracked the ball for about 15 miles. Charley trotted home.

Four runs in. Inning over. Pitching season over. But the assistant coach umping behind the mound asked “Wow, they couldn’t hit Andrew. What was he doing?” It was the best performance in the scrimmage. 

The Red Sox would get smacked in their only playoff game, done in by a 9-run inning tossed by the coach’s twins.

No matter. Andrew wants to play Fall Ball in late August. I have to start pacing off the 50 feet.

Tell the truth. Last April you picked the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the NL Central Division. Yeah, me too. And we’re both liars.

As I write this the Pirates are either a half game ahead or behind the Milwaukee Brewers in what will be the most interesting division race this season. The NL Central looks like a 4-team battle. The Reds were last year’s winners. But St Louis were a preseason favorite though many thought the Brewers off-season acquisitions would give them the edge.

But no one, I mean no one, predicted the Pirates would be in the mix with 70 games to go. And why would you? They finished the 2010 season with 105 losses and last in the NL Central. They have not had a winning season in 20 years. 

These are not the Paul Waner, Pie Traynor, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazerowski, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargel’ family. All indicators are they don’t hit. 

In fact the Pirates’ batting average (.247) is 11th in the league. The Cards, Reds, Brewers, and the Cubs and Astros have higher percentages. They are 11th in runs (371), 13th in home runs (62), and 11th in on-base percentage (.314).

They are not prolific.

The Pirates can pitch. Their young staff allows 3.40 earned runs per game. But doubters and stat guys would point out their WHIP (1.31) is the same as the Reds and Cardinals. The Brewers’ number is at 1.32.

They don’t field as well as the Reds and Cards (the Brewers are a softball team in the field).

History says they can’t win. When they were contenders in the 70’s, there was the Big Red Machine. Sure they had a big family once, years ago. But when they had the next shot Bonds couldn’t throw Sid Breams out at home. Sid Bream for crying out loud. It’s been high profit team constantly selling assets.

Sure, history can be a poor predictor. But I wouldn’t bet on them. They are the Pirates.

An MLB Death March?

July 14, 2011

I was thinking  about two upcoming trips. Both begin Thursday. Both show promise. The question is whether each can avoid becoming a Death March. 

The Brewers are enbroiled in a war with the St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. Only one of the three will play in the post season. It is a whole new season.

And the Brewers begin this new season on the road. Their trip will take them from Colorado to Arizona to San Francisco. So far this year the Brewers have gone 7-5 against those three. Not bad. But then 9 of the 12 were at Miller Park.  

The Brewers have the best home record in the National League (33-14). Unfortunately, they have the worst road record in the league (16-29). Heck, if the Brewers had the Padres’ road record (21-25) they would be back in Milwaukee printing playoff tickets.

Well, OK. You get it. They don’t have to play 50% ball on the road to have a 5-6 game lead to win the division.

What explains the disparity? Who knows? It’s enough to be alarming.

And it could get worse. The Rockies have been average  at home (22-22).  But Arizona (23-19) and San Francisco (28-16) defend the house very well.

And where are the Cards and Reds starting the second half? The two first go to the Queen City. They hate each other. It’s either good for the Brewers or LaRussa’s guys get a leg up in the tightest of divisions.

The Cards then go to NYC to meet the Mets (what’s left of them) before playing the Pirates (and let’s not forget the Pirates). All of the three series are on the road.  

The Reds travel to Pittsburgh and go back home versus Atlanta. Atlanta is a playoff team but I’m not sure anyone “travels” from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. Mark Twain’s characters may be. Advantage Reds. 

The point is the Brewers get the daunting  schedule. They travel the furthest. They have the longest stretch. And they are already the worst road club in the league.

I could be wrong. I often am. But it seems the Rockies often beat the Crew. And I know the D-backs have been beating the Brewers both home and away. Maybe the Brewers will finish a long trip by winning a series against the Giants. Sure.

The Brewers will welcome the chance to come home and host the Cubs. Well, may be. The Cubs have beaten them 5 of 7.

A promising season could be over in a week.

Meanwhile my family travels this weekend for 4 days  in the Wisconsin Dells.  It’s an annual get-together with the extended family. Her extended family. Getting smacked around by the Rockies doesn’t sound too bad.

The Mid Summer Classic is upon us. It’s time for MLB to truck out the best of the game – the All Stars. It’s a time to recognize and enjoy player performance. And it’s changed a lot.

I was lucky to go to the 1964 All Star Game. Dad had gotten tickets and drove us off from New Jersey to Flushing Meadows. In my 10-year old existence family road trips had included the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore. Now there was Flushing. It could be land of  the ’64 Worlds Fair and the All-Star Game, but it was Flushing.    

Maybe Robert Moses liked Shea Stadium. I never did. Of course it couldn’t compare to the “House that Ruth Built.” But having also been to the Polo Grounds, Shea just didn’t feel like a ball park. Maybe it was just because I was 10 and didn’t truly appreciate what architecture, concrete and steel could create.

There wasn’t an All-Star “Festival.” There was the game. The game was in the afternoon.

There was no free agency, no interleague play. Players could be ID’d by team and league. And while they competed to get to the Series, they played together against the other side. Bragging rights.  

There was no ESPN-produced “Home Run Derby.”

There was batting practice. That was batting practice with the Mick, Harmon Killebrew,  and Al Kaline. Not bad. But consider the NL: Mays, Aaron, Clemente and Stargell. And the Nationals had Cepeda, Groat, Flood, Mazeroski, Williams and White. Is that six Hall of Fame members?

A youthful Joe Torre played for Milwaukee (the Brewers have 3: Braun, Fielder and Weeks). Ever the clever youngster I quipped, “Hey, if Joe Torre was afraid they could call him ‘Chicken Catcher Torre’.” Rimshot. Two hours in the car was tough on Dad and Bill.

Players wore their own uniforms in 1964. If you lived in the NYC metro that was no big deal. Having both the Yanks and Mets meant all of the visiting uni’s were coming through town. But for some fans it was part of the experience.

In fact, during BP I asked which team had the bright red caps. They weren’t the Reds. Dad explained the Cardinals wore red hats at home and blue on the road. The NL was the home team so the Cards would wear red ones. 

Fans didn’t vote to select the rosters. And there were plenty of Cardinals in the NL roster. They had 4 of the 24 players for 12 NL teams. The Cardinals had position players White, Groat, Boyer, and Flood.

Johnny Callison was the only everyday player from Philly despite a huge lead in the National.

The leagues’ managers were selected by their team’s records at the break. Gene Mauch was leading his Phils. The White Sox’ Lopez would managed the American League.

I loved every moment, every play. My guy, Brooks Robinson, got extra bases despite Clemente’s rifle. The crowd roared when the Mets’ young Ron Hunt singled to be met at first by coach Casey Stengel.

And at the end, my American League was set to finish off the National, 4-3. Then with runners on base Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone (that’s right, Joe Pepitone) threw the ball away tying the game 4-4. With two on, the Americans called on Boston’s Dick “the Monster” Radatz. Callison was at the plate. The Monster fired and Callison hit a bomb into Flushing Meadows.

NL 7, AL 4. And the National League players ran to the plate and await Callison.

I had seen the best. That’s what an All Star Game is intended to be. That’s what an All Star Game should be.

I could have been Brett Carow, a 31-year old from River Falls, WI. Carow was recent recognized as the “Ultimate Fanatic” by the creators of Strat-O-Matic. Friends and I were Strat-O-Matic fanatics 40 years ago.

Strat-O-Matic, originally a baseball board game, was created in 1961.  There were 600 members at the convention celebrating the game’s 50th anaversay. The game gives baseball fans a chance to be the manager of MLB players. The game combines players’ actual statistics, baseball strategy, and probability.

I first encountered Strat-O-Matic at age 12 during a Connie Mack game (Connie Mack was the league for 16-18 year olds in my town).  A few of the older guys were talking about Philadelphia shortstop Bobby Wine.  Sure, Wine was a “1” at short but you had to carry his bat. I asked what the “1” meant and the older guys laughed it off. I didn’t get it.

Years later – 1968 – I was going through the Sporting News when I saw an ad for Strat-O-Matic. I quickly claimed it for my birthday gift, receiving the complete “Deluxe Set” before Spring Training started. And what a great set to have.

The 1967 season had been one of the greatest ever. The Red Sox, long-shots in the Spring, finished as the AL champs after a month-long race against a pack of competitors – Twins, Tigers, White Sox, and Angels. The Bosox’ dreams would be dashed by the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7 game Series. And I could replicate the entire thing. I had all the cards for all players. There was Yaz, the Triple Crown win. I had Bob Gibson. And Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew. All of them.

Even better, I could trade big Frank Howard from the lowly Senators to the White Sox. How would Eddie Stanky’s great-pitch-no-hit Sox do with Hondo batting 4th or 5th? It might have been the White, not the Red, with the AL Pennant.

And the game offered Old Timers and Hall of Famers. You could buy the 1961 Yanks. Or Philly’s 1950 Wiz Kids. There was the Cardinals’  1934 Gas HouseGang.

The Old Timer team I liked the most was the ’31 Athletics with Lefty Grove, Jimmie Fox, and Al Simmons. I recall a friend inviting me over so my A’s could play 1927 Yankees. Yes, those Yankees. The Ruth and Gehrig Yankees. I believe my A’s were swept…. no, pounded.

But that was part of the fun. Six or seven buddies had Strat-O-Matic. We traded. We had a draft – even though there was no such thing. We had leagues and tournies. We kept score and had stats.

It became more than a hobby. It deepened our love for the game. And it probably created a few accountants or a Pentagon analyst. Andrew’s buddy Eathen’s Dad was in a 4-person league 3 years ago. I know Brewers owner Mark Attanasio played as a kid (I hope he was good at it). The age range of folks who have played must be 10-80.

It is a way to teach and a way to bond. I used Strat-O-Matic as a way to bond with my son Bill. And Andrew and I have played over the past 3 years.

But things change. People don’t play board games. Why play Risk or Monopoly? They’re too slow. Andrew can play baseball on PlayStation. He can swing and throw using buttons. He can even create himself (he’s on a pace to hit 180 homers this year).

Heck. there’s Strat-O-Matic for your PC. Strat-O-Matic is played on the Internet.

Not for me. Strat-O-Matic should be played as a board game. I want to hold and touch the player cards comparing shortstops Bobby Wine and the Tigers’ Ray Oyler. I want to roll the dice.

Special Balls

June 28, 2011

Millions of baseball fans treasure a baseball – maybe more – that reminds them of a  place, a day or a person. Maybe it’s in your den or office. You may have given it to a son or daughter. Perhaps you gave it away or simply lost it.

But it’s really with you.

(Wait, you didn’t think this post was about something other than baseball did you?)

Last year I purchased a ball for Andrew in a chuch  auction. They had one ball signed by the members of the World Champion San Francisco Giants. I figured that ball – complete with Tim Lincecum – would have value. The other was signed by all members of the 2010 NL All Star team. I had no chance, right?

I told my friend Mike to go up to $200 for the Giants ball. Frankly, I thought I was going to be an auction rabbit, increasing the bidding. No surprise when the Giants/Lincecum ball went for $400+.

But I had won the NL All Star ball. Now Andrew would have Lincecum – and Pujos – and Braun – and, well, all NL studs. Only $250. Who really knows what the value. 

Somewhere in our house is a ball signed by Brooks Robinson, a hero of mine, and given to me. There’s a ball signed by, well, we really don’t know. We think it’s Ken Griffir Sr. They are probably in the same place – lost.

But then there are the really memorable balls, like one at Yankees Stadium 40 years ago.

At 10 I was at the Stadium for a game between the Yanks and a sacrificial opponent (A’s?). Early in the game there was a line drive into the seats between first and the foul pole. It was smoking. A big man jumped up and snared it clean. Next day at school I’m talking about the game and Billy Prudin pipes up. It was his Dad that caught the liner. Great. Any kids nightmare, a dentist fast enough to spot a line drive.           

I got my own foul ball at a Yankees-Tigers game in the late ’60s.

Our neighbor Jay and his fiance Gail, invited brother Bill and I to the ball game. Bill begged off. I, of course, jumped at it “third wheel” or not. Hey, he offered. The seats were primo – four rows back and right next from the Pinstripe’s dugout. The boxes between us and the field were empty when Detroit’s Jim Northrup barely made contact. The scribbler came right back. I was slow but the bat boy was slower. I had my ball. Sure, it wasn’t a rocket but who cared – and who needed to know, right?

I lost the Northrup ball long ago. It was ripped up and worn from playing hardball and then lost. I blame Bill.           

I “caught” a ball for Andrew during batting practice before a Brewers game two years ago. I was looking at the game program. Andrew was among 10 kids – gloves in the ready – focused on getting a foul ball. Suddenly, “Look Out!” I looked up just as a ball caromed off my shin. The ball spun in place and a youngster scurried to get it before buddies raced in.

“Hey,” I bellowed,” that’s mine, pal. I took the shot. I get the ball.”

Great. I was getting tough with a kid over a used batting practice ball hit foul by a guy named Dickerson. Two months later Dickerson would be traded and sent to the minors never to be heard from. The kid, stunned, apologized. “Sorry mister.” Now neither the A-train nor I can find it.

If Andrew ever learns his dad moved seats at a game late last year, I’d have a problem. A ball fell right into the seat I had left. Then again I would have muffed it. 

Besides, there will be thousands of balls to come. Maybe one or two will be memorable.

I don’t want to root for the Red Sox. Just the name makes me queezy. Sure, I will worrying about their prospects. But, frankly, I have no choice.

The Tosa little league season was about to begin. Andrew and I had gone on the web site when rosters were first posted. He was nervous wondering who had picked him, whether friends would be on his team, how the uni’s would look, and what number  he might wear. They are the concerns of many 11-year olds player.

We were scrolling the list for each team. “Hey, there’s Mathew’s team – the Tigers.” At that moment I noticed all of the teams represented an American League club. He had graduated from the “Minors.” I got it. Dad was a little slow on the up-take. Rays…..A’s…..White Sox…..Rangers…..             

How many of the kids would be enthusiastic starting the season with “Orioles” or “Mariners” on their chests. “Yankees” rolled by. Too bad. My team.

And there it was: Red Sox.  Andrew Nicol will play for the Red Sox.

I don’t like the Boston Red Sox. I have never liked the Boston Red Sox. Growing up in northeast Jersey I had no time for the Boston Red Sox. 

“Look, I’m on the Red Sox!” “That’s great,” I faked. “May be I’ll get ‘8’ like Yaz.” “Cool.” I was trying to sound excited. “Or Pedroia.” Sure. There have to be enough miscreants in the Boston clubhouse to cover uni’s for 13 kids. Or how about Manny? Frank Malzone?

Andrew sensed my mood. “It is just a uniform, Dad. We don’t get real ones. I’m sure we’ll get a red jersey and red cap.” He was assuring me that it was going to be all right. What was the matter with me?

“Of course this year I have to root for the Boston Red Sox because my team is the Red Sox.”

He’s out of the Will.