Saturday, July 31, 2010

Snooki Arrested; Will Obama Pay Attention Now?

Article first published as Snooki Arrested; Will Obama Pay Attention Now? on Blogcritics.

Fate has strange ways of dealing a hand. Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, famous (or infamous) because of her reality MTV show Jersey Shore, was arrested in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, on Friday afternoon on the beach not far from the house where the television show is filmed. Apparently on a bender since the night before, Snooki passed out face down in the sand. Eventually she was arrested for disorderly conduct (as no doubt several sandcrabs called 911 to complain).

Snooki Is Arrested After Going on a Bender

What caused this poor girl to go out and get wasted? I am wondering if it has anything to do with President Barack Obama's appearance on the television talk show The View. After hearing Barbara Walters butcher his name (Bawack Obama) on the show Thursday morning, the President answered questions and was stumped when asked if Snooki should run for mayor of Wasilia, Alaska (hometown of Sarah Palin). Obama said, "I've got to admit, I don't know who Snooki is." Da-da-da-dum!

President Obama Visits the Ladies of The View

Can you just imagine how heartbroken Snooki must have been as she sat with her pals in the Jersey Shore digs? Maybe they joked with her or made fun of her. Snooki, who makes "Obama Girl" Amber Lee Ettinger seem like a rocket scientist, probably sulked all day about not being as "big" as she perhaps assumed herself to be. Could it be that when she went out partying Thursday night, Snooki started knocking them back to ease her pain? Maybe she even said to her friend and fellow Jersey Shore castmate Jenni “JWOWW” Farley, "Obama doesn't even know me. I probably can't even get myself arrested."

Flashforward to late Friday when "JWOWW" posted bail for little miss Snook, getting her out of the pokey and back to her Seaside Heights digs to figure out their next move. Meanwhile, the MTV suits must be hating all this publicity, although I do hear that they are planning several keg parties for Snooki and company in the days ahead.

Whatever happens, Snooki can rest easy because headlines were screaming out all over the place "Snooki Arrested," competing with ones about Chelsea Clinton's wedding. Snooki can be sure that Barack Obama knows who she is now. My, what a lucky girl. Now, if I could just hear Barbara Walters say "Come back, Bawack" a few more times, it would really make my day.


Mets Lose To Lowly D'Backs; No Trade in the Wings

Article first published as Mets Lose To Lowly D'Backs; No Trade in the Wings in Blogcritics.

As pro-Mexican immigration demonstrators stood chanting across the street from Citi Field in New York last night, inside the Mets were blowing yet another game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Of course, the demonstrators were there because of the controversial immigration law in Arizona, with which I am certain none of the Diamondback players have any tangible connection.

The Way This Guy Runs, Maybe the Mets Should Sign Him Up

Besides David Wright's two homers (17) and five RBIs (74), the biggest excitement of the night probably came when two pro-Mexican protesters ran onto the grass at Citi Field with a big Mexican flag flowing from their hands. As hapless Mets security members reacted as cluelessly as Keystone Kops and struggled to corral these invaders on the field, one could only think of Jose Reyes's error that sent the Mets from a 5-4 lead to an eventual 9-6 defeat.

The Mets have looked terrible in many ways since the All-Star Break, and their 6-11 record since then is actually worse than it seems. The pitching can at times be brilliant (like R.A. Dickey's 8.1 innings allowing just three hits in a game against the Cards on Thursday), but as in last night's game, Mike Pelfrey seemed in trouble all the way until Reyes's error sealed the deal.

Is any help on the way? As usual, Mets GM Omar Minaya is like a teenage boy at a high school dance sitting on his hands in the corner. While other guys are out dancing with the best picks on the floor, Omar seems content to bop his head to the music and see everyone else having fun. How sad for the team and their fans that Minaya continues to disappoint as someone who cannot get the job done.

We hear rumors that the Mets have been "inquiring" about Ted Lilly, who is now like the last girl on the dance floor as the last song of the night is being played. Now that Minaya has seen all the best prospects get up and dance, he is listening to George Michael's "Careless Whisper" and wondering if he should get off his hands before the party is over.

Lilly's stats with the Chicago Cubs this season certainly are underwhelming: 3 Wins and 8 Losses with an 3.69 ERA. There's obviously a reason he is the last choice on the dance floor, but according to all sources Omar is not going to budge from his place in the corner. As George Michael's voice fades away, Lilly might walk off with some other partner, but it looks like poor Omar is going home alone again, naturally.

How sad for the Mets and their fans as this 2010 season continues to spiral into oblivion. Excuse me while I go start dreaming about possibilities for the Jets and their acquisition of Mark Brunell as back-up quarterback for Mark Sanchez. Hey, that gives Rex Ryan a better arm than the Mets can hope to acquire, and at least the Jets know how to make a move that will help the team.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers

Article first published as Book Review: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers on Blogcritics.

I once had an English professor who told our undergraduate class that it was best to sip strong whiskey while reading anything written by William Faulkner. Well, after reading The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers, I would imagine he would want to have an entire bottle on hand, preferably strong Sour Mash. The characters who inhabit her stories are an assortment of freaks, geeks, and lost souls that shake one to the core, and the worlds she creates are ones out of the foggy depths of nightmares.

If you look into the rather brief life of McCullers (1917-1967), you will see she came from the South, studied piano, spent time in New York City, had a troubled relationship with her spouse, battled alcoholism, tried to commit suicide, and was basically unhealthy for most of her days. One can look at her picture and see an infinite sadness in her face, sort of an external manifestation of all the twisted characters and strange stories she had brimming inside her. When she died much too soon of a brain hemorrhage, she left behind a staggeringly haunting, beautiful, and powerful literary legacy.

Having read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in high school, I remember thinking that the novella was weird and not my cup of tea, but going back and revisiting the story now, I saw all the nuances my teenage mind missed, but perhaps it was best that I did not realize at the time the darkness that permeated the story, or maybe I understood it but reacted to it by purposely ignoring the ugly truths of the fragile humanity it depicted.

It is hard to find someone to like in the novella, with the protagonist, Miss Amelia Evans, being a cross between Dickens's Miss Havisham and Faulkner's Benjy Compson. This hulking woman is anything but ladylike, and yet she inhabits the story as the woman to please and to love in a town devoid of anything resembling romance or culture.

Having been supposedly jilted by her husband of ten days many years before, Miss Amelia becomes a tough businessperson, a medicine woman of sorts, maker of fine whiskey, and the closest thing to a mayor the town has ever known. She sells whiskey from her general store and lives a hard life in a place that has no gentility of which to speak.

Everything changes one night when a stranger arrives in town, a small man with a hunched back who claims to be her Cousin Lymon. Whatever possesses Miss Amelia to accept him is left a mystery to the reader, but soon Cousin Lymon has ingratiated himself into her life, and she cares for him almost as a beloved pet, with the town folks thinking that they live together in the rooms above her store in what most believe to be "sin."

The freakish nature of Lymon and Amelia's relationship is magnified by their decision to open a cafe in the store. Eventually it becomes a place where people can sit at tables to drink whiskey (as opposed to standing on the front porch), buy meals, and enjoy music played on "a fine mechanical piano." This little bit of civilized living seems to have emanated from Lymon, but as the narrator points out, it has more to do with love. Apparent to all in the town, Miss Amelia is in love with Lymon, but she is "the lover" and he is "the beloved." As such, the diminutive man has a powerful hold on her.

All of this good feeling comes to a halt when Amelia's ex-husband, Marvin Macy, comes back to town after serving time in prison. This throws a classic triangle into the plot, but it has less to do with love than with power and revenge. As the situation becomes more grave and bizarre, moving toward the inevitable climax, one cannot help wondering whether any of the three will survive.

In the end The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is a powerful novella that teaches us some difficult lessons, all of which are learned because of the terrible price paid by the three main characters of this story.

The short stories that accompany the novella are equally powerful and filled with similar depictions of people who are warped either by time or situation or disease.

In "Wunderkind" (her first published story) we meet a young girl named Frances who works with a Jewish music teacher who has high hopes for her, labeling her a "Wunderkind," but that title takes a toll on her. It seems that Frances at thirteen has moved away from her once prodigious possibilities. She recognizes that "Her hands seemed separate from the music that was in her." Is it that she no longer has the passion, or does she wish to forsake the hours of practice so that she can live life like an ordinary girl?

"The Jockey" is a portrait of Bitsy Barlow, a kindred spirit of Cousin Lymon in the novella; he is a small man described as an almost reptilian creature "with dwarfed body" and "gray claws" for hands. Bitsy's days as a successful jockey seem to be over, as he mourns a good friend who has been seriously hurt on the track. Bitsy confronts the people he believes are responsible for the accident, drinks himself into oblivion, and moves toward what might be a place of no return.

In "Madame Zilinsky and the King of Finland," we are presented with another tragic character. Madame Zilinksy arrives at Ryder College to teach music, but she almost immediately sets off an alarm for administrator Mr. Brook, who sees in her an "impression of vague elegance" but remains disturbed by her many idiosyncrasies. As time passes and after many incidents, Mr. Brook discovers what is at the heart of all her problems: "The woman was simply a pathological liar." After she goes on about knowing the King of Finland, Mr. Brook decides to confront her, with less than satisfactory results.

"The Sojourner" may offer the saddest portrait in the book: John Ferris. He is a man who has returned to the states for his father's funeral after living abroad for many years. On his last day in New York before returning to Paris, Ferris has a chance encounter with his ex-wife Elizabeth on the street, which leads to his going to dinner at her apartment. As Elizabeth plays a song on the piano for him as she had always done during their marriage, she is interrupted by the maid. "The unfinished song" provokes great sadness in him and, as he is confronted by the vision of Elizabeth's domestic bliss with new husband and two children, Ferris gets drunk and starts falling deeper into a state of remorse and grief. Can he find some meaning in his life or is it too late?

A "Domestic Dilemma" is as dark a story as one can read, with good husband Martin Meadows coming home from work each day in the city to a dark little secret in his apparently perfect home. Here his wife Emily has become a morose and difficult person, after Martin's job forced a relocation from the South to New York. Surrounded by strangers in the suburbs and feeling all alone, Emily falls into alcoholism and commits sly manipulations to try to cover things up. After she drops the baby in the bathtub, causing her to bleed, Martin gets a full-time nanny, but his fears are not allayed. Can this marriage be saved? Or will he be forced to do the unthinkable in order to protect his children?

Finally, "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" focuses on a derelict in a sleazy streetcar cafe who seems to be drowning in his beer. As a young paperboy comes into the cafe after delivering his morning papers, the man focuses his attention on the boy and tells him "I love you." What follows is a glimpse of the darkness of one man's soul as he rationalizes his feelings about love and loss to an audience of the boy and a grizzled counterman named Leo. After explaining his crazy theories about love, he excitedly asks, "Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?" The story and the book end less with answers than with more provocative questions about the nature of love and how dark human beings can become without it.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories is a brilliantly grim look at what human beings can and will do to one another, in the absence of love, in the presence of incongruities of life, and because of the darkest nights that besiege the soul. While it's not a pleasant journey to say the least, it is an unforgettable one that will force you to think about these tales again and again long after you are finished reading them.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

New York Mets Sinking Like the Titanic

This article first appeared as New York Mets Sinking Like the Titanic on Blogcritics.

The once venerable ship known as the New York Mets has hit a figurative and literal iceberg this season, making it ready to sink like a stone to the bottom of the Major League waters it has navigated tenuously all season. If you will bear with this extended metaphor for a bit, you will come to understand that I foretold this sinking of the ship early in the season, but those supposedly water-tight doors took a while to give way. Now the fall to the bottom of the sea is seemingly inevitable.

Jerry Probably Wishes that Finger Was Loaded

At the helm is Captain Jerry Manuel, who looks no more confident than Captain E.J. Smith did when he stared over the starboard side of his ship (captured forever by an amateur photographer) and was probably wondering, "Why don't we have more lifeboats?" Manuel may have well done the same thing in spring training, staring at his porous lineup and rickety vessel thinking he was never going to make the crossing of the season's waters intact.

Captain Smith Looking for Lifeboats

Like Smith who was prodded by his superior Bruce Ismay into pushing his ship beyond its capabilities, Omar Minaya seems to have done the same thing here. He spent little capital in getting the team sea worthy and brought in guys like R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi without ever going for a front-end starter. He knew Frankie Rodriguez was combustible as the Titanic engines with all that coal causing a big fire down below, making the steel soft and just ripe for that iceberg.

Now that the Mets have hit the inevitability of the iceberg known as the West coast road trip, we see the sinking ship for what it really is: the pitchers can't swim, the bullpen can't find the binoculars in the crow's nest, and the hitters are struggling with the ropes on the lifeboats. Manuel may be running to the rail and thinking, "Man overboard," but he has to be reminded that like Captain Smith he has to go down with the ship.

All of my fellow Mets fans have to face the facts here. This vessel was never unsinkable and never pronounced to be. In fact, it was so obvious in spring training, that it seemed like putting out to sea in a submarine with screen doors. Still, we were wooed by the surge at the end of April, convinced by the trickery of knuckleballer Dickey and that some sort of second coming of Jerry Koosman could be found in Takahashi, but the problem was that there just are not enough water-tight doors to keep this ship afloat.

Since the return of golden boy Carlos Beltran, the Mets are 2-8 with Beltran hitting an abysmal .188. The rest of the team is not doing much better, so they would do well to jump into the lifeboats, but if they can manage to handle the oars as well as they do bats, they probably wouldn't do enough to get away from the wake of the stinking ship (oh, I meant sinking ship).

Mets fans have to look at the reality of 2010 as it is: another lost season. Put on the life vests, get into the lifeboats, and row fast as you can toward the H.M.S. Carpathia of 2011. As with the survivors of the Titanic, that is the only hope we have and we will have to make the best of it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

K-Rod Blows Save; Ump Blows Call; Mets Avoid Sweep

Article first published as K-Rod Blows Save; Ump Blows Call; Mets Avoid Sweep on Blogcritics.

Any Mets fans watching the almost sweep of the Mets in the four-game series in San Francisco this weekend should have been listening to Tony Bennett. If the Mets didn't leave their hearts in San Francisco this weekend, maybe they should be looking for them on the team bus or the airplane that brought them there. It was a weekend of poorly played games and only a blown call by an umpire stopped it from being a sweep.

Having written about the notorious blown call by umpire Jim Joyce that robbed Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers of a perfect game, I have been bothered by the idea of umpire incompetence in Major League Baseball. In San Francisco yesterday umpire Phil Cuzzi joined the Joyce Fraternity with a call that cost the Giants a win and sweep over the Mets.

Travis Ishikawa, who had already tied the game with a two-run single off Francisco Rodriguez, was coming home on a bouncer to David Wright by Freddy Sanchez. Wright's throw to home was high, but catcher Henry Blanco got the ball and brought down a tag. The problem is that Cuzzi called Ishikawa out but replays showed that he was safe. Even catcher Blanco said as much after the game. Giants' manager Bruce Bochy argued the call to no avail.

So here we had a blown save, a blown umpire's call, and the Mets going on to get the win when red-hot rookie Ike Davis doubled home Jason Bay with the winning run in the tenth inning. As a Mets fan I am happy the team avoided the sweep, but not with the way they did it. The team looked lethargic this weekend, and the Mets's brass needs to face the facts that K-Rod is looking more like BS-Rod (Blown Save) everyday. With the trading deadline quickly approaching, it is painfully clear that the Mets need bullpen help as much as they need a front-end starter.

Getting back to umpire Cuzzi, he insisted after the game that he thought Ishikawa was out, but that he would take a look at the replay. Cuzzi and Joyce and all the other horses and king's men can't give a win back to the Giants, or a no-hitter to Galarraga, or the countless other missed opportunities to all the players and teams that have been robbed by bad umpiring recently and over the years.

Once again, this is a golden opportunity for Major League Baseball to think about expanding the use of instant replay. I have argued for its use on a limited and equitable basis in all professional sporting events, but never has it been more obvious that baseball has to be the place where it gets done as soon as possible.

Umpires are indeed human and thus likely to make mistakes. Why not put a system in place that will limit the cost factor of human error? If such a system were in place, my Mets would have lost that game yesterday, but maybe there would have been other games won over the season and in the years to come. The time is now for fans to get the message out to Major League Baseball: we need instant replay for questionable calls by umpires and we need it now!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A New York Mets Fan Remembers George Steinbrenner

Article first published as A New York Mets Fan Remembers George Steinbrenner on Blogcritics.

When Marcus Antony gives his famous oration over the corpse of his good friend Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare's brilliant play, he says, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." As a Mets fan and a New Yorker, I cannot think of better words to be said over a man that I and many of my fellow city dwellers loved to hate.

Whatever I think and feel about the New York Yankees is all because of Mr. George Steinbrenner, who died of a heart attack today at 80 years of age. Before he swooped in and bought the team in 1973, the Yankees were pretty much a faded flower in my town. The New York Mets had won the World Series in 1969 and almost did again in 1973, while the Yankees seemed to be perpetually out of it in the AL East.

Along came a big fat spider named George, and he spun more than a few webs to get his team going in the right direction. He spent lots and lots of money through a new thing called "free agency," while the Mets sat on their hands and then went about trading away members of the team I loved, including the still unforgivable deal that sent Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.

Anyway, sitting on the other side of town and seeing the team that I hated win the World Series in 1977 (and again in 1978), well, what could a good Mets fan do but grumble about how George bought the championship - which he did - and set the Yankees on course for greatness once again.

Steinbrenner, with the help of general manager Brian Cashman, extended the old Yankee dynasty into the 1990s, when they captured three championships, and then in the 2000s, when they won it all in the year 2000 (against my beloved Mets) and again in 2009.

Most New Yorkers (Yankees and Mets fans) got into the soap opera of "As Steinbrenner Turns" because it was the stuff back page headlines are made for. How many times could he fire Billy Martin? As many as he could hire him: five. How many threats could he make about firing players? How far would he go to get the dirt on one of his own players (think Dave Winfield)? Oh, how the drama played out and how the fans sucked it up.

Despite all his faults and his cementing of the Yankee blue blood mentality and legacy, we working class Mets fans have to hand it to the old coot. He was a feisty old general who got the troops moving and winning battles, and sometimes ultimately, the war. NY Daily News sports cartoonist Bill Gallo even created an alter ego, General Von Steingrabber. This barking orders German general was featured in many hilarious cartoons in the paper. Apparently, Steinbrenner appreciated the humor behind it and Gallo's supreme talent for capturing the essence of the man and the events of the time.

George was the guy we liked to blame for everything. He was at fault for all the wrongs suffered by the Mets and their fans. He stole everyone from Catfish Hunter to Reggie Jackson to A-Rod over the years in our minds (and probably in the minds of plenty of other baseball teams' fans too). He was like the Darth Vader of baseball, and you could just imagine those confrontations with Billy Martin, battling each other using light sabers (to make the vision complete).

Through it all, George did something for baseball that, if nothing else, made it exciting and stirred up controversy galore. He was responsible for giving baseball a much needed shot in the arm, and the whole modern era of free agency and the shape of the way teams are today are thanks to him.

Of course, then we get back to that evil Shakespeare thing. There are those who think (and not just Red Sox and Mets fans) that George is the cause of the lack of balance in the game today. There will always be the haves and have-nots in Major League Baseball, based on money. If we want to blame anyone for ruining baseball with buckets of cash, we can look no further than to George Steinbrenner, the King of Cash, for doing just that.

I guess the way I'll remember him is when he hosted Saturday Night Live. Man, did that take a lot of courage even for a guy with an ego as bloated as his. I will also remember him as he was lampooned in Seinfeld by Larry David, making him seem more cartoonish than Bill Gallo. But the bluster was all in good fun. And maybe that is the nicest way to remember the man who changed the face of baseball forever, even if he left more than a few casualties in his wake.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird

Article first published as Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird on Blogcritics.

July 11, 2010, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. During the course of those fifty years, the book has managed to become entrenched in the public consciousness, in large part due to the fact that it tells a timeless coming of age story, but also because it eventually became required reading in American schools.

To those of us who can recall the first time we read a book that changed our lives, we remember it fondly and much better than other books. Such is the case for me with To Kill a Mockingbird, because it changed not just my thoughts about books but also the way I perceived the world.

I read this book before it became "required" reading sometime in high school. I must have been nine or ten, and I read it during the summer when I used to like to read books for pleasure. I immediately identified with Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, who tells the tale of when she was also nine years old and living in Maycomb, Alabama. I didn't care that she was a girl, and in fact I wished more girls were like her because she had a tough little tomboy way about her. I definitely would have wanted to play baseball with her.

While some people think of this book as a "children's book," it is far from that. I probably read it when I was too young the first time, because I knew nothing about the subject matter covered in the story: rape, hatred, violence, prejudice, and lynch mobs. I suppose that is what opened my eyes and why I remember the book so vividly: because it forced me to see a decidedly different and ugly side of life.

The story Scout tells is ostensibly about her father Atticus, a widowed lawyer who defends a black man who has been charged with rape. Tom Robinson is not guilty of this crime, but has been accused by a young white girl Mayella Ewell, whose family lives in terrible circumstances of poverty. She lies to protect herself from her evil drunk of a father Bob, who is perhaps one of the most despicable characters found in literature.

Of course, in the old days nothing would have stood between Tom and the end of a rope thrown over a tree branch; however, now Atticus takes on the case (which would still seem hopeless with an all white jury) and makes a valiant effort to set the man free, despite being the subject of scorn and ridicule in the town.

There is much more to the story than just the trial. Scout, as a daughter and sister, recounts the tale and it is seen through her eyes. While this could lead some to think of it as a children's story, the truth is that Harper Lee makes Scout an accurate teller of what she sees. Even if she herself does not understand everything that is happening, she lets the reader know enough to connect the dots that she herself cannot.

Scout does not understand how some people who have been helped by her father in the past can turn against him. She also cannot accept the idea of prejudice (for she herself loves Calpurnia, the black family maid), or how parents of her friends could be angry now with her because of what her father is doing.

Though there are many memorable characters in this book, it is Atticus Finch who became larger than life in my young mind. I found someone I wanted to emulate, a true hero in the sense of standing up for what is right no matter how wrong everybody says he is. This puts tremendous strain on his family life, but he also knows the risks and still takes a stand that could put him and his children in jeopardy.

One scene that I will never forget is when Atticus takes a chair and sits in front of jail to stop the lynch mob from killing Tom. The strength of his convictions, his belief in the law, and his hope that even the worst racists have some humanity inside were empowering to me as a young reader. Atticus Finch proves in that moment that violence can be stopped without aggression. No wonder Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. praised the novel and its depiction of Finch as a nonviolent hero.

Many years later I had the privilege to be the teacher who assigned this book to his classes, and I was excited to be able to teach something I loved so dearly. It was a thrill to see my students' reactions to the book, and it also sometimes surprised and delighted me when some of the students would get so angry because they couldn't believe that people were so narrow minded in "the old days." The racism and violence was so appalling to them. We had many healthy debates and discussions about the book in my classes, and even the students who were most resistant to literature seemed to be swayed by the convincing narrative.

For me, there have been certain books that have affected my life after reading them, but I think none has had such a powerful and lasting impact as To Kill a Mockingbird. On this the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, the story still resonates with me as one about truth, justice, and the fight for the real American way of life. Atticus Finch may not have been Superman, but I think he is the kind of super hero we should all aspire to be.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The NY Mets Need to Make a Trade for Cliff Lee

Article first published as The NY Mets Need to Make a Trade for Cliff Lee on Blogcritics.

The NY Mets have to do something to save this 2010 season. The obvious thing to do is to trade for Cliff Lee (who is 7-3 with a 2.45 ERA) when he becomes available. The Seattle Mariners are no doubt waiting to see the plot thicken with interested teams stirring the pot, but soon they will hang the "For Sale" sign around Lee's neck, and that's when the Mets have to jump.

The problem is the cost of a trade like this. There is no question that the best chips in the organization are not going to be included in this trade: Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, and Angel Pagan are not going anywhere. The two minor league trump cards they do have, pitcher Jenrry Mejia (on the disabled list) and outfielder Fernando Martinez may not be enough to pry Lee from Seattle. So what should the Mets offer?

As much as I hate to see him go, young catcher Josh Thole looks like the real deal and would be an enticing part of the package. Include with him Mejia and Martinez, and perhaps throw in Luis Castillo (offering to pay most of his salary), Fernando Tatis, and a partridge in a pair tree for good measure. Seattle would be getting some pretty fine young talent and a couple of creaky veterans for Lee, but the pitcher will be a free agent anyway at the end of the season.

This is a risky business for the Mets to be sure because they have been burned before when trading away young talent (think Nolan Ryan), but they have to take a chance because Lee would change the perspective for this team almost immediately. Not only would they have him in the starting rotation, but it would give the Mets the opportunity to return Hisanori Takahashi to the bullpen where he is really needed.

The Mets have no idea what is going to happen with lefty Oliver Perez and righty John Maine. Besides lingering physical concerns, it seems both have a problem keeping their heads in the game. For whatever reason, they both are looking at 2010 being a lost (and probably their last) season with the team.

That is why it is essential for the Mets to get the deal done. If they want to have any hopes for the post season this year, the Mets have to get Cliff Lee and then work out an extended deal with him. This will not only save this season but guarantee some very good seasons to follow.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Healthy Variations for the Traditional July 4th Barbecue

Article first published as Healthy Variations for the Traditional July 4th Barbecue on Blogcritics.

Healthy Variations for the Traditional July 4th Barbecue

The big Fourth of July barbecue is at your house this year, and you're looking for healthy ideas for the whole family. I know that is something we face every year, and I have come up with some things that I'd like to share that are quick, easy, and healthier than what is considered "traditional" for the holiday.

On the Grill

Over the last few years we have done away with red meat completely in our home and at our barbecues. We use turkey hot dogs and turkey burgers, and almost no one notices or complains, and even the dogs approve.

You can get very lean ground turkey around 98% fat free. As I fashion the patties for burgers, I add minced onion, garlic, and a little parsley that makes the burgers taste great.

Another thing I love to grill is chicken. I usually marinate the chicken (either pieces or cutlets) the night before in a mixture of low sodium soy sauce, ketchup, red wine vinegar, garlic, and onions. This chicken can be cooked right on the grill or cut up and used in kebabs with onions and peppers. I the kebabs cook quickly on the grill and they come out great.

Some people like salmon or tuna steaks, and I also marinate these (in white wine, teaspoon of sage, minced garlic, and onion) but for about three to four hours. They come out very nicely and always seem to please our guests.

I slice up red and white onions, mix them with cloves of garlic, and wrap the mixture in aluminum foil. These go right on the grill at the very beginning of my cooking session, and by the time I am done they are thoroughly cooked, look almost translucent, and taste great as a side dish or as a topping on anything else served.

Finally, I love to grill vegetable kebabs. You can be as creative as you like here. I usually mix up red and green peppers with chunks of onions and potatoes. They are done when slightly singed on all sides and have been a crowd pleaser.

The Cold Stuff

Keeping with kebab themes, I have noticed that a variation on the vegetable kebabs can be served uncooked as some people like these things that way. I usually put out generous bowls of dipping sauces: yogurt, sour creme, spinach dip, and Dijon mustard.
Bowls of fresh broccoli, cauliflower, and sliced peppers always accompany these kebabs on the table.

Another thing I do is a variation on tomato and fresh mozzarella on the kebab sticks. Alternate the chunks of cheese and tomatoes, and I guarantee they will go as fast as you can make them.

One thing people have really liked is my egg whites egg salad. I remove the yolks from the eggs, chop the whites up finely, and then add low-fat mayonnaise, a little Dijon mustard, chopped celery, and diced onions. This dish is refreshing and very popular with our guests.

The Drinks

Besides offering traditional favorites such as beer, soda, iced tea, and lemonade, we have found that putting out a case of sixteen ounce bottled waters in a large bucket of ice has made everyone happy. Almost everyone takes at least one icy cold bottle of water before the party is over to quench their thirsts the best way of all.

The are all sorts of virgin drinks that can be made to order for your guests, but the one I like most of all is my Virgin Sangria. I use Welch's Concord grape juice, seltzer, orange juice, and sliced up apples, oranges, and lemons. Mix with generous amounts of ice and then serve in tall glasses with ice cubes. Your guests will love it.

Also, want a drink for the kids and adults that is low calorie and refreshing? Put a cup of low fat milk and a shot glass of any flavored soda or syrup to order into a blender with lots of ice. Mix it up well and serve in tall glasses. It tastes like an ice cream soda and is a delicious treat.


The most obvious stuff works the best in our house here. Icy cold watermelon wedges are a must. The kids love these and they are easy for them to eat. I also like cutting up honeydew melon, cantaloupe, pears, apples, and watermelon in a big bowl for a healthy fruit salad.

We make ice pops in the freezer from orange juice, lemonade, and grape juice and the kids love these for an on the run snack. Of course, ice cream and sorbet also bring big smiles to the kids and adults and provide a fun finish to your wonderful holiday barbecue.

I hope you can use some of these ideas or make variations of your own. In this way you can have a happy and healthy Fourth of July barbecue for you and your guests.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Out of the Ashes of 9/11: Freedom Tower Is Rising

Article first published as Out of the Ashes of 9/11: Freedom Tower Is Rising on Blogcritics.

When I was a kid, I watched the World Trade Center in New York City being built. I could see it from my Queens rooftop. Armed with a pair of good binoculars, I could catch all the action, and it amazed me to see those two glass and steel marvels rising against the sky.

Of course, the World Trade Center's birth came from a death of the neighborhood that was annihilated when it was built. I do not recall the area because I was too young (ground was broken for the buildings in 1966), but my father well remembers that streets were shut down and over a hundred buildings demolished to make room for the 16-acre site. He even recalls buying a watch in one of the stores that were leveled. Shops, businesses, and apartments were eliminated to accommodate the massive project. The death of a little neighborhood in the big city occurred in order to spawn a complex with the largest buildings in the world (at least for a short time until Sears Tower in Chicago opened in 1974).

The World Trade Center rose in my childhood and dominated my thinking about the city I loved as I became a man. While I had been to the top of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, nothing seemed to compare to visiting the Twin Towers or "the Trades" as some people called them. Being in my nascent photographer stage, I took all sorts of pictures of the Twin Towers once they were completed. Sadly, like the buildings captured in those shots, those photographs no longer exist.

The two iconic towers could be seen from almost anywhere in this town, and they immediately became the recognizable symbol of New York City all over the world. Tourists flocked to visit the observatory, take pictures of the cityscape that flowed all around it, and dine in the premier restaurant Windows on the World. After visiting the top of one of the buildings, there was a feeling that you had touched, if not heaven, the closest thing to it in the sky.

I, like so many New Yorkers and citizens of this nation and the world, was left devastated by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Arguably, it seemed that no city had ever been so irreparably altered by an act of war as had New York on that day. While a few loons danced in the streets to celebrate in foreign lands, most human beings on the planet saw this as a terrible blow to not just New York but to civilization as we know it.

Indeed, the World Trade Center had not just been a symbol but a place where people of all nationalities worked and unfortunately many died. I lost a family member that day and two childhood friends, and the loss changed my life forever, as it did the lives of so many others. I was inspired to write a book of fiction in reaction to what happened, and it took me almost a year to even attempt to write it, and then another two and a half years to complete it. I took no pleasure in writing those words, but they ended up being therapeutic for me, and the book stands as something that came out of the horror of that seemingly beautiful Tuesday in September that morphed into the worst day in the lives of so many people.

Almost nine years later there is great noise and activity at the site as it seems that work is truly ongoing to build a new symbol of New York out of the ashes. One does not even have to go there to get an idea of the progress; a live video feed is provided by the Port Authority of New York for anyone to see what is happening there.

If you come to New York City, take the E train to the World Trade Center stop. When I ride the subway today, I cannot believe it is the same train system that I used to ride years ago. It is clean, relatively efficient, and free of graffiti that at one time covered the walls of every car on every line. Tourists who come here for the first time must be impressed by the condition of the subways these days and, quite frankly, so am I.

Once you come up the steps and walk toward the construction site, your view will be mostly blocked by a fence that has been covered with material to keep out prying eyes. If you look above the fence toward the skyline, you can see all manner of construction cranes and hear all the grinding, drilling, and pounding that tells you work is being done.

As I stood there on the corner of Vesey and West Streets, looking at the scene, I couldn't help but tip my head back and remember those majestic towers pressing up against the sky. At that moment a soft rain began to fall, and it seemed fitting that the clouds came rolling in off the Hudson River and cast an ominous shadow on the apparent progress happening below.

I walked away from the scene thinking about my son: his New York City will be one with the Freedom Tower dominating the skyline. He will hear the story about the watch his grandfather bought long ago in a store that had to be bulldozed to make room for the first World Trade Center towers. He will be told about his father standing on a black tar roof and watching with binoculars as the buildings rose toward the sky, and he will learn about 9/11 from his family and in school.

But he will never know what it was like to stand on the street and look up at the Twin Towers, just as I will never know what it was like to walk into a Mom and Pop electronics store and buy a watch in a place that one day would be Ground Zero, a place where time almost stood still for New Yorkers on 9/11.

No, his reality will only include a bright and shining beacon of hope and prosperity: the Freedom Tower. He will visit the 9/11 Memorial, perhaps read his Uncle Steve's name on a wall, and he will walk out into the sunshine and stare up at a skyscraper like I once did and think about heaven.

My wish for him and all our sons and daughters is that they will never forget 9/11 but be able to embrace a future where nothing like it will ever happen again.

A New Yorker Tells LeBron James: There's No Place Like Home

Article first published as A New Yorker Tells LeBron James: There's No Place Like Home on Blogcritics.

New York, New York —
A hell of a town,
The Bronx is up and the Battery's down.
The People ride in a hole in the ground.
New York, New York —
It's a hell of a town.
-Jerome Kern & Leonard Bernstein

LeBron James, the "King of All Courts," is being courted by The New Jersey (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets and the New York Knicks. Representing the Nets, billionaire Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and rapper Jay-Z went to Cleveland, followed by Knicks owner James Dolan and head coach Mike D'Antoni. This feeding frenzy of New Yorkers was a full-court press to be sure, trying to lure the greatest catch of all into their big, cash-laden boats.

Can you imagine what King James must have been thinking as these guys made their "presentations" to him? Each team brought a slew of reasons for LeBron to sign on their dotted line. Maybe all the smoke and mirrors aside, the strongest asset the Nets had in their corner was Jay-Z himself, who recently put an advertisement on a side of a building across from Madison Square Garden featuring King Kong-sized photos of the rapper and Prokhorov. The message "the blueprint for greatness" was sent loud and clear: to court a king you've got to be king-sized yourself. Score one for Jay-Z.

Still and all I warn King James to hold onto that crown and think hard, very hard, about what is being thrown at him. Despite all the celebrities like Spike Lee and Chris Rock who are part of this wooing process, LeBron should know from a New Yorker that he is in for a rough ride here. Even with all his talent and star quality, James should think twice about taking vows to wed him to a city that is a great gal on a first date, but is decidely different woman after you've tied the knot.

If money is the only consideration, then forget New York (or any other team). All the King's suitors and all their men can't offer more money than the Cavaliers because of NBA salary restrictions. This is not a George Steinbrenner and the Yankees kind of thing here, where the fattest wallet gets you the prized goose. The Knicks have no choice but to offer less than the Cavs, so in the monetary sweepstakes picking Cleveland is a no brainer for LeBron, but are there other considerations?

No doubt Dolan and Jay-Z brought in the heavy artillery, especially showing how wonderful old New York can be. I'm sure they promised that all the benefits of New York, including all the endorsements in the world, will come in his window. No matter how much the King loves Cleveland, to paraphrase a Groucho Marx line, "Love goes out the door when money comes in the window." Still, James should think awfully hard about this possible marriage with a fickle gal, and New York has not been exactly kind to her past suitors either.

I can think of many sports players who came to New York and thought they could "handle" or "tame" her. Even the biggest guys like Reggie Jackson know what New York can do for you, but she is a tough gal who sucks the life out of you, spits you out when she's done, and then leaves you for her next conquest. Ask A-Rod about that one; even after all this time he has had an uneasy marriage with this place. Is there any question that his stats (and his personal life) would have been better if he had signed elsewhere?

My advice to King James is this: click your ruby sneakers together three times, keep saying, "There's no place like home," and when you wake up you will have all the money you want and peace of mind too. You'll tell Byron Scott (the Cav's new coach) "I had a terrible nightmare." He'll pat you on the shoulder and tell you, "It's all over now. It was only a dream."

Yes, if things go the way they should, it will have been only a dream for Jay-Z, Dolan, and all the New Yorkers who wanted King James in their court. My fellow city dwellers need to face the truth. We can love our New York with all our hearts, but she is a tough cookie and isn't so good at loving you back all the time.

Now that you know the truth, King James, you know what to do.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mets Series with Marlins: Proof There Should Be Major League Baseball in Puerto Rico

This article first published as mets-marlins-series-proof-there-should on Blogcritics.

The baseball games between the New York Mets and the Florida Marlins at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, are proof enough that major league baseball can be played there. Seeming infinitely better than Jarry Park in Montreal, Canada (original home of the now defunct Montreal Expos), which I visited as a kid in 1970 just to see Rusty Staub, the park would be a sufficient venue for Major League Baseball games.

A flight from New York City to San Juan, Puerto Rico, takes approximately three and a half hours. That is less time than if you were flying from JFK to LA or San Francisco. Baseball teams would not have a problem getting there, and the surrounding area is amenable for the players when not on the field.

Watching the three games of this series (which the Marlins took 2-1), I noticed that every seat in the house was taken. Even on Thursday night after a twenty minute rain delay, the place was packed. The crowds are enthusiastic, they are baseball savvy, and they certainly deserve a team of their own for a number reasons.

First, according to the Baseball Almanac, there has been a rich history of players from Puerto Rico (or Puerto Rican descent) in the Major Leagues, including Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. Currently, the Mets alone have Angel Pagan, Jesus Feliciano, Alex Cora, Pedro Feliciano, and the injured Carlos Beltran. This certainly gives the local fans an incentive to come out and see the games on a regular basis.

Second, besides Puerto Rico, the region is a spawning ground for Major League baseball players. Think especially of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. There would be an interest of people in those neighboring countries to come to Puerto Rico to see baseball games. This would encourage tourism and inspire more local prospects to bring their talents to the game.

Third, think of the team that could be established to play there. Veterans and new players would be brought in, making the team an intriguing one that could no doubt be in contention in its first couple of years in the league.

Finally, a Major League baseball team would be wonderful for the Puerto Rican economy. It could also facilitate the long-held desire for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the United States.

The idea of bringing a Major League Baseball team to Puerto Rico makes dollars and sense. While baseball in Canada (at least French-speaking Quebec) may have been a bad idea, this island and US Commonwealth would be an excellent place for a franchise and promote the notion to eventually expand the league into other countries, making the future possibility of a true World Series all the more intriguing.