Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"That Trick NEVER Works!" / "This Time For Sure!"

My brother just turned 46 yesterday, and, in a bit of bizarre bit of transference, I think I'm having HIS midlife crisis. As ugly as it was facing my own 49th birthday almost 3 months ago, somehow his birthday this year is more disconcerting. My kid brother, who I taught how to play baseball AND basketball (very shortly before he began to beat me at both sports, the ungrateful spawn) is 46 years old, complete with wife, 4 kids, suburban home, very successful mid to upper management career, multi-car garage complete with multiple cars in it. I'm not certain, but I think somewhere along the line. a gypsy switched our lives.

On the upside, he's fatter than I am (barely), and has less hair (considerably) than I do. But I'm not bitter. Ok, not THAT bitter. Ok, so I am that bitter.

But moving right on, before the senility kicks in again, this charming little reverie got me to thinking about the underlying rant for tonight's theme: Cartoons. Not anime, not graphic novels, not computer generated anything, but honest to God hand-animated cells. I realize everything evolves, including entertainment, but, at least through the rose tinted glasses of hardly-20/20 nostalgia, the cartoons of a couple of generations ago were smart enough to be entertaining for me when I was in grade school, as well as being cynical enough for me in high school. Rocket J. Squirrel, Bullwinkle Jay Moose, and their friends Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, Fearless Leader, Captain Wrongway Peachfuzz, Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody, Sherman, Snidely Whiplash, and the gang in 'Fractured Fairytales' (yeah I know I'm showing off, but I prefer to think of it as celebrating, and I'll be getting a lot deeper into cartoon esoterica shortly) were funny, witty, AND a satire of the Cold War.

Boris and Natasha (Boris' name is probably a play on Boris Gudenov, a 16th century Russian Tsar, and/or from Boris and Natasha of War and Peace fame) were spies from 'Pottsylvania' (Russia) who worked for the nefarious Fearless Leader (who always reminded me of a skinny version of General Burkhalter from "Hogan's Heroes" (actor Leon Askin, who passed away in June of 2005 at the age of 97). They were always foiled in their bids for world domination by our plucky heroes. Mr. Peabody and Sherman used the Wayback Machine to tell pseudo-historical tales, complete with pithy pun-filled closing lines.

"The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" may have been the Citizen Kane of cartoon shows in my youth, but they weren't the only stars back then. There was Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole, Atom Ant, the Tennessee Tuxedo crew (Chumley, Phineas J. Whoopee, Commander McBragg, Klondike Kat, Savoir Faire, and the Go-Go Gophers), there was Underdog and Polly Purebred, Tooter Turtle and Mr. Wizard, and many many more.

And the voices.... Don Adams (Tennessee Tuxedo), Wally Cox (Underdog), Paul Frees (Boris, Captain Peachfuzz, Inspector Fenwick, and many others, including, oddly enough, the voice of "Josephine", the female persona of the Tony Curtis character "Joe" in "Some Like it Hot" as well as "Crusty" the hermit crab in "The Incredible Mr. Limpet"...the last two I didn't know until tonight), Larry Storch (Phineas Whoopee), William Conrad and Edward Everett Horton (narrators on Rocky and Bullwinkle and Fractured Fairy Tales, respectively), Hans Conried (Snidely Whiplash), and so many others.

And that doesn't even touch on the classics from the 40s and beyond that were still very much in vogue in the 60s and early 70s.... The Warner Brothers most spectacularly. And while we're mentioning cartoons, and Warner, a moment of silence for my own personal choice as the Most Valuable Entertainer in history (MY history anyways), Mel Blanc. He'll get his own tribute from me at the end of May on his birthday.

But for now, for reasons that elude me, just remembering those old cartoons has the calming, reassuring feeling of visiting an old friend - I'm sitting here at 1:25 AM, remembering Mr. Wizard's incantation-answer to Tooter Turtle every time he wandered off and got into trouble: "Drizzle Drazzle Druzzle Drome, time for zis vun to come home." And you know what? It ALWAYS worked.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Steroids

Ahhh, the sounds of spring approach. Major League Baseball spring training games have started in Arizona and Florida, optimism from Seattle to New York, from Milwaukee to Miami is as high as it's going to be all year, and the bitching about steroids in general and Barry Bonds in particular, is back in full throat.

For those of you who just bussed in to Earth, hate sports, or live in Kansas City, I'll recap Bonds-Gate: San Francisco Giants' right fielder Barry Bonds, who went from a very slim, very fast, very talented youngster who hit lots of home runs and stole a lot of bases in the late eighties (top picture) to a very talented bald old guy with bad knees who hits even more home runs and who now is built more like actor Ving Rhames (bottom picture) , is now the second most prolific home run hitter in major league history, with Hank Aaron's crown in sight this year.

The issues first started a few years ago, when a scandal broke out about former home run hitter Jose Canseco and steroid use. This 'blockbuster' news shocked almost no one, as Canseco looked like he stepped right off of Muscle Beach, hit long home runs, and had a very short career (at least in good years). The scandal took off when Canseco revealed in his book "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big", that 85% of major league players took steroids. While that number has been hotly disputed by many in the game, several of the big names named by Canseco have since either admitted steroid use, tested positive for them, or both.

Since then (2005), several 'sub-scandals' have been reported, most notably from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) allegedly supplying steroids to a number of baseball players. Barry Bonds trainer since 2000, Greg Anderson, was the BALCO employee indicted. Despite three separate reports that federal investigators were about to indict Bonds for perjury last year in denying he used steroids, and despite an admission later in the year that Bonds was indeed a target in that federal investigation, no indictments were ever filed, failing any proof. There was also a big story just a week or two ago about Human Growth Hormone (HGH) being sold on the internet, in numbers exceeding hundreds of thousands of dollars, to groups from high schoolers to pro baseball and football players.

Of the players, coaches, trainers, and ex-players either naming or named by these scandals, none is receiving the backlash that Bonds is. Sportswriters who complain bitterly that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame despite his admitted gambling on baseball are jumping on the "asterisk" record bandwagon. These are the people who say when Bonds breaks Aaron's record, he should have an asterisk by it, denoting it was somehow questionable. This would be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Most of those same sportswriters (the older ones) were writing when Aaron himself was chasing Babe Ruth's record back in the early 70's. Nobody seems to remember the death threats, the disrespect, the plain old-fashioned bigoted hatred that stalked Aaron. The protests, the death threats, the boycotts. That a black man would DARE to claim the home run record from the legendary Babe Ruth. But this too passed, and now, bizarrely enough, the outsider is the 'home run king' that's being subverted by the pretender with the 'performance-enhancing drug' crutch.

My problem with all the Barry-bashing isn't about whether or not he does or has used steroids. It's about the double and triple standards that come with every record that falls eventually. And all of them do, sooner or later. But legends not only die hard, they die really really cranky.

Let's look at the objections one at a time: He built his body up chemically. Ok, let's assume for just a moment, that he didn't. Let's assume, just for one split second, that it was done with state of the art training and nutrition. Training and nutrition that didn't exist 40 years ago. On machines that didn't exist. With the benefit of 40 years of sea changes in body building. Obviously that's a benefit that Bonds' predecessors didn't have. Is that cheating?

Secondly, let's assume the allegations are indeed true. If steroids are indeed that prevalent, even if only half or two thirds use them, why is Bonds achieving so much more than his contemporaries? He's presumably hitting against genetically engineered pitchers, and other hitters are doing the same, yet he's hit more home runs than anyone in history but one. Not to mention, if he's so bulked up, how is he able to hit the fastest pitches from these chemically created Frankensteins? From 2002-2004, he hit .370, .341, and .362 (two of those three led the league in hitting).

Thirdly, times and the league itself change. Let's look at the legendary Babe Ruth. From 1901 until 1919, the home run leaders in the American League averaged 8.9 home runs. All season. This was in the so called Dead-Ball era, when the ball was literally wound very loosely, the same ball was kept in play for over 100 pitches, spit, and other, more disgusting foreign objects were legal, and foul balls were not counted as strikes. Players like Frank "Home Run" Baker, who led the American League in home runs four years in a row, and Frank Schulte, who held the major league home run record with an absurd 21 in 1911, have never been heard from again, after the ball and rules were changed in the 20's and players like Babe Ruth started hitting them. How fair was that to the previous record holders? Ruth, and Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, the golden boys of the golden era, played the best ball of THEIR time, and were the record holders. No one "asterisked" their records because of "unfair" advantage.

Players get bigger, better, have better training regimens, and the sport evolves. Every sport does. Perhaps baseball's biggest draw is also it's biggest bigotry: It's a game that evokes the past, and things pastoral. It's played in a 'field' or a 'park', and almost everyone has waves of nostalgia when they think of baseball in their youth. But the people that play the game evolve. They play to compete, they play to win, they play to make money. To vilify the use of some of the tools and not others, is just plain hypocrisy.