Sunday, December 11, 2011

Less Brains, eh Braun? (and a bit more on Albert)

Big news in baseball — Ryan Braun may be baseball’s latest PED cheater.  I’m not a Brewers fan by any stretch of the imagination, and honestly, some of their little celebrations over the years have really annoyed me.  At one point, I thought Braun was most likely to have a ball thrown at his ear because he seemed to spend a little too much time admiring his own handiwork. 
But, as often happens to me in this era of fantasy sports, picking up Braun on my NL only fantasy keeper team has softened my opinion of him.  Especially coming off an MVP season where he almost single handedly kept my team in the running for the league title.  With the defection of Pujols to the AL, Ryan Howard’s achilles injury and the chance that Prince Fielder would also wind up on the AL, I was feeling pretty good about my decision to hang onto Braun, even though I had him at an inflated price ($50 for you roto-heads, thanks to the owner that originally drafted him).  
Now, I may well find myself without his services until May.  Tough pill to swallow, for sure.  But, one thing you always hear pundits say is that if they stood accused of using PEDs, they’d scream from the mountain that they were innocent.  Braun’s done that, and issued a statement professing his innocence.  Love him or hate him, I hope he does prove his innocence.  Baseball has too many stains on its reputation already, and I don’t want another star tainted this way.  Braun is an exciting player to watch, and it would be a shame if we had to discount what he’s done to date.  So, even though my thoughts are somewhat driven by my unhealthy addiction to fantasy baseball, hope this one is ultimately proven false.
Speaking of PED and players suspected of using them, Pujols is a guy that had drawn his fair share of speculation on the topic.  I myself have some doubts, mainly because he’s had a few injuries, such as last year’s arm fracture, that he came back from pretty quickly.  There’s some obvious bitterness to the sentiment, but there’s a tiny part of my brain that wonders if his jumping at the big payday in Anaheim has anything to do with the HGH testing that is part of the new CBA.  And, yes, you’d be correct in assuming that I’d never put that thought to print if he had re-signed with the Cardinals.
Seeing Albert in an Angels uniform was weird, but as with the whole thing, not as weird or painful as I thought it would be as we’ve worked our way towards this day.  I do wish the man well.  I do think that he believes this is about more than money, and that Arte Moreno made him feel a bit more wanted than DeWitt and Mozeliak did.  I also think that the Cardinals did the right thing by not going to the extreme to keep him.  Furcal’s now back in the fold, and talk that the Cards are going after Beltran is still out there.  No, that doesn’t replace Albert, but it does set the Cards up with a decent enough chance at making another run in 2012.  The offense will be a bit less than it was, but with Waino coming back, the gains to the starting rotation offset that a bit.  And Cardinals fans can rest easy now that it’s apparent that the team isn’t just pocketing the savings.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Goodbye #5

With the first 24 hours of the post-Albert Pujols era now in the books, it's time for a little reflection.  Obviously, first post in a long time and to say a lot has happened would be an understatement.
The Cardinals are World Champs -- and as ulikely a champion as we've seen since the 2003 Marlins (or as the popular joke goes, the 2006 Cardinals).
But the big news now, of course, is the departure of Pujols.  Looking at things now, it seems like we saw this one coming, but that doesn't soften the blow.  All season, the standard quote regarding Pujols' impending free agent status was something like "I just can't imagine him anywhere but in St. Louis."  But, to me, that always felt more like wishful thinking than anything near a fact.
My first reaction was the same as most Cardinals fans....disbelief followed by anger followed by disappointment.  This quote from a 2009 article on is exactly the type of thing we'd heard Albert say time and again when he discussed being a free agent for the first time in his career:
"Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course," Pujols said. "Because that city has opened the door to me and my family like no other city is ever going to do. I don't want to [go to] any other city, but if that time comes I'm pretty sure wherever I go they are going to do the same way -- hopefully, open the doors. But I don't think it's to be anything compared to St. Louis.
"People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they're jealous that we're in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 or $4 more million a year? It's not about the money. I already got my money. It's about winning and that's it. It's about accomplishing my goal and my goal is to try to win. If this organization shifts the other way then I have to go the other way."
As fans, we want to believe that all of our favorite players fall in line with this line of thinking.  And I do believe that Albert wanted to stay in St. Louis....really, I do.  I also think that had the Angels not stepped in with such a huge offer (and full no trade protection), then Albert would have accepted the Cardinals offer.  But, the Angels played this perfectly.  They let the suddenly flush Marlins up the bar, and then swooped in full force -- no doubt inspired by losing out on every big name they had pursued the past few offseasons.  This time, they did not get turned away.  And with that, Albert is now a former Cardinal.
In spite of the sting at watching perhaps the greatest player of this generation move on, you have to realize that we've been lucky enough to witness an 11 year run that rivals the greats of the game.  Albert's numbers belong in the conversation with names like Ruth, Dimaggio, Mantle, Musial and Williams.  That hasn't changed.  And he did it wearing the birds on the bat.  And now he'll do it wearing the red and white of another team.  That is the nature of baseball (and pro sports, in general) in 2011.
And I'm OK with that.  I'm not on the ledge.  Really.  Will the 2012 Cardinals suffer from the loss of #5?  Probably.  Are they doomed to be a repeat of the 2007 Cards?  I don't think so.  First off, the roster isn't as much of a patchwork as the 2007 Cards were.  The rotation is in decent shape -- Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia and Lohse/Westbrook are still a solid 1-4, and fifth starters are a little easier to develop and/or sign than the other positions in the rotation.
The bullpen also seems to be in a bit better shape...Motte may not be the next Mariano Rivera -- or even the next Jason Isringhausen, for that matter -- but he showed he's learned how to handle the ninth inning in pressure situations.  Kyle McClellan, Mitchell Boggs, Scrabble (not going to even try to pretend that I can spell his last name)...these are solid building blocks.  The team wants to add another lefty, and there are still some big name late inning guys on the market (such as Ryan Madson) that could make it possible for the Cardinals to be a team that doesn't have to score more than 3 runs a game to win.
On offense, Berkman and Holliday still give the Cardinals some thunder in the middle of the lineup.  Add to that a (hopefully) healthy David Freese and Allen Craig, and it could be more than adequate.  There are some "ifs" -- will Craig be exposed with more at-bats?  Will Freese stay healthy for a full season?  Who is going to play shortstop and second base?  What about a full year with John Jay as a regular rather than a 4th outfielder?  Is Furcal coming back?  What about adding Carlos Beltran?  Or Jimmy Rollins?  Or does the team make a run at Prince Fielder -- who just might decide to take a shorter term deal in hopes of having a second turn on the free agent market in a few years.  Regardless of the path they choose, Mozelik has earned a vote a confidence in my opinion.  This Cardinals team has felt like a playoff contender every year that he's been in charge, and I don't think that will change in 2012.
And again, I don't think this team was ever going to repeat.  It's tough to win a World Series.  It is even tougher to do it a second time.  That bullseye is on the Cardinals' backs now -- and that was true whether #5 was staying or not.  I'm hardly the first or last to say this, but in reality, this probably sets up the Cardinals better for the next 10 years than if Albert had taken the $210 million/9-10 year deal that was reportedly on the table.  True, Cardinals fans would probably tolerate a decline in his skills through his late 30's/early 40's more than any other fan base, but the fact remains that Pujols is most likely not going to get any better than he has been for the last 11 years.  To pay a premium for those years is not something a successful franchise does.  One of the things that made the Atlanta Braves so successful for so long is that they were not afraid to change the individual parts to improve the whole.  They weren't afraid to send a good player packing if it meant saving the team from a bad contract that would hinder the team for years.  True, they never faced that type of dilemma with a player like Pujols, but the point is the same even if you're only talking about David Justice.
So this is a sad day for Cardinals fans, but it isn't really a bad day.  The Cardinals still have a good team, and have the financial flexibility to address some things that they would not have had if Albert stayed.  Someday, we'll look back fondly on the career of Albert Pujols, who will go into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal.  We'll marvel at the 3 homer game against Texas, the time he put out one of the letters in the in the 'Big Mac' sign, how he played second base for a few innings in 2010 and played a few games at third in 2011.  Maybe we'll even be giving him a standing ovation as his #5 is retired (though personally, I'm not quite ready to afford him that honor just yet).  But as someone said on twitter yesterday -- "I was a Cardinals fan before Pujols and I'll still be one after Pujols."  We root for the birds on the bat.  Period.  It's a shame that Albert Pujols is no longer wearing them.  But it is not the end of the world.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

REM: The Warner Bros. Years

My original plan had been for this to be 2 posts, but a few more days to "ease the pain" of REM's breakup have made me realize that I'm basically now just doing it to follow up on the previous post and then I'm back to blogging about baseball and other sports.  So, a quick spin through each of REM's albums for Warner Brothers.

Green was released the day that George Bush (the first one) was sworn in.  REM's first for a major label also saw the first time that lyrics for a song were printed in the album's liner notes.  "World Leader Pretend" was a continuation of political themes in REM's music.  Green also features the first songs where Peter Buck played mandolin (crowd favorite "You Are the Everything", "The Wrong Child" and "Hairshirt").  The acoustic numbers were balanced out by several arena-ready rockers -- "Pop Song '89" (which despite its title has held up very well over the years), "Get Up" (completing arguably the second best 1-2 punch to open an REM album), "Orange Crush" and "Turn You Inside Out".  The song "Stand" became a huge hit and for many fans (excluding myself) has become one of the more cringe inducing songs in the REM catalog.  Another oddity is that on the front cover, the letter 'R' in both the words GREEN and REM has a number 4 superimposed over the letter.  When you check the numbered track listing on the back, track 4 ("Stand") has a letter 'R' instead of the number.  Probably one of those silly little meaningless things the band did knowing their fans would probably spend hours trying to come up with a hidden meaning.

Green spawned a massive tour (which included my first show in 1990 in Champaign, IL).  After such a lengthy tour, REM took a bit longer to finish their next release...and biggest hit to date.  Anticipation was high for Out of Time.  It marked the first time that REM let more than a year pass between releases.  Thanks to "Stand", REM was firmly entrenched in the mainstream now.  As you'd expect, REM did an about face from the arena rock sound of Green in favor or a much more lush sound.  Lead single, "Losing My Religion" and the accompanying video became an unlikely hit (and added another song to the list of overplayed songs that would eventually cause more eye rolls than agreement when you told someone you were an REM fan).  REM also brought in some notable guest stars - Kate Pierson of the B-52s and rapper (yes rapper) KRS-One.  Pierson sings back up on "Shiny Happy People" (the one REM song I almost always skip when it pops up on the iPod) and album closer "Me In Honey" -- one of the stronger tracks on the album.  KRS-One raps over the end of opening track "Radio Song".  As they'd done before, REM threw caution to the wind -- songs featured mandolins, strings.  Stipe's vocals were now fairly clear and much more prominent in the mix (though the lyrics proved to be as cryptic as ever).  This album is also Mike Mills finest moment.  His harmonies had long been one of the secret weapons of REM's sound, perfectly complimenting Stipe's voice, but on Out of Time Mills takes lead on two of the better tracks - the Brian Wilson-ish "Near Wild Heaven" and "Texarkana" (one of my favorite tracks on the album).  The album was REM's first #1 and was nominated for album of the year but ended up losing out to Natalie Cole's Unforgettable -- something that irks me to this day.

REM decided to take a break from the road and did not tour in support of this album.  While it took more than a year for the follow up, Automatic for the People seemed to follow very quickly - mainly because REM was now a fixture on radio and MTV.  "Alternative" music was no longer an alternative to the mainstream -- Nirvana's Nevermind is often credited as the album that broke alternative, but the truth is that bands like REM had been paving the trail for years.  Like it's predecessor, Automatic worked its way to the top of the charts.  The album is full of many melancholy tunes that deal with mortality....some very directly ("Try Not to Breathe", "Sweetness Follows"), other's less so ("Monty Got a Raw Deal").  Lead single "Drive" became an unlikely hit and couldn't have sounded less like "Losing My Religion".  "Everybody Hurts" became the huge hit, adding another drop in the bucket of REM songs that caused detractors to roll their eyes and long time fans to bemoan the fact that their cult band was now a hitmaker.  Overplayed hits aside, some of REM's best work can be found on this album -- "Man on the Moon", fan favorite "Nightswimming" and "Find the River" (another personal favorite).  "Ignoreland" -- a rant against a Republican lead government -- was the only 'political' themed track.

Two straight mellow records left REM ready to rock -- and lead many to feel that they were simply cashing in on the grunge movement.  Monster was yet another about face, but the results were mixed.  The album was well received initially, but the backlash against REM's popularity had been steadily growing.  The album features many strong tracks, such as "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", "Star 69", "Circus Envy", "Crush With Eyeliner" and the Kurt Cobain inspired "Let Me In".  But the album as a whole has not held up as well as some of their other albums and the heavy guitars give the album an early 90's feel.  Songs like "King of Comedy", the "Everybody Hurts" style "Strange Currencies", the odd falsetto driven "Tongue" (the song the band played as Bill Berry suffered from a brain aneurism) and the almost tuneless pair of "Bang and Blame" and "I Took Your Name" all drove this album to be a common inhabitant of the bargain bin at your local record store.

This was followed by one of the longest and most underrated efforts - New Adventures in Hi Fi.  Many of Hi Fi's tracks were recorded during soundchecks for the Monster tour, giving the album feel almost like a live album.  Sonically, it settled in somewhere between the noisy Monster and REM's earlier work.  This was the first one that was declared to be a "return to form".  At fourteen tracks and an hour in length, this album would have been a classic had REM exercised a little extra restraint.  "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" -- with it's weird spaghetti western style melody and haunting piano -- sets an immediately weird tone making this the WB era counterpart to Fables.  Stand outs included "The Wake Up Bomb", "Undertow", "Bittersweet Me" and "Electrolite".  "Leave" checks in at over 7 minutes giving it the honor of being the longest song in the REM catalog.  Several songs feel like retreads of others - "Departure" and "So Fast, So Numb" don't sound radically different from "Undertow".  "Low Desert" is nearly as tuneless as Monster's "I Took Your Name", and instrumental "Zither" just feels like oddity for the sake of oddity.  "E-Bow the Letter" featured guest vocals from Stipe's hero, Patty Smith, and is perhaps the weirdest (though underrated) REM single ever released.

Bill Berry's health issues zapped some of his passion for the rock and roll lifestyle, and in 1997, he left the band after extracting the promise that his departure would not spell the end of REM (the band had always maintained that if any one member left, they would never be able to continue as REM -- if they continued at all).  Many fans wish they'd have kept this promise, and 1998's Up did little to really change anyone's mind.  It is far and away REM's most challenging and odd record.  Berry's contribution to the band may have seemed minimal, but the shift in songwriting and mood is evident.  Rather than replace him with session drummers or a full fledged replacement, REM added electronic percussion to many of the tracks.  The mood is somber and very introspective.  For the first time, full lyrics are included with the album.  Lead single, "Daysleeper" sounds like an outtake from Automatic and gave the impression that REM as a trio would sound a lot like the quartet, though a listen through the full album would prove that to be misleading.  The album starts out with "Airportman" which flows immediately into the one rocker on the album - "Lotus".  "At My Most Beatiful" lives up to the title and sounds like it could have been co-written by Brian Wilson (Stipe admitted that this was his tribute to one of Mills' and Buck's heroes).  The album is interesting and like Hi Fi, much better than it's given credit for being.  Hi Fi was the first step in REM's descent into being much less relevant to the mainstream, and Up only sped up the process.

2001's Reveal proved to be a bit sunnier, and REM sounded much more comfortable as a trio than they did on Up.  Many would trumpet this as yet another return to form.  There were some classic REM sounding songs to be found -- "Imitation of Life" featured almost the same chord structure as "Driver 8" and sounded like a lost track from the 80's era albums.  "She Just Wants To Be", another of the albums stronger tracks, seemed to encapsulate the prototypical later-era REM song.  Minus the electronic accents, "Disappear" could have been an outtake from Out of Time.  Reveal feels like a summer album -- it has a tracks named "Beachball" and "Summer Turns to Hight", after all -- and while the happier sounding melodies were a welcome change from the previous album, many of the songs feel almost formulaic in hindsight.

2004 brought another "return to form", and the one REM album that made many of their most devoted fans question whether or not it was time to call it a day.  Around the Sun is the low point for REM.  There is nothing truly terrible on the album -- and in fact, its high points are as good as anything in the post-Berry era.  "Final Straw" shows that REM's political fire is alive and well.  "Leaving New York" is a surprisingly straightforward love song.  The big problem I have with the album is that it sounds like a stab at "Adult Alternative" schmaltz.  Songs follow fairly standard verse-chorus-verse structure and the lyrics are rarely cryptic at all.  Though my initial reaction was positive, this is the one REM album that I rarely listen to - hence the lack of mention of many specific tracks.

While REM albums were suffering a bit, the band was touring regularly, and becoming quite a good live band.  They had added Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey as full time touring members, and with 2008's Accelerate, the duo became defacto members of the band.  Accelerate proved to be a very appropriate title.  The album clocks in under 35 minutes with only two songs exceeding 4 minutes.  The usual "return to form" description felt a bit more appropriate this time around, as many of the songs featured here would not sound out of place on any of the Warner Brothers releases.  It's not a great album thanks to a few minor missteps, but it was easily the best post-Berry album yet.  "Sing for the Submarine" sounds a bit too forced of an attempt at weirdness, but does name check several older REM songs.  Other songs, such as "Hollow Man" and "Until the Day is Done" sound a little bit too much like "REM by numbers", but the highlights were reason for fans to be optimistic.  "Living Well is the Best Revenge", "Man Sized Wreath" and "Supernatural Superserious" get things rolling into high gear.  "Houston" finds Stipe telling a post-Katrina inspired story, showing that time hadn't mellowed the band's political fire.  I've always read that Pearl Jam's "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is one of the better REM-songs-not-written-by-REM songs, and "Horse to Water" sounds like a return of the favor.

With REM rocking again, hopes were high for Collapse Into Now and for the most part, fans were rewarded.  I do recall a few reviews of the album calling out the fact that this was the final album due under REM's current contract with Warner Brothers and that elements of this album felt like a swan song.  Of course, as of 9/21/2011, we know that is exactly what Collapse is, and it's not a bad way for the band to go out.  Another "return to form" album, it sounds very much like Out of Time era REM.  I believe the first five tracks are as solid a start to an REM album as anything they had released that album.  On the negative side, REM could have written many of these songs in their sleep.  Stipe's lyrics have become far more understandable over the previous few albums, and with most of these tracks, you get what he's singing about almost immediately.  That doesn't mean the lyrics are bad, however, as he turns several interesting phrases -- beginning with "Discoverer" (Just the slightest bit of finesse / might have made a little less mess).  Listening to the album today, and you pick up on lyrics that seem to suggest that REM knew this would be it as they were making this one.  Stipe says in "Discoverer" that "this is not a challenge, it just means that I love you as much as I always said I did."  Your first inclination is that he's talking to a friend or partner, but he might just as well be talking to their fans.  "All the Best" sounded like a goodbye from the first moment you read the lyrics..."I'll give it one more time / I'll show the kids how to do it, fine..." and "It's just like me to overstay my welcome, man."  "Uberlin" is one of the better songs they've written in years, and "Oh My Heart" is an update on the characters from "Houston".  "It Happened Today" is as cryptic as things get lyrically, and the song takes off into a wordless chorus by Stipe, Mills and guest Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam played this song in tribute to REM during their 9/21 concert in Calgary).  "Everyday is Yours to Win" sounds like an update on "Everybody Hurts" -- or alternately some thoughts to prop you up as you mourn the loss of your favorite band.  The album closes with "Blue" -- which, thanks to Patty Smith's appearance sounds like "E-Bow the Letter" crossed with "Country Feedback" and lyrics that were recorded in the same manner as "Belong".  Stipe declares that he wants his "Brothers Proud" -- another indication that maybe he's saying that REM can turn the final page of this book without any regrets.

With the benefit of time, I think more respect will be given to REM's last few albums, particularly the final two.  They'll never be mistaken for the best of the bunch, and most fans won't try to tell you that they stack up.  But, there's no denying that REM did their best to remain interesting to their fans throughout their 31 years.  If, as I now believe, they knew that Collapse Into Now was going to be the end of the line, then it's a fitting love letter to their fans.  It will always take on a slightly sadder tone for me now that I hear it in a context of finality, but it also makes me feel like it is 1991 again -- when REM was just about to take that final step into the mainstream, but were doing it completely on their own terms.  And I still maintain that with the possible exception of Around the Sun, that REM has never made a truly awful album....that their lesser work is still better than many bands' best....even if it is a bit more of a stretch with some of the later efforts.

If you've bothered to read any of these last 3 posts, I'd love to hear your comments or thoughts.  These were written strictly for myself, and I'm not delusional enough to think that anyone really cares what I think of REM.  But it's been fun for me to step back and look at their career as a whole.  If you are reading this....then thanks for your patience and perseverance.  As I'm writing these last few lines, I'm listening to "Every Day is Yours To Win"....and that 17 year old kid that I used to be (and sometimes forget that I'm not anymore) is thinking that it would sound pretty good coming from the headphones that I used to wear as I fell asleep every night.  And maybe that's a fitting end to this little off to grab some headphones and fall asleep to the sound of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe one more time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

R.E.M. - IRS years

Another one more for myself than anything....and due to my frustration at the Cards looking like they'll lose the first of 3 to the Cubs (while losing another game on the Braves) and a Yankee rainout...well, I don't want to talk about baseball tonight anyway.

My first thought was to write up a post each talking about each of REM's albums (I'm omitting the '.'s for simplicity's sake)....but that's a lot of typing, I'm already bordering on extreme overkill, and writing something meaningful about Around the Sun would mean I'd have to listen to it again, and I don't feel like doing that, because it is the one record REM made that makes me think they should have called it a day sooner (although I did think it was decent right when it first came out).

It's still overkill, but I decided to split this up into 3 posts (that may yet be trimmed down to 2):

  1. The early years / IRS discography
  2. The early WB years
  3. The Post-Bill Berry albums
I think if you poll most fans, 97% would say this is the period that really defines REM's greatness -- and probably the one that most of us "REM snobs" assume the masses overlook when they roll their eyes at the mention of REM.  When I saw the band on the tour supporting Up, I remember being pleasantly surprised to hear the band play "Pilgrimage" (one of my favorites), and hearing some idiot sitting a few rows ahead of me yelling "Play the old stuff!"  He was very pleased when the next song was from "Green".  That's why I tend to assume the masses have never listened to anything earlier than Document.

I'm skipping Chronic Town since it was only an EP and technically was just a re-issue on IRS.  So starting off with the debut, and probably REM's most highly regarded album....Murmur.

Murmur, great as it may be, is not my favorite REM album, but it's close.  The album kicks off with a reworked version of REM's first single, "Radio Free Europe".  While this version isn't as good as the original Hibtone version, it's still a solid opening track and perfectly fits in the context of the full album.  For the younger set out there...this was also a time when albums were meant to be listened to in their entirety. (Sorry, I'll try to tone down the cranky old man thing).  This album is nearly perfect, the one slight misstep being "Shaking Through".  It's not a bad song, but just not quite as engaging as the other tracks.  As I mentioned, "Pilgrimage" is a personal favorite and keeps the momentum from the opener rolling along perfectly.  "9-9" is another standout and one of the few true 'rockers' on the disc.  To someone hearing this for the first time today, it might sound a little dated, but when you consider that the big hits of the day were albums like Michael Jackson's Thriller and the Police's Synchronicity, you realize that this really was like spending 44 minutes in an alternate reality.

Rather than fall into a sophomore slump, REM returned with Reckoning.  Where Murmur sounded very crafted and lush, Reckoning was raw, more up tempo -- yet instantly identifiable as REM.  "Harborcoat", "Pretty Persuasion", "Second Guessing" and "Little America" give the album a more rocking feel, but the mid tempo classics "So. Central Rain" and "Time After Time" give the whole thing a feeling of depth.  The best moment of the album comes near the end, when the originally punky opening of "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" gives way to a rolling country tune.  Long time fans seem to take turns naming each of REM's first three albums as their favorite, but I would guess that Reckoning would slightly edge out the other two.

For their third record, REM once again managed the neat trick of sounding like the same band but completely different.  Fables of the Reconstruction is much darker and has a very weird, Southern feeling to it.  Songs such as "Old Man Kensey", "Wendell Gee" and "Life and How To Live It" tell stories about eccentric local characters, while "Feeling Gravity's Pull" amps up the weirdness right off the bat.  The album features some of the bands better hits as well -- the faux-funk of "Can't Get There From Here", "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" and the classic "Driver 8".  Overall, this one is not quite as satisfying as the previous two albums, but still a very strong album.

The reason why none of these albums is my favorite is because their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant is just so damn good.  And yes, the band intentionally left the apostrophe out of the word "Lifes".  This album sounds bigger, more straight ahead.  Stipe's vocals are as clear as ever, though the same cannot always be said about his lyrics.  The album opens with one of the best 1-2 punches in rock history -- "Begin the Begin" and "These Days".  "Fall On Me" and "Cuyahoga" are the first songs that make it obvious that Stipe cares about the environment.  There is not one skip-worthy song on this album, and closes perfectly with the trio of "Just A Touch", "Swan Swan H" and "Superman" (a cover of an obscure 60's 'hit' by the Clique).  REM's fifth album was the breakthrough, but Pageant is the one that really pulls it all together.

Document keeps the big sound of Pageant but adds an element of chaos to the mix.  The jangly 12 string guitar is all but gone at this point.  The opening track, "Finest Worksong" sounds like arena rock, and it wouldn't belong before REM was filling arena's.  "The One I Love" was the band's breakthrough hit...misunderstood by many as a love song, when in reality it is anything but.  "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" is the other big 'hit' and one of the band's more recognizable songs.  It's not all arena rock, though -- "King of Birds" and "Fireplace" provide a mellow counterpoint to the chaos.  "Welcome to the Occupation" -- far more political than anything the band had done to this point -- would have been at home on either of the previous two albums.

And with Document, REM was no longer that underground band that you kept hearing about and wondered what the fuss was about.  They were on the path to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world and were slowly paving the way for the alternative music revolution that was soon to start.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wake To a New Today Tomorrow

A quick disclaimer -- I'm long winded by nature, but I'm going to outdo myself on this one.  As a long time R.E.M. fan (obsessive?), this is meant more as a little cathartic exercise than an attempt to really write something worth reading.  It may well be a waste of time, though I'll always appreciate anyone who takes the time to read anything that I might write.  If you make it all the way through, I hope you enjoy it, but if you get a sentence or two further and give up....well, you've been warned.

You'd think with one of my favorite teams making an improbably push towards the Wild Card, I'd be posting daily thoughts on the Cardinals.  But as dramatic as the home stretch of the baseball season has been, there's only one topic on my mind as I start writing tonight....After 31 years as a band, R.E.M. has decided to -- as they put it -- " it a day...".

(Photo taken from --

Some will tell you that hearing (fill in R.E.M. song here) for the first time changed their life, I think most stories would sound similar to mine.  I honestly can't remember the first R.E.M. song that I really heard, but it was "The One I Love" and Document when I first really became aware of R.E.M.'s music -- this was my sophomore year of high school.  And at first, I wasn't a huge fan.  But a friend of mine was insistent that this band was awesome (he'd previously tried to convert me to the Cure, which oddly enough is a band that took another 3 or 4 years for me to fully appreciate).  He was so convinced that I would be hooked that he dubbed a cassette with Life's Rich Pageant on one side and Document on the other.  By this point, "The One I Love" had been in constant rotation on the radio -- and the few "long time" R.E.M. fans at my school were converting new fans all the if anything, they were what the "cool kids" liked, and that gave me reason to listen.  "It's the End of the World As We Know It" was another one the clicked right away.  I flipped the tape over and thought "Fall On Me" and "Superman" sounded vaguely familiar.  But outside of these songs, not much really drew me in and for the time being, my musical tastes tended more towards classic rock such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But the "coolness factor" kept increasing for R.E.M. so more and more of my classmates were becoming fans.  Later that year, a few of the "cool kids" decided to play "The One I Love" at our school talent show.  Starting to come around, but still far from a fan.  Fast forward to the next of my best friends goes away to camp, comes back with stories of a guy that he had met that had "great taste in music".  So a few weeks later, the new friend comes to visit, and struck me as a pretty cool guy.  And the fact that he didn't seem to think I was a complete idiot didn't hurt, either.  He's got a cassette with him that would change my musical tastes forever.  Ironically, it was -- of all things -- a Warren Zevon album.  The album, Sentimental Hygiene, featured R.E.M. as Zevon's backing band, and all this new friend could say was that this was a great album and that it sounded like an R.E.M. album.  Wanting to fit in, I made a copy and started playing the album for hours on end.  The more I listened the more I liked it.

A few weeks later and my family heads out for one of our annual vacations...this one out west to Colorado.  As I said before, I was a pretty typical 15 year old in that I would listen to Warren Zevon basically because someone that I thought was cool told me it was good.  And like most 15 year old kids, I had also developed a nice little surly streak (my family would probably tell you that it's never really gone away).  Staying home wasn't an option, however, so packing a walkman and as many cassette tapes as possible was a must.  Traveling from central Illinois to Colorado by car involves more than a few hours in the car, and many of the miles are typified by flat terrain and very sketchy radio reception.  I'll tell you today that my parents have excellent taste in music.  They introduced me to bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jefferson Airplane/Starship....There are many songs, bands and albums that I still love today because I remember hearing them in the car during a family trip.  But, at 15, I'd have made no such concession, and with the exception of the Beatles, just about any tape they played on the car stereo was met with me putting on a pair of headphones.

You can only listen to one Warren Zevon album so many times as you traverse states like Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, etc., so eventually I had to pick something else.  Somewhere along the way, I decided to put in the R.E.M. cassette that had Document and Pageant.  The former was the bigger draw because of the hit songs and the sound closer to the Zevon album, but after a while, it was Pageant  that really settled into my brain.  I think I may have listened to this cassette non-stop for the rest of the trip.  Or at least that's the romanticized way I'm choosing to remember it.  And from that point forward, I started to count myself as an R.E.M. fan.

As Junior year gets underway, news breaks that Van Halen (or Van Hagar as they were referred to at the time) was coming to the Peoria Civic Center.  I hadn't completely forsaken classic/hard rock at this point, and Van Halen was still a big deal.  Different "cool friend of a friend" spends the night talking about R.E.M.'s new record, Green, and that we needed to go right out and buy a copy for ourselves.  Back then the $15 necessary to buy a CD seemed like a lot of money, and it took me a couple of weeks to save the cash.  But as soon as I did, my dad drove me over to a local record store, and I bought a copy (the first R.E.M. ablum that I actually bought as opposed to copying from a friend).  "Orange Crush" was a song I liked right away (and had heard on the radio) and "Stand" hadn't yet hit the airwaves.  Hooked, mesmerized....however you want to put it, that's where I was.  This album had the dual benefit of being something that I really loved AND something that was cool to listen to.

The school talent show rolls around again, and the same kids that had performed an R.E.M. song the year before play "Driver 8".  How did I not know this song yet?  That I don't know, but I do know that I immediately bought a copy of Eponymous (the IRS greatest hits album that came out at the same time as Green).  And so now I also loved "Radio Free Europe", "Talk About the Passion" and "Don't Go Back to Rockville".  Some friends -- more of those "cool kids" that I wanted to be in good with -- were driving up to Alpine Valley in Wisconsin to see the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour.  My parents were pretty cool (again, something I probably wouldn't have admitted at the time) but piling into a car with friends that hadn't been driving very long and driving a couple hours north was not something they were agreeable to.  But to soften the blow, they did say that I could find another concert that wasn't quite so far away and they'd let me go.  Then a friend mentions that R.E.M. was about to play a show in Champaign, which was only about 90 minutes away.  The P's still weren't up for letting me ride with friends, but since we knew guys at U of I that were going to the show, we had an apartment where my Dad could sit while I went to the show with my friends (an aside -- I was cool for a short time because I'd been the one to get the group together to go see R.E.M. -- life was good).  Again, my parents are pretty cool....looking at this now as I'm just about to turn 39, I can't believe my Dad did this just so I could go to a concert.

If my life didn't change the first time I heard an R.E.M. song, it did the first time I saw them live.  To this day -- and I realize that it has been built up over the years in my mind -- I still hold the memory of this concert very close to my heart.  They played most of the songs that I wanted to hear (though sadly not "Driver 8") and played several more that have since become favorites (such as "Perfect Circle").  But without a doubt, this is the point where I went from being an R.E.M. fan to being an R.E.M. obsessive.  If there was an album I didn't have yet, I bought and/or copied it.  I fell asleep most nights with a pair of headphones on and an R.E.M. album playing.  I started listening to other bands that were in the same vein -- we called it college rock back then.  I found a lot of great music, much of which I still love today and that takes me back to that time whenever I hear it.  But there was never a band that compared with R.E.M.

It only got worse in college....I annoyed, then converted my roommate freshman year.  I begged another friend to drive me the 16 miles from campus to the closest record store to buy a copy of Out of Time the day it was released.  A friend and I would sit in the quad playing our guitars -- the only two truly recognizable songs we could play were "Driver 8" and the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine" -- which is what we'd play if anyone that we knew came along and asked us to play something.  Junior year brought Automatic for the People and me convincing my then girlfriend (and now wife) to go stand in line with me for the midnight sale that the new record store was holding.  She bought a copy, too, and still loves many of those songs (though we both really still hate "Everybody Hurts").  Another midnight sale for Monster (and my second R.E.M. concert), which I initially loved, but is now my least favorite album featuring Bill Berry.

By the time New Adventures in Hi Fi came out in 1996, I had just moved to the Chicago area and seen my tastes shift a bit towards "jam bands".....but, of course, I still stopped at Tower Records on my lunch break to get my copy and still spent the afternoon in my cube at work trying to look busy while listening to the album.  Not long after, Bill Berry quit the band, and I fully expected them to be done.  But Up soon followed, coming out just days before I got married.  Thanks to the wedding and the ensuing honeymoon, this was the first time since Green...and last....time that I would not buy an R.E.M. album on the day that it came out.  This album and the next 2 don't really merit much more mention.  I don't hate any of the 3, and while I think they all have some great tracks, I always lump them together as R.E.M.'s lost period -- as I'm sure many of my fellow fans do.  I do recall, however, that when the band stopped in the Chicago area during this tour, I convinced my wife that we needed to go because I was fairly certain this would be my last chance to see them.  Didn't think they had more than a year or two left.

So that leaves Accelerate (along with my final R.E.M. show) and Collapse Into Now.  These albums were not as good as the ones that I was obsessed with in the late 80's/early 90's, but they were a welcome change after previous 3 post-Berry releases.  And their Chicago stop in support of Accelerate is easily the 2nd best concert of the 4 that I've seen.  Collapse saw me as excited for a new R.E.M. album as I'd been since Hi Fi.  And today, I'm listening to it in a new light -- especially the song "All the Best" -- "I'll do this one more time".....

I recall reading several reviews that suggested that this might be R.E.M.'s swan song, but I refused to believe that could be true.  But of course, that is exactly what it turned out to be.  And, honestly, it isn't a bad way to go out.  Once the news of their break-up hit, I was following twitter looking for that sense of community that you have when you have a shared love for a band.  As you'd expect, mixed in were the typical comments slamming the band -- everything from "they haven't been good since (fill in IRS era record) or (Automatic)" to "I hated 'Losing My Religion'" to "So tragic to say goodbye to a band that hasn't been relevant in at least 10 years."  Actually, that last one really pisses me off -- first of all, R.E.M. meant a great deal to a lot of us.  I'm sure there are an infinite number of stories out there similar to mine (though I doubt many of them are as long winded).  And since when did relevant = greatness?  It seems relevant is the same as hit songs to many people -- and by that logic that means Demi Lovato, LMFAO, Maroon 5 and Lady GaGa are a bigger deal than R.E.M.  Ok, perhaps this particular moment in time, they are, but check back in 5 or 10 years -- I think R.E.M.'s work will hold up while many of the hitmakers of today will be just as anonymous as all of those bands that were big 2 or 3 years ago but are now long forgotten by anyone that isn't a die hard fan.  So basically, you can stick your relevance up your.....

Sorry -- soap box.  And so, 9/21/2011 is the day we bid R.E.M. a fond farewell.  It's a sad day in many ways, but the music will live on (and will undoubtedly annoy the crap out of my wife as I'm sure to be playing it non-stop for the next few days -- though I'm sure she'll be thankful that this puts an end to my Pearl Jam fixation that's been with me since the PJ20 shows at Alpine Valley a few weeks ago).  As I said in the little disclaimer at the top of the post, this one isn't really being written for anyone but me.  R.E.M. has been the soundtrack to my life for the last 24 years.  Even the albums that I first heard several years after their initial release trigger memories of a particular person, experience or place.  Maybe they stuck around a bit too long.  Maybe listening to R.E.M. isn't the badge of honor that it once was.  Doesn't matter, because right now, I just want to say thanks.  It feels like I should say more, but I don't know what that would be.  I'll never, ever, love another band the way that I love R.E.M.  And while I'm sad that I don't have much more than a new greatest hits album to look forward to...and that I never got to hear them play "Driver 8" live...I'm so thankful that I have 15+ albums worth of music that is so much more than lyrics and melody....It's a time machine...a window into my life at any given time.  And to that one guy on twitter -- that's why so many people are lamenting that band that you think is no longer relevant.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading and indulging me for a little while.  (in my head, "Find the River" is providing a fitting close to this post).  Oh, and if you didn't know, the title of this post is taken from a lyric for "It's a Free World, Baby".

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Next big thing, or next big headache?

Ok, by now most of you have probably seen video from Sunday's Cubs/Cardinals game showing Starlin Castro doing everything but paying attention to the baseball game. At one point, he seems to completely miss the fact that Cubs' pitcher James Russell throws a pitch to the Cardinals shortstop, Daniel Descalso. You know it's bad when Mr. No-Attention-Span himself, Alfonso Soriano, is the one who tells you that you missed an entire play. Castro admitted that he didn't know he had missed the play until he saw it on TV later that night. Castro and the Cubs were roundly criticized during the game and Castro got a day off on Monday, presumably as a form of punishment.

There's a part of me that wants to join in. Castro's one of the only possible "stars" for the Cubs to latch their wagon to, but honestly, I think he's just got too far to go development-wise to justify the fuss. It is beyond clear that the kid has talent, but it is also apparent that he's lacking a bit in maturity. I've heard folks throw out comparisons to Jeter, which just makes me laugh. As a huge fan of Jeter's, I have to admit a strong bias here, but even during his early years in the majors, Derek never took his eyes off the ball. And while he still commits his share of errors, generally, he's the kind of player that makes all the plays he's expected to make. With Castro, sometimes it is the highlight reel plays that look easy and the easy plays that end up looking embarrassing.

But ultimately, I this highlights a big problem I've seen with the Cubs over the last several years...and to a certain extent in pro sports in general. The Cubs have a long history of enabling less than acceptable behavior when it is generating the optimal result. Sammy Sosa always seemed to get away with being a poor teammate -- until such time that he stopped hitting home runs at an incredible rate...then he was banished to the Orioles. Corey Patterson was brought up through the minors as a #3 hitter in the order, then became a problem child when he wasn't able to change his mindset to be a leadoff hitter. Carlos Zambrano looked to be a Cy Young caliber pitcher and earned himself a big payday...and, well, saying that hasn't turned out well is an understatement. And now we see Castro -- star of the future -- gifted with amazing natural talent, and yet it isn't until ESPN's cameras catch him popping sunflower seeds in his mouth and kicking at the dirt that he gets reprimanded. I have a hard time believing this was the first time the kid has zoned out during a game, yet this is the first time Quade (more likely someone in the front office) has seen fit to give Castro a day off.

Castro has the talent to be a very good -- if not great -- major league shortstop. He could be the next big star for the Cubs. He could also be yet another player in a frustratingly long line of guys that are content to compile stats and be the "big man" on a mediocre team. I really hope the former will turn out to be the case, but I fear that the latter is far more likely.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Goodbye, Colby.

Looking back on it now, it seems like something that was inevitable. Colby Rasmus is an ex-Cardinal. To a certain degree, I think the Cardinals have made a bit of a mistake. Rasmus has issues, and had earned a fair bit of the ire that he's received from some corners of Cardinals nation. He's requested trades, and by many accounts, ignores the advice from the coaches that are paid to make him a better player in favor of the advice that his Dad (also his former high school coach). This has never sat well with TLR....and that is completely understandable. At the same time, it seems that La Russa has had his mind made up regarding Rasmus while he was still working his way up the minor league ladder.

Regardless, it isn't a stretch to say that Rasmus wasn't living up to expectations this year. His numbers have tumbled mightily after getting off to a good start, and he's started losing playing time to John Jay. He's one of those players that has so much natural talent that it can sometimes appear that he's loafing it in the outfield. Add to that a few dropped balls in some key situations, and you have a scenario that rarely plays well with a fan base that values hustle and "playing the game the right way."

So Rasmus leaves, along with relievers Brian Tallet, Trever Miller and minor leaguer P.J. Walters. The centerpiece of the players coming back is Edwin Jackson, an free agent to be who is in the midst of his best year in the majors. He'll be tough to resign, especially if he performs well now that he's moved over to the NL. The Cards also get relievers Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepcynksi and former Cub Corey Patterson.

This deal does seem to make the Cardinals better for the short term. The offense hasn't had much trouble putting up runs, the rotation has been decent, but the bullpen has shown a propensity to blow a lead in close games. This allows Skip Schumaker to see a little more time in the outfielder, so in theory the infield defense should improve a bit (though with the personnel in place, it will be a minimal increase). The team also expects Allen Craig back from a rehab stint sometime in early August. Kyle McClellan will move back to the bullpen, and the rotation shouldn't suffer from the addition of Jackson. Rzepcynski will hopefully be an upgrade in the left handed reliever department, Dotel has closing experience (a role I hope he never fills in STL) and there are worse backup outfielders in the league than Patterson.

I have mixed emotions on the deal. On one hand, Colby wasn't looking like the player that we expected him to be. But at 24, it isn't like he's reached that point in his career where he settles in as a 'good' player rather than improving and becoming a great player. Last year, Ludwick was sent packing after an underwhelming and injury filled first half, and Jay faltered a bit down the stretch as he went from sub to starter. But now we're sure he's ready to handle things as the starting center fielder? Then again, the only season that we should be worried about here is 2011 -- we might well wish this trade has never happened a year from now, but if the Cardinals can use this move to get into the playoffs and hopefully make a run to the World Series, the trade of Rasmus will be nothing more than a footnote to the season.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sometimes you can't win for trying

Saturday, July 9, 2011.....the day Derek Jeter became the 28th major leaguer to collect 3,000 hits. Only the 14th to collect all of his hits with one team. First Yankee to get 3,000 hits. 2nd player to homer on hit #3,000. Jeter had quite a day as I'm sure you've heard....going 5 for 5 (half of the Yankees total hits), missed the cycle by a triple, but did manage to drive in the winning run. It was the kind of day that sadly has been in short supply for Jeter in 2011.

Leading up to this historic weekend, I was somewhat taken aback at all of the negativity surrounding Jeter and his chase for 3000. I fully understand why the average baseball fan is sick and tired of the "Damn Yankees", and by extension, tired of Jeter. Negativity from those types of people is to be expected. But much of the furor was coming from Yankees fans themselves -- many thinking that there is no way this team wins the World Series with Jeter as the full time shortstop. The Yankees did play well while Jeter was on the DL, and his replacement, Eduardo Nunez, did little to disprove the idea that he may well be the Yankee shortstop of the future. Once Jeter was off the DL, there was also a fair bit of talk that Jeter did not deserve his starting spot on the AL All Star roster (I won't disagree with this thought).

With 3k no in the books, the negativity turned to the events of the day. Quite a bit was made of the storybook nature of the kid who caught the home run ball. First it was that he couldn't possibly be what he seemed on TV (the suggestion being that he was coached up by Yankee big wigs). Then he was naive for not trying to cash in on the ball. Then Jeter was a jerk for not offering up cash to the kid even though he demanded none (and got seats in a luxury suite for the remainder of the season through the playoffs).

Finally, with all of those topics beat to death, Jeter decides to skip the All Star Game, and that's dominated the talk since. Honestly, do we not have anything better to talk about? Well, maybe not -- baseball is taking its annual break and the other two major sports are both in lockout mode. There was the US Women's team's thrilling victory over Brazil on Sunday in the Women's World Cup, but soccer always seems to stir up as many detractors as it does win fans during these tournaments.

So, the debate rages on. Sports writers, fellow players -- even the likes of Hall of Famer Willie Mays -- all had their say. Ad nauseum. I'll freely admit that as someone who is a huge fan of Jeter, I'm inclined to give him a pass on this where I might not be so generous if we were talking about some other player. And Jeter's been a good "baseball citizen," too. He's played in All Star Games, he's played more post season games than most any player currently in the majors and been a part of both World Baseball Classics. He's represented the Yankees and the game with class and dignity basically any time he has been asked. And no matter what any of us average joes think, playing baseball isn't a game for a guy like Jeter, it is a job. And chasing a milestone like 3000 hits in a media market like New York is a tiring affair. I don't doubt that Jeter needed the rest.

I'd also like to believe that an unspoken reason that Jeter declined to attend is precisely the one that many are using against him. There seems to be some sentiment that Jeter owed it to baseball to allow the fans to applaud his achievement at the All Star Game. But given the way Jeter has always conducted itself, I don't think it is just my particular bias that wonders if, in part, Jeter stayed away to allow the spotlight to shine on all of the selected All Stars rather than to let it become DJ3K Celebration, Part 2. It makes a certain amount of sense, doesn't it?

Again, I am biased. Jeter has been such a great player -- a great Yankee -- and I admire the way he's been able to sidestep most of the kinds of things that have dogged pro athletes in the internet/social media age. When you consider just how big the microscope is that any celebrity is under these days, it's simply amazing that Jeter's never been the center of the type of controversy that's dragged down the likes of Tiger Woods, ARod or Roger Clemens. Jeter hasn't even been surrounded by something like the Michael Jordan gambling incident. His biggest crimes seem to be fighting for a contract this past off season, displaying the diminished physical skills that would affect any 37 year old and deciding he needed to skip the All Star Game. It seems to me that maybe we'd all enjoy things like the All Star Game more if we spent as much time saluting the players that are deserving to be there as we do worrying about one player that isn't.

And I wouldn't be shocked to see an article tomorrow blaming the NL's newly minted ASG winning streak on the absence of a certain AL shortstop that decided to skip the game....

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Incredible? Yes. So then why am I so worried?

This should be good news. I should be thrilled. I should be rushing to tell a certain Facebook friend/Cubs fan that "The Machine" -- Albert Pujols if you're not familiar with his nickname -- came back from injury early.....AGAIN! This isn't the first time Albert's pulled off this trick. In 2006, he came back from an oblique injury after missing just a couple of weeks. In 2009, people were sure it was a matter of time before he blew out his elbow. He played the entire season, and missed a minimal number of games. This one is perhaps the most amazing.... Pujols seems to be finally working his way out of a season long slump (which in his terms is a decent season for a lot of really good players out there) but collides with a runner while reaching for a throw on Father's Day. Pujols immediately goes down and the injury looks serious. Turns out to be a fracture, and he's expected to miss AT LEAST 4-6 weeks. (Quick aside -- I'm ticked because I have tickets to the 7/29 game vs. the Cubs and was facing the prospect of my first Cardinals game since '98 that didn't involved Albert).


Image courtesy of STL Today/Cardinals (

Then late last week, news came out that Albert was making incredible progress in his recovery and that it was looking like he'd be back early. The worry doesn't start just yet....the guy's known as a quick healer, and I'd begun to expect (hope?) that he'd be returning sometime around the game I have tickets for. But this is a fracture....even if you're a quick healer, it just takes what it takes for a bone to heal, right? So I was more than a little surprised to see the MLB TV "Ballpark Cam" trained on Pujols and his trainer as I was waiting for the Yankees/Indians game to start yesterday. Then I hear the announcer say that Pujols may be "....back as soon as tomorrow." Tomorrow was Tuesday, July 5, 2011 (today as I'm writing).

And that's when it started....The worry. Started out wondering if the Cardinals doctors are just that incompetent. These were the guys, after all, that had played havoc with my fantasy team the week I traded for Matt Holliday, and these same doctors let Holliday play through a quad injury that ultimately landed him on the DL. Worse yet, since he'd tried to give it a go, they couldn't retro the date. (Incidentally, I traded away Jay Bruce who went on a hell of a tear just as he joined the other team's roster. I know -- no one cares about your fantasy team but you, but I can't help talking about it a little). So maybe they'd misdiagnosed Albert's injury.

Then the conspiracy theories started. Was this some plot to keep Pujols out of the line up and drive his value down? Who knows? Or did Pujols play up the injury to get a little break and also add to his legend (and eventual payday)? Both seem a little far fetched, sure, but crazier things have happened in baseball history, so maybe this was it. Or maybe he's pushing his way back too early trying to salvage his numbers ahead of free agency. Maybe he's coming back before he's ready and this is setting up a season ending injury (which would likely end what chance the Cards have at making an October run).

But ultimately, my real worry -- my 2nd biggest baseball-related fear, to be more exact -- settled into my head and has been sitting their weighing on my thoughts since. What if this recovery -- and I guess by extension the previous ones that I mentioned -- was accomplished by less-than-natural means? After Manny Ramirez, I can't imagine that any big name player is stupid enough to test his luck with MLB's drug testing policy and use steroids. But HGH? I don't know. They can't test for it, so any current MLBer could be taking the stuff and we wouldn't know. Pujols is a big guy, too...There are more than a few Cards haters out there that would suggest that the guy can't be doing this without some kind of booster. A quick google search brings up all kinds of possibly legit information suggesting that HGH could speed bone healing.

I don't want to believe this is true. I hate that the thought even crossed my mind, and I suppose I'm being somewhat irresponsible putting pen to paper as I've done here. The only thing the could shake my passion as a fan more than Albert Pujols being found out as a drug cheat would be if we learned that Derek Jeter was one. I'd be a little less surprised if this did prove true for Albert, but my disappointment would be indescribable. With Jeter, I'd be upset because his general demeanor -- as I read one writer suggest -- is that he thinks he's just better than the type of guy who'd take PEDs. Where Pujols is concerned, it's more the fact that he's said more than a few times "Don't be afraid to believe in me." He says it would be an insult to his faith to cheat his fans. He says that his wife would kill him, and he's more afraid of her than any fan based wrath he would have to face. He says all the right things, and I want to believe that he's the real deal. I want to believe that I'm seeing one of the greatest of all time giving his all game in / game out.

The sad fact is, even after all this time, no matter how sick I am of talking about PEDs, they are still a part of the game. I still remember turning a blind eye to them as Sosa and McGwire were crushing Maris' home run record. I'm ashamed that I've left ballparks satisfied that I saw one or both of those guys clubbed one. I said the same after seeing Bonds hit one in Coors when he took over as the game's premier slugger. I've seen the legacy of some of my favorite teams of all time tainted by the likes of Roger Clemens. I sympathized with Andy Pettitte as he admitted his own HGH use. I've felt the mix of sympathy and "yeah, so now you guys have your cheats, too"-itis as the key duo to the '04 and '07 Red Sox teams were outed as PED users. There have been a steady string of no names that have been busted. I should be numb to it by now. But this is different. This is Albert. This is one of my favorite players -- my favorite Cardinal since Ozzie (except maybe for Stubby Clapp). It's hopefully just one of those stupid little things that I decide I need to worry about, and I'll tell stories one day of how I saw the great Albert Pujols come back from a fracture in 15 days. But in 2011, it is hard to be sure about anything, no matter how badly you want to be wrong.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Both Barrels

Rough times for Cardinals fans....Pujols is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured wrist and all of a sudden, the Cardinals look like a very mediocre team. Of course, anyone who's a fan of a team in the NL Central has to acknowlege that even the best team in the division might be mediocre. Injuries have been a big part of the story of the 2011 Cardinals, but when you have a guy like Albert Pujols in your lineup you tend to weather the storm. But even with guys like Holliday and Berkman around to help keep this ship on the right course, you don't lose a guy like Albert to injury and not see some kind of impact. I didn't think the impact would be quite this noticeable, though.

One thing that I never do is celebrate injury. I think the vast majority of Cardinal fans are with me on this one. As a whole, we're a part of a fanbase that appreciates good baseball, and so that's why a recent post by a friend on Facebook has been bugging me for the last few days.
"My condolences to the Cardinals fans on the loss of your Pujols for 4-6 weeks. Today's message is brought to you by the letters H and A!! ;)"

Now to be completely honest, I'm married to one of THE greatest Cubs fans in the world. Her first words when she heard of the injury were "So we won't see Albert when we go to St. Louis?" (We're making our annual trip to Busch for the 7/29 game vs. the Cubs). That's how a real fan reacts. But too many Cubs fans seem to fit the comment above. Well, folks, it's a little too easy, but rather than respond directly to this "friend" I decided this was a better forum to blow off a little steam with responses that I'd have to that statement. With both barrels.....

  1. Well now I feel bad....I didn't share my condolences when Darwin Barney...your team's best player....hit the DL.
  2. Umm, when you posted this, you were still 5 games behind the Pirates. now you're 8.
  3. (the LeBron answer) But when you wake up tomorrow you're still going to have the same're still rooting for the Cubs.
  4. The hand gesture I'm showing you has been brought to you by the numbers 1, 9, zero and 8.
  5. My favorite joke from 2006 was "What do the Cubs and Cardinals have in common? Neither team has won a World Series in their new stadium." Of course, the Cardinals ruined it by winning the 2006 World Series. I resurrected it in 2009 with the Yankees (my other favorite team) instead of the Cardinals. They ruined it, too. Doesn't have the same zip if you plug in the Twins, does it? Ahh, but it's still fun.
  6. Good for you....maybe you'll only finish 15 games behind the Cards instead of 20 (or more).
  7. Feels like I should be able to come up with a really witty response, but after 100+ years of this, I've grown weary of making fun of the Cubs (Ok, not old enough to have done this for 100 years, but you get the idea...).
Thanks. Felt good getting that out of my system.

(and seriously, this is meant in fun, and with the type of spirit that makes the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry the most fun in baseball)

Monday, June 20, 2011

LeBron could learn from ARod, Jeter

It might be the most I've enjoyed a championship that didn't involve a team that I cared about. It's also probably the first time since the Jordan era came to a close that I've really watched an NBA Finals series that didn't involve the Celtics. The rational human being that lurks somewhere inside my head wanted to feel at least a little bit sorry for LeBron and Heat as they fell short of their own expectations, but the obnoxious sports fan - as he often does - took over and enjoyed every second of the Heat's demise. He even switched over to see just how dejected the losers looked after the last two losses. I don't think I'm much different from any fan out there that doesn't hail from Cleveland. I don't really have any reason to hate the Heat and LeBron except for "The Decision" and the premature championship celebration. No use in spending more time talking about those events. Bottom line, you celebrate a title that you have yet to win, and people are going to love watching you lose. At times, I feel a bit uneasy at how we put people up on a pedestal in our culture and then try to tear them apart. Yet, you just know that one day, after LBJ has failed to win title after title, he'll be the sentimental favorite.

One thing that just baffles me about LeBron is how he simply refuses to learn from his previous gaffes and continues to give the public things to pick apart. He really has replaced ARod as the most needlessly dissected athlete in least until the next girlfriend is caught feeding ARod popcorn at a sporting event. Truthfully, the steroid fiasco took some of the fun out of hounding ARod. So we've moved on to LeBron. He doesn't come off as calculated as Rodriguez, but he does have the same talent for saying something completely dumb at the worst possible time. Case in point, LBJ was doing a decent enough job answering questions during the post-game presser after the Mavs clinched. Then, all of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere, he responds with a quite that sounded to many as if he was essentially saying "I'm still 'King James', you're still a bunch of peasants, and when you wake up tomorrow, then next day, the next month, that will still be the case." It's up to you to decide what he really meant with the statement, but everyone agrees it was a poor choice of words. LeBron could learn a thing or two from a guy like Derek Jeter -- a guy who very rarely seems to be the center of controversy even playing in New York. Instead, LeBron seems to have taken a few pages out of ARod's "Guide to Embarrassing Yourelf In Front of the Media."

Thanks to my infrequent posting, a few other thoughts to share.....

  1. Someone in the Post Dispatch floated the idea that the Cardinals might be the best team in the majors, and the Cards answer with a 7 game losing streak that finally came to end against Kansas City on Saturday. When healthy, the Cardinals should be as much a contender as any other NL team. But, the injuries have caught up with the team a bit, and now we're facing 4-6 weeks without Albert Pujols....although knowing Pujols, it will only be 3 weeks.
  2. Speaking of Albert, the silver lining may be that it lowers the price tag a bit for 2012. Still can't imagine him playing in another uniform.
  3. I'm sure this will read as a Cards fan picking on Cubs fans, but I had to laugh that many of the Cubs fans I follow on twitter suggested that their team was putting itself back into the NL Central race. We all know the NL Central is a shaky division at best, but really, when your team comes off a nice stretch where you've made up ground and you're STILL 9+ games out.....well, you were that far back for a reason, and post-Memorial Day, these things don't tend to change. Sorry.
  4. Picking on the Cubs, Part II: Many Yankees fans that I follow on twitter said that the shine was off of young shortstop (of the future?) Eduardo Nunez now that they'd had a look at Starlin Castro. Wonder how they feel after watching the full series. To my eye, and it is admittedly one that looks for things to not like about the Cubs, Castro is much like Carlos Marmol and Carlos Zambrano -- tantalizing talent that makes you think he could be special, but a head that just as often makes you wonder how quickly he can get out of town.
Can't think of anything else that needed to be said....thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The I-55 "Rivalry"

With the possible exception of Celtics vs. Lakers, the I-55 rivalry is hands down my favorite in sports. I don't think it's one that translates outside of a particular geography, though, in the same way that C's/Lakers, Yankees/Red Sox or Packers/Bears does. A big reason for that was on grand display this past weekend.....It has seemed to be very rare in my 38 years that both the Cubs and the Cardinals have been good in the same season. They have been closer in the standings in the last decade, but the last time that this rivalry seemed to have real teeth was back in 2003 as the favored Cardinals just couldn't hang with Dusty Baker's surprising Cubs. But then in 2004, the roles flipped and the Cardinals returned the favor by being a juggernaut team (that eventually lost to the, umm ....juggernaut-y Red Sox). But more often than not, it seems that when one team is a serious contender, the other fades by mid-August if not sooner. And we've certainly never seen any games with the kind of drama that was on display in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs when the Yankees and Red Sox met in the ALCS in consecutive years. It was those two series that really lead ESPN to believe that the nation really cared about that rivalry (and they've been shoving it down our throats ever since.....and I mean no disrespect -- I am as much a Yankees fan as I am a Cardinals fan).

But still, growing up in Central Illinois, this is the rivalry that seemed to matter above all others. Peoria is about 3 1/2 hours from St. Louis and about 3 from Chicago. Peoria' local Midwest League has been the low A affiliate to both the Cubs and the Cards at different points in the franchise's history -- and has seen the beginning of the careers of such talents as Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. I had friends growing up that shared my love of the Cardinals, and I had just as many friends that were Cubs fans. (Side note....only a handful of folks cared about the White Sox until they donned black hats in the 90's. And even after that, they are a distant #3 in terms of baseball pecking order....maybe further down with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Braves having dominant stretches that attracted fans). For my 8th grade class trip, we had a choice of going to the St. Louis Zoo and a Cardinals game or spending a day at Six Flags. We voted for the former simply because it was the option that got us a day off of school. My 8th grade teacher, herself a huge Cubs fan, gave a lecture to the class that for the Cubs fans, it was one thing to go to St. Louis and cheer against the Cardinals, but another to do so wearing a Cubs hat (the opponent was the Braves). In other words, leave your Cubs apparel on the bus or at home.

The other reason that I love this rivalry -- it really is a friendly rivalry. I've watched games at Wrigley field, proudly wearing my red, and not been the least bit worried about being an opposing fan in "the enemy's ballpark." Same has held true for my wife when we've taken in games in St. Louis. Sure, you get a few good-natured barbs thrown your way, but I've never once felt like things would turn ugly (the same can't be said when I've worn my Yankees gear as a visiting fan). In truth, though my loyalties are rarely at odds (though I will admit to rooting for the Cubs in 2003 once the playoffs started), I just can't muster up much hatred for the Cubs. Doesn't mean I enjoy watching the Cards lose to them, but on days like today -- where the Cards have finished a heartbreaking sweep of the Cubs -- I really feel pity for Cubs fans as much as anything.

There are two players on the Cubs that I truly dislike....Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Marmol. I think both are perfect examples of the kind of misguided talent evaluation that has taken the Cubs from contenders in 2003, 2004 and 2007-09 and put them where they are today. They have great "stuff", but they also have screws loose that will ALWAYS prevent either from ever reaching his true potential. The Cubs will never win a World Series with Big Z in their rotation, and if they do ever get to a pressure packed game 7 in the NLCS with Marmol as their closer, I have no doubt that he'll fold just like he folded today. Zambrano is a bit easier to explain...I'm not sure where I picked up the intense dislike for Marmol.

But aside from that, there are a lot of Cubs players that I semi-root for....especially the young guys like Colvin and Barney. So on a day like today, I'm marveling at the way Pujols, in a down season, ended two straight games (one on a pitch that wasn't all that bad) in walk-off fashion. But I can't help but feel a bit sorry for a fan like my wife. She loves her team -- always will -- but has always had respect for the Cardinals. Of course, she like me, is married to a fan of the enemy, and related to several more such fans. But even in the worst of times, her stripes don't change. One change has happened, though. The cluelessness of the Ricketts family combined by the occasionally brilliant but mostly awful reign of Jim Hendry has made her somewhat apathetic to her team. For the second straight season, we're not going to make a single trip to Wrigley, which is especially note worthy because the Yankees come to play this year. In 2003, I burned a vacation day to buy tickets for the same series. This year, we decided that we didn't want to put any money in the Cubs' wallets. I'm thrilled with the way the Cardinals have hung in there all season -- one in which my expectations were fairly low -- but I do feel sad that a fan like my wife hasn't been able to feel the same sense of hope around her team. It's been years and years of either waiting for the bottom to drop out (when they're good) or just wondering how far down the bottom is (how she feels this year).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Brain Junk - 5/18

Several random thoughts that I've had in mind but that did't seem to warrant a lengthy post.....

  • I decided when my Grandfather passed away in January that one of the things I was going to do to honor him was to "be a Cardinal fan" for 2011. It isn't a stretch -- I am a Cardinal fan, but typically would answer the question of favorite team with "Yankees". While I'm less invested in these Yanks than I have been any team since the mid 80's, it isn't like I just flipped the switch and dumped the team from my sports consciousness. But this current Posada/Jeter mess is just yet another example of what's become harder and harder to like about the team. My original plan was to write something about how tough it is when your longtime favorites no longer live up to the image you have of them. That has been both Jeter and Posada this year, and things came to a head with Jorge on Saturday when he asked out of the lineup. Rather than try to write something, I'll direct you to this article by Matthew Leach, which is far better than anything I could come up with. I couldn't help think of Ozzie Smith when I read this. I fondly recall the 1996 playoffs, mainly as the year that the newest Yankee dynasty was born, but the Cardinals were also one win away from treating me to a World Series featuring my two favorite teams. Watching that series very nearly rekindled my passion for the Cards the way the Yankees victory did my passion for the Bronx Bombers (before you say "fairweather fan", I'll remind you that this was still early days after the '94 strike, and it took a while for me to come back). I had actually lost some of my love for the Cards as TLR ran Ozzie out of town in favor of Royce Clayton. Didn't matter that it was time...this was Ozzie, and I STILL revert back to my 10 year old self at the mere mention of the man's name. I'm quite a bit older now and the attachment to Jeter and Posada is different, but it is still sad to see them both decline as they have. I still think Jeter makes something of the season, but Posada seems past done.
  • Ok, a little longer than I intended....So just when I think the Cardinals are looking like a contender in the NL, they go to Cicni and get swept. The Reds took a bit to find themselves, but they seem to be rolling now. And as the weather heats up, so do their bats....they have the potential to be a very formidable team -- especially if they make a few solid moves at the deadline. Walt Jocketty has a habit of making shrewd moves at the right time.
  • Speaking of the Reds, I think this has the potential to become one of the best rivalries in baseball this year. Dusty Baker and TLR don't like each other and that has definitely spilled over onto the field. There seems to be some little extra curricular thing that pops up every time they play. Hopefully it doesn't turn ugly like the fisticuffs last summer, but there's no doubt that there will be an abundance of drama.
  • Slight diversion from baseball....How much fun was it watching the Bulls blow out the Heat on Sunday? Loved every second of it. I still think the Heat win the series, but definitely rooting hard for the Bulls.
  • I've referred to the Cardinals as contenders in a few posts now. If that is to be believed, then something needs to be done to address the defense. I think some of it is just bad luck, but the fact remains that they allow more unearned runs all but one or two other teams. That is never a recipe for success.
  • Has Tony LaRussa ever met an outfielder that he didn't think was better suited playing 2B? But, good to get Craig's bat in the lineup.
  • Interleague play is almost here. I used to love it, but now my usual response is just "meh". I really think the novelty has worn off. For all the excitement of a team like the Cubs making their first trip to Fenway in over 90 years, or the Yankees coming to Wrigley for only the second time since the 1940's (didn't look that up, might even be 30's...yes, sometimes I'm too lazy for my own good), most of these series are of the ho hum variety. Even the cross town/cross state rivalries seem watered down. It'd be one thing if you had a situation where all the teams involved were at least mediocre. I really think MLB needs to cut the geographic rivalries down to one series per year. Or, given that you'll never convince an owner that it is good to give up the gate for those games, make it a 4 game series with 2 home games each. And then that's it for the year. Sure we'll still be stuck with that classic Padres/Mariners grudge match, but at least you restore some of the novelty to the event for the ones that fans do care about.
That's all the time I'll waste for today. Thanks for reading....

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Vanquish the Cubs, Bring on the Reds

More time passed since my last post than I had intended, and the outlook has changed considerably since then. With my last post, Mitchell Boggs had just taken the closer reigns from Ryan Franklin, and the Cardinals were just starting to show some signs of life. As it stands today, they are atop the NL Central (tallest midget, some would say) and at times look like a serious contender in the NL. Boggs has given way to Eduardo Sanchez as the "head" of the closer committee, although we've also seen Trever Miller and Fernando Salas close things out.

We've also seen the first installment of the I-55 rivalry for 2011 - a time that is always a little tense in my household (as my wife is a huge Cubs fan). The Cards took 2 of 3, which -- and I don't mean this as anymore than a statement of fact in terms of the Cubs -- is the minimum you'd expect given the start of both teams. The sad fact of the matter, for Cubs fans, is that the team just isn't very good. There is some hope for the future as the Cubs continue to fill the gaps with young talent from the farm system. Geo Soto and Starlin Castro have both settled in as fixtures in the lineup, and while it is too early to proclaim him the real deal just yet, Darwin Barney is looking like the type of player that might hold down 2B for a couple of years. Tyler Colvin has struggled to start the year, and may earn a trip back to AAA Iowa, but playing behind the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome and Carlos Pena means that either ineffectiveness or injury is likely going to give you a shot sometime soon. The young pitchers are also starting to gel a bit -- Samardzija is starting to develop something useful besides his fastball and Andy Cashner looks like a top 3 starter (and is getting closer to coming off the DL). So while 2011 looks like another "wait for next year" type of season, the tide may be turning.

Of course, you can't talk about the series in Chicago without mentioning "The Hug". During batting practice prior to the first game of the series, Cubs GM Jim Hendry and Pujols greeted each other with a hug.
Many a hopeful Cubs fan decided that this was just the latest sign that Pujols would ditch the Cardinals to sign with the Cubs. The Cubs also have several big contracts coming off the books and would be able to offer the huge contract that Pujols is looking for. It would certainly be a coup for the Cubs to sign the megastar player away from their rivals, but this would be a terrible move on several fronts.

First off, Pujols isn't going to the Cubs for any less than he's demanding of the Cards. You needn't look any further than left field at Wrigley to understand why you don't give a player in his 30's a lengthy free agent deal. Plus, with all of the contracts coming off the books, the Cubs are going to have a few holes to fill. Even if Pujols took money over than winning, who are you putting at 3rd? Right Field? What about the rotation? Obviously, I'm far from unbiased, but I really don't see it happening, and if it does, I think it would be yet another signal that Cubs management just doesn't get it.

The Cardinals left Chicago and rolled into Cincinnati ready to take on the Reds. The Reds have been a bit of an enigma this season. They started out the season looking like a powerhouse, then came back to earth. But with Cueto and Bailey back in the rotation and Scott Rolen returning to face his former team, the Reds are poised to take the lead in the NL Central if they can sweep the Cards. Friday's game was one that has become typical of this rivalry as the Cards jumped out to the early lead only to having the Reds continue to hang around until Joey Votto's walk off single in the 10th. The remaining two games in this series should prove to be equally as dramatic.