Monday, February 23, 2009

Whatcha giving up for Lent?

When I was a kid, it was usually something basic like chocolate and ice cream. Sounds easy, but it was always a struggle. Not that we ate much chocolate or ice cream out on the farm. There wasn’t much money for such “luxuries.”

It was probably as much the hungering for the unattainable that made those forbidden foods so desirable.

I have changed my sacrifices as I’ve gotten older. Giving up ice cream and chocolate won’t make me a better person 40 days from now. Interior changes are more significant for me --- sacrifices that will help me grow not just in my faith but in how I handle the day-to-day challenges of life.

My list of Lenten observances reflects that focus: I’m going to try to pray the rosary every day, spend time in an adoration chapel each week, and strive for quiet time more consistently.

The rosary is one of – if not THE – most revered devotional prayer in the Catholic Church. It’s not hard for me to see why. As you reflect on the “mysteries” that are part of the prayers and repeat the Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer, you can’t help but quiet down within and be filled with peace.

I’ve always found the adoration chapel to be a special place…it’s as if the room is flooded with peace. Frankly, I should spend more time there for my own spiritual nourishment and peace of mind.

If I can be consistent with those goals this Lenten season, I’m utterly confident that I’ll emerge from these 40 days as a better person. And isn’t that what Lent is all about?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A coda to my steroids post

My favorite baseball team is the Cleveland Indians, as anyone who knows me well could tell you. Yeah, I doesn't seem to make sense that a farm kid from central Kansas would root for a Rust Belt team several states away.

But when I was a young boy, they had a lefthanded fireballer named Sudden Sam McDowell, and I was a lefty who liked to throw hard, so I dubbed myself Sudden Stan. Since he pitched for the Cleveland Indians, they became my team.

From such things loyalties are born. I won't go into what it's been like rooting for a team that hasn't won a World Series in 60 years and hadn't even made it to the Fall Classic in more than 40 (from 1954 to 1995), except to say for a long time .500 seasons were considered a good season, and that when they clinched the Central Division in Baltimore in 1995 I wept unashamedly.

We lost the World Series in 6 games in 1995 and came within a half-inning of winning it all in 1997; then got within one game of the World Series again 10 years later. As this season looms, the Tribe seems poised to threaten for post-season play once again.

But the shadow of steroids lurks near one of the team's key cogs: Travis Hafner. He was one of baseball's most feared power hitters for much of this decade before injuries wrecked the tale end of his 2007 season and all of his 2008 campaign. That downturn in health has coincided with much tougher steroid policies, and folks are wondering (and whispering about) whether it's a coincidence at all.

Hafner has denied steroid use....but so have several athletes who later 'fessed up to getting cozy with a needle. Me? For some silly reason, I believe him. Maybe it's that Midwestern small-town background of his and the culture of straight talk that's bred in such places.

But the bottom line is, all the declarations of innocence mean nothing. And he knows it. He'll have to let his bat do the talking. If he performs like he did up until late in the 2007, those whispers will vanish. If he's a shadow of his former self, no words will convince the doubters.

That's life in the post-steroids era.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Putting a syringe by some of baseball's most hallowed records

Spring training has arrived, which always used to make me smile. But a sadness lingers within as well. Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids means baseball's best hope of removing the asterisk (or syringe?) from two of the sport's most hallowed records has vanished.

Oh, I know there's no official asterisk by Barry Bonds' records for most homers in a single season and a career. But anyone who believes his numbers aren't tainted by the specter of steroids isn't viewing the situation with clear eyes.

As far as I'm concerned, Hank Aaron is still the home run king and Roger Maris reigns once again as the man who hit the most home runs in a single season. I don't know that baseball can ever officially remove Bonds from the top of the list, even if he is convicted of federal crimes linked to the use of steroids. But the court of public opinion issues its own rulings, and its verdict will be clear.

I almost feel sad for Rodriguez. Feeling intense pressure to prove worthy of that insane contract handed him by the Texas Rangers, he succumbed to the temptation to give his body --- and his performance --- a "stimulus package" that would boost his numbers. Ironically, it would have taken more courage, more determination, to rely on his God-given ability and noted work ethic to produce at the levels which earned him that record-breaking contract in the first place.

His desire to "please" reflected itself in another way once he got to New York: he so wanted to excel and earn the respect and admiration of Yankee fans that he is accused in some circles of virtually stalking Derek Jeter, "Mr. Yankee." But the Yanks haven't won a World Series since Rodriguez arrived, and that distinction - plus his failure to perform well in the playoffs - is likely what earned him the nickname "A-Fraud" from his teammates. That's just a guess, since I haven't yet read the book in which former manager Joe Torre reveals A-Rod's unflattering clubhouse moniker.

Now folks are calling him "A-Fraud" for another reason. His steroid use will forever taint his numbers and his legacy. And, frankly, it should.

I realize some folks are dismissing the Steroid Era as just another example of players looking for an edge to maximize performance, a practice that dates back almost as far as the game itself. But I don't buy that. Drinking egg yolks or eating your spinach or building hand strength by squeezing small rubber balls is one thing. Injecting foreign substances into your body to create artificially induced strength or add a few miles per hour to your fast ball is another.

Generations of baseball players even stayed away from lifting weights because the school of thought was that too much muscle inhibited the body's natural movement, and speed of hands and fluidity of motion for running and throwing was deemed far more important than muscle mass.

But fans love the home run. Remember how they filled the stands to see the exploits of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa and Bonds? It's no wonder baseball's brass was so quick to dismiss the whispers of widespread steroid use. They didn't call Yankee Stadium "The House That Ruth Built" because the Babe was a master at bunting the ball.

I remember thinking when all those hallowed marks were being challenged and surpassed in the late '90s that it was too good to be true. Turns out I was right.

Those home runs don't seem real any more. Public enmity and distrust triggered by the Steroid Era, combined with the deep recession now shackling the country, figures to cast a shadow over baseball for years.

It makes me wonder how many people will be changing the words of that storied 7th-inning stretch ditty to "Take Me Out of the Ballgame."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Details, details, details

I just finished watching "Atonement," which was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture in 2007.

It's a great movie, but there was a blunder of staggering proportions in it, and I'm amazed no one involved with the film caught it.

For those of you who haven't seen it (or don't remember), the movie opens in the summer of 1935. After a series of events lasting no more than a day or two, we're told four years have passed, and three British soldiers are holed up in the attic of a barn in France. The Germans are advancing, and the fall of France seems inevitable.

Small problem: World War II hadn't even started in the summer of 1939. France didn't fall until 1940. I guess the screenwriters flunked math in grade school. Oh, they got the time elapsed correct later in the film, but somehow missed the early reference.

Maybe it's because I'm a journalist, or maybe it's because I have a bit of a perfectionist streak in me, but stumbles like that in movies drive me bonkers.

I'm sure you have spotted howlers in movies, too.

Take the scoreboards in "Hoosiers." Please. (rimshot)

Mind you, I love that movie. I own it, and have lost track of how many times I've seen it. Along with "The Hunt for Red October" and "Major League" and a few other films, it's a movie I can't seem to turn off 'til the end no matter what stage of the flick I've stumbled across when channel-surfing.

But the first time I saw "Hoosiers" I noticed that in game footage they always seemed to have the scoreboard out of sequence. You'd see a play and the score would be 34-29. Later in the same game, the score would be 12-8. Huh??? Did nobody think of those details? Was there not a way to adjust the scoreboard somehow after the fact for the sake of consistency? It happened in more than one game, no less....

Movie moments like that, for me, are the equivalent of somebody dragging a record player needle across an album. Wha????

Imagine having the Allies storm the beaches in high heels. Such gaffes are jarringly out of place.

Another head-shaker in "Hoosiers" is depicting ready-to-harvest corn as the playoffs are unfolding. That would be in the spring, and every farm boy knows corn is harvested in the fall. I would suspect many a city-slicker knows that, too, because most crops are harvested in the fall.

Early in "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy walks along the fence to the pig pen -- and then falls in. When Bert Lahr picks her up, her dress is perfectly clean. Having grown up on a pig farm, I can tell ya --- nope. Huh-uh. Never could happen.

In "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the .....whatever he was called, I don't remember.....punched his body through the windshield of the helicopter to get inside. In the next scene, the hole in the windshield is gone. I think I've noticed that in commercials featuring footage from the movie, too.

There are entire Web sites devoted to mistakes in movies, but I've never paid much attention to them. I try to enjoy the movies I see, watching to see how they tell the story and develop the characters (that's the writer in me, I'm sure). I understand "creative license," even if it sometimes makes me chafe.

But every once in a while there's a whopper of a blunder that I just can't ignore. As far as I'm concerned, "Atonement" could have walked away with the Oscar for Best Picture, and I'd have been perfectly fine with that.

Yet I'll also remember it as the movie that had France falling to the Germans before World War II ever started.


Some unlucky bounces for Friday the 13th

This is from today's Baltimore Sun:

February 13, 2009
'Unlucky 13: Sports figures struck by miserable fortune';

By Bill Ordine
2:54 PM EST, February 13, 2009
Today is, of course, Friday the 13th. And while sports is oft cited as an arena where competitors rise and fall on the basis of merit and hard work, there's no question that luck -- both good and ill -- has a lot to do with results. Hence age-old sports expressions such as, "the bounce of the ball" and "the rub of the green."And so we offer you a collection of 13 instances in which luck -- the black cat, broken mirror, walking-under-a-ladder kind of luck -- has taken a hand in the world of sports, along with those unfortunates who were struck by miserable fortune (in no particular order). We're sure there are many other examples.

1. Bill Buckner - Buckner is an example of how an otherwise solid career can be tainted by just one play. World Series, 1986, Game 6. Buckner, a career .289 hitter, was playing first base for the Red Sox. Boston led the Mets in the Series, 3-2. In Game 6, the Mets tied the game in the bottom of the 10th and won it when Mookie Wilson's ground ball went through Buckner's legs. Naturally, the Mets went on to win Game 7.

2. Mickey Owen - Another fine player who was stung by just one moment in time. Owen, an All-Star catcher, was behind the plate for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1941 World Series. The Dodgers trailed the Yankees, 2-games-to-1 but led in Game 4 by a run in the top of the ninth. With two out, the Yankees' Tommy Henrich struck out but Owen committed a passed ball and Henrich reached first. The Yankees scored four runs to win the game and finished off the Dodgers in Game 5.

3. "Bonehead" Merkle - Before Bill Buckner, even before Mickey Owen, there was the New York Giants' Fred Merkle. Old "Bonehead" Merkle. As a base runner at first base, he failed to touch second on a game-winning hit. The alert Chicago Cubs made the forceout and because fans had swarmed the field, the game was declared a tie. The Giants and Cubs finished the 1908 season in a tie. Chicago won the playoff and Merkle's faux pas lives on.

4. Roberto De Vicenzo - At age 45, De Vicenzo was having one of his greatest tournaments at the 1968 Masters and rallied on the final day to tie Bob Goalby and apparently force a playoff. Just one problem. De Vicenzo's playing partner, Tommy Aaron, mistakenly gave Roberto a 4 instead of a 3 on one hole and when De Vicenzo signed the card, he had to take the higher score. That slip cost De Vincenzo his chance for a Green Jacket.

5. Mary Decker - The American runner was a track superstar in the 1970s and '80s and was poised to win a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. However, in the 3,000-meter race, Decker got tangled with South African barefoot runner Zola Budd and went crashing to the ground. Decker always claimed that Budd cut her off, albeit unintentionally.

6. Ralph Branca - Again, a case of a solid career overshadowed in an instant. Branca is known as the guy who served up Bobby Thomson's "Shot heard 'round the world" that gave the Giants the 1951 National League pennant. Branca was a career 88-68 and won 21 games in 1947 but he's really known for just one pitch.

7. Joe Pisarcik - New York Giants quarterback Pisarcik was only following orders when he tried to awkwardly hand the ball to Larry Csonka only to see it bounce to the ground and into the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles' Herm Edwards in the "Miracle of the Meadowlands." But it was Pisarcik's name that stuck to the ill-fated play. After that day in 1978, he started just nine more games during his career and won only one of them six years later, as a fill-in playing for the Eagles.

8. Jackie Smith - A great tight end for the St. Louis Cardinals and then the Dallas Cowboys, Smith's 480 career catches were good enough to put him in Canton. But he's best known for the pass he dropped in the Super Bowl in January 1979 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Smith, by then a 38-year-old backup, was wide open in the end zone but failed to haul in Roger Staubach's throw on third down and Dallas settled for a field goal. The Steelers won, 35-31.

9. Steve Bartman - Who doesn't know the story of the star-crossed Cubs fan who helped preserve the Cubbies' futility when he vied with Chicago left fielder Moises Alou for a foul pop in the 2003 playoffs against the Florida Marlins. The Cubs led the series, 3-2, and led the game 3-0 with one out in the eighth. That's when Bartman and Alou had their unhappy meeting as both coveted the ball off Luis Castillo's bat. Alou was unable to make the catch and yelled in Bartman's direction. The Cubs went on to lose the playoff series and the much-maligned Bartman has tried to disappear from public view.

10. Barbaro - Undefeated in six races, the Kentucky Derby winner was the darling of the sports world when he showed up at Pimlico Race Course for the 2006 Preakness. However, just steps out of the starting gate, a horrible misstep shattered Barbaro's right hind leg. Despite valiant efforts to save the colt, he was euthanized the following January.

11. Wally Pipp - The victim of sports' most legendary headache, Pipp is immortalized as the guy Lou Gehrig replaced. There are varying accounts of why Pipp didn't play that day in 1925 but the headache is the most popular reason and gains credibility from Pipp's own quote, "I took the two most expensive aspirin in history."

12. Eric Seidel - A poker player can expect bad luck as a regular occurrence but in Seidel's case, a losing poker hand has been compounded by being shown every time someone views the famous poker movie Rounders. Seidel finished second to Johnny Chan in the 1988 World Series of Poker Main Event and in the picture, star Matt Damon dwells on Chan's victory -- and consequently, Seidel's loss. As a result, despite winning eight poker World Series bracelets himself, Seidel is best known as the sap who was suckered by Chan.

13. Ki-Jana Carter - Athletes have careers ended by injury all the time but Carter gets special mention. The former Penn State running back was the overall No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft. On the third carry of his career in a preseason game, Carter tore his ACL. He stayed in the NFL for 10 years but gained only 1,144 yards.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Has Black History Month become an anachronism?

Over the past couple of days I found myself watching a cable movie about Rosa Parks and a PBS piece on the Dockum Drug Store sit-in in 1958 here in Wichita, which led to the national desegregation of all Rexall stores around the country - and I was reminded that it's Black History Month.

But as Black History Month dawned this year I'd been listening to pundits debate Barack Obama's first two weeks in office and what impact Michael Steele will have as the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee....and suddenly Black History Month seemed out of place.

I've never been entirely comfortable with Black History Month anyway. Notable history should be celebrated year-round, irrespective of race or gender. At best, the designation seemed a compromise - a way to honor people and achievements and feats that had too long been ignored. For that, it should be lauded.

But a part of me wondered if it was morphing into an excuse to disregard noting the contributions of blacks the other 11 months of the year. Sure, you can eat long as you stand in the corner over there. Sure, we'll salute what you've month a year. Don't bother us now --- you've got February, after all.

With the nation's first black president and first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, history of some sort is being made every day now. To some day tuck accounts of their tenures into a tidy Black History Month feature seems...denigrating.

Perhaps we still need Black History Month to remind ourselves where we as a nation once were, and how far we've come. But there's another reflection of that at the forefront of the nation's conscience.

He resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Putting Wichita's layoff numbers in perspective

In less than a week, three airplane manufacturers - Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Bombardier - have announced layoffs that will trim nearly 7,000 jobs from their Wichita payrolls.

That's an awful lot of many, in fact, that the total is higher than the populations of nearly half the counties in Kansas. I took a look at the 2000 Census figures for Kansas counties, and counted 50 that had populations of less than 6,900.

50...out of 105!

It'd be like firing everyone in Harper or Ellsworth County. Or everyone in Hodgeman and Stanton and Wallace counties combined.

The aircraft layoffs in the last week don't include other companies that have cut their workforce, or the nearly 500 that Hawker Beechcraft cut in a previous round of layoffs in November.

I've heard this plunge compared to the recession that struck just after World War II, as a post-war economy struggled to find its footing. But the Marshall Plan was soon passed to rebuild war-shattered Europe and eastern Asia, and it created an economic boom unparalleled in American history to that point.

I'm hard-pressed to come up with a modern equivalent that will revive America's - or the world's - economic fortunes. That's not to say we're doomed, but it does suggest answers will be harder to come by and slower to perform.

For all those being handed pink slips these days, that's unwelcome news indeed.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

This joke made me chuckle

Three men married wives from different states.

The first man married a woman from Michigan . He told her that she was to do the dishes and house cleaning. It took a couple of days, but on the third day, he came home to see a clean house and dishes washed and put away.

The second man married a woman from Missouri . He gave his wife orders that she was to do all the cleaning, dishes and the cooking. The first day he didn't see any results, but the next day he saw it was better. By the third day, he saw his house was clean, the dishes were done and there was a huge dinner on the table.

The third man married a girl from Kansas. He ordered her to keep the house cleaned, dishes washed, lawn mowed, laundry washed, and hot food on the table for every meal. He said the first day he didn't see anything, the second day he didn't see anything but by the third day, some of the swelling had gone down and he could see a little out of his left eye, and his arm was healed enough that he could fix himself a sandwich and load the dishwasher.

Monday, February 2, 2009

"Groundhog Day"

I found myself reflecting on that Bill Murray comedy as the second day of the second month neared, wondering why I have such a fondness for it. Like the movie's charm itself, the answer crept up on me.

On the surface, it seems like another goofball Murray comedy - but it turns into much more than that.

At its heart, it's a tale of redemption; of second (and third and fourth and fifth and...) chances; and it allows the audience to ponder the tantalizing question, "If you had the chance to live a day over again, what would you change?"

Murray's character is a study in contrasts, veering down the path of selfishness in search of both his goals and his escape, and then he starts noticing all the little - yet vitally important - moments that unfold over the course of a single day.

And as he begins reaching out to those around him, seeing how he can help them instead of how they can help him, he is transformed. For all the trappings of....being's a story of hope.

Call me a sucker, but I like those.

Some day soon, I'll pull that movie down from the shelf and watch it again...and be reminded of why I enjoy it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

OK, so I was wrong...sort of

The Steelers won the Super Bowl, but Arizona's late rally almost nabbed the Cardinals the victory.

You have to admit, however, that as the final quarter opened my prediction was pretty on the mark....for whatever pittance that's worth.

The Steelers would have felt like they let one get away after leading for most of the game until Fitzgerald's long touchdown run. And even though he lost, I believe the game cemented Kurt Warner as a Hall of Fame QB....and I hoped a class act like Larry Fitzgerald would have been rewarded with a ring.

Big Ben's now won two Super Bowls...the same number as John Elway. But ask any GM which player they'd want, and there wouldn't be any real debate. Ah, well. Roethlisberger's still young and could add more rings to his total.

Then again, they said Marino would be back many times after the 49ers throttled the Dolphins back in '84, and he never returned. Only time will reveal that answer.

Super Bore

I just can't get excited about this year's Super Bowl. Oh, it's charming that the lowly Arizona Cardinals have finally made it to the Big Game. But they struggled to sell out their first playoff game, and struggle to sell out their home games (unless it's the Cowboys or Broncos or some other team with a strong fan base that travels well). Cardinals Fever? They can't even work up a decent sweat. I'm sure that has something to do with the fact that so many Arizonans came from elsewhere and brought their loyalties with them. That's an issue for Florida teams as well.

The game itself doesn't enthuse me, either. No game without Denver does. But it goes beyond that. A top-notch QB, an erratic run game, a mediocre defense that comes up with turnovers now and then - I'm having flashbacks to the Denver teams that went to the Super Bowl with John Elway and lost 39-20, 42-10 and 55-10.

I'd love it if the Cardinals would win, but it's not going to happen. So I'll just enjoy the commercials and the camaraderie and whatever food we come up with.

And hope it won't be long before the Broncos return....