The More Things Change…

This is the first in a short series of posts responding to some of Dan’s more recent posts, which I’ve been digesting today after a return from a 2-week trip with limited internet access.  Today’s installment: Sports Before Radio.  I was totally fascinated to learn about this past phenomenon (where crowds would gather to watch crude mechanical reenactments of baseball games), but my reaction is actually exactly the opposite as Dan’s — it seems strangely contemporary, as I am constantly tracking baseball games in almost exactly the same manner via the various cell phone/online real time depictions available from,, etc.   Here’s a screen shot of one of them:mlb-mobile-pre

Eerily similar to the photos from Dan’s post, eh?  It’s often struck me that the information contained in these stripped-down depictions is hardly less rich than what you get in a televised game, where the footage is basically identical from game to game.  Think about it: if they replaced the live shots from whatever game you’re watching today with footage from some 1970s Phillies/Mets game, would it really be any different (other than the silly goatees being replaced by silly moustaches)?  I’m not talking only about the “action,” as in a ground ball to 2nd or whatever, but even the recurring and always-identical Kabuki-like dramas that play out, such as the pitching coach picking up the bullpen phone to get a reliever ready when the starter seems to be tiring, the identical ways that managers fight with umpires over blown calls, or the ways that batters use body language to indicate their unhappiness with a called strike three.  Indeed, when people who don’t care for baseball ask me how I can possibly spend time watching games, I tend to respond, “Well, do you ever spend any time doing absolutely or almost nothing at all?  That’s what watching baseball is for me.  It’s like meditation.”

Sports before radio

I was just talking about this with a friend, so I was happy to randomly come across photos of it via It’s somewhat in the same vein as the Harris 20th Century Railroad Attachment in the sense of My god, I can’t believe this was commonplace one hundred years ago.

Prior to the advent of radio broadcasts, people would actually mass in the streets to stare intently at this really mechanical “baseball game reproducer” that looks like a pinball machine. Updates would be phoned in or delivered via telegram and then be put up on the board to – one assumes – thunderous reaction. Amazing how the standards of what passes for entertainment change over time. I can’t imagine announcing to my wife, “OK, I’m off to stare at the baseball game reproducer. See you in three hours!”


In praise of Van Halen


Van Halen was my favorite band when I was 9 years old, and they regularly become my favorite band again for about 10 seconds out of every month. It’s not always the same song or album that reels me back in, but there’s invariably a few bars of ‘Jamie’s Crying’ or ‘Mean Streets’ or some other song that convinces me just for a few fleeting seconds that I’m experiencing a high-point of pop music sensibility that nothing could possibly improve upon. Just as I’m often disturbingly unsure these days as to when I’m being earnest vs. sarcastic, so is there an underlying uncertainty about whether my enjoyment of VH is legitimate, kitsch, both, neither or whether (most likely) there’s no meaningful distinction between the two.

There’s nothing unique in a white male my age having a favorite crotch rock band from his youth that he secretly still enjoys the hell out of, but I think there are a few things that distinguish Van Halen and make them uniquely enjoyable to both a 9 year-old and 35 year-old sensibility. One is that fact that, more than any other really hard-rocking band I can think of, they didn’t seem to be against anything. Most loud, heavy bands seem to draw their energy out of righteous indignation, or political dissent, or social alienation, or offending middle class values, or some kind of dialectic. Although the Ramones were pretty much bubble gum rock-for-rock’s sake, they still drew on a dislike of blues rock and middle-class Queens banalities to define their identity. The first few Zeppelin albums were close to rock-for-rock’s sake, but they were still dripped in blues pretensions and (later) pseudo-mysticism. Even bands like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, who didn’t seem to stand for anything much, still cultivated a sense of gaunt, ragged menace. Van Halen, in contrast, seemed to come out of a place of sheer inane, boundless enthusiasm and nothing else. Indeed, the list of things they were for seems almost as short as the list of things they were against– booze, girls, and parachuting into their own concerts is about it. Their songs summon to mind kids driving around in the early 80s trying to get laid and just about nothing else– no sense of milieu or context. Most of the time when we like a band, part of what you like is the sense of conviction– the evidence that the Clash actually let poor kids sleep on their hotel floor, the fact that Iggy Pop really did crawl on broken glass. With Van Halen, on the other hand, there’s a kind of perverse levity to the whole thing. You get the feeling at times that they would have just as soon gotten perms and formed a (really great) disco band if that’s what would have brought in the money and girls, yet somehow this makes it all the more enjoyable.

Also, few bands had such an articulate and boffo advocate as singer David Lee Roth, who once commented that VH songs “should come with a kit including a bong, a thesaurus, and a driver’s side air-bag.” In 1977, a reporter asked Roth to explain why all the critics were raving about Elvis Costello’s new debut album and ignoring Van Halen’s, despite the fact that the kids were all listening to the latter. His response:”Maybe it’s because the critics look like Elvis Costello.” Hit ’em where it hurts, Diamond Dave!

Possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever heard is the vocal track from Runnin’ With The Devil direct from the booth, isolated from the rest of the track.

Poor sports

mcenroeYesterday I watched the epic Federer-Roddick Wimbledon final. I hadn’t watched a tennis final in years and had forgotten how absorbing it can be. Although I found myself thinking that it would be even more enjoyable if Andy was named Frederick, so that it would be ‘Frederick Roddick’ vs ‘Roger Federer’ and have a kind of matter-vs-anti-matter vibe.

Anyway, during the match, they kept showing shots of a florid, smiling, very Swedish-looking man in a suit whom I soon realized was Bjorn Borg. This happily reminded me of the Borg-McEnroe years, which seems curiously like one of the great under-reported sports episodes in modern history (er, given how over-reported everything else is, I mean). How has this not been made into a bio-pic yet? Other than McEnroe maybe refusing to give permission, which come to think of it is probably exactly why it hasn’t been made into a bio-pic yet. But seriously, given that Paulie Shore and Steve Guttenberg have already been the subject of recent Oscar-winning bio-pics, why not Johnny Mac? For one thing, his feud the crusty old Wimbledon committee was more or less the last historical installment of the ‘Brash American vs. stodgy old English’ trope that had been running for about 300 years. Nowadays, civility has declined to the point where an American being rude to Brits or vice versa would no longer have any kind of cultural narrative– it would just be another example of some person flipping some other people the bird.  

Being a tremendous poor sport myself at sports and especially board games, I have a kind of perverse affection for the luminary poor sports in professional athletics. Not the contrived, sociopathic trouble-makers like Terrell Owens, but the true tantrum throwers: the McEnroes, the Charles Barkleys, the Billy Martins and Lou Pinellas. The ones who feel compelled to scoop up dirt and pile it onto home plate in order to convey disgust with the umpires.

World Series of Poker

vegasI traveled to Las Vegas this past weekend and played in a World Series of Poker tournament. One hears a lot about the “Main Event,” but they have fifty-odd other smaller tournaments, and the whole production turns the convention center annex to the Rio Hotel and Casino into a sort of Poker Nirvana for almost two solid months in June and July. Or, to put it another way, a “degenerates’ convention.” The scene was truly surreal: multiple airport hanger-sized rooms, all filled with hundreds of poker tables, and, incessantly, the eerie clatter of a million poker chips in thousands of anxious hands, occasionally punctuated by triumphant/enraged shouts. The prize money for each of these tournaments is significant: in the one I played in, first place won $650,000, so life-altering consequences await at the turn of a card. (Of course, the vast majority of the entrants get nothing other than the thrill of participation.)
I had expected to see a much more subdued scene than in recent years given the economic climate, but there is apparently still no shortage of people willing and able to put down $1500 or more for a chance at big winnings and celebrity. At my table, there was a Midwestern gentleman with a beard and Cardinals’ hat who, I quickly realized, had come in third in last year’s Main Event, winning $4.5 million. Others at the table were huge fans of his, so I got to listen in as they quizzed him. “Did you quit your job?” they asked. “No, I bought the company.” He explained that in the past year since his victory, he had signed on with some poker web site (whose logo was emblazoned all over his body), which had flown him from world capital to world capital (more than 150,000 miles in the air) and paid his buy-in to all the major tournaments. And all this happened because he won a minor satellite tournament in St. Louis and hit the big money in Vegas one weekend.
I went with three friends from work, and we all gave one another a 4% stake, so that if even one of us made a serious run, we’d all come out on top. And that’s exactly what happened: while two of us (myself included) lasted about 9 hours into the first day before busting out, and a third made back his buy-in with a small payoff, the fourth was still in it late on the second day. We (and an increasing group of others who were interested in his fate) were tracking his progress on the internet, as poker blogs posted updates about developments on the felt.
By Monday afternoon, he was one of the final 25 players, already guaranteed a significant prize, and within shouting distance of the big money. At this point, of course, he had played about 24 hours of poker in the past 48 hours, and endurance became a significant factor. People like to joke about poker as a couch potato’s “sport,” but it is no joke to keep your mind sharp, observing your opponents’ every move, recalling the intricate details of betting patterns (“What happened before the flop? Has he done anything to suggest that he’s capable of laying down a hand?” etc.) for hour after hour on end. Our hero combined excellent and disciplined play with some incredible lucky breaks, and by late afternoon on Monday he had made the final table and was in second place in chips. Visions of a $20,000 payout for me were dancing through my head.
He finally busted out, in seventh place, on an aggressive move that backfired, for a payout of $93,000. Not life-changing, perhaps, but eye-opening for sure. And the three of us got all of our expenses paid and then some. I have a feeling I’ll be back next year.

Only a Dan

Most of the time, being named Dan is annoying because it sounds too much like ‘Damn!’ and other grunted exclamations, such that you’re constantly whirling around in response to false alarms.

However, one enjoyable thing about it is that you can substitute it with almost any song lyric and the results are fun. (For example: ‘LET’S DAN… put on your red shoes and Dan the blues’.) Even works for riffs (Zeppelin, Heartbreaker: ‘Dan Dan Dan Dan-Dan Dan…’). Probably the best is ‘Stand By Your Man’. Not only do you get the deeply stirring (for me) chorus of ‘Stand by your Dan’, but there’s also the profoundly wise line at the first verse: ‘After all, he’s only a Dan.’

Words to live by. If your name is Dan.