Sunday, May 28, 2006

Live from's Saturday night!

I am writing from my hometown, borrowing my parents' computer to peruse the net and file another missive on this bad boy.

My wife and I came up for a brief visit this weekend, one that will last little more than 24 hours but involves a family celebration. So it was kind of important that we come.

Plus, we were able to finally pay off my mom. We promised her a dinner for Mother's Day, but during our visit to Delaware Park, we lost some money (damn horses) and couldn't find a suitable restaurant for her day. So today was the day to make it up.

The four of us all ventured to Allentown to a place called the King George Inn. Dinner was very good and rather pricey as well - aided in no small part by the several Yuenglings I enjoyed. But I was happy to take care of the bill.

The ride back was a bit depressing, however, for reasons I can't quite explain - particularly once we hit the small burb of Bowmanstown. There was a restaurant open, another stand-alone restaurant open and ... well ... nothing. Something about those really small towns where nothing is happening becomes somewhat depressing for me.

I glanced over at an appliance shop, one that's been there for decades and prominently displays a big Whirlpool logo on the front face of the brick building. It looked lonely there, all dark.

Obviously, this whole region - even in the bigger cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton - are all far, far different than Northern Virginia. To me, there's something comforting about openness and seeing buildings lit up and ready for customers; NoVa has plenty of it, 24 hours a day. Here, much less so, which probably isn't surprising, since this county has around 30,000 people. (The city of Alexandria alone has nearly 200,000 in 33 times less space.)

Saturday evening would seem to be the time when restaurants would be buzzing and people - not everyone, but someone - would be out and about. But the restaurant/station combo seemed devoid of customers, either filling up with gas or food.

Perhaps that's why I find Sunday nights so depressing; traditionally, stores and shops close much earlier, leading to that dark, closed feeling.

Or maybe it's just because I'm thinking too much again. This stuff probably doesn't bother 99+ percent of the population, yet it rattles around my head.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Career ramblings

I'm sitting here in the press box at RFK Stadium in Washington. The Nationals' pitchers have just taken their version of batting practice, and appear to be giving way to the professional hitters.

No one's here yet. No fans, anyway. Players and other team staff is all around the field; media are clustered on the top step of the Nats' dugout. (I'm up in the box because I had to write up an entry for my paper's NASCAR blog; the link is on the right.) AC/DC gives way to another song on the P.A. system.

How could someone give this up? Well, that's just the pretty side of it. Like any other job, there's a lot of unseen stuff that goes on.

The hours can be a grind; this is probably the busiest week of the year with all of our high school playoffs beginning. I probably won't spend any appreciable time with my wife (unless she can secure a lunch date) until Saturday. In my situation, there's not a whole lot of room for advancement and the pay isn't close to being enough to live by yourself.

There's a whole lot more that goes into it, certainly, but it's stuff that I have no desire to get into on here. As a result, my resume has flown through e-mail channels in all corners of the DC metro area (and, given the limited journalistic opportunities here, many of them are PR-related).

But then there's the other side of it. I grew up a sports fan and have loved sports all of my life. So how does one go from being on the inside (or a reasonable facsimilie) to being completely on the outside? It's an issue I grapple with every time I send out a resume and think ahead to what if - what if an interview happens and what if a job offer comes along?

There's no question that I get to do a lot of things that are pretty damn cool, there are a lot of things I've seen that many others would love the opportunity to see. But at what price? When do all of the cool things get cancelled out by all of the negative stuff?

I've counted up the number of MLB and NFL teams I've ever seen play - either when I was young and went to games with my dad or when I was older and covered games. In baseball, there are a total of nine teams I've never seen play (which will fall to eight after tonight's Nats-Astros game); in the NFL, there are 14 teams.

Am I going to bail out before I get to all of the teams? Increasingly, it looks like it.

But that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. I'm sure I'll second-guess myself if any sort of change occurs. What it boils down to is that I'm worried if I leave, any new, non-sports job will make me even more unhappy than I am now. And that's a difficult thing for me to get past.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Softball season: opening day

After a one-week delay because of rain, our team's softball season finally got started. And, as is the case for us, we drank more beers than the other team scored runs.

That's the usual for us (though apparently we need to score runs as well). Our name is Two Drink Minimum, for heaven's sake.

The primary motive for us playing softball is to have a few beers and have a good time (haha, a near typo, as I almost wrote 'a good team'). People say it's a lot more fun when you're winning, but we challenge that every time out.

So, form followed its normal course and we got crushed on Thursday. But we cleared out the beer cooler and had a lot of laughs.

Apparently we were playing the league runner-up from last year, who, generally, seemed to take things a lot more serious than us (not that that's really hard). Like the pitcher was throwing all kinds of garbage; I was concerned that he was going to throw his back out with some of the contortions on his follow-through.

That kind of stuff kills me. Like you have to put all kinds of goofy spins on the ball to get us out. (For the record, I was 1 for 3 with an RBI. On my third AB, I grounded into a 6-4 fielder's choice; but on running out of the box, I dropped the bat and the knob landed squarely on my ankle - the little bump that sticks out. Damn that hurt, and it's still sore. I should be able to avoid a DL stint, however.)

And furthermore, it's beer league softball. It's competition, certainly, but the World Series it ain't. (And beer-league softball is all about long homers anyway, not the pitchers.)

But in truth, wins and losses don't matter as much as they might have at other points in my life. I enjoy all of my teammates, and I enjoy taking the field with them and I enjoy sharing a beer and a laugh with them. Playing with them actually kind of fulfills a dream for me.

When I was a young'n, I visited DC with my mom and dad. We did all of the tourist-y stuff, including seeing as much and as many of the Smithsonians as we could. Getting from one to the other requires walking across the National Mall.

I remember walking on those stone pathways when I was little, watching older people play softball on the Mall. That struck me as about the coolest thing ever; making a throw to first in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument; to play a game in the shadows of two structures that most Americans might see in person a handful of times in their lives.

And now I'm one of those people playing the game.

Win or lose, I'm living a dream. And drinking cold beer on top of it, too.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

3-2 Ratio

At E3 in Los Angeles earlier this week, Sony executives - finally - announced a firm launch date and price for PlayStation3. The unit will ship on Nov. 11 in Japan and six days later in the U.S.

The delay announced earlier this year was tough to swallow. I've really been looking forward to getting the new model - even got a birthday check in February to be put towards a PS3 purchase. So November? It's a long way off, but manageable.

The price? Much less so: $499 for the 20-GB (a.k.a. cheap version) or $599 for the 60-GB version.


Moreover, the 20-GB version is missing some features that are on the 60-GB version (besides just more hard drive space).

That's a lot of money to drop for a video game system. Perhaps Sony is trying to find the threshold at which consumers won't pay for a system anymore. Sure, they've already got the hardcore gamers and high-end consumer regulars locked up. They don't mind shelling out.

But for a regular family, that's a lot of money - even for the cheaper version. That same money could get you a nice digital camera, a low-end (but still very serviceable) computer and, if you got the cheapest option at Best Buy, would get you a washer-dryer combination. All of those things would benefit the family as a whole on a regular basis - not just one or two members on a more infrequent basis (in the long term).

My wife and I (it's both of us, because I'm the video-game player and she's the breadwinner) have a couple of options.

-- Stand pat with the PS2. Sounds like the best - and most likely - option for now. However, Rockstar Games has announced that Grand Theft Auto IV (PS3 and XBox 360 versions) hits the shelves on Oct. 16, 2007. I am a huge GTA fan, so we'll have to decide on another course of action sometime in the next 15 months. (And no, I don't know why I'm worried about this now.)

-- Buy a 360. An OK option, but it would render the 15 or so PS2 games I have useless and I'd have to start a whole new catalog to get even a few 360 games I'd want. Any savings from buying a 360 would be negated in playing catch-up with the software.

-- Suck it up and buy the PS3. I'm loathe to admit Sony has me by the balls, but, well, they have me by the balls.

Perhaps this sounds as if it runs counter to the whole discussion about the big-screen television, where, from a man's point of view, bigger and newer is always better. That's true to an extent, but the fact is that both my wife and I will get a lot more use and enjoyment out of watching a new TV than the enjoyment I'll get from the PS3. And my wife is very tolerant, but not so tolerant that I could walk home with a PS3 without any prior discussion.

Maybe we'll hit the lottery and it will be a moot point. But until that happens, I've got some thinking to do.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Starstruck? No, it's a different word...

Most of my waking hours on Friday and Saturday were spent at Richmond International Raceway, helping our sister paper in their coverage of the NASCAR Nextel Cup's spring race at RIR.

As a Saturday night race, it poses some unique challenges. For smaller papers, just getting the race into the print edition is a challenge. For larger papers with multiple editions, there is the problem of finding things to write about for early editions which won't have the results of the race itself.

So, on Saturday afternoon, a parade of various press conferences and announcements are held. It was especially important this weekend, as the race was an impound race, where NASCAR prohibits any work on cars after qualifying.

My early assignment was to write a story about one of those press conferences. Sunoco teamed up with Orange County Choppers to create a Sunoco racing bike which will be raffled off this summer, with proceeds going to the Victory Junction Gang Camp in North Carolina. Victory Junction is a camp, founded by Kyle and Pattie Petty, that hosts seriously ill children for free.

The presser featured a senior vice president from Sunoco, Kyle and Richard Petty, and the Teutels, owners of OCC. OCC, as you probably know, is the same outfit featured on the Discovery Channel's series, American Chopper.

I recorded the press conference and got a question in as well. The actual unveiling of the bike was held in Victory Lane after the press conference. So I trotted out there to get a good look at what they had come up with.

While the principals of the press conference posed for photo ops with the bike, several others were standing around. I got to talk to Kyle Petty and Vinny DiMartino - the fourth wheel on the American Chopper show.

DiMartino was as nice as could be. But for the minute or so I actually talked to him, I wouldn't say I was starstruck, but the whole scene felt kind of surreal.

He is featured quite prominently on the show, which I've seen several times. And it's just that his voice is a very familiar one; but it's always in a one-sided setting. I could scream at the TV and it wouldn't affect what's happening on-screen. And then being in an actual conversation with him struck me as a bit surreal. The only other time I felt like that was when I got a callback for an interview request from former Bills coach (and now Bills president) Marv Levy.

It sounds kind of stupid, really, since at least a portion of my job involves interviewing well-known athletes. But somehow, this was a little different, perhaps because Vinny isn't really famous for being an athlete - and, thus, I wasn't in my normal area of comfort. I know a hell of a lot more about racing than I do about building bikes. Perhaps part of it was that most of the people I talk to one-on-one aren't part of hugely popular weekly television shows.

I've tried to figure it out since Saturday afternoon. Starstruck doesn't seem to fit, but surreality doesn't quite capture the moment either.

Maybe someday it will hit me. But for now, it was just different.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Guatemala? You suck!

On Thursday, the United States Olympic Committee announced that a delegation would tour the country over the next two weeks, trying to find the ideal American candidate to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The USOC said it would tour several cities, including Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Wait ... Philly? The City of Brotherly Love - so long as you're not a fan of any team that directly rivals the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers or Sixers?

This is a writer's dream: oh, the possibilities.

Philadelphia revels in its reputation as the country's most brutal sports city. Certainly, fans in Boston, New York and Washington can be rude and downright mean. But with Philly, it's not an issue of can - it's an issue of is. Anything less than giving one's all is simply not accepted, as evidenced by the Eagles' embarrassing 42-0 loss to Seattle at home on Monday Night Football. The franchise's theme song, "Fly Eagles Fly," served as the inspiration for the following day's back page of the Philadelphia Daily News. The headling read: "Try, Eagles, Try."

The fans can be worse, especially to fans of the opposing teams. When the Buccaneers headed to Philly in what would be the final football game at Veterans Stadium, one Tampa radio host advised Bucs fans that if they went to the game, they should wear neutral colors. It is a matter of safety, he warned.

One story in the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer-Press tried to explain why Minneapolis-area travel agencies were having such difficulty unloading trips to Philly for a Vikings playoff game.

"Don't look like a Vikings fan if you want to enjoy the game, and value your safety and possessions,'' the paper quoted Steve Erban, a local travel agency owner. "The stadium is beyond civilization. ... Any time they scored a touchdown, you got bathed. I witnessed a Packer plastic helmet, worn by a woman, taken off her head, and then they pounced on it and broke it into pieces. All of that is a staple.''

So, knowing what we know about Philly, what could we expect from a three-week party in which Philly fans have a rooting interest - the performance of American athletes?

My guess: It wouldn't be pretty.

Some of the potential highlights:

-- An Australian archer, competing in a newly-designed arena at Longwood Gardens, misses the target completely and takes out a row of rare, exotic plants. Though the wind gusted to 30 mph, fans have little regard for the archer's predicament. One yells, "You mean you came all this way to suck that bad?"

-- A Kenyan marathoner winds his way through Center City, coming up the home stretch on the Ben Franklin Parkway towards the Art Museum. Suddenly, a horde of Philadelphians start trailing the Kenyan for two blocks, keeping pace with him. Then, as if one, the fans realize he is a skinny African distance runner and not a sculpted, 20-something boxer. The fans run down the Kenyan and pummel him for making them think he was Rocky.

-- Philly fans are seemingly enthralled at watching two Chinese team members battle it out in a match of world-class table tennis at the Liacouras Center. But when one player doesn't hustle to a smash from his opponent, the fans become agitated and start booing. One fan is so incensed he rushes the floor - it just happens to be Joey Chestnut, winner of the 2006 Wing Bowl. He grabs both players and devours them, limb by limb. Philly fans cheer his new record: Two diminutive Chinese nationals in 1:36!

-- While kayaking down the Schuylkill River near Center City, one unfortunate Briton gets caught on an unseen dock near Boathouse Row. Stranded near the shoreline, he is surrounded by drunken Philly fans, who mock him and his Queen's English. He tries to fend them off using his paddle, but he is overwhelmed. The fans confiscate the paddle and beat him about the head with it.

-- A Spanish judge gets blinded by the west-setting sun and is nearly impaled by an incoming javelin at the track events at Franklin Field. The Swedish athlete looks on in confusion as he is booed for missing the judge.

-- During the men's equestrian final, America's best hope sees his chances ruined when his mount knocks over rails on three straight obstacles. The crowd begins to boo the horse, who looks on, unamused, and swats his tail to shoo a fly. Fans take offense at this, and one is bold enough to rush the horse. Security catches him before he reaches the animal, and the perpetrator is promptly rushed off to Philadelphia Park's convienent on-site court.

-- One unfortunate Greek weightlifter fails to realize that his slick-backed hair, round face and short stature are reminiscent of an old Eagles nemesis. When he fails to lift 350 kilos, Philly fans recognize the moment they have prepared for during the past eight months, and pelt him with snowballs.

Of course, I kid because I love. My favorite teams are all based in Philadelphia, and I'm a laid back person until the Eagles kick off, the Phillies' pen blows another lead or the Flyers fail on yet another power play.

Less than 10 years until 2015 winter - I can't wait. I've got some snowballs to get ready.

EDIT: At least we're not as bad as these folks: Soccer club director made to quit at gunpoint, court told

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Last week, Comedy Central re-aired a South Park episode that I had missed the first time around. Something I didn't miss, however, was the network's promotion of an upcoming rebroadcast of the series' infamous Cartoon Wars two-parter.

Hmmm. Only a few weeks ago, when Cartoon Wars (and, specifically, the second of the two parts) aired, we read in various accounts how the network took a hard line against the show and refused to air images of the prophet Muhammad (Islam specifically forbids the publishing of any likeness of Muhammad). Apparently, however, the network didn't have nearly as big a problem with reminding everyone to watch a show that was, even if for a second, partially deleted.

My problem, lately, isn't with Comedy Central itself, but with South Park. The show won a bit of goodwill against the corporate suits when the network didn't air an episode that dealt, rather sarcastically, with Scientology. Conspiracy theorists linked the yanking to the demands of noted Scientologist Tom Cruise, who happened to be starting up promotion of Mission: Impossible 3. They speculated that Cruise, a key figure in the South Park episode, would refuse to publicize the movie unless the episode never again saw the light of day.

None of that would matter were Comedy Central and the M:I3 studio not under the same umbrella. The network appeared to bow to the pressures of corporate parent Viacom.

But then came the Cartoon Wars. The show railed Fox cartoon Family Guy for its inane writing and jokes that were completely unrelated to the plot as a whole.

Perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity. You know, that whole thing about pointing a finger but having four pointing right back at you.

The part that was deleted had no consequence to the plotline; it occurred during a Family Guy episode and had no bearing on the fake Family Guy or the real South Park episodes. Sure, the idea of it and the reaction to it were central to the plot; but the same effect could have been achieved without showing the Family Guy portion. (Think about the famous SP episode where they said "shit" many times over. The town was abuzz about the popular cops show saying "shit", but we never actually saw that happen; the episode was about the build-up and aftermath of "shit" being said on prime-time television.)

The whole Muhammad appearance - or lack of it - reeks of a publicity stunt. If Muslims feel that strongly about depictions of Muhammad, why can't that be respected? Why did South Park and its creators simply have to include Muhammad? Just to push the envelope a little further or shock a few more people?

Not too long ago, South Park did satire as well as The Simpsons. Without fail, one of the kids would end the show by saying, "You know, I learned something today..." They would spew some cheesy Knowing-Is-Half-The-Battle lines, and it all made sense. Everything that happened, the jokes and subplots, were all wrapped succinctly by the ending line. You'd watch a second time and appreciate everything a bit more, knowing what the overriding theme was. In a sense, watching it for the first time was a surprise.

But the satire has gone the way of sarcasm, and the show has gotten, well, cartoonish. Think about the futurist episode, where time travelers from eons in the future came back to take jobs to save for their families. Within five minutes of the show's beginning, the overarching theme was clear. They might have included the standard ending, but no one needed it.

It held true for the episode I most recently watched, the one about Al Gore. The theme seemed to be that Gore is an attention-seeker who vastly overestimates his own personal importance. Gee, I needed an episode of South Park to tell me that?

There are funny moments, to be sure, and each episode at least has a few. But the series has lost its edge. It's no longer about smart comedy, it seems to be about skewering another victim. The old South Park comedy deftly sliced; the current South Park comedy bludgeons with a cliched sledgehammer.

As The Simpsons scurry towards irrelevance, so too does South Park. It's the natural evolution of things, I suppose, but that doesn't make watching it any less sad.