Saturday, September 27, 2014

Jeter And Molitor: MLB Rewrites The Prince And The Pauper

Sunday is the last day of Major League Baseball's 2014 regular season, and with both Central divisions likely still up for grabs and four games playing a role in those races, which game is TBS broadcasting?

Twins at Tigers? Pirates at Reds? Royals at White Sox? Cardinals at Diamondbacks? Don’t be stupid. None of the above, of course.

Why would any network broadcast a game relevant to a pennant race when two of 2014’s more irrelevant teams, the Yankees and Red Sox, will be playing a meaningless game at Fenway Park?

Why, indeed.

It’s truly a curse that these two are in the same division. They play one another 18 times a year, giving the networks 18 opportunities to shove them both down our throats. And the networks, all but one based in New York or Bristol, Conn., take full advantage. Yeah, sure, ratings drive much of the networks’ thinking in which games they air, and the Red Sox and Yankees generate ratings, even when they're both really bad, like they both are now.

Then there's the Jeter factor. We get it, TBS. Sunday is Jeter’s last game, and Jeter is Jesus Christ’s kid brother. Still, Yankees-Red Sox is a meaningless game. We could have as many as four games Sunday that might determine division champions, and two more that might determine a wild-card winner. And you're still gonna give us the game's faded plutocrats, the Yankees and Red Sox, in a game that doesn't mean a damned thing? It truly is a new Gilded Age.

Nothing against Derek Jeter. He was a genuinely great player. At the game’s biggest moments and on the game’s biggest stages, he almost always came up huge. He never wet the bed when the game was on the line, and he was responsible for numerous iconic moments. And that all matters. Anyone who’s spent any time around the game understands that too many players get caught up in the magnitude of the moment. Jeter never did and that’s a tribute to him. Saluting a great player, however, does not mean nominating him for sainthood.

Let’s play what-if: What if Derek Jeter had been drafted by the Brewers and played the bulk of his career in Milwaukee and other comparable small-market cities? How would be he perceived today as he retires? The answer is that he’d be Paul Molitor. That’s hardly an insult, but tell that to a Yankees fan and get ready for a fistfight. But it’s true. Take a good look at the career stats for Paul Molitor and Derek Jeter and ask yourself if it’s possible for two players to have careers that were more identical.

The two most obvious differences between them are:

1.) Jeter played his entire career at shortstop, whereas Molitor played multiple positions, with most of his career at second base and third base. Both were average defenders. Both were superstar infielders more because of their bats than their gloves.

2.) Jeter played far more postseason games than Molitor. Of course, that’s not Molitor’s fault, is it? Jeter played his entire career in the division-series era — meaning more postseason games per season — and in the first half of his career Jeter played on Yankees teams that were much greater than any of the teams Molitor played for in Milwaukee and Minnesota. Jeter was a great postseason player — the numbers are eye-popping — but when Molitor did make it to the postseason, he also was great. In fact, the percentage statistics (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, etc.) in Molitor’s limited postseason sample are actually better than those in Jeter’s more substantial ledger. Molitor was a key component on two World Series champions in Toronto, and was World Series MVP in 1993. So both were great in the postseason.

Boil it all down and the fact is that Derek Jeter and Paul Molitor were the same guy. It’s as if Mark Twain’s novel The Prince And The Pauper had been set in Major League Baseball instead of pre-industrial England. One player (Jeter) was born to royalty (the Yankees), the other (Molitor) to poverty (Milwaukee), but they were the exactly same guy. If they'd secretly switched places at any time, no one ever would have noticed.

Again, no disrespect whatsoever to Derek Jeter. If Paul Molitor had gotten the same treatment when he retired as Jeter’s getting now, then this blog post wouldn’t be necessary. But no one even noticed when Molitor hung ’em up. It’s as though he was invisible and in a way he probably was — because of where he played, not because of who he was.

Meanwhile, people are swooning for Jeter’s retirement as if he were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle all rolled up into one. He was great, but he wasn't that great. That’s not Derek Jeter’s fault, but it says nothing good about how the game is perceived, and especially about the media that shapes those perceptions. TBS's decision to broadcast the Yankees and Red Sox on Sunday instead of a game that actually means something is just the latest such network malfeasance. Unfortunately, it won't be the last.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Album Review — The JAG Sessions, Filling In The Blanks

In 1997, Raleigh’s 6 String Drag released an album, High Hat, that critics raved about and the band’s cult following still believes to this day to be an essential classic.


Kenny Roby, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, never cared much for High Hat. In Roby’s mind, while producer Steve Earle captured the raw energy that marked 6 String Drag’s incendiary live performances, he never quite caught the full essence of the band’s sound and spirit. To Roby’s thinking, this made High Hat a wrong that needed to be corrected.


Seventeen years later, with 6 String Drag reformed, playing live shows again and putting the finishing touches on a new album for early 2015 release, The JAG Sessions - Rare And Unreleased 1996-98 goes a long way towards filling in the blanks that High Hat never addressed. Recorded by local legend Byron McCay during sessions at Raleigh’s JAG Studios in 1996 and 1998, The JAG Sessions showcases many of 6 String Drag’s strengths much more effectively than High Hat.


First of all, Roby is a gifted and creative lead singer with a powerful baritone/tenor voice and great vocal range. That voice never gets fully unleashed on High Hat. Furthermore, Roby and bass player Rob Keller give 6 String Drag a tight and harmonious vocal mix up front, which is evident on High Hat, but often gets lost in the muddled production. Instrumentally, 6 String Drag has a huge, larger-than-life sound, especially when augmented by the Countdown Quartet’s horn section. While High Hat screams bigness, it mostly swings and misses on the tightness of 6 String Drag’s sound. In fact, High Hat has to be one of the loosest-sounding records ever recorded. The Jag Sessions corrects these and other problems with a much cleaner mix and a more band-centered approach to the recording and production. The result is a leaner and more muscular sound that highlights the band’s most appealing attributes instead of burying them.


The JAG Sessions consists of demos 6 String Drag cut for a possible Columbia Records album that never happened, a follow-up EP to High Hat that E-Squared — Earle’s record label — would not release, and other various stray recordings and demos. Four of the songs on The JAG Sessions appeared on High Hat — the contrast is an eye-opener, by the way — and four more later surfaced on subsequent Roby solo albums. Considering the disparate nature of the material, The JAG Sessions holds together as a remarkably cohesive and well-sequenced unit, one that more than holds its own as a companion piece to High Hat in the 6 String Drag canon.


Ultimately, The JAG Sessions complements rather than displaces High Hat as the final statement on 6 String Drag’s heyday. As mentioned above, 6 String Drag was (and still is, all these years later) a powerhouse in concert, and High Hat just crackles with the energy of a live recording. Roby never wanted to make a live-in-the-studio record, however, which explains much of his displeasure. Roby wanted to record a 6 String Drag studio album. The JAG Sessions goes a long way towards fulfilling that long overdue goal.


When all is said and done, High Hat is still a classic, an essential snapshot of time and place for a great and largely overlooked band, for the absolutely joyous and unbridled enthusiasm of its performances. The JAG Sessions, on the other hand, is a more fully realized portrait of the band at work, more nuanced and fully fleshed out, loaded with energy yet not electrifying in the manner of a live performance, which was the point all along. In the end, both are equally satisfying (except maybe to Roby) but for entirely different reasons. Taken in tandem, they give a glimpse of what might have been had it not been for the hazards and general vagaries of the damned music industry.


If you were a 6 String Drag fan back in the day but haven’t seen them since they reformed, or if you just heard about them and are curious, they are every bit as electrifying in concert as they were 17 years ago. They blew the roof off the Pour House back on Jan. 4, and their featured performance Oct. 5 at King’s Barcade during Raleigh’s Hopscotch Festival, while limited to an hour, simply overwhelmed a capacity crowd. They may be older and more settled in their lives, but they still can conjure that inner rocker and light up a concert stage.


Their new album, meanwhile, featuring the original five-man lineup plus horns and due for release in January, is tremendous, just a fantastic listening experience. Recorded mostly live in the manner of records from 60 and 70 years ago — but not intended as a live-in-the-studio record — the new album derives much of its influences from the great roots music of the early rock ‘n’ roll era. After repeated plays, it comes across as kind of a 21st century soundtrack to The Last Picture Show, and that is definitely meant as a compliment.


Considering their history, it would be foolish to miss 6 String Drag the next time they play a venue near you, or not to buy The JAG Sessions now or the new album in January. They broke up in 1998 and nearly went away for good. That's rock 'n' roll. It’s still kind of shocking that they got back together. So don’t take them for granted this time around. You never know when the magic will end. And so far, the reunion has been mostly magic.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Album Reviews - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Psycho Sisters

Over the course of a near-40-year career, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have taken a few left turns, the most recent being 2010’s Mojo. A rollicking, bluesy set that served as the perfect vehicle for Mike Campbell to expand his underrated lead guitar work, Mojo was not typical Tom Petty fare. And when TPATH toured that summer, the Mojo tracks went over like an S.B.D. fart at a wedding reception.

Nothing on Mojo really fits the canon of hits and singalong anthems that Petty fans know so well. Likewise, part of the tepid response to Mojo had to be lack of familiarity. So when TPATH played four or five Mojo songs in succession in the middle of a set filled with crowd favorites during the 2010 tour, the Mojo tracks came across like a moment of silence, an awkward pregnant pause before the rousing finish.

Petty’s new album, Hypnotic Eye, shouldn’t suffer such a fate on this summer’s tour. With each ticket bought online, the purchaser received a free download of Hypnotic Eye, leaving no excuse not to know the new material when the band comes to your town.

Beyond that, free download or not, there is no reason for any Tom Petty fan not to love Hypnotic Eye. From the opening fuzz tones of “American Dream Plan B” to the weary and wary set-closing “Shadow People,” Hypnotic Eye rocks and rips and kicks ass from start to finish. At the same time, the record’s mostly brooding undertones are apparent even in some of the song titles — “Fault Lines,” “Power Drunk,” “Forgotten Man,” “Sins Of My Youth,” “Burnt Out Town,” “Shadow People” — and reverberate throughout the album’s lyrics. Song after song, Petty seems to be wondering how the world went so crazy so quickly. Maybe Petty is becoming a more topical songwriter in his sixties. If this is the result, let’s hope for more of the same next time around.

The playing on Hypnotic Eye is pure Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The sound is tight and lean, the tunes laden with sharp but subtle hooks, and the lyrics carry a wallop. The musicianship is impeccable, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. There may be no “Free Fallin’” or “American Girl” on Hypnotic Eye, but the songs will creep into your consciousness nonetheless. The lasting effect is of a rock-and-roll band at the peak of its game, even after nearly 40 years making music on the beauty way, as Eliza Gilkyson so presciently called it.

The last few years have been a great time for rock and roll’s senior tour, by the way. Paul McCartney’s latest album, New, was utterly delightful, and Macca continues to tour constantly. His nearly three-hour shows should be required for all Beatles fans. The Rolling Stones recently finished their latest reunion world tour to universally rave reviews, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just wrapped up a world tour that blew the roof off arenas around the globe.

Now, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers come out with their best record in many years, maybe since the early 1980s, with a well-received U.S. tour already underway. Never forget, old guys rock!

* * *

While Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are an iconic American rock band, the Psycho Sisters are strictly the stuff of cult followings. They deserve a much wider audience. Between them, Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson have produced individual and collective bodies of work that define them as significant artists. Cowsill first hit the American music scene as a pre-teenaged member of her family’s band, the Cowsills, in the 1960s. Peterson was a founding member of the Bangles in 1981.

Cowsill and Peterson joined the legendary New Orleans roots outfit the Continental Drifters in 1991, and began playing together as the Psycho Sisters as a side project shortly thereafter. They’ve worked with one another on and off ever since, but their busy schedules never allowed the time to record an album together. And they have been busy. They’ve both appeared as back-up singers on numerous projects by other artists, and Cowsill launched a solo recording career in 2005 with an obscure masterpiece, Just Believe It. With contributions from Peterson, Adam Duritz and Lucinda Williams among others, Just Believe It is an astonishing record and can and should be downloaded from Cowsill’s website. It’s well worth the cost. In addition, Cowsill and her remaining siblings have reformed the Cowsills and play regularly.

More than two decades after first appearing as the Psycho Sisters, Cowsill and Peterson have finally recorded an album, Up On The Chair, Beatrice, and it was more than worth the wait. Consisting mostly of songs they’ve performed together since the ’90s, songs about love found and love lost and the travails entailed therein, Up On The Chair, Beatrice features strong songwriting, catchy melodies, rootsy arrangements, great lead vocals, and super-tight harmonies. We can only hope that the second album won’t be nearly as long in the making.

The only complaint one can make about Up On The Chair, Beatrice is that it lasts just 33 minutes and 27 seconds from start to finish. Even with the resurgence of vinyl as a listening medium, 33 minutes is not long enough. Not. Even. Close. If they had the time to record the 10 jewels included here, surely they could have stretched the sessions another few days. Based on the seven songs they wrote or cowrote for this record, there’s no question the two of them have the songwriting chops to come up with two or three more great songs. Aside from that, Up On The Chair, Beatrice is simply excellent, highly recommended.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Forget The Revisionist History; Remember The Expos

With the Hall of Fame induction ceremony scheduled for Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., and a carload of former Atlanta Braves — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, manager Bobby Cox — scheduled for induction, brace yourselves. We’re about to be inundated in coming days with news articles and TV features about the great Braves Dynasty of the 1990s and 2000s.

And in fairness, those Braves teams were extraordinary, especially their starting pitching. Maddux and Glavine were deserving first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. Maddux, in particular, was absolutely incredible, one of the three greatest pitchers of his generation, along with Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens, and on the short list of the greatest pitchers of all time. Cox was a great manager for those teams, and it’s fitting that he is going into the Hall of Fame along with fellow skippers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. They helped define their era in the sport.

Let’s not forget that Torre played for and managed the Braves. So the Braves connection this weekend is a strong one. A third member of that great Atlanta rotation, John Smoltz, also deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and hopefully he’ll join the others in 2015.

With that out of the way, let’s put to rest one bit of revisionist history right here and now.

Fact: The Atlanta Braves did NOT win 14 consecutive division championships. USA Today wrote that in its sports pages on Friday, and we’re going to see and hear that bit of misinformation passed along many times in coming days as those teams are rightly celebrated. The fact is, however, that the Braves won 14 division championships in 15 years. And that’s a huge difference.

The Braves did not win the National League East in 1994. Yes, officially there were no champions that year because of the strike, which wiped out the end of the season and forced the cancellation of the World Series. That doesn’t change the fact that the Braves did not win the division, though, and it doesn’t change the fact that they wouldn’t have won the division had there been no strike. Most likely they wouldn’t have come close.

Lest we all forget, at the time of the strike, with six weeks remaining on the schedule, the Montreal Expos were in first place in the NL East, six games ahead of the Braves, and were pulling away. The Expos had the best record in baseball at the time and were hot as a pistol, having won 20 of their last 23 games at the time play was halted.

The Expos roster featured such stars at Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill and John Wetteland. When baseball finally resumed a year later, Expos manager Felipe Alou was named manager of the National League team for the 1995 All-Star Game, not the Braves’ Bobby Cox. That doesn’t make Montreal the official winners of anything in 1994, but what does it say about Atlanta? It doesn’t say “division champions,” that’s for sure.

The strike of 1994 cost baseball a World Series, and history will always remember it that way. The strike also cost Montreal a chance at a World Series, with one of history’s great overlooked clubs, a team never heard from again. And that’s truly a shame. That team deserved its chance at history. Instead, the strike intervened and then the economics of baseball, which will always favor the large markets, forced Expos ownership to break up that club starting in ’95.

The strike of 1994 also enabled the revisionists from Atlanta to pretend that the ’94 season never happened and to claim instead that the Braves won 14 division championships in a row. But they didn’t. As great as the Atlanta dynasty was, and as unlikely as it is to ever happen again, the fact remains that the Braves won 14 division championships in 15 years. End of discussion.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: The Bilko Athletic Club

Many American men of a certain age — I'm talking about early Baby Boomers — received as much or more of their early education from reading comic books, record album liner notes, and the backs of baseball cards as they did from any textbook or classroom.


Superheroes, musicians and baseball players will always be more interesting than historical figures, no matter their contribution to society. Who wants to read about Christopher Columbus, Patrick Henry, Thomas Edison or Clara Barton when you can read about Spiderman, Bob Dylan or Ernie Banks instead?


Baseball cards were a storehouse of all kinds of useful information, especially when the card manufacturers put the players' complete major and minor league statistics on the back of the card. Minor league stats were especially revelatory. We all knew, for instance, that Babe Ruth held the major league record of 60 home runs in a single season, set in 1927 and broken by Roger Maris in 1961. The Maris-and-Mantle home run chase played out in the national media. Everyone knew about that.


What we didn’t know, but learned from the back of baseball cards, was that someone named Joe Bauman hit 72 homers for Roswell in the Longhorn League (the Longhorn League?) in 1954. And that Dick Stuart, the infamous Dr. Strangeglove of the 1962 Mets, hit 66 homers for the Lincoln Chiefs of the Western League in 1956.


Until expansion in 1961, there were only 16 major league teams and 400 major league players, and we knew them all. And in part because we collected their baseball cards, we knew a fair amount about each player. We knew, for instance, that Steve Bilko, a slugging first baseman who never quite stuck in the big leagues despite stops with the Cubs, Reds, Dodgers, Cardinals, Tigers and Angels, tore up the Pacific Coast League, batting .330 with 75 doubles, 148 home runs and 428 RBIs in 488 games in three years with the Los Angeles Angels from 1955-57. Those stats, included on several of his baseball cards, jumped out at us.


Baseball cards were not perfect, however. Limited to about 12 or 13 square inches, they could tell us Bilko's stats, but virtually nothing of the Pacific Coast League. Those of us living along the Eastern Seaboard, for instance, had no idea that for fans on the West Coast, with the nearest MLB team 2,000 miles away, the Coast League WAS baseball. We had no idea that the PCL was different from other minor leagues, that beginning in 1952 the league was given an "open" classification by the National Association. That meant the league officially was better than Triple-A but not quite major-league caliber.


Many really good players enjoyed outstanding careers in the Coast League, and PCL players often requested and were granted clauses in their contracts making them ineligible from being drafted by Major League Baseball. The money in the PCL was good, the cities were first-rate (five of them now have major league teams), and the living was easy. Why sit on a major league bench in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Detroit when you could be a starter and make better money in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle? Why, indeed, and many PCL players asked themselves that very question. Many got promotions to the big leagues but often welcomed the return trip to the PCL as anything but a demotion.


Gaylon White's new book — The Bilko Athletic Club, The Story Of The 1956 Los Angeles Angels — goes a long way towards filling in many of the remaining blanks we may have had about the Angels and the old PCL. Based loosely on the same format as Roger Kahn's classic The Boys Of Summer, The Bilko Athletic Club focuses on the 1956 Angels, known in LA at the time as The Bilko Athletic Club because of Bilko's on-field exploits, but also gives excellent anecdotal background on the rest of the Angels roster and the Coast League of the mid-1950s.


Numerous stars and Hall of Famers passed through the PCL on the way to the big leagues, including Joe and Dominic DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Ferris Fain, Frank Crosetti, and Mudcat Grant. Many others were journeymen, like Bilko, who enjoyed tremendous success and stardom on the coast but just couldn’t quite make it work in the majors. For a brief time, Bilko was the PCL's Mickey Mantle. In 1956, he won league MVP honors after leading the league with a .360 average, 163 runs scored, 215 hits, 55 home runs and 164 RBIs. The ’56 Angels cruised to the PCL pennant with a 107-61 record, 16 games ahead of second-place Seattle.


White, who grew up in LA in the 1950s rooting for the Angels, contends early on that the '56 Angels were one of the greatest minor league teams ever, and were the last great PCL club. His first assertion is subject to debate. He presents a pretty convincing case for his belief, while also devoting considerable copy to dissenting opinions. As for his second point, he's no doubt correct. With the major leagues already making overtures to West Coast cities, the Pacific Coast League was in a period of noticeable decline by 1956. Two years later, the Dodgers and Giants arrived from New York, forcing the PCL out of LA and San Francisco, its two largest markets. Three years after that, an American League expansion team moved into LA and even took the name Los Angeles Angels, giving LA two MLB teams and the West Coast three. As for the PCL, well, its time as the only show on the coast was over. The league morphed into just another minor league after that. Until the big leagues invaded, however, the PCL was special, a colorful circuit with a fascinating history and a captive audience thousands of miles from the nearest MLB market. The 1956 Angels were the PCL's last mighty roar.


The Bilko Athletic Club at times reads like an oral history. Relying heavily on a multitude of interviews conducted with dozens of former players over several decades, White weaves a narrative brimming with great baseball stories, many of them built around the kind of hyperbole and exaggeration you tend to get when old ballplayers get together to relive their glory days. White focuses on Bilko, for obvious reasons, but he devotes lengthy passages and chapters to many of the players and coaches who populated the Angels' mid-1950s rosters. Of particular interest is the number of future major league managers, coaches and front-office execs who played for the '56 Angels, including Gene Mauch, Jim Fanning, Eddie Haas, Johnny Goryl and Red Adams. Not all of them get their own chapter, but White still brings them all to life.


The Bilko Athletic Club makes excellent reading. The narrative kind of jumps around at times, but this is never a problem since wherever White takes the reader, entertainment is certain to follow. The storytelling may be non-linear at times, but just enjoy the ride. This book should be must-reading for any fan of minor league baseball and its history.

You can purchase copies of The Bilko Athletic Club at White's website, http://www.bilkoathleticclub.com/order-the-book/.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Blogging Still On Hold

The blogging blackout will continue for at least a few more days. My best friend died last night after about 10 years of declining health. So at the moment, writing about college baseball or music or anything else, just not in the mood. Back in a few days.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

No Blogging This Week

Someone is actually paying me to write feature stories this week, three of them, in fact. The combination of writing three features, scoring seven baseball games in nine days, and going to see Bruce Springsteen on Thursday night will almost certainly keep this blog inactive until after this weekend's Georgia Tech series.

I'll be back next week to resume our discussion of NC State's ongoing head-scratcher of a baseball season. Hopefully, that discussion won't be an autopsy by then, but the Wolfpack's season definitely went on life support with the series loss to Boston College.

— bw