Joe Vault

By In Baseball, Joe Vault

Vault: The Heart of Los Angeles

This piece originally ran about five years ago. After I wrote it, I got a hand-written note in the mail. It was from Vin Scully. It said, simply, “Joe, this is the best story anyone has ever written about me.” I feel entirely sure it is not. But that’s the class of Vin Scully.

* * *

The evening sky does not darken in Los Angeles in late summer so much as it dulls into lighter and lighter shades of blue. In time, the blue goes cloudy white, then gray, then very slowly fades to black; you can almost hear a director shouting: “We’re losing our light.” It is the end of summer in the City of Angels. You know this because the Dodgers are out of the pennant race. Traffic stops and starts on The 101, violently at times, car horns and squealed tires and middle fingers. The names on the exit signs along the side of highway are startlingly familiar for a stranger. Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood Boulevard. Vine Street. The Hollywood Bowl. Los Angeles is one of those few cities in the world where you can be lost and know exactly where you are at precisely the same time. And another car horn. Another tire squeal. Another middle finger.


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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Vault: The Willie Mays Hall of Fame

Today’s Vault addition: For Brilliant Reader John Williamson, who requested it.

Bob Costas on Wednesday said something I’ve heard a lot of people say through the years. But because he’s Bob Costas, and I think the world of the guy, his words inspired this post. Bob thinks the Baseball Hall of Fame is too big. He did not go into detail, but he made it very clear — and I believe the reference point was Bert Blyleven– that the Hall of Fame was supposed to be for the “great” and, over the years, it became for the “very good.” He did not elaborate out of respect for the very good players who are already in the Hall of Fame. But I suspect that if it could be done clandestinely — that is to say if it could be done without anyone noticing and without hurting anybody — Bob and a lot of other people would throw a lot of players out of their Baseball Hall of Fame.*

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By In Joe Vault, Music, RIP

Vault: The King of Pop

As part of the new blog, I’m going to start putting up some old posts that have disappeared from the Internet … you’ll be able to find these in the new “Joe Vault” section. This was written on June 25, 2009, the day after Michael Jackson died.

The thing I understood about Elvis when I was young was that he was famous. Crazy famous. The kind of famous that only a handful of people have ever been — Elvis, Muhammad Ali, Jack Kennedy, Will Rogers, Babe Ruth, the Beatles, that kind of iconic famous. I knew, of course, what Elvis did — King of Rock and Roll and all that — but by the time I knew him he was a cartoon character, a fat sweat-hog who wore capes and sequins and collars you could parasail with, an overgrown leftover from the 1950s who was so buzzed on drugs or jelly doughnuts that he hardly seemed real.


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By In Joe Vault

My Favorite Year (1986)

There’s no reason you should care about this … but 1986 was the pivotal year of my life. It was the year my car spun out, the year I worked in a factory and in the photo department of a retail store (I called people while they were eating dinner to offer them a free 3×5 photograph), the year she said she just wanted to be friends. It was the year everything seemed hopeful and the year when reality came crashing down like the top shelf of an overstuffed closet. It was the year when a little man dunked, when young Bears rapped and an old bear charged, when the hand of God reached out (and the referee missed it), when a ball rolled through the legs, when a genius set up behind the net. It was a year of folk heroes and comic book bad guys, a year when a gladiator dressed in black terrified the world.


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By In Joe Vault, Movies

Pixar Family Ratings

With the release of “Inside Out,” everyone seems to be ranking the 15 feature length Pixar movies. So, we decided — eh, why not? The only quirk is that we decided to rate the movies as a family, which is to say that all four of us got a vote. The four include:

1. Me
2. My wife Margo
3. Thirteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth
4. Ten-year-old daughter Katie

All four votes also counted exactly the same. It was 15 points for No. 1 movie, 14 points for a No. 2 movie, 13 points for No. 3 and so on all the way down the line. Nobody had to explain their choices or defend them, the whole idea was just to rank them in order and let the chips fall.

So, with that in mind, here are our Pixar movies ranked 15th to 1st.

No. 15: A Bug’s Life
— I do realize that there are many people who love A Bug’s Life. It was the second Pixar movie made, after Toy Story, and it moves up pretty high on many of the lists I’ve seen. It simply didn’t do anything for anyone in the family, I was the only one who did not put it last on the list. I think part of it is that we haven’t seen it in a very long time. It’s the one Pixar Movie which seems to suffer from what I call “Hotel Rwanda Syndrome.” My wife and I still have not seen Hotel Rwanda. We know it’s good. We know it features one of our favorite actors, Don Cheadle. We know that it’s an important movie. We bought the DVD a long time ago, we’ve downloaded the digital version so it’s waiting on our Apple TV to be watched. We keep saying that we will see it when “the mood’s right.” But, so far anyway, the mood is NEVER RIGHT to see Hotel Rwanda. Admittedly, this is mostly because of the seriousness of the topics — genocide, violence, the plight of refugees. We are never in the mood to watch Schindler’s List again either.

Still, there’s something else, something more subtle about moods and why you watch movies at home. We’re always in the mood to see “The Princess Bride” but never in the mood to see “Jurassic Park.” We’re always in the mood for “Lego Movie” but never in the mood for “A Bug’s Life.” Weird. I suspect we won’t ever see it again, which means it will — wrongly, in my view — stay on the bottom.

No. 14: Cars 2
— I don’t think there’s any question this is the worst-ever Pixar movie, but the girls have a soft spot for it, probably because one of their favorite actors and people, Joe Mantegna, played in it. Joe Mantegna once gave them cookies at his wife Arlene’s Chicago food stand called “Taste Chicago.” Free cookies moves this minor disaster ahead of A Bug’s Life for them.

No. 13: Cars
— I don’t know if this is a boy-girl thing, but the girls never liked the first Cars either. Cars does feature the racing legend Humpy Wheeler, one of the great promoters in the history of NASCAR. I have to tell you a Humpy Wheeler story (there are countless classics). Humpy used to hand out million-dollar bills with his picture on them. He gave one to the girls at a Christmas party one year and asked them what they would buy with all that money (one said a candy store, I think). Cute, right? Well, a couple of years later they saw Humpy Wheeler again, and again he gave them the bill. “Oh, it’s OK, you already gave us one,” Katie said politely. “I don’t think so,” Humpy said smiling. “Look again.” She looked down — now it was a BILLION dollar bill. “Inflation,” Humpy said.

No. 12. Monsters University
— This is our first big line in the Pixar chart — everybody REALLY liked Monsters University, so the choices are much closer from here. The bottom three movies, well, nobody really cared much. But the choices, starting from Monsters University, got harder and harder. And this is where we started seeing (in some cases) a pretty big gap between adults and kids. Mom, for instance, loved Monsters University, perhaps because it reminded her of college days. The girls liked it fine but it wasn’t good enough to crack either Top 10.

No. 11. Toy Story 3
— The girls will watch Toy Story 1 or 2 now and again, but they simply have no desire to see the third one again. I think it’s because the ending is so beautifully sad. This is the thing that Pixar does better than anyone in movies — the bittersweet. In a way, I think “Inside Out” was the movie that Pixar has been building to ever since the beginning because their movies are largely an exploration of that relationship between joy and sadness, and Inside Out is — in a blatantly obvious way — about the relationship between Joy and Sadness.

No. 10. Up
— Here’s the biggest divide between the kids and the parents. Margo has Up as her No. 1 movie, and it’s top six for me. Both the girls had it among their least favorite Pixar movies. I think that’s because Up is an unabashedly adult movie. The opening sequence is one of the most beautifully haunting you will see in any movie.

My buddy, Pop Warner, took his family to see Up at a time when his son was violently frightened of thunderstorms and, you probably know, right after the opening scene where we see the couple growing old together, there’s a big thunderstorm. Pop’s son was so scared that they literally had to leave the movie theater — this after the OPENING SEQUENCE. Pop calls me up the next day and says, “Well, I didn’t see the rest of the movie but the part I saw definitely was NOT up.”

No. 9: Toy Story 2
— Has what I still consider the funniest sequence in all the Pixar movies, the bloopers segment at the end. There’s one thing in particular: When Wheezy is about to sing his song, and he says, “In fact, I think I feel a song coming on,” and then Mr. Mike throws the microphone to him, and it hits him and knocks him out. Then Wheezy shouts, “I’m so sorry, did I hurt your equipment? You gotta aim it right at my flipper, I’m not a very good catch.”

No. 8: Brave
— I’m the one who brought Brave down, and I make no apologies. For one thing, as Elvis once said, it just didn’t move me. Loved the idea, love the powerful woman protagonist, loved the music, thought it was very well made. But, all in all, it left me flat. And, frankly, for another thing, I still feel quite sure it wasn’t as good as “Wreck-It Ralph,” but beat it out for best animated picture, which cost me the family Oscar pool that year. The girls did love it, so I think this is a good place for it overall.

No. 7: Monsters Inc
— As you will see in the final ratings, they are heavily influenced by how recently we’ve seen the movie. Katie, for instance, will change her favorite all-time movie more or less every single time she sees a new movie. So right now, “Inside Out” is her favorite all-time movie, and this replaces “Pitch Perfect 2,” which she saw previously, and that replaced “Home,” Which she saw before that. Every time we see Monsters Inc., we’re reminded of its awesomeness. It might be the funniest Pixar movie when everything is taken into account. But we have not seen it in a couple of years so it lounges in the middle of the pack.

No 6. Toy Story
— Once again, a divide between the parents — we both had it Top 5 — and the girls. Toy Story was so revolutionary when we first saw it. None of us had ever seen a movie quite like it. But that wonder is gone now, the girls have seen ALL the Pixar movies, so Toy Story has to stand up on its story and visual splendor. And so it’s just not that special to them.

No. 5: Finding Nemo
— We just saw this pretty recently so that, I think, is why it shos up pretty high on this list. I mean, it’s wonderful, but I don’t know that the girls would have put it ahead of Brave and the Toy Stories if we hadn’t just seen it. The same is true for Ratatouille, which we actually saw in the last week.

No. 4: Ratatouille
— Ever since we saw it (we watched it, honestly, in preparation for seeing Inside Out), Elizabeth has been dying to do some cooking. I don’t know that you can give a better compliment to a movie than that. There are other things that make Ratatouille show up so high on this list. (1) The girls are going through a ‘We love Paris” stage; (2) The voice of the rat is Patton Oswalt, who is also the narrator on the girls’ favorite current show “The Goldbergs.” (3) Their Mom doesn’t like Ratatouille very much and so there’s a little parental rebellion going on here too. This is too high for Ratatouille I suspect — and Margo groaned incessantly upon hearing its place — but, hey, the ratings are the ratings. We can always do this again when the next Pixar movie comes out.

No. 3: The Incredibles
— I sometimes wonder how good a Marvel or DC movie Pixar could make. We, like most American families, have become obsessed with the Avengers (both individually and as a group), with the X-Men, with Batman and so on. And the superhero movies being made now are amazing — they are dark, they are chilling, they are exciting, they have some very funny moments (the lifting-the-hammer scene in the new Avengers and the Quicksilver scene in the last X-Men are both great). But Pixar is just so good at delving deeper, into uproarious comedy, into pretty intense sadness, into wonder. The Incredibles is a wonderful superhero movie, but it’s mostly played for laughs. I wonder where they would go if they took on the Dark Knight.

No. 2: Inside Out
— OK, this impossibly high rating is in almost entirely because we just saw the movie and it made a powerful impact (Katie had it No. 1, of course, and was quite furious that no one else did). But it really is Pixar at its best. For Pixar, a company that has achieved some very high levels of artistry based on their almost magical understanding of human emotion, to make a movie all about human emotion — yeah, it’s very meta and very self-conscious but it’s also wonderful. The movie’s main character is Joy even as it makes powerful points about the importance of feeling all emotions. It is very funny even about frightening or sad things. It is heart-achingly well cast; I don’t know what that means, but I mean it anyway. I mean Amy Poehler as joy … Phyllis Smith as Sadness … Bill Hader as Fear … Mindy Kaling as Disgust … Richard Kind as Bing Bong … this is pure genius. And Louis Black was born to play Anger. I almost wonder if the whole movie was inspired by someone saying, “Man, Louis Black would make a great Anger.”

No. 1: WALL-E
— Just a perfect movie in every way. Funny. Sweet. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. Lovely. Slumdog Millionaire won best picture that year. There’s no universe I know where Slumdog Millionaire is even in the same stratosphere as WALL-E.

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By In Joe Vault

Kissing Sophia Loren

My friend Jon Hock has a relatively new documentary out, Of Miracles and Men, which looks at what we call the “Miracle on Ice” — the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey victory — through the eyes of the Soviet Union. It is a fantastic piece of work, I think, filled with all sorts of wonderful insights and moments. One of the coolest and most important things that we can do as writers and journalists and storytellers and documentarians and filmmakers and whatever else we call ourselves is try to see the world from an angle, a viewpoint, a perspective the audience has never fully considered. I think it’s stuff like this, when done right, that can bring the world a little bit closer together.*

*It can also spark a lot of Twitter rage, but that’s a topic for another time. (more…)

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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Things I learned from Strat-o-Matic



Strat-o-Matic was not the first tabletop baseball game I ever played. No, first was this game called “Statis Pro Baseball,” which was this fantastic little baseball card game invented by an Iowa newspaper columnist and, later, sports gambling guru named Jim Barnes. There are two things I remember most about the game:


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By In Joe Vault

A Sportswriting Christmas Story

The boy sat on a city bus at the end of another semester, Christmas approached, and he stared out the window and watched people talking and smoking in a business park. There were no illusions left. He wasn’t going to become an accountant like his mother had hoped. His accounting professors had made that clear with failing grades. Then, the boy had known the truth for a long time. Even the most basic accounting concepts eluded him. Credits. Debits. He just couldn’t get those clear in his mind. Weren’t debits good and credits bad? But then, why is it good when your account gets credited? And why was debit so close in spelling to debt? Mysteries.

The boy was 18 years old, and he knew only two things about himself. The first thing he knew was that he had no discernible talents. He couldn’t sing, write or draw. He wasn’t strong enough to impress anyone when he worked at the factory, wasn’t glib enough to sell anything to anybody, wasn’t ambitious enough to excel despite his shortcomings. He called himself average and strongly suspected that this was probably optimistic. He wasn’t quite average height, couldn’t see past his nose without glasses and already he was balding.

The second thing the boy knew about himself was that he loved sports.

It wasn’t much to go on.

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By In Joe Vault, Tennis

Tennis and life

Almost a year ago, I went to see the doctor for my annual physical – what I have started to call my “’OK, so what medicines do I have to take now?’ visit” – and the nurse took my blood pressure and said five words that you probably don’t want a nurse to say after taking your blood pressure: “Oh, this can’t be right.” It is possible, I suppose, that ‘Oh, this can’t be right,” could be GOOD news, as in “Oh, this can’t be right because it’s so great.” But somewhere along the way, doctor’s visits stopped providing good news, at least in my experience. The best I could hope for was neutral news like, ‘Well, you’re no worse than last year.”


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By In Joe Vault, Movies

He chose … poorly


This would qualify as: Overthinking it.

We spent the last couple of days as a family watching the Indiana Jones movies. Well, the girls saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” a year or two ago, and they kept asking to see “Temple of Doom” and “The Last Crusade,” and I kept putting them off. A friend had told me that she let his young daughter watch Temple of Doom when she was 8 or 9 and she kept having nightmares afterward.

In retrospect I can see why: Temple of Doom wasn’t nearly as fun as I remembered it being when I was a kid. It’s dark (literally dark; so much of it is in the Temple) and there are a lot of disturbing images in there and it’s not nearly as funny as the other two*.

*I am of the belief that there have been three Star Wars movies made, two Godfathers and three Indiana Jones movies.

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