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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 RIP

Pat Summitt

Way behind on links here. I’ll post a few tomorrow, but for now — I wrote a little something about Pat Summitt here. 

And I talked with my longtime friend and colleague, ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel, on the PosCast about Pat Summitt’s life and legacy. It was touching to hear Mechelle’s thoughts — few people have written as much about or had as good a view of Summitt.

As always, you can hear the PosCast on Stitcher or on iTunes and I will embed it below:

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By In RIP

Mr. Hockey

From NBC SportsWorld:

One March day in 1928, Katherine Howe was chopping wood outside the family’s dirt-floor home in Floral, Saskatchewan, when she felt labor pains. Her sixth child. So, she went into the home and boiled some water. Then, she climbed into bed, delivered her own child, cut the umbilical cord while the baby slept and waited for her husband, Albert, to come home after a rough day of farming and hunting.

That was the day Gordon Howe was born …

Mr. Hockey

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By In Music, RIP

Prince

From NBC SportsWorld

Dearly beloved,

We are gathered here today

to get through

this thing called life.

His Kingdom

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By In RIP

Bud Collins

From NBC SportsWorld:

Bud Collins taught me to love tennis years before I ever picked up a racquet. He had such passion for tennis but more than that, he had that unique ability to transfer that passion to readers and listeners and, particularly, television viewers.

And he also wore those great clothes.

Mr. Wonderful

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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Yogi

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From SportsWorld:

The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra looking at the sky. He wears a New York Yankees jacket and a New York Yankees hat, and he seems to be shivering just slightly, though the air is warm. He looks up at the sky, and it is an unrelenting gray, not a sliver of blue anywhere in the state of New Jersey. A hesitant rain falls as if the sky itself cannot decide.

“They’ll play,” Yogi says quietly, almost a whisper. “They’ll play baseball today.”

RIP Yogi Berra

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By In RIP

Calvin Peete

A couple of links today:

— Calvin Peete was miraculous. There’s no other way to say it, really. He died on Wednesday at the age of 71. I wrote a few words about him.

— I’m hoping most of you saw this already on Twitter or wherever, but I’m doing a little baseball poll here. Hoping to put up some of the results quickly; already we have had a couple thousand respondents and the results are pretty interesting.

Also I’m getting ready to start promoting my upcoming book The Secret of Golf: The Story of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. I believe we’re going to have some giveaways for people who preorder … the book comes out on June 9.

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By In Baseball, RIP

Al Rosen

In the end, we are all prisoners of circumstance … and it was circumstance that kept Al Rosen from being in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rosen, who died a couple of days ago, was a truly great player. Circumstances kept many from knowing it.

Rosen’s father left the family when Al was a baby. He was born with a terrible case of asthma — for this reason his mother moved the family to Miami from Spartanburg, South Carolina when he was still a toddler. He was Jewish in a part of Miami where there were no other Jews, and he spent much of his childhood fighting bullies. He boxed for a time. Rosen loved baseball more, though; he once had a high school coach tell him that baseball was not a game for Jews. He signed with the Cleveland Indians when he was 18. A manager there told him he probably should find a real job. He joined the Navy and went to war.

So, no, it never was easy. When Rosen got out of the Navy — he fought in the South Pacific, was involved in the assault at Okinawa — and he was 22 when he returned to baseball. His first year, in Pittsfield, he hit .323 with power. The next year, in Oklahoma City, he hit .349 with power. The next year, in Kansas City, e hit .327 with power.

In other words, Al Rosen was already good enough to be a star in the Major Leagues. Trouble was, Cleveland already had a third baseman they loved — Ken Keltner. He was a seven-time All-Star, viewed as a defensive wizard (in part because of the role he played in ending Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak) and good enough to inspire Bill James to come up with the Keltner list of questions to determine Hall of Fame worth (even if Keltner ends up falling short on his own list).

Keltner had probably his best season in 1948, and so Rosen did not become a full-time Major Leaguer until 1950 when he was 26. In Rosen’s first year, he set a rookie record with 37 home runs. That also led the league — Rosen would lead the American League in homers two of his first four full seasons. There is little doubt that Rosen could have been a high level Major Leaguer for several more years had circumstances been different.

He endured a lot of abuse for being Jewish, both from opponents and people in the crowd. He embraced his role as a Jewish player– “The Hebrew Hammer” — and once said he wished his name was MORE Jewis so he could inspire more Jewish kids. I once got the chance to ask him how that abuse affected his career. He was quite circumspect about it. On the one hand, he said, it inspired him to become a better player. On the other hand, though, he wondered how he might have played if he didn’t feel the weight of the world on his shoulders ever single day. He did not deny the possibility that fighting as hard as he did shortened his career.

In 1953, he finished one batting point short of the triple crown. It might be the greatest year ever for a third baseman. Here are five nominees:

— Al Rosen, 1953: .336/.422/.613, 43 homers, 145 RBIs, 115 runs.
— George Brett, 1980: .390/.454/.664, 24 homers, 118 RBIs.
— Mike Schmidt, 1980: .286/.380/..624, 48 homers, 121 RBIs, 104 runs, Gold Glove.
— Adrian Beltre, 2004. .334/.388.629, 48 homers, 121 RBIs.
— Alex Rodriguez, 2007. .314/.422/645, 54 homers, 156 RBIs, 143 runs.

For five seasons, between ages 26-30, Rosen hit .298/.396/.528. The decline phase then began, he was just a useful player at 31 and 32. And then he retired, in part because of debilitating injuries, in part because his one-time hero Hank Greenberg — then the Indians GM — slashed his salary.

Circumstances. The Baseball Hall of Fame celebrates the survivors, the bulletproof, the fortunate ones who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Al Rosen is not in the Hall of Fame. He never got to be a young player. He never got to be an old player. The war, the team, the role of being a pioneer, the body shortened everything. But for five years, Al Rosen was about as good as anybody who ever played third base in the Major Leagues.

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By In RIP, Television

Goodbye Parks

 

2013_0808_Parks_and_Rec_Show_KeyArt_1920x1080_0Three or four years ago, we went to California as a family and one of the cool things we got to do was go to the Parks and Recreation set. We got to do this, of course, because the executive producer of the show is my friend and permanent PosCast guest Michael Schur.*

*If someone is a permanent guest to a show, does that actually make him actually a “co-host.” Probably so. Yes. Probably so.

In any case, while on the set we ran into Nick Offerman, the actor who plays one of the really great comedy characters ever on television, the steak-loving, government-hating, wood-working, hug-loathing, Tammy-marrying Ron Swanson. He looked at my daughters and said, in the perfect Ron Swanson voice and rhythm, “OK children, you may go into my office. However, you may not touch anything on my desk. Make no mistake: I will know if you touch anything.”

The girls, of course, still talk about this brush with Ron Swanson, and I think about it a lot too because tonight is the final episode of Parks & Recreation and while I admire so many things about the show, there’s something I think about most of all: It is a show about people who like each other.There’s absolutely no reason for them to like each other. They have wildly different philosophies about life, love, music, food, coolness, politics, sports, Star Wars (“Is that the one with the little Wizard boy?” Ron Swanson asks).

But they like each other. They deeply like each other. And, even more absurdly, we like them all.

Ron Swanson is an in-the-woods loner who believes government is evil and should be shut down. Leslie Knope is a pop-culture loving liberal who makes thick policy binders in a whir and believes there is nothing that government cannot solve. Jerry/Gary/Terry Gengrich is a helpless shlemiel who spills coffee on everything and loses his keys constantly and has an awe-inspiringly beautiful wife and supermodel daughters. Tom Haverford is a me-first hipster who believes the most important stuff in the world is stuff. Andy Dwyer is a lovable dunce, April Ludgate is a slacker who either hates everything or pretends to, Ben Wyatt is a number-crunching nerd who likes inventing fantasy games. Ann Perkins is a nurse who can’t quite find her way in life, Donna Meagle is a fashion-loving diva with a famous past no one can quite grasp, Chris Traeger is a fitness fanatic who calls people by their first and last names.

And they all like each other. More to the point: They all find something admirable in each other.

This is something Michael and I have talked about a lot, actually: There seems so little middle ground left. As a nation, we always have disagreed with each other on things — politics, religion, race, the economy, foreign affairs, women’s rights, guns, death penalty, abortion, state rights, Peanut or Regular M&Ms — but it did seem like we could still like each other.

“You read stories of what the Senate was like 30 years ago, for example,” Michael says, “and there was a mutual respect and sense of discourse that kept the body politic woven together. They would debate, fiercely, about the issues of the day, and then they would go have dinner at each other’s houses and remain collegial. That does not appear to exist, anywhere, now.”

Michael says that this concept — a place “where people can disagree and fight and butt heads, but also drink good Scotch and remain friends, and find areas of agreement and solve problems through a dialectic” — became the whole point of the show.

And it worked. It wasn’t the first show to build around the idea. Cheers was, in the end, a comedy about people who liked each other. So was Seinfeld. In the end, that was true of The Office too.

But I don’t think any other show gave us such divergent characters who liked each other … a show without a villain. And we liked them too. Sometimes, for fun, I ask my daughters to name their favorite characters. They have named every single one of main characters at some point (along with their favorite minor character Perd Hapley, the genial television personality who says things like, “For a female perspective we turn to … a woman”). What do my daughters have in common with Ron Swanson or Tom Haverford? Nothing. But they see the humanity in every one of them, they see that even though people may say ridiculous things or offer opinions counter to your own, those words come from a human place.

“I think most people would rather be nice than cruel,” Michael says. ” Now, power corrupts, and the higher you climb on the political ladder the more power you have, and thus the more you are risking by acting in a reasonable, dignified manner. If Mitch McConnell had said even one respectful or nice thing about President Obama — literally, even one — in the last election, he would’ve lost in a primary challenge.

“That is sad, to me, because I think if you could give Mitch McConnell truth serum he would say that President Obama is a smart person who has some good ideas (and vice-versa).  The show was an attempt to describe a different path. … I think it’s possible to disagree and remain respectful, and even to love and admire the people with whom you disagree. This is not pollyanna pie-in-the-sky naivete. It’s a basic human reality.”

Good sitcoms tend to follow a path. They usually have rough early days when characters are being developed, often painfully. The focus of the show shifts. Then, something clicks, something else clicks, something else … and the show has a wonderful ride where every episode is fantastic. The comic possibilities seem endless. The characters mold into people as familiar as family.

And then — slowly you hope — the edges begin to crinkle, and bits start to sound the same, and certain people become too famous and cliche. Then people begin applauding when Fonzie or Latka or Kramer enters the room, and other characters leave, and themes start losing any spark, and sometimes producers feel the need to insert a major new theme just to liven up the show, a new baby, a new boss and new location.

Parks and Recreation went through all those phases. No, it was never a hit. It was never a ratings winner. But it started sluggish, and found its speed, and was great. Then, perhaps, it faded a bit. But unlike The Office or Cheers or M*A*S*H or Seinfeld or most of the other good shows I’ve loved through the years, it found one more burst of energy at the end. Michael and the writers and everyone always knew this would be the last year and so they decided to go out blazing. They put it three years in the future, and they created all sorts of frantic plot twists, and they made every show something of a finale.

That’s been a wonderful way to send off, but it also makes tonight a bit sad. There seems more to do. I want to know what happens to them all. I want to hear from Leslie, laugh at Jerry, have breakfast food with Ron Swanson every now and again. I guess that’s what happens when you make a good television show filled with people you like. The only good ending has you miss them.

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By In RIP

Jerry Tarkanian

For some reason, in 1996 the Kansas City Star sent me to Fresno to write a piece about then Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian. I honestly forget why. What I do remember was riding around town with Tark, going to watch him getting fitted for a suit, going with him to a Rotary Club meeting, just going with him. It was unlike any assignment I’ve ever had.

Tark died Wednesday, and the journalist who knew him best, Dan Wetzel, wrote a wonderful tribute to an American original. Here I’ll post the story I wrote about him in 1996:
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