Saturday, January 16, 2010

Winter Meetings

With Northwestern football safely ensconced in the bosom of the off-season and the basketball team facing a gauntlet of Big opponents and basking in national media attention celebrating their historical futility, it's time to turn attention to the convoluted baseball offseason. The winter meetings tend to be rife with speculation and innuendo. With the news cycle's emphasis on immediacy, reporters and bloggers scatter rumors like the buckshot from a grizzled prospector's blunderbuss, giving fans even more opportunities for premature outrage or smug condescension toward anyone who mentions RBIs. On the one hand, I enjoy increased opportunities to work myself into a rabid frenzy about the failings of baseball executives; who doesn't? On the other hand, the intimate coverage of the winter meetings takes the mystique out of them. I would enjoy it if baseball executives gathered in an exotic, secluded location such as an Austrian castle, or the site of Paul Gaguin's pleasure-dome, or in a submarine in the Indian Ocean for three silent days and emerge with a parchment list of all transactions read out on a wind-swept cliff to a throng of reporters in the gully below reacting like those CBOT guys who somehow found a profession involving yelling and shoving and making dramatic gestures outside the orbit of professional wrestling.

I refuse to recognize the legitimacy of any financial institution that
does not also resemble a rousing Bollywood production number

The Cubs's offseason has been tepid, marked mainly by the titanic trade of Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva. Seattle Weekly's Caleb Hannan not only described Silva as "a sad lump of clay," but he has helpfully compiled rave reviews of the trade from media outlets comparing it to trading a root canal for a punch in the mouth or swapping venereal diseases. Although the Chicago media has been turning cartwheels for the exile of Bradley, they have forgotten the key difference that although Bradley may have been surly, always wary of umpire conspiracies, and apparently the type of person who abandons his apartment making him a sort of rent scofflaw except he's not really scoffing at the law but more accurately at his former landlord so maybe he'd be best described as an alleged scoff-lord, unlike Silva he's also capable of playing baseball at the Major League level. Silva, on the other hand, has been abominable and though the Cubs are saving some money, in baseball terms they should consider using Silva only to restrain Carlos Zambrano from further damaging their Gatorade dispensing infrastructure.

While Silva may be troublemaker in his own right, once
threatening to "grab someone by the neck and throw him into the
wall," there's no way he can possibly be as cool as Bradley, a switch
-hitting baseball Vesuvius to whom nothing is impossible such as
an unexpected mid-season retirement where he vanishes to hunt
down umpires who have thwarted him and then keeping their
stuffed corpses in a hidden lodge in an uncharted area of North

One of the reasons that I am gutted about losing Bradley is not only because of his on-base percentage, antics, and Vaudeville partnership with Soriano entitled "Where The Hell's The Ball? Fuck if I Know," but because he must be awesome by default due to his standing with reporters. Baseball reporters, as we all know, are by and large the crustiest curmudgeons wielding word processors who not only display a willful ignorance for what makes baseball players good or bad but enjoy riding an irritating moral high horse about maintaining the sanctity of a dirty and spectacularly rotten game; therefore, anyone who irritates reporters that much must be doing something right. You can calculate exactly how much to appreciate a player via a statistic I have just invented called Reporter Antagonism Percentage or RAP. By snarling at reporters, excelling at aspects of the game not measured by traditional nineteenth-century baseball statistics, occasionally attempting to physically assault announcers, and needing to be sedated before getting on a team plane, Bradley's RAP is around 98, a number that could only be eclipsed if Todd Hundley is brought on as a bench coach and then in his first game wades into the stands aiming a bat at children and elderly veterans.

The Cubs will be replacing Bradley in the outfield with Marlon Byrd, a more genial presence who hopes that working with new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo will replicate his career year on the Rangers. While I'm looking forward to rooting for Byrd and seeing if this man will bring his Byrd Dance to the North Side although to be honest it looks less like a bird and more like some sort of grounded avian creature futilely flailing its vestigial wing limbs in a fruitless attempt to attain flight, I'm not optimistic about his chances of winning over the Wrigley faithful. Byrd is a career .279/.340/.422 hitter. Which popular Cubs outfielder has a similar career statline of .277/.326/.448?

You guessed it: Jacque Jones

At least the Cubs have had some more positive news this offseason with the election of Andre Dawson to the Hall of Fame with the BBWA thankfully ignoring his borderline stats in favor of rewarding him for being my favorite ballplayer growing up. More importantly, Greg Maddux will now be working for the Cubs in a variety of roles as he learns scouting, general managing, coaching, and instructing rookies how to grow a spectacular two-part Errol Flynn mustache that he evidently grew during a disastrous facial hair escalation with his brother, Mike.

Though Greg became the sure-fire Hall of Famer, Mike clearly was the
Maddux Brother with the greatest accumen in mustache growing and
picking up truck stop waitresses


Recently, my attention has been drawn to William Walker, the diminutive Tennessean who briefly succeeded in taking over Nicaragua, a striking achievement watered down by the fact that there are few people who have not briefly held control over Nicaragua. Walker was part of the Filibuster movement in the mid-nineteenth century where private American citizens traveled to Latin America for sunshine, beaches, and unsuccessful attempts to foment revolution and overturn governments to their own ends.

Other filibusters include Aaron Burr, William S. Smith, and
David G. Burnet, who later became president of the Republic of
Texas had had two spectacular versions of nineteenth century
facial hair, shown here modeling rug-style mutton-chops and
the crazy chin beard that resembles an upside down Redd Fox

In the mid-nineteenth century, these wholesome military incursions became intertwined with American sectional politics, as filibusters such as Walker sought to use these territories as outlets for slavery. Walker's adventures in Nicaragua also led him to cross swords with Cornelius Vanderbilt, then attempting to ferry passengers across Nicaragua to allow them to get to San Francisco and its gold fields more rapidly. In Walker's defense, it seems only slightly easier get on Vanderbilt's bad side than Charles Bronson's. This time, Vanderbilt's associates Charles Morgan and C.T. Garrison conspired with Walker to betray Vanderbilt; they would fund Walker's overthrow of the sublimely named Nicaraguan president Fruto Chamorro and Walker would give them exclusive transit rights through Nicaragua. Surprisingly, in 1855, Walker and a motley crew of 58 succeeded, Walker set himself up as the President of Nicaragua, and Morgan and Garrison gained their monopoly. According to this account from Vanderbilt University, the Commodore sent an all-time great threat to perfidious partners: "Gentleman: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Yours, Cornelius Vanderbilt."

Fueled by vengeance, Vanderbilt undercut his rivals by creating a route through Panama, bankrupted Morgan and Garrison, reacquired control over Accessory Transit Co., and convinced Honduras, Guatemala, San Salvador, and Costa Rica, and the United States to refuse to recognize the Walker administration (earlier in 1856, Franklin Pierce recognized the government in a shocking moment of activity for the oft-inebriated Executive who was famously slandered by the opposition as the hero of many a well-fought bottle). Despite Vanderbilt's fury, Walker clung to power, changing the official language of Nicaragua to English and encouraging immigration from the U.S. and slavery. Finally, Vanderbilt enlisted a private army of Costa Ricans to oust Walker, and the U.S. Navy thwarted his attempts to return. Finally, in 1860, out what seems to be some sort of habit, he attempted to attack Honduras, but got stopped by the British Navy who delivered him to Honduran authorities and their ace firing squad.

One of the curious things about Walker is his height. His short stature is all over this well-done podcast about Walker and even gets a mention in Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express where Walker is described as a "five-foot Tennessean" and ends the story with "this midget was shot in 1860" as if there is some sort of "you must be this tall to invade" sign in front of Central America.

Walker, like other famous short men, overcame his height to become the
Littlest Conquistador

Incidentally, The Old Patagonian Express contains the Paul Therouxest passage ever printed:

At the time, I did not think Wendy was crazy in any important sense. But afterwards, when I remembered our converastion, she seemed to me profoundly loony. And profoundly incurious. I had casually mentioned to her tat I had been to Upper Burma and Africa. I had described Leopold Bloom's love of 'the faint tang of urine' in the kidneys he had for breakfast. I had shown a knowledge of Buddhism and the eating habits of Bushmen in the Kalahari and Gandhi's early married life. I was a fairly interesting person, was I not? But not once in the entire conversation had she asked me a single question.
which is perhaps rivaled only by the part in his latest Ghost Train to the Eastern Star where he meticulously studies the facial expressions that a young woman makes on a train as he watches her reading The Mosquito Coast as if he expects her recognize him and swoon appropriately; as this wonderfully scathing New York Times review by Jennifer Schuessler puts it:

Visiting regions transformed by war, genocide, imperial implosion and runaway development, Mr. Theroux at times seems to have just two really burning questions on his mind: Do you like George Bush, and have you heard of Paul Theroux?

With the Cubs remaining relatively quiet this winter, the 'Cats will take on a tough Purdue team and try to make some noise in the Big Ten season. And with the season unfolding as improbably as the Walker administration in Nicaragua, Wildcat fans have only one question on their minds, or at least one that has nothing to do with Paul Theroux.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Good Grief

Northwestern treated America to another overtime thriller, cementing its status as the country's most consistently exciting bowl team with its roller-coaster theatrics. Of course, this being a bowl game involving Northwestern, the roller-coaster ride traditionally ends with the bar lifting off as stunned patrons are then pummeled with festive carnival implements such as giant plush gorillas or foam cowboy hats by disgruntled carnies. From now on, Northwestern will be required to have a cardboard Yosemite Sam on the sidelines to make sure that only the most calm and serene fans can watch the games in order to prevent nervous breakdowns, heart palpitations, and acts of violence fueled by Heston Scale-breaking incredulity.

The plucky Kafka led comeback after comeback in an astounding five-interception performance that at times resembled the mythical Shane Falco meltdown from late night basic cable staple The Replacements starring Keanu Reeves, whose fictional Sugar Bowl performance apparently ended up with him living in a houseboat, which in movies is a clear sign of hitting rock bottom since you never see a movie organized around the theme of successful, well-adjusted, clean-shaven people living and prospering in a happy neighborhood of houseboats.

Keanu Reeves in the first two parts of his planned
"Quarterback Trilogy" loosely organized around the themes
of being a former quarterback and Keanu Reeves. On a vaguely
related note, I strongly believe that while people are willing to
accept Keanu Reeves characters named Shane Falco and
Johnny Utah, if Keanu attempted to play a quarterback named
Colt McCoy from Texas back in 1997, Keanu would have entered
the Uncanny Valley of fake quarterback names that are too
ridiculous even for someone willing to pay money for a Keanu
Reeves performance meaning that we are now living in a world
where quarterbacks can legitimately have names that would have
been too over-the-top for Keanu Reeves only ten years ago

The Outback Bowl had everything-- gut-wrenching reversals of fortune, multiple lead changes, crazy offenses, writhing kickers, inexplicable costly penalties, and the fake field goal that everybody knew was coming. If Northwestern was ever going to win a bowl game, it would seem that the most appropriate way would involve some sort of ludicrous comeback. After all, every single NU bowl game this decade has been in the same mold (except for the 2000 Alamo Bowl) including the Debacle in Detroit, the UCLA Onside Fiasco, and the Missouri Why Are You Punting To Maclinstravaganza. And while watching the 'Cats lose in increasingly excruciating ways may put a bit of a damper on a New Year's hangover, it is far better than not making it to bowl games at all.


I was recently thinking about the Age of Exploration and the extent to which explorers' lust for fame, fortune, spices from the orient, and just plain regular lust led them to set off on a death wish of a journey into parts unknown armed only with some swords, crude muskets, and Western disease. And, in the competitive, international, anti-Olympic spirit of conquest and intrigue, where could one go to meet a gloriously horrific end, what country was most likely to kill its explorers, and other such important information germane to an irregularly published college football blog.

The Portuguese were somehow the greatest explorers, expanding remarkably throughout the early modern world in a short-lived burst of relevance. Yet, their explorers did not fare particularly well, with Vasco da Gama dying of malaria in Goa and Magellan losing to the invincible forces of Lapu-Lapu in Cebu. Both explorers are memorialized by logos-- da Gama as part of a Brazilian soccer team entitled Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama and Magellan by the inclusion of a victorious Lapu-Lapu on the official seal of the Philippine National Police.

Lapu-Lapu provides a reminder that exploration and conquest
provides a rare attempt to list getting hacked to pieces by indigenous
groups in a failed attempt to extract armed tribute as a valid
occupational hazard

The Spanish-funded explorers fared better. Both Columbus and Cortes died in Spain-- the fact that Cortes survived despite making war upon the entire Aztec Empire and was able to return to Spain twice and even take a shot at the Ottomans for good measure is fairly remarkable. After his death, his remains were even more mobile, moved at the whims of Dukes who needed space, lackadaisical enforcement of his last wished in his will, and attempts to avoid desecration in the heady aftermath of Mexican independence.

Being an English explorer, however, seemed to invite the most trouble. Henry Hudson found himself on the business end of a mutiny-- although some suspect that the crew dispatched of their captain, they claim that they merely abandoned Hudson, his son, and his loyal lieutenants in a boat in uncharted and foreboding waters with every chance of not dying from hunger, thirst, scurvy, or attack by some sort of comical Bay Monster that seems like something that early modern sailors might believe in. Sir Walter Raleigh, the warrior/poet/explorer/ruffle enthusiast did not even get the pleasure of being hacked to pieces by a warrior in his search for El Dorado or killed by a crazed Roanoke survivor that had latched onto the back of his boat like a sort of Elizabethan Cape Feare (I'm adding the extra e for an authentic Shakespeare touch) but instead got beheaded by the order of James I for a complex web of reasons involving everybody hating Sir Walter Raleigh by the seventeenth century. And Drake had dysentery.

An official explorer death map indicating (from left to right)
1 Hernando de Soto: died of a fever, putting a minor wrinkle in his plan to convince
Native Americans that he was an immortal god
2 Hudson and the Mutiny
3 Cortes and a dysentery related death
4 Raleigh's beheading
5 Da Gama's malaria
6 Magellan's encounter with Lapu-Lapu


Northwestern's basketball team has also struggled in Big Ten play, losing in overtime (why not) to Illinois and struggling against a tough Michigan State Team at home. Hopefully, they can pull together against UT-Pan-American and gain some momentum for the rest of the Big Ten season and avoid mutineers, dysentery, and the N.I.T.