Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Red Sox 7, Tigers 4

If Yankee Stadium is a testament to grandeur and excess and bluster -- to New York, really -- then Fenway Park, like Boston, revels in its quirkiness and its intimacy.

Last Tuesday, three days after my baseball venture to the Bronx, I joined the Red Sox Nation in waiting out a 90-minute rain delay. Honestly, it wasn't that bad. Once one is used to the concrete sterility of Veterans Stadium, almost any other venue seems unquestionably superior. When it's Fenway Park, well, watching the ground crew fold up tarp qualifies as high entertainment. Drinking beer helped, as it does with many activities.

The grandstand seats are made of wood, not molded plastic. There is lush, verdant grass on the field, and as we sat in our seats, just past first base down the right field line, we could look straight across the field and be confronted by the Green Monster, defying any hitter to even try powering a ball over its top. And, my God, the coziness of the place. After viewing the diamond at Yankee Stadium from just under the ozone layer, Fenway Park's closeness was startling and welcome. As at Yankee, the areas underneath the stands are uncomfortably cramped -- the designers of the new retro parks have wisely corrected this deficiency -- but once you get out into the seats, the stadiums' primary difference manifests itself.

The Boston nine (10 with a designated hitter, I suppose) seemed close enough to touch. Trot Nixon's socks, I could see clearly, were pulled way up high; I could practically read the logo on the batting gloves Nomar Garciaparra so obsessively fussed with. A glance around the ballpark turned up individual faces in faraway sections, and voices rang out in sharp relief, unlike the white noise of the Yankee Stadium crowd. Though it twice needed correcting a half-inning later, the hand-worked scoreboard along the base of the Monster was as charming as ever. It was Major League Baseball with a minor league feel -- and I mean that as a compliment.

Sox fans, like Yankee rooters, are completely head-over-heels in love with their team. Nomar, Manny, Pedro -- this is a first name-only kind of relationship. Red jerseys and ball caps adorned the heads of countless spectators. But while New York fans, despite George Steinbrenner's defensive "The Red Sox haven't won anything yet," puff out their chest and dare you to knock the chip off their shoulder, Boston's affair with the Sox is a more cautious engagement. Yes, of course, there's wild cheering, and the Globe and the Herald cover the hell out of the team, but Bostonians hold a little something back. Perfectly understandable, of course; how many times do you have to get your heart broken before encasing it in Kevlar?

Still, so many of them are like little puppy dogs, begging for your affection and pleased as punch when they get it. As I sipped my beverage and chomped a foot-long and waited for the game to get underway, a 17-year-old kid from Plymouth, who was sitting next to me, struck up a conversation. He asked if I'd ever been to other major league parks. If I weren't 34, straight, and married, I'd have considered it the perfect pickup line. We chatted for a half-hour straight, comparing notes on the Sox and Phillies and swapping stories on Fenway. For his money, the seats are stifling and uncomfortable; fair enough, I said, but compared to the Vet, he was watching the angels play ball in heaven on earth. He saw my point.

It was a delightful talk, the kind you have only at a baseball game, and my young friend Jamie was the perfect antidote to strange, sick Phil, the glaring maniac from Yankee Stadium's upper deck.

Game stuff: The Tigers are a dreadful team, populated by third-rate players who just don't have the stuff to win in the bigs. Derek Lowe had his way with them in the early going, throwing strikes at a 75 percent-plus clip and cruising on back-to-back homers by Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek.

(An aside here: Millar is on my fantasy league team, and there is nothing -- nothing -- like seeing your guy park one while you're in the yard. Especially when you're in seventh place and need every little bit of happiness you can wring out of the season.)

But when he ran into trouble in the fifth and sixth, giving up three runs on a pair of dingers, Lowe actually got booed. Philadelphia fans do a lot to deserve their crappy reputation, but I couldn't believe my ears. I mean, Lowe was pitching a hell of a game. This wasn't uneasy stirring. This was booing. Don't let anyone tell you the City of Brotherly Love has cornered the market on lousy fan behavior.

The Red Sox went on to score a few more, and Lowe's final line -- eight innings, six hits, three runs, four whiffs, no walks -- was good. By the time it was over, we were in the car, headed southwest from Boston and cheered that the Sox had gained a half game on the hated Yankees, who had been rained out earlier in the evening.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Yankees 7, Indians 4

It was Oldtimers' Day a couple of Saturdays back, which meant that even the top of the upper deck at Yankee Stadium was packed with fans. We sat in the stadium's third-to-last row, down in the left-field corner, and space was at a premium.

For better or worse, the Stadium is entirely reflective of the city itself. It is loud, damned proud of itself, and, for all its history and tradition, a little rough around the edges. For every glimpse of Monument Park, you recall the half-hour it took to navigate through impossibly crowded and too narrow concourses and find your way to your seat. The more genteel lower deck is filled with moneyed fans from the Connecticut and New Jersey suburbs, while the upper deck is the domain of the true New Yorkers -- clad in Yankee caps and Jeter jerseys, passionate, fiercely loyal, and hanging on every pitch.

Indeed, in nearly 30 years of going to major league games, in about a dozen ballparks across the country, I've never, ever encountered a crowd that appreciates the subtleties and importance of each pitch as does that at Yankee Stadium. From the first pitch to the final out, more than 50,000 people are locked in on the action in front of them. The various distractions -- the annoying between-innings music; the asinine, Harry Belafonte "Day-Oh!" that echoes through the stands from the public address system; the weird guy named Phil who stands about every other inning and somehow, in the third-to-last row of the upper deck, where adequate leg room is more dream than reality and the slope is Everest-like in steepness, manages to execute a 360-degree turn while slamming his palms together slowly and glaring at everyone with whom he makes eye contact in a silent demand to join in his deliberate applause -- do not matter. They don't care that it's just the top of the third. When David Wells has a guy at no balls and two strikes, with runners at the corners, well, goddamn it, they're going to rise and cheer until Boomer gets the whiff. Runs count equally in the third as they do in the ninth, you know.

To be around true baseball fans in a true baseball town, even if they're pulling for a team I no longer find charming and worth my trouble, is incredible and special. I envy those people. I hope they realize what they have there. When the next Yankees downturn comes -- and it will, at some point, even if only for a season or two -- will they still pack the Stadium? Will those dark blue hats be as visible as they are today? Will the 13-year-olds squeal for whoever that team's heartthrob is?

Anyway, just in case you forget that it's New York, the 4 train, visible through a small space in the right-field facade, rumbles through periodically. And if you really forget, after every win the P.A. system blares Frank Sinatra roaring through "New York, New York" -- not once, not twice, but until the Stadium empties.

As a ballpark, Yankee Stadium is okay -- not great and not awful, but serviceable. What makes the place unique is the team's legacy. You look toward right field and laugh as Raul Mondesi has the temerity to wait under a fly ball on the very grass where Babe Ruth shook off hangovers and awaited his next at-bat. You glance at first base, where Todd Zeile -- Todd effing Zeile! -- swishes his foot across the dirt, the same soil out of which Lou Gehrig picked errant throws. And so on and so on. The history of Yankee Stadium is the history of baseball, and if you're any kind of fan at all, that means a hell of a lot.

The game itself was a fairly predictable affair. The Yanks took an early lead off C.C. Sabathia before a couple of Indian no-names took David Wells yard in back-to-back at-bats while I was waiting in line for a dog and a $6.75 beer. (No, really.) New York then went to work, eventually retaking the lead on a Jason Giambi single that plated three teammates, including Derek Jeter, hustling and scoring from first on the play. Newly acquired Armando Benitez displayed some of his old Met tendencies, marching in and promptly walking the first batter he faced. Joe Torre, perhaps sensing the spectacular failure that Benitez is destined to be in the Bronx, couldn't get out of the dugout fast enough to retrieve the ball from Benitez's hand and wave in Mariano Rivera from the bullpen. Rivera shut the door -- leading to first the traditional "Yankees win! Thuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhh Yankees win!" and then the inevitable Chairman standard (over and over and over) -- and we traipsed out of the Stadium and up the stairs to catch the 4 back to Manhattan.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

The Vacation is Over, Boyo

Sweet Jesus, did I really say I was aiming for "regular postings of interesting, compelling, provocative material" while I was on vacation? Yep, there it is. What on earth was I thinking?

Turns out that instead of immortalizing my thoughts on the World Wide Web, I actually spent my vacation doing, well, not much of anything. And as Peter Gibbons says in Office Space, it was everything I hoped it would be. Ballgames, stints in downtown New York and Boston, quality time with the missus and daughter. Reading, for crying out loud, and not just Goodnight Moon and Are You My Mother? (though there was plenty of that).

I mean, for the first time in ages, I finished two books in a week -- Richard Russo's excellent, insightful novel Empire Falls and Michael Lewis's provocative look at the Oakland A's, Moneyball. More on those titles later.

Anyway, the down side is that Shallow Center stayed very static -- so static that I heard about it from two people, which represents a whopping percentage of this site's total readership. As my wife put it a few minutes ago, I'm in danger of alienating what it is already a small enough (but loyal -- right?) following.

So, please, as always, bear with me while I try to get back in the zone of those heady early days of Shallow Center. I remember it like it was last month. Probably because it was last month. . . .

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Play Ball -- Again

It is past the mid-point of July, and the Phillies are about to start playing meaningful baseball games. As in, after the All-Star break. This is a novel concept for us Philadelphians, though not an unwelcome one.

The problem is that I'm not as jacked about it as I should be. Getting swept at home by the Fish really took the air out of sails. It felt as if all the momentum built during the seven-game winning streak and the ground gained on the Braves were a mirage. The Phils are still leading in the wild-card race, but that just doesn't feel like a worthy goal to aspire to, and Atlanta is too far ahead to even consider a run at first place yet.

Add to that the Phillies' core offensive problems -- Pat Burrell's and David Bell's hopelessness at the plate, inconsistency out of the leadoff hole, and such -- haven't seemed to improve despite the team's recent success, and the sum is an underwhelming feeling of wait and see. Don't get me wrong -- I'm absolutely thrilled that for once it's other teams, not the Phillies, that are unloading their overpriced veterans on contending squads. I have a few games to go yet on the partial season ticket plan my brother and I share, and I'm terribly excited to watch games that will mean something.

Maybe I just need to shake off the lethargy of the All-Star break. Perhaps it's because so many different teams are available for viewing now, but the All-Star game isn't the thrill it used to be. I can see all of those players at various points during the season just by tuning in to ESPN, the Deuce, and TBS. The World Series home-field gimmick didn't do it for me, either. My hope is that once real game start -- tonight! -- I'll get it back.

The next week should help, too. My vacation includes games at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, and if those places can't foster second-half excitement, I don't know what can. Look for reports on those games here next week.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Geez, Will Ya Look at the Time?

Close readers of this space -- both of you -- will notice that the postings have been more spaced out of late. There's a perfectly good reason for this. I just haven't the time to write.

No, really. My day job has, alas, been busy enough to keep me from my usual lunchtime musings, and my evenings have been filled as well. Once 10 o'clock rolls around, my eyelids grow weights. (All together now: WUSS!)

So, please, just bear with me. I'm on vacation next week at a place with DSL, so I should have the chance to get back into the groove. My hope is that this will kick-start a new era of Shallow Center -- one with regular postings of interesting, compelling, provocative material. Although I'll settle for regular postings of lame, pathetic unoriginal material. (Hope you will, too. . . .)

Sunday, July 13, 2003

***EXCLUSIVE*** Shallow Center Review: The Italian Job

Heist films have enjoyed a nice little resurgence. Or maybe they never really went away. Regardless, the last five years have seen some pretty decent movies about thieves -- from very good remakes of The Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean's 11 to solid pictures such as Heat and The Score to the so-so Heist.

The latest example The Italian Job, itself a remake. which Like so many of its genre, the film is bookended by elaborate robberies. In the first -- the crime from which the movie takes its name -- Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland, Edward Norton, and assorted cronies boost a safe containing $35 million in gold bricks from an apartment in Venice. Norton double-crosses his partners in crime and hightails it to Hollywood, where his former buddies, joined now by Charlize Theron, pursue him in a plot to steal back the gold. Along the way there's a subplot involving sleazy Ukrainians that's not worth getting into.

The Italian Job wants so bad to be a nifty heist flick it's not funny. All the ingredients are here -- gadgets, a multiethnic crew, intricate capers -- but it still doesn't quite feel right. It's as if the filmmakers don't know how to play things. Thomas Crown and Ocean's 11 were breezy affairs, slick (but in a good way) and oozing style; Heat and The Score were more tense, traditionally dramatic works. All four were effective. The Italian Job tries to lift a little from both approaches, and the result is lack of direction that robs the movie of some of its punch.

Don't get me wrong -- the picture is a load of fun. The thefts are cool, though nothing to write home about, and there are several excellent uses of zipping MINI Coopers. In fact, those cars steal the movie. Wahlberg offers an easygoing charm, but fails again in his quest to carry a film. Norton is professional as always but underused here. And Theron, as stunning an actress as any working today, gives it a game try but can't pull off the grieving, vengeance-minded daughter. The rest of the cast is along for, essentially, a combination of comic relief and technobabble.

When summer blockbusters are trying like hell either to Say Something (The Matrix Reloaded, The Hulk) or outdo each other in the "Who thought anyone would watch this movie?" sweepstakes (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, anyone?), it's refreshing to see an unpretentious action film like The Italian Job do well. Still, with a little more focus, this could have been much more. Grade: B-

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

What is that Dowd Noise?

Since she won her Pulitzer, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has become a wildly hit-or-miss read. Once you get past the jarring notion of the Times's op-ed page being littered with pop-culture references, Dowd's breezy, short-paragraph style makes for a quick skim. When she's on, she's getting inside the heads of the country's political newsmakers, from Hillary Clinton to President Bush, from Al Gore to Donald Rumsfeld, in a delightfully snarky, incisive way. But when she's off, the result is a hodgepodge of disparate sociological trends pulled together with a smug, though not very tight, bow.

Take, for instance, today's piece following up on Nicholas Wade's recent story on the evolutionary decrease in the number of genes contained in the Y chromosome. Dowd sees the news as the latest bomb dropped on a gender that has "been fretting for some years now that they may be rendered unnecessary if women get financial and biological independence, learning how to reproduce and refinance without them." Uh, okay, Maureen. Whatever you say. Then she ping-pongs to recent discoveries that female promiscuity has evolutionary advantages previously unthought-of. And to a book by a British geneticist that concludes that men are now "the second sex." And then to the shattering conclusion, channeling a recent Times "trend" story about six guys in Manhattan who use face lotions instead of soap: "Perhaps that's why men are adapting, becoming more passive and turning into 'metrosexuals,' the new term for straight men who are feminized, with a taste for facials, grooming products and home design. Better to be an X chromosome than an ex-chromosome."

Dowd is clearly a clever writer who can turn a phrase. Her Pulitzer, earned on the backs of those easy targets, the Clintons, was well deserved. And she's still capable of delivering devastating pieces. But that does that give her a free pass to publish 700 words of psychobabble on the country's most valuable commentary real estate, as she's been doing all too frequently lately? Does she get to work without an editor because she won journalism's highest prize?

(DISCLAIMER: This item was written without an editor. So maybe I'm a big, fat hypocrite. Or maybe I don't get paid the same amount as a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and shouldn't be held to the same standards.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Wild, Wild East

Having graciously returned to the Braves four of the six games they had made up in the National League East race, the Phillies have all but played themselves out of any chance to win the division. The Inky's Jim Salisbury agrees and points out that the Phils "are still contenders for that safety net of modern baseball, the wild card."

That may sound as if I'm giving up on the season, but let's be realistic here. This is Atlanta we're talking about -- the word choke hasn't been mentioned on Peachtree Street in a couple of decades now. And the Phillies, though they're pummeling the Expos as I write this, don't look capable of putting together the kind of sustained, consistent run in the second half that would propel them back into contention. So we appear resigned to a couple of months of scoreboard watching not in our own division but elsewhere, and hoping that the Angels' unlikely World Series title last season was not the exception to the rule when it comes to wild card teams and playoff success.

A more interesting angle to Salisbury's column is what to do about Pat Burrell. The destroyer of my fantasy-league team hasn't simply regressed from last year -- despite the presence of much better hitters surrounding him in the lineup, Burrell looks like a Little Leaguer in the batter's box. I mean, he has absolutely no clue what he's doing there -- none. That's not said in the Philadelphia "He sucks!" style; it's more of a sad expression of fact. Burrell doesn't even need to be a superstar. If he were hitting .250 instead of .194, the Phillies would have at least a few more wins, and the entire complexity of the lineup would be different. As it stands now, teams can pitch around Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal because Burrell does nothing to make them pay for it.

Salisbury says the Phils have to explore sending Burrell to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but in the next breath worries about destroying his confidence if he can't right the ship while with the Red Barons. It would take some cojones to send a $50 million man down to the minors, but the fact is that Pat Burrell is useless to the Phillies right now. I'd get more hits swinging a wiffle bat.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Can We Push the Panic Button Now?

Ballplayers can afford to see the 162-game season as the lengthy marathon that it is. We fans don't have that luxury. Supporting the team with our dollars -- either directly, through ticket and concession purchases, or indirectly, through the patronization of the team's sponsors -- gives us, in a certain bizarrely capitalistic way, a more vested interest in its outcome than that possessed by those who actually play the game.

And so it is that I shake my head sadly at this weekend's Marlins' sweep of the Phillies and Atlanta's of the Expos. The two series' results mean that the Phils have now given back fully half of the six games they made up on the Braves over the last couple of weeks. The Fightin's now limp into Montreal having squandered all of the momentum garnered during their impressive surge into divisional contention. They now seem in desperate need of more than a few wins before heading into next week's All-Star break.

Strangely, the sagging performance has come in spite of my not seeing a whole of action lately. An inning here and there, but mostly I've followed the Phils in the papers and on the radio since seeing them at the Vet last week. And what I've read indicates that the troubles from the season's first half -- an inability to get the big hit and a frustrating failure to grasp the fundamentals -- have returned with a vengeance.

So forgive me if my prior enthusiasm -- which I never really wrote about in depth, due to time constraints -- has dissipated. Now I'm worried again. The Braves, who were finally supposed to crash to earth in the wake of their cost-cutting off-season, instead have placed nearly their entire lineup on the starting All-Star roster. The Phillies, meanwhile, boast only two truly deserving players, and they're not from among the collection of studs whom Ed Wade spent his winter landing. Not Jim Thome or David Bell or Kevin Millwood. No, we're kicking it old school -- Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf. Which may say it all when it comes to discussing why it's early July and the Phils are 7.5 games out.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Phillies 4, Cubs 3

Remember all that stuff I wrote about no excitement at the Vet? The sleepwalking Phillies, and all that? Uh, never mind. The Phils pulled out another one in the ninth last night, and are now just 4.5 games out after Florida took the Braves back to the woodshed and administered a brutal, 19-run whipping. Lots and lots of excitement at Veterans Stadium, friends. More later, when I have some more time to write. . . .