"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: December 2009

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Most of Us Need the Eggs


Eat Well and be Merry.


Happy New Year to you and yours from all of us here at the Banter.

Stay Safe. And don’t forget to laugh.

That’s a Wrap

The sun sets on 2009, a mighty good year.


This picture was taken up in Vermont by loyal Banter reader Lorin Duckman.

So, what’s the plan for tonight? It is snowing in Manhattan and midtown is gearing up for the usual madness tonight. I’ve always been a homebody on New Year’s Eve. Even when I was younger and more inclined, and I was never big on jumping around town like a mo mo. Nah, chilling at home with the Mrs and our kitties, a good meal, some old movies, and I’m straight.

I’m a cheap date, what can I tell you?

Card Corner: Ken Phelps


I was one of the morons who thought the Ken Phelps deal was a good idea.

That’s because I loved Ken Phelps. Having read Bill James’ annual Baseball Abstracts religiously in the late 1980s, I had become a devotee of “Digger” and his game. As a left-handed hitter with power who drew buckets of walks, Phelps looked like a perfect addition to the Yankees, vintage 1988. He could DH against right-handers, allowing the Yankees to alternate days off for aging right-handed hitters like Jack Clark (32) and Dave Winfield (36).

To make the trade even more appetizing, I had my doubts about outfield prospect Jay Buhner, the primary ingredient the Yankees sent to the Mariners for Phelps. “Bone” had several holes in his exaggerated uppercut swing, struck out at an alarming rate, and appeared ill-suited for Death Valley at Yankee Stadium, a frustrating venue for young, right-handed power hitters. So on all fronts, trading Buhner for Phelps made me a happy Yankee fan. But something less than a great evaluator of talent.

Well, the plan didn’t turn out so well. Yankee manager Lou Piniella couldn’t figure out how to get Phelps into the lineup more regularly, limiting him to 45 games and 127 plate appearances over the second half. (Maybe Billy Martin or the late Dick Howser would have been a bit more creative.) Phelps hit pretty well in those games, pounding out ten home runs to the tune of a .551 slugging percentage, better than any Yankee regular. Still, it was too little, too late for a Yankee team that finished third in the American League East.

The following year, Phelps’ performance flatlined; he suddenly became an old 34, struggling to catch up to above-average fastballs. He also struggled with the dimensions of the old Stadium. With his power gravitating toward left-center and right-center field, Phelps didn’t have the kind of pull swing to take advantage of the Stadium’s short porch. By the end of August, the Yankees traded Phelps to the A’s for a minor league prospect named Scott Holcomb, who would never play a single game in pinstripes (or any other team for that matter).

In the meantime, Buhner developed into a near-star in Seattle, becoming a productive power hitter with a cannon arm that played well in the old Kingdome. He would remain an effective right fielder through the 2000 season, before injuries finally caught up with him in 2001, forcing his retirement. If the Yankees had kept Buhner, they never would have felt the urge to trade for a past-his-prime Jesse Barfield, who came at the high cost of a young left-hander named Al Leiter

I feel bad that Yankee fans never really saw the real Ken Phelps. As a Mariner from 1984 to 1988, Phelps slugged at least .521 or better each year, with the exception of an injury-riddled 1985 season. He didn’t strike out as often as most power hitters, and for one three-year stretch, drew more walks than K’s—the sure sign of a smart hitter. As an added bonus, he was an old-schooler who wore the uniform the right way, with his socks up high, the way that ballplayers used to do in the fifties and sixties. Throw in the Popeye forearms and the lampblack under the eyes, and you had the look of an old-time ballplayer.

Although Phelps did little of prolonged consequence with the Yankees, he is far from forgotten. Every once in awhile, I’ll receive a little reminder while watching a rerun of Seinfeld, the character of Frank Costanza will yell at George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David), questioning how he could have made the Phelps-for-Buhner exchange. Frantically and in rapid-fire delivery, the Boss will respond, “Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it. But my baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps!”

I guess I was thinking along the same lines as those “baseball people.”

Grown Up Child’s Play

young ones 

The Yanks have gotten younger. No Maas is on pernt with the details.

Big Willie

sugar ray

Here is an NPR interview with Wil Haygood, author of the new Sugar Ray Robinson biography, Sweet Thunder.

And here is Pete Hamill’s review of the book, which appeared in the New York Times Book Review a few weeks back.

Yeah, I Gotta Rash, Man

Yes, it has come to this: the Eggheads take on the Dude and The Big Lebowski.

Speaking of Bridges, check out this L.A. Times piece about the music for his new movie, Crazy Heart.

And dig this: the Film Society at Lincoln Center is hosting an evening with Jeff Bridges on Saturday, January 9th. An interview with the actor will be followed by a screening of The Last Picture Show.



Scrappy Doo

Can the Yankees win with Brett Gardner as their starting left fielder? Why certainly.

Dave Cameron weighs in:

we should not be so surprised that New York is bargain shopping in left field, avoiding the likes of Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. They are at the other end of the win curve, and it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of money there either. The marginal value of the 101st, 102nd, and 103rd win in terms of playoff odds is really quite small. And that’s approximately the upgrade that Holliday would represent over the current production that Gardner offers in left field.

The Yankees have entered the prime area of significant diminishing marginal utility. They are so good that adding another high quality player doesn’t help them that much in 2010, and because of the long term contract that is required, they’d be risking future flexibility to add wins that may actually matter for an upgrade that just isn’t necessary.

It’s a rational decision made by smart people who understand just how good their roster currently is. In the past, New York has pursued every big ticket free agent on the market because they represented a real, tangible improvement in their quest to bring home another championship. Given how well Brian Cashman has put together this roster, though, a big ticket left fielder is superfluous. He’s right to keep his money locked up. They just don’t need another good player.

The Passing of a Master

David Levine, the brilliant caricaturist, and one of my heroes, died yesterday. He was 83 and will be missed.






In case you missed it, here is a fine, if upsetting Vanity Fair profile of Levine by David Margolick.

Beat of the Day

When I was in sixth grade my mother went to visit her family in Belgium for a week which brought my father north from Manhattan to stay with us in our small two-bedroom apartment in Westchester. Though he was recently sober, any prolonged period of time with my father was uncomfortable. I remember him sending me to the deli with a note–written in his careful script–giving me permission to buy him a pack of smokes. 

Fortunately, the week was brightened considerably by the presence of one of his old film business pals, Mike Fox, a British camera operator. We knew about Fox because he shot the flying sequences in the first two Superman movies; he was also on the National Geographic documentary about Africa with my old man in 1966, the trip where my parents met.

Superman - Pinewood '77

Fox was short and round (that’s him shielding his eyes next to the camera). He wore thick glasses that made his eyes look huge. He told us jokes, did an array of accents–Indian to Uh-merican–bought us junk food, and sang songs. The one chorus he sang over and again was “Ape call, a-doubliaba, Ape Call, doubliaba.” 

We thought it was hysterical. He remembered the song from the Fifties but couldn’t recall who’d sung it. I wasn’t sure it actually existed, but that didn’t matter. It was still funny. When I think back on that visit from Fox, I always hear Ape Call. For years, it stuck in the back of my head as something to seek out.

Cut to 1997 when I met Alan, a huge record head, who lived in Midwood, Brooklyn. One day, he invited me to his house to show me his collection and to make a mix tape–that’s right, a tape, as in cassette (it was the only one we’d ever make, by the second session we were burning cds). I figured I wouldn’t waste any time so I mentioned the longshot, some song about an Ape call. Without batting an eye, he goes, “Sure, that was a novelty record by Nervous Norvus, who had a hit record with a song called Transfusion.” 

He had Transfusion on 45 but not Ape Call. But it turns out he had Ape Call on a twenty-five year-old cassette recording of the Dr. Demento show. Dude found it in about three minutes…and a friendship was born.

Fox wasn’t making it up after all, though I liked the way he sung it better.

Bay Bolts Boston

As expected… 

jason bay

Looks like it’s Jason Bay to the Mets. Big Mike Francesa gets the scoop. Gritty, Gutty day for the king of New York sports talk radio.

I like Bay, he’s vanilla as Richie Cunningham but appealing enough. Nice player, too. Not exactly Olerud-level great, but who knows? I haven’t seen him play that much. This could work out great or it could be a disaster–Bay is a lousy fielder now playing in a huge ballpark that depresses home runs. You never know with the Mets. George Foster/Keith Hernandez? Which one of these? Either way, the Mets are  better for having him–I hope it works out.

The Power and the Glory

There’s an old saying: All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The more I’ve learned, the less I believe it. Power doesn’t always corrupt. What power always does is reveal. When a guy gets into a position where he doesn’t have to worry anymore, then you see what he wanted to do all along.

Robert Caro, Esquire

I grew up in a family where you were expected to know certain things–about literature, movies, politics. Being literate was required. I wasn’t a big reader as a kid, but by the time I reached high school, I tried to catch-up, all over the place, reading SJ Perelman, John O’Hara, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, and Samuel Beckett along with healthy doses of Salinger and Vonnegut. Still, I felt like a know-nothing nobody because I hadn’t read Dickens or Moby Dick or The Bible. So I faked it. I read criticism. When somebody asked me about a movie that I hadn’t seen or a book I hadn’t read, I lied.

I’m past that mishegoss now. I don’t feel the slighest bit ashamed by what I haven’t read or seen. If there is an exception, though, it is Robert Caro’s seminal biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. I feel that it is my civic duty as a New Yorker to read this massive book, cover-to-cover. I’ve picked it up at least a half-dozen times and found the prospect of reading more than 1,000 pages too daunting to handle. It’s not that the language is difficult–Caro’s prose is engaging and easy to read–but the amount of information is overwhelming.

Perhaps, for those of us who don’t have the staying power to read it all the way through, it is a book best read in spurts. Regardless, I will read it all one day. In the meantime, I don’t curse myself, and I think Caro is a fascinating guy, and a classic New Yorker, one of the handful of writers I’d most like to meet.

Dig this piece he wrote for the New Yorker in 1998 about writing The Power Broker.

And this TV interview:

Selective Shopping


Mark DeRosa, that plucky, “gritty-gutty” delight with pop in his bat, has reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with the San Francisco Giants.  The Yankees are still looking for a left fielder, or a part-time left fielder. According to Anthony McCarron in the Daily News:

“There’s plenty of time,” the official said. “There’s no hurry. And there are a ton of outfielders out there. We are just tweaking at this point. We’ll sign an outfielder between now and spring training.”

Two team officials said the Yankees have no interest in Jermaine Dye, whom they have been linked to in reports. Last week, Cashman said that even Xavier Nady, who is coming off elbow surgery, likely would be too expensive for them.

Yesterday, Joseph Pawlikowski, of the indefatigable River Ave Blues crew, took a look at Jermaine Dye:

In 2009 Dye posted his worst offensive season since an injury riddled 2003. His power faded, as his .203 ISO was his lowest since 2004, and a .044 drop-off from 2008. His BABIP fell to .269, his lowest in a decade, apparently driven by an alarmingly low line drive percentage, 16.9, again his lowest since 2003. Defense has never been a strength, and over the past four seasons he’s posted a lower than -21 UZR/150.

There are some indicators, however, that Dye could bounce back from his poor season. While he hit fewer line drives, they turned almost exclusively into ground balls. His 43.6 fly ball percentage nearly matched his 2008 mark. Also nearly equal was his HR/FB ratio, at 15.6 percent, just a tick down from his 16 percent mark in 2008. Most of his power loss came in the gaps, as he hit just 19 doubles in 2009. Despite the down year he still hit 27 home runs. He also greatly increased his walk percentage, to 11.3 percent. Because of that he posted a .340 OBP, impressive considering his .250 batting average.

Considering the risks attached to Dye, combined with his poor defense, I wonder if the Yankees would also consider Eric Hinske. A much cheaper option, Hinske could probably post numbers similar to Dye in 2010, on offense and defense. UZR likes Hinske a lot more than Dye rating him positive at all but one position, third base, throughout his career. That doesn’t quite pass the eye test — Hinske seemed a butcher in the outfield last season, but I think it’s a safe bet he’s better than Dye.

The Yankees have played possum before, claiming to be finished only to swoop down at the last moment to nab a big ticket free agent. I don’t see that happening this winter, though, not with left field. They are already loaded and the free agent class of 2010 is ripe with talented options. I see them going with a guy like Reed Johnson or even Eric Hinske. If there weren’t willing to go two years, $12 million for Mark DeRosa, then Damon, Bay and Holliday are jut not in the picture.


Beat of the Day

And while we’re at it, here’s a link to Gay Talese’s famous 1966 profile of Joe D, The Silent Season of a Hero.

News Update – 12/28/09

Today’s update is powered by one of my favorite Lennon solo tunes:

  • MLB.com offers a month-by-month recap of the Yanks’ 2009 season.
  • Tyler Kepner has a brief review of the decade in baseball.
  • Similarly, Ben Shpigel reviews Alex Rodriguez’s decade.
  • Maury Brown analyzes the gap between the Yankees and the lowest-payroll teams over the past decade.
  • Jesus Montero is the #5 prospect for 2010, as per Baseball America.

Poll time!

[poll id=”45″]

I’m off till next Monday.  Have a safe and happy New Year!

Isn’t it Romantic?

Former professional baseball player Doug (Droppin’ Science Like Galileo Dropped an Orange) Glanville has been contributing columns to the Times for some time now. Today, he tackles infidelity in the world of professional sports (thanks to Think Factory for the link):

In an athlete’s environment, money can be its own pollutant; you can become desensitized to the significance of what it can buy. Typically, if a person spends hundreds of dollars on arrangements to pass time with someone, that someone would be important in his life. But when you have extensive financial resources, it’s easy to send similar signals to people who are meaningful only for a moment. Even worse, you might only concern yourself with what it means to you. As the money flows in, so do the toys — cars, clothes, bling — and once in the stratosphere, a la Tiger, it is amazing how easy it is, if you are not careful and grounded, to start seeing women as another accessory in your life.

The pro athlete’s world is self-centered at best. Schedule is fixed, practice a must, travel a given. Anyone choosing to share that has to get on board and fit in. It can get to a point where the relationship is strictly one-way (the athlete’s way), and the other party becomes insignificant, more a prop than a true relationship partner.

If the player dares to take the next step — marriage — there will likely be a legal team at his disposal (via his agent) that can set up a prenuptial agreement. This negotiation is often dragged out for months as a way of seeing whether the future spouse shows an ugly side during the process. But it’s a red flag for your relationship if you have to resort to such tactics to force the worst in someone, and the prenup becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, set up not just to distribute assets but to deal with an inevitable break-up or philandering. In fact, it might as well be seen as a pre-meditated agreement (I may do all of this dirt, so when I do and you want to leave, I still win because instead of half you only get a check for X dollars and one house).

Nice job by Glanville.

Beat of the Day


In honor of The Third Man–one of my favorite movies of all time–which is playing at the Film Forum through Tuesday. Here’s the theme re-imagined by that stereophonic maestro, Juan Garcia Esquivel:

Aw, hell, let’s cut to the chase. Here’s the star cameo for the ages (If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this…trust me, it’ll be worth it):

Nobody’s Fault But Mine


There is a new biography out on Herge, the creator of Tintin, Belgium’s most famous cultural creation. Herge’s legacy has come under attack in recent years because of the anti-semetic and racist elements of his early work. And while those criticisms are legitimate and a part of his story that cannot be easily dismissed, they aren’t the entire story.

In an otherwise skeptical and often snotty essay in the New York Times Book Review, Bruce Handy nails Herge’s lasting gift:

I think Hergé’s greatest achievements are formal: his precise yet witty line, like mechanical drawing with the giggles; and especially his gifts for timing, pacing and action, clearly movie-inspired. His best work from the 1950s and early ’60s (when he took on collaborators of an artistic kind) has a wit and sophistication that equals or surpasses anything I’m aware of in the comics of venerated American contemporaries like Harvey Kurtzman (the original Mad) and Will Eisner (“The Spirit”). In some cases, Tintin’s scrapes have more cinematic imagination than most of the era’s actual movies, with bits of funny business that hark back to the great silent comedies and chase scenes that in their “editing” foreshadow Steven Spielberg’s atomized yet fluid style.

Charles McGrath, also writing in the Times, notes, “Hergé here is frequently reminiscent of the Charles Schulz depicted in David Michaelis’s recent biography: an artist far happier and more interesting in his work than he ever was in life.”

Which brings to mind the old dilemma when it comes to artists, writers and athletes–is it better to concentrate on the work or the creator? This question is also raised by the novelist Rick Moody, in his review of a new Led Zeppelin biography:

What you may not get enough of is the astonishment of the music. Because, no matter how horrible they were as people — and, frankly, they do seem as if they were rather unlikable people who wasted immense talent in a spendthrift fashion — the music is still remarkable, even when borrowed.

…Robert Plant muses aloud at one point, despairing of the true story ever getting out: “We thought it was time that people heard something about us other than that we were eating women and throwing the bones out the window.” Indeed! Wall is conflicted enough about the facts that he allows this mythologizing title to be appended to his work: “When Giants Walked the Earth.” But these were no giants, these were just young people, like you, who for a time happened to have more power and influence than was good for them. In the midst of it all, they made extraordinary music.

Egg Nog n Egg Rolls

A Christmas card from my uncle Herve in Belgium…


Yes, indeed. Happy anything and everything. And for those who aren’t celebrating Saint Nick, pass the Moo Shu, bubbie.


There’s a Whole Lot of Things You and I Could Do


I love the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow, especially at night. You can feel the quiet around you, a heightened intimacy. Reminds me of this Al Green song. A music nyerd friend of mine once told me that producer Willie Mitchell achieved the vibe on the record by turning up the volume on all the microphones in the studio. Then Green sang softly and the band played softly, to great effect. They are all up in your ear hole…crunchy.

Dig it:

Not Even a Mouse


Christmas in the City


May Your Days Be Bright

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver