Slow day of blogging here at the Banter. But we’ve got a beautiful reprint coming your way–Playboy‘s 1975 Interview with Mel Brooks. That’ll keep you entertained. In the meantime, here’s an open thread to talk baseball, movies, holiday shopping, and other matters of the heart.
He’s a rich man’s [Jack] Morris. When people argue for Morris, they cite his ability to take the ball every fifth day without fail, pitch deep into games, and give his team a chance to win. Mussina did that, too, but he did it better, allowing fewer runs in a significantly tougher era for pitchers. From 1995 through 2003, Mussina averaged 222 innings pitched per year, topping the 200 mark in every one of those seasons (including in ’95, a strike-shortened year). During that time — the peak of the PED era — Mussina struck out about four times as many batters as he walked, and posted a 3.64 ERA that was 28 percent better than league average. Granted, Mussina was just the sixth-best pitcher in the game during that span, but there’s not much you can do when you’re pitching alongside five future Hall of Famers, three of them arguably among the five best pitchers of all time and the fourth with arguably the best two-season peak of any pitcher ever. Mussina was no stiff the rest of the time, either, ending his career with an ERA 23 percent better than league average, putting him on par with Marichal and ahead of Hall of Famers Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, and the next guy on this list.
Two hundred and seventy is not 300, but even so, Mussina ranks 33rd all-time in wins, with a total higher than Hall of Famers Jim Palmer (268), Bob Feller (266), Bob Gibson (251) and 29 other enshrined starting pitchers. Moving beyond that — seriously, I’m done with the wins talk now — his 2,813 strikeouts rank 19th all-time and his 7.1 strikeouts per nine ninth among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings. That’s in part a product of pitching in an era where strikeout rates were almost continually on the rise, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Even more impressive is that his 3.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio is second only to Curt Schilling among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings since 1893, when the distance from the rubber to home plate was lengthened to 60-foot-6.
As for the postseason, Mussina may not have won a ring, but his 3.42 ERA in 139 2/3 innings is no small feat given the high-scoring era; it’s 0.26 lower than his regular season ERA, which itself was 23 percent better than the park-adjusted league average. Aided by the three tiers of playoffs during the bulk of his career, his 145 postseason strikeouts rank fourth all-time, while his 9.3 strikeouts per nine is second among the 22 pitchers with at least 100 postseason innings (Johnson is first at 9.8). Sadly, Mussina’s teams only won nine of his 23 postseason starts, because they supported him with just 3.1 runs per game; only four times did they even give him more than four runs. He had a few dud starts (three of less than five innings) among them, but it’s tough to pin his failure to win a ring on him.
As for the advanced metrics, Mussina stands tall thanks to his combination of run prevention and strikeouts (for which he doesn’t have to share value with his fielders). His 83.0 career WAR ranks 23rd all-time, ahead of 39 of the 57 enshrined starting pitchers; it’s 14th among post-World War II pitchers. That total is 1.6 above fellow candidate Glavine, who has an almost identical career/peak/JAWS line, and 10.4 wins above the average for enshrined starters. Mussina’s peak WAR of 44.5 doesn’t stack up as well; while it’s still 65th all-time, it tops only 20 enshrined starters and is 5.7 wins below the average one. Even so, his 63.8 JAWS is 2.4 points above the Hall average, good for 28th all-time, one spot below Schilling (64.4) and two above Glavine (62.9). He’s 132 spots higher than Jack Morris (38.4). His score beats those of 36 enshrined starters. He’s good enough for Cooperstown.
Mussina’s JAWS score beats those of 36 enshrined starters, and it will still be above the standard once Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Martinez and Tom Glavine all get their due (the admission of those five would raise the respective bars to 75.1/50.7/62.9). He’s good enough for Cooperstown.
Still, the Moose won’t be loose in upstate New York anytime soon. On the contrary, Mussina probably has a long road before he gets a bronze plaque. In such heavy traffic, it’s probably asking too much even to hope that he approximates Schilling’s 38.8 percent debut last year. But like the aforementioned Bert Blyleven, a high-strikeout pitcher from an earlier era whose dominance over hitters and excellence in run prevention was initially overshadowed by his lack of Cy Young hardware, the numbers and the facts are on Mussina’s side. It’s just going to take some time for them to carry the day.
Playboy: From 1962 until about 1970, you were a straight comic with a constantly ascending career. You continued working the Playboy Clubs, became a successful opening act in Las Vegas, then broke into TV. By your early 30s, you found yourself becoming rich and famous as a mainstream performer. But, as they say, were you happy?
Carlin: I was happy about my success, but I was also frustrated, because I was sublimating the long-standing angers that I still hadn’t begun to deal with. I mean, the night clubs were full of businessmen, and I hated them madly. But I had to repress my hatred, and that took its toll. I had a number of angry confrontations, including one at a Las Vegas hotel and another at a Playboy Club, and found myself back at the coffeehouses, where I’d started. And the colleges. Before Vegas, I’d been a folk comic on Bleecker Street in New York and Wells Street in Chicago. So when I made my break in 1970, I said, “I gotta go back to those people. They’ll understand me. They’ll let me sing my song.” And those audiences did make me feel comfortable. I fed on them. I got out all the anger I’d repressed in my teens and 20s. Looking back on it, I suspect that whole period from 1970 to 1976—the albums, the college tours, the cocaine—was all just a way of completing my adolescence. When I was really an adolescent, I was engaged and in the Air Force and making adult decisions. I never really got to finish the angry, screaming, rebellious part of my youth. Then, when I was in my 30s, the country seemed to go through its own adolescence. Anger and rebellion and drug experimentation and outrageous music and clothing—all the typical manifestations of adolescent behavior were suddenly present in American society, and I just fell right into it. The country’s mood allowed me to finish that chapter of my own life.
The end of the world as I know it. And I don’t feel fine. How could I? What if you had two overriding passions that eclipsed everything else in your life, including your family (as they’d surely attest), and each passion (or, to be frank, religion) represented the two totally opposite sides of your bipolar psyche, and somehow balanced it into sanity…and, surreally, they then decided to collaborate?
How could this be a good thing? Look at it this way: If your beloved old family physician let drop that he was dating Lady Gaga would it make you feel warm and fuzzy? So: When your favorite Pentagonian/George Patton-inspired sporting corporation, whose 32 franchises are largely symbolized by drunks who take off their shirts in blizzards and then beat people up in the parking lot because they’re wearing apostatic jerseys, enlists, in a marketing moment, your favorite anarchic jam and, which is largely symbolized by a few million stoners who believe in nothing except the axiom “Rules Are Irrelevant”…what else could this mean other than that the universe has collapsed into itself? That The End f Days was upon us?
The specifics: On New Year’s Eve morning, and the following afternoon, ESPN2 will air an NFL Films segment about how Seattle Seahawk fans have adopted a Phish song. Which said event tears a hole in the universe.
Background to this unholy miscegenation: In the Eighties, Phish’s insanely creative and eminently likeable guitarist Trey Anastasio, before formally forming the band, wrote a musical thesis as a senior at Goddard College — a legendarily leftie institution in rural Vermont — called “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” His work featured a song called Wilson, which has not only endured, for we Phishfanatics, but has taken a rightful place in the band’s pantheon of Pure Phish Songs.
(Full disclosure: A few years ago, when I had to drive to Buffalo to interview a quarterback on assignment — seven hours by way of the New York State Thruway — I structured the trip around the day when I knew that the Jam On channel on Sirius satellite radio would be playing the top 50 Phish songs, from 50 to one. I wanted to hear them all. In order. Wilson cracked the top 10. No, it’s not their best, by any means. It’s no Fluffhead, or Possum, or Chalk Dust Torture, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a pretty cool song.
Well, okay, it’s not a “song,” exactly. Lots of the time, Phish plays “songs” in the manner of a team which might play a game of “baseball,” only in their game, everyone stands wherever they want to after they take the field, facing in whatever direction they prefer, while making up their own rules as the game goes along. And then adopting new rules the next time they play a game.
So anyway. the “song” Wilson includes a refrain wherein, for the last two decades, every Phishfreak in whatever sold-out arena they’re playing sings, in a delightful call-and-response to the band’s cues: “WILLLL-sonnnnn”. If you listen to it, it goes from e-flat to C, I think.
Yes, that arena, from Delaware to Oregon and everywhere in between, will be sold out; the band grossed more than $18 million on this summer’s tour. The last four years’ total: $120 million in ticket sales).
So you can see where this is going, right? Last spring at a solo concert in Seattle, and later at another featuring the whole band at a venue in George, Wa. (Yep; that’s a Phish venue if there ever was one), Trey urged the crowd to start chanting “Wilson” at Seahawk games, in honor of Russell, this year’s quarterback flavor of the season — and, perhaps, for many a season to come.
The ritual caught fire, and now the sound of “WIL-son” can be heard waterfalling out of the stands at CenturyLink Field several times a game: when Wilson takes the huddle for the first time in the game, and again at the beginning of the third, and, throughout the game, interspersed with bits of the song on video board.
So who could blame NFL Films from filming a Phish concert, and filming the CenturyLink chant-ritual, and getting it aired on ESPN 2? Where’s the rub? Why am I Grinching this joyous collaboration?
No. 1: Every man has two sides: The roid-rage/road-rage madman who needs to see athletes try to kill each other legally every Sunday for six months a year, vicariously experiencing what it used to be like to get up in the morning and say to your buddies, “What do you say we attack that tribe over the hill and kill them all? I mean, after we eat raw antelope for breakfast”…
….and the gentle soul who wants to step back, cool out, find his Metroman side and try his damnedest to be a court jester in a land that takes itself way too seriously…and, not incidentally, do so in a place where he might be surrounded by, um, you know, stoned girls.
But nature never intended the two sides to meet. Hence the term “yin/yang” — or, in moderndayspeak, “bipolarism.” Once they overlap, they both lose their power to entrance.
But No. 2 is way more important. In “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” Trey’s man Wilson is not a man to be admired. In fact, in Anastasio’s college script, the original Wilson is the arch-villain of all time: a greedy, powerlusting fascist who enslaves the peace-loving Communist lizards of a land called Gamehendge, changes the name of their land to Prussia, and steals the book of goodness given to them by their god Icculus. Wilson destroys their forest, builds a castle where he keeps the book, and executes a rebel by hanging. One of the lyrics from the song’s chorus? “Wilson, king of Prussia, I lay this hate on you.”
Basically, young Trey was writing about a monstrous entity spoiling everyone’s fun. But now, as ESPN and NFL Films will have it — with Trey’s worrisome consent — Wilson is an anthem celebrating a football player who, according to the Goodell/Boys Life Magazine metric for what a young man should be, scores off the charts: Russell Wilson is the great-great grandson of a slave, the grandson of a former university president, the son of a Dartmouth graduate, part Native-American, endorses Levis, Nike and Alaska Airlines — and posts bible verses daily on his Twitter account. (As I write, watching him slice and dice the Giants: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:13”) No argument there, Russ. Anyway, you’re just a pawn in this game.
Okay, yes, I have a soft spot for Wilson. But who, given my memories, wouldn’t? The first time I heard Wilson played live was at The Clifford Ball in 1996, Phish’s first multi-day festival, held at the decommissioned Plattsburgh (NY) Air Force Base. I was backstage, doing a story for a slick magazine about the band that had lured me in because they seemed to sell out Madison Square Garden every New Year’s Eve — without ever actually, like, advertising. People kept passing me joints. So Wilson sounded very good that day — as, did, well, everything they played. From AC/DC Bag to Reba to Weekapaug Groove. Even 2001.
Much later that night, lying in my tent, surrounded by 60,000 overly polite Phishkids (although the philosophy major from Oberlin vehemently and almost aggressively disagreed with my assertion that the pan-European Rationalists had it way over the stupid All-Anglo-Empiricists), I couldn’t get the refrain out of my head — until the next morning, when the young woman in the adjacent tent stepped outside into the morning sun wearing nothing but blue jeans, and smiled “Hi,” and went off toward the showers.
That day unfolded as the day before had, in Shangri-La fashion: plentiful hugs, plentiful nugs.
Behind the stage at a picnic table that afternoon, during an interview with the band, the drummer, John Fishman, who wears dresses on stage, told me that this was the only job he had never been fired from. His last job had been cutting out patterns for women’s bathing suits. Then Trey told me he’d briefly considered seeding the festival crowd with ladies of the night imported from New York, but had quickly discarded the idea. After they all left to go back to their trailers, I finished writing in my notebook, then noticed the large roach on the table, and considered leaving it be, in case one of them had left it by mistake. But I quickly discarded the idea.
But you just have to know that ESPN and NFL Films are patting each other on the backs after a few brews, despite their home library of “Eagles” CDs” “What is hip? We are!”
I don’t know if they’ll show the whole song in the TV show, with its true lyrics. I do know that I won’t be watching. Because if this is the beginning of a friendship, it won’t be beautiful to me.
I’d sure hate to have to turn to professional golf and the String Cheese Incident to find new religions. But I sure as hell won’t sit around watching my life’s passions go up in smoke.
After separating from his wife in 1960, Brooks had spent a bleak and insolvent period in an unfurnished fourth-floor walkup on Perry Street, for which he paid seventy-eight dollars a month. He then moved in with a friend called Speed Vogel, who had an apartment on Central Park West and a studio on West Twenty-eighth Street, where he made what Brooks describes as “direct metal sculpture.” Vogel had left his wife shortly before Brooks arrived. The two men cooked for themselves, carried their clothes to the laundromat, rose at conflicting hours (Brooks late, Vogel early), and bickered over practically every aspect of housekeeping—a setup uncannily prophetic of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
One Tuesday in the summer of 1962, Vogel gave a party at West Twenty-eighth Street. Among his guests were Zero Mostel, who had a studio in the same building; Joseph Heller, whose first novel, Catch 22, had appeared the previous year; and Ngoot Lee, a painter and calligrapher of Chinese parentage. These three, together with Vogel and Brooks, enjoyed one another’s company so much that they decided to commemorate the occasion by reassembling every Tuesday for food and talk. Meetings were held at cheap Chinese restaurants selected by Ngoot Lee, who knew where the best chefs worked, and kept track of their movements from job to job. The nucleus, itself a fairly motley crew, grew steadily motleyer as it swelled in numbers. Brooks introduced a diamond dealer named Julie Green, who could do eccentric impersonations of movie stars. Heller contributed a fellow-novelist, George Mandel, who had a steel plate in his head as a result of injuries suffered in the Battle of the Bulge.
“One night,” Heller recalls, “Mandel told us in detail how he had been wounded. There was a long pause, and then Mel did something typical. He said, very slowly, ‘I’m sure glad that happened to you, and not to me.’ He wasn’t being cruel, he was being honest. He just blurted out what we were all thinking but didn’t dare to say.” Mandel, in turn, brought in Mario Puzo, later to become famous as the author of The Godfather. These were the charter members of the fraternity. They called themselves the Group of the Oblong Table or, in more pretentious moments, the Chinese Gourmet Club. What bound them together, apart from revelry in conversation, is best epitomised in a statement volunteered to me by Heller. “I’d rather have a bad meal out than a good meal at home,” he said. “When you’re out, it’s a party. Also, I like a big mediocre meal more than a small good one.”
The membership list has been closed for many years. Approved outsiders, like Carl Reiner and Joseph Stein, are invited to the Oblong Table from time to time, but merely as ‘honoured guests.’ The club has strict rules, some of which I learned from Reiner: “You are not allowed to eat two mouthfuls of fish, meat, or chicken without an intermediate mouthful of rice. Otherwise, you would be consuming only the expensive food. The cheque and tip, and the parking fees, if any, are equally divided among the members. It is compulsory, if you are in New York, are not working nights, and are in reasonable health, to be present at every meeting.” He continued, “The members are very polite. Once, I had a seat facing the kitchen door and I looked through and saw a rat strolling across the floor. They immediately offered me a chair facing the other way.” Anxious to retain his status of ‘honoured guest,’ Reiner begged me to quote Heller and Brooks on the subject at greater length than I quoted him.
Brooks recently told an interviewer that the talk at the Oblong Table mainly deals with such weighty subjects as “whether there is a God, what is a Jew, and do homosexuals really do it.” Reiner has other recollections. “From the sessions I’ve attended,” he said to me, “I would put that group up against the Algonquin Round Table and bet that, line for line, they were funnier. The speed of the wit is breathtaking. It just flies back and forth.” Brooks’s comment on this: “I’m sure we’re funnier than the Algonquin crowd, but we’re not as bright.”
Hershy Kay, the composer and Broadway arranger, had a bitter experience that confirmed what Reiner said about the club’s rigorous eating procedure. According to Brooks: “Hershy Kay came once as a guest and took the nicest bits of the lobster and the choicest parts of the chicken, including the wings, which I like. He did not touch his rice. He had to go, and he went.” There may, however, have been another reason for Kay’s rejection. My source here is Heller, who said, ‘Bear in mind that I am the only tall member of the group. At the next meeting after the Hershy Kay incident, Mel made a little speech. “Let’s face it,” he said, “except for Joe, all of us are quite short. Some of us are very short. Hershy is too short.”
Brooks, incidentally, has grave reservations about Heller’s own table manners. “From the very start,” he declares, “we accepted Joe on Speed Vogel’s word that he would behave, and Speed lied to us, because he did not behave. He took the best pieces of everything and laughed in our faces. One Tuesday, we ordered a tureen of special soup full of delicious things, and Joe grabbed it, scooped all the good stuff into his own bowl, and then said, “Here, let me serve this.” We each got a spoonful of nothing.”
Far from denying this story, Heller openly confesses, “I am a greedy man. I’ll eat anything. I even use a fork instead of chopsticks, so I can eat faster. I’m known in the club as the plague of locusts.” Presumably, his physical bulk protects him against reprisals.
Puzo, the only non-Jewish member other than Ngoot Lee, is tolerated because of his limited appetite. “Being Italian, Puzo is no threat to us,” Brooks says. “He doesn’t really like exotic dishes. He prefers noodles and rice—things that remind him of home. He is provincial, and that saves us from the rape of our best food.” A stickler for party discipline as well as a dedicated glutton, Brooks never misses a club meeting when he is in Manhattan. If business suddenly compels him to fly in from the Coast on a Tuesday evening, his first act on arrival at JFK is to ring every eligible restaurant in Chinatown until he finds the chosen venue. Thither he dashes, straight from the airport; and before saying a word, he heaps a plate with whatever is left.
Despite their differences over matters of etiquette, Heller has a high respect for Brooks. He freely admitted to me that he used a lot of Brooks’s lines in his second novel, Something Happened, and that in his next book, Good as Gold, ‘the hero is a small Jewish guy, and there’s a great deal of Mel in that.’ In the early seventies, Heller was teaching writing at City College of New York. He had long been aware that Brooks was vulnerable to practical jokes. One evening, Heller casually lied about his salary, saying that it was sixty-eight thousand dollars a year—more than double the truth. A couple of days later, Heller’s accountant, who also worked for Brooks, called him up and said, “For God’s sake, Joe, what the hell have you done? First thing this morning, Mel was up here screaming, “Why am I in the entertainment business? Why aren’t I teaching and earning seventy thousand a year like Joe Heller?” He was out of his mind!” Having told me this story, Heller went on, “Mel has always had plenty of resentment and aggression that he can sublimate into creativity. He’s usually at his best when he’s envying people more successful than he is. Now that there’s hardly anyone more successful, what will he do?”
I cited a mot attributed to Gore Vidal: ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’
“I thought that was La Rochefoucauld,” Heller said. “But anyway it doesn’t apply to Mel. He likes to see his rivals fail, but not his friends. Provided, of course, that he’s succeeding.”
I asked whether, in Heller’s opinion, fame had changed Brooks.
“Not a bit. He’s just as nasty, hostile, acquisitive, and envious today as he ever was. Please be sure to quote me on that,” Heller said warmly. He went on, “You have to distinguish between Mel the entertainer and Mel the private person. He puts on this manic public performance, but it’s an act, it’s something sought for and worked on. When he’s being himself, he’ll talk quietly for hours and then make a remark that’s unforgettably funny because it comes out of a real situation. You might say that he’s at his funniest when he’s being most serious. He has a tremendous reverence for novelists and for literature in general, because it involves something more than gag writing. In his serious moments, I don’t think he regards movies as an art. For Mel, the real art is literature.”
Brooks staunchly challenges this view: “When Joe says things like that, he’s just electioneering for the novel, because that’s what he writes. I think La Grande Illusion is as good as Anna Karenina, and Les Enfants du Paradis is in the same class as La Chartreuse de Parme. If we’re talking about art at the most exquisite level, Joe may conceivably have a point. But I’m a populist. I want color, I want visual images, I want the sound of the human voice.”
Whew, welcome back to another round of Where & When. I’ve been busy managing some issues the past few days, so I knew Monday’s game would be pushed back, but I can’t really announce something like that unless I had an official schedule; Monday and Thursday are the usual days this day is played, but it’s not something set in stone. At any rate, there’s been a lot of off-season stuff to talk about, so an off-schedule challenge is not something to froth at the mouth about (if things were slow, yeah I’d be a bit uptight).
At any rate, here is today’s challenge:
Click on pic for larger view
This one gave me a headache, because the source who posted it did not know the location; the clues are not so evident unless you have access to stronger records than I do (likely), so we may be doing a favor for these folks when we figure out the where; or should I say YOU figure it out. I know where it is now, and it’s not gonna be easy to figure out if you do what I did. Get your preferred headache medication ready, this is not as simple as it looks (of course I can expect at least two of you to figure it out right away). I must admit, I wanted to use this picture in earlier games, but I was stumped until now where this possibly could be; I’ll reveal my path of discovery after the game.
Since there is no absolute reference that I can find for the pic, I will accept an approximation of the date, but I insist on having an address of one of the buildings here. A bonus will be awarded to those who can tell us each business that exists today in place of the businesses in the picture. The first player to get the correct answers will receive a grail of Barqs (you can’t get much better than that in my opinion) and the rest will have to fight over A&W or Crush (yes, Crush makes cream soda), both of which happen to be pink…
Do your best and have fun; don’t forget to show your math. I’ll try to get back to you in 6the evening because I know I’ll be busy, but like I tell my nephew when I buy him lunch at 5 Guys, try to savor this one instead of inhaling it >;)