Sunday, November 29, 2015

Watching "Rocky" almost 40 years later: Does it still hold up?

The new movie "Creed" is getting terrific reviews, not just from the critics, but from people I know. And my good friend Ethan Sacks, who interviewed Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan for the New York Daily News, also had good things to say about the film. So before I go see the movie, I figured I'd better watch the original "Rocky" again. Which I did last night.

Me on the top of the famous steps,
September 2014.
First, a little background of my "Rocky" fandom. Over the years, I have seen all of the sequels (except "Rocky Balboa") and have them all on DVD. I even once had a cat named Rocky.

While I haven't watched the full original movie itself in a number of years, I can't tell you how many times I have listened to "Gonna Fly Now" and "Eye of the Tiger" from "Rocky III"during my fitness journey. Or watched the training montage from the original film. Or visualized scenes from that training montage when running. (Rocky lumbers the way I do!)

And yes, when I was sprawled out in Citi Field's center-field dirt during my Spartan Race last year, wondering how the heck I was going to finish, "Gonna Fly Now" did seem to taunt me. That was the lede of my Spartan Race story that won the Guideposts contest for me -- and got me in the magazine.

Also, when I ran the Philadelphia Rock 'n' Roll 5K in September 2014, I did the obligatory post-race photos on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It's no accident that I wore my shirt from that race when I ran in the Staten Half-Marathon last month. And my theme song during that race was "Victory," the Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes song that samples the ring music from "Rocky."

Me in front of the Rocky statue,
with my medal for the race.
So I was curious to see if the original "Rocky" would hold up, after watching the whole thing for the first time in years. Spoiler alert: it does. Here are my observations:
  • People don't think of Sylvester Stallone as much of an actor, but he is tremendous in this film. Like the look on his face when he gets the offer to fight Apollo Creed. Or when he finally loses his temper and yells at Mickey. Or when he confesses to Adrian that he doesn't think he can beat Creed, but just wants to go the distance. There's a reason he was nominated for Best Actor for this movie.
  • There was also a reason Stallone was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for this movie. The script became the template for so many sports movies over the years. But most of the imitators miss two things: how bleak Rocky's life and surroundings were to start with (remember the lamp with no shade and the upside-down KFC bucket?), and the fact that he didn't win at the end. He just went the distance, and that was enough.
  • The film's low budget ($1 million) and short filming schedule (28 days) helped contribute to its verisimilitude. The ice skating scene was done the way it was, with the empty rink, because they didn't have the money for extras. And the picture of Rocky with the wrong-colored shorts -- and the too-big robe -- were production mistakes that the movie explained by having Rocky point out both things.
  • Stallone has acknowledged that part of the inspiration for his writing was his own struggle as an actor/screenwriter, but he said that nobody would have wanted to watch a movie on that. And he believed in his script so strongly that he wouldn't sell it unless he got to play the lead role. He ended up getting less money up front, but 10 percent of the gross. Not bad for a movie that made over $225M at the box office.
  • Don't forget that this was also an era of depressing movies -- "Taxi Driver," "All the President's Men" and "Network" were all nominated for Best Picture that year, and this movie, although pretty down for much of it, was very uplifting at the end. (Although in the first draft of the script, Mickey was a racist, and Rocky threw the fight in disgust with the system.) 
  • Stallone looked pretty good in the movie, especially when he took his sweater and shirt off. And the undershirt had to be an homage to Marlon Brando.
  • Rocky running in Converse high-tops is not something you would see today. But the training scene, which might be the first of its kind set to music, still really holds up. 
  • So many good lines in the movie: "Yo, Adrian." "She's got gaps, I've got gaps, together we fill gaps." "You lay off that pet shop dame. Women weaken legs." "He doesn't know it's a damn show -- he thinks it's a damn fight." And don't forget Apollo Creed telling Rocky, "Ain't gonna be no rematch," and Rocky agreeing. Talk about famous last words!
  • Mickey reminded me a little of Squawker Jon, complete with the gruffness.
  • The Adrian character is an interesting one -- it's amazing how much taking off the glasses, and getting a cooler hat, did for Talia Shire's looks in the movie. Athough, I have to wonder, does she get contacts, or just walk around blind? This nearsighted person wants to know!
  • And why doesn't she watch the fight until the later rounds? However, that does lead to her rushing to the ring to see Rocky, and him asking her, "Where's your hat?" Another great line.
  • Is Paulie the worst brother ever, or what? Just really a horrible human being.
  • On the other hand, I loved Apollo Creed more than I did when I first saw the movie. Him coming out to the ring as George Washington across the Delaware, throwing coins was classic. As was him stripping down the costume to be wearing a second costume -- Uncle Sam. Carl Weathers was excellent in that role -- hilarious, but tough, too. A more jovial Ali.
  • People forget what a big deal the bicentennial was. So the timing of Creed picking Rocky fit perfectly. Although July 4, not January 1 as in the movie, was the main celebration day of the bicentennial. 
  • How about Joe Frazier in that lime green leisure suit? Good times!
  • I don't know how much Bill Conti got for his music in the movie, but he did a tremendous job with the score. Every sports movie since them owes something to his work here.

Anyhow, now I'm really pumped up to see "Creed." Just thinking about Rocky, I'm inspired to think that what should be my next fitness challenge. Another half-marathon? Another Spartan Race? Or something else? I'm ready to rumble -- as soon as my bursitis and tendinitis in my right leg and hip heal! What would Rocky do?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

What are the best -- and worst -- Christmas songs ever?

Hope all of our Squawker readers had a great Thanksgiving. Now that we are officially in the holiday season, we're going to hear Christmas songs 24/7 for the next month, which can be both good and bad, depending upon the songs! (An aside -- why are there a gazillion Christmas songs, but there is only one Thanksgiving song -- "Alice's Restaurant"? I ask this every year, yet nobody ever seems to come up with another one!)

Anyhow, I was working out at the gym today, thinking about which holiday songs I love to hear, and which ones I cannot stand. To me, the best Christmas songs are ones that are poignant. I want the lump in my throat and a tear in my eye when I hear them. So most of my Top 10 favorites fit that description.

As for the worst, there are so many ways to make a bad Christmas song, that they don't really fit any category -- other than that I don't like them!

So, without further ado, here is my list of favorite and least favorite Christmas songs. I have linked to YouTube for each song, so you can hear them for yourself:

10 Best Christmas Songs

10. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Bing Crosby and other artists:  Crosby is known for "White Christmas," but I like this one better. This song originated with Crosby during World War II. The line "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams" had special resonance for the soldiers then. I imagine my father listened to this in World War II when he was in the Pacific as a paratrooper. This is a great song, and pretty much everybody has covered it. I also like the Frank Sinatra take on it, and I even enjoy the Seth MacFarlane (!) version a lot.

9. "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses: This is a fun song, with a nice twist at the end. I remember when I was a teenage new wave music fanatic, how excited I was to hear a Chirstmas song done by an artist I listened to. This song still holds up.

8. "2000 Miles" by The Pretenders: Yes, this is a Christmas song -- pay attention to the lyrics. Since Austin is roughly 2000 miles from New York, I remember playing this song a lot in my freshman year of college, when I was homesick after being away from home for the first time. I just recently learned that Chrissie Hynde wrote the song as a tribute to James Honeyman-Scott, the band's guitarist who overdosed in 1982.

7. "It's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by U2: This is one of my favorite bands, in their prime, doing a poignant song -- a cover of a song Darlene Love made famous. What's not to like? Well, maybe Bono's hat in the video.

6. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Frank Sinatra and by Judy Garland: Two of the greatest singers of all time know how to hit every melodramatic button in this song. Judy's version was the original, in the movie "Meet Me in St. Louis," but Sinatra's take on the song is pretty fantastic, too. Note: this song, as sung by Al Martino (aka Johnny Fontaine), plays in an early scene in "The Godfather," my all-time favorite movie.

5. "Linus and Lucy" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio: This instrumental is the rare song on my list that is happy and not poignant. It's just pure fun -- especially the Christmas dance that the "Peanuts" characters do to it. When I ran a race in Central Park this summer, this was the first song I played on my iPod.

4. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid: Yes, I know this song has fallen out of favor a bit in recent years, and some of the lyrics are a little silly and condescending. "There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime" -- what's that all about? But I still love this song. Not only is it a good tune, but it features many of my favorite British and Irish artists from that time. Bono, Sting, Boy George, George Michael, Paul Young, and Simon LeBon are just some of the voices in the song. The song has held up much better than their 80s mullets in the video have.

3. "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by John Lennon: Oh, this song is a tearjerker for me. Especially given that Lennon was assassinated in December; he would have been 75 this year if he had lived. You can't help but think of the loss of him when hearing this. I don't think I've ever been able to hear this song without getting at least a little choked up.

2. "Blue Christmas" by Elvis Presley: This is such a classic song; it's my favorite Elvis tune. I linked to Elvis' version of this song in the 1968 "Singer Presents Elvis" Christmas special -- aka the '68 Comeback Special. Producer Steve Binder single-handedly revitalized Presley's career with this show, the greatest Christmas TV special ever, in my view. Ironically, 10 years later, Binder was also behind the infamous "Star Wars" Christmas special.

1. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" by Mariah Carey: Most of the songs on this list are from artists I really like. I've never been a Mariah Carey fan, but she does a great job with this song. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" hits all the notes of holiday-themed music, with the poignancy and "lump in the throat" qualities of a great Christmas song. A modern Xmas classic.

5 Worst Christmas Songs 

5. "The Little Drummer Boy" by anybody not named David Bowie or Bing Crosby: This song is truly annoying, yet people seem to like it. Rankin-Bass even did a TV special about it. The only version of the song that I like is the one that Bowie and Bing did together, and part of that is just the amazing juxtaposition of the two of them together. The other part is that they add another song to this, "Peace on Earth." It's what makes this horrible tune palatable. Click here to see what I mean.

4. "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" by Spike Jones and His City Slickers: Aren't lisps funny? That's what this song seems to communicate. It's just horrible. And the lyrics don't even make any sense. "Gee, if I could only have my two front teeth/Then I could wish you, 'Merry Christmas.'" But the narrator already said "Merry Christmas," even without two front teeth. Good grief.

3. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by Jimmy Boyd: Not only is this a stupid song, but the vocals, by Boyd at age 13, are just dreadful. Yet this song sold 11 million copies. Go figure. How many kids wondered what the heck this song was about when they were young? Too much information!

2. "Wonderful Christmas Time" by Paul McCartney: Has anybody ever had a wonderful Christmas time after hearing this song? I imagine even Paul himself is embarrassed by this dreck. Such a great artist. Such a bad song.

1. "Santa Baby" by Madonna: I hate this song with the fire of a thousand setting suns. Madonna puts on this annoying childlike voice for this tune that gets on my last nerve. I have literally left stores in order to avoid hearing this song. If I am ever kidnapped, and somebody wants to torture me, just play this song. I'll 'fess up to anything to avoid hearing it!

What are your favorite -- and least favorite -- Christmas songs? Let us know!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Is it time for a Robinson Cano/Yankees reunion? I say yes!

Two years ago around this time, the Yankees were backing up the Brinks' truck to Jacoby Ellsbury's house, while they were pleading poverty to Robinson Cano. So how has that decision worked out so far? Horribly, I say.

Since the Yankees let Cano walk, something I was furious about at the time and am still peeved over, second base has been a disaster for the Yankees, most notably with Brian Cashman's and Joe Girardi's dogged insistence on playing Stephen Drew day in and day out. It took Drew suffering a vestibular concussion for him to finally get benched towards the end of the season last year. (Speaking of which, I think something might be wrong with Cashman's brain after all that bicycling without a helmet he does that he brags about, but I digress!)

Anyhow, there's been a lot of talk about Cano lately in this town. First, there were rumors that he might be traded for Ellsbury, rumors that have heated up again recently. Then Andy Van Slyke, former first-base coach for the Seattle Mariners, gave the worst exit interview ever after getting fired. Not only did he tell the world that Clayton Kershaw wants the Dodgers to dump Yasiel Puig (that gossip apparently courtesy of his son Scott, who is on LA.) But Van Slyke also claimed that Cano was "the single worst third-place, everyday player I’ve ever seen – I’ve ever seen for the first half of a baseball season," that he "couldn’t drive home Miss Daisy if he tried," and that he "played the worst defense I’ve ever seen at second base." Hyperbole much, dude?

Van Slyke also placed the blame for the mass firing of Seattle's manager and coaches at the feet of Cano's 2015 performance. Hmmmm. I think having a new general manager might have had a little something to do with it, but what do I know?

Granted, Cano's first half numbers for last year were putrid: .251/.290/.330, with only 6 homers and 30 RBI. But his second half numbers were very good, and that's *with* playing with a double hernia: .331/.387/.540 with 15 HR and 49 RBI. His total numbers were .287/.334/.446, with 21 homers and 79 RBI.

Not a great year for Cano, true, but a heck of a lot better than Stephen Drew's 2015 .201/.381/.652 slash line, and it's also better than Ellsbury's .257/.318/.345 numbers. Plus, Ellsbury missed over 50 games with injuries.  Incidentally, Cano had a variety of health woes in 2015, yet only missed 6 games. But, but, I thought he was a slacker?

At any rate, what does it say about what the Yankees think of Ellsbury, when they benched him in this year's Wild Card game? Not very much, it appears!

The other day, John Harper of the New York Daily News wrote about Cano, and interviewed Rich Donnelly, former Mariners' third-base coach, who also lost his job this fall. He said he would defend Cano "until the end of time" and talked about how Cano played when he was sick:
“I used to get upset when I’d hear people say Robbie didn’t hustle. I’d say, ‘Hell, he shouldn’t even be in the lineup.’ Robbie would always tell everybody, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’
In that same article, Harper says that "one long-time friend who spoke to [Cano] recently says the second baseman is not happy in Seattle, especially with a new regime in charge there now, and that he’d love to somehow find his way back to New York."

I would love for Cano to find his way back to New York, too. Even if it means taking on that massive contract. And you know it will happen someday. I'd rather have it happen now, when Cano still has some productive years in him, as opposed to the end of his contract, when he is past his prime.

My friend Sully has said all along that Cano would be back one day. And he recently did a podcast talking about it, and going through the list of how many Yankees have been reunited with the team after leaving. Roger Clemens. Andy Pettitte. Alfonso Soriano. Ramiro Mendoza. Mike Stanton, etc., etc. (He even mentioned names I forgot had two tours with the Yanks, like Charlie Hayes, Homer Bush, and Brian Boehringer!) I think Sully will be proven right, but the question is when.

ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand writes today about the rumors, and gives five reasons why Cano won't be back in the Bronx. Here's No. 2:
"The Bombers have moved on. The Yankees do need a second baseman, but while they very well might add someone this winter, right now their second basemen are Rob Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley."
Oh, please. They were both better than Drew, but Cano is world's better than either of them. And last time I checked, this Yankee team needs some hitting. Do you think A-Rod and Teixeria are going to repeat what they did in 2015 in 2016? I sure don't!

Anyhow, I asked Yankee fan Facebook friends whether they wanted to see Cano back in pinstripes. Most didn't. But I do. And here's something that the Yankees may be considering: marketing purposes. This team is so devoid of stars as of late that they used A-Rod, the player they wanted to dump last winter, in their email marketing pitch for 2016 sales!

Not to mention that the Yanks now have a pennant-winning team in town to compete for ticket sales with. The Yankees drew 3.1 million last year, while the Mets drew 2.5 million. Do you think those numbers are going to change in 2016? I sure do, with the Mets going higher, and the Yanks going lower. Wouldn't putting Cano back in town not only immediately improve the Yankees, but improve ticket sales? And wouldn't that ease the financial hit of bringing him back? Just saying.

Time to bring back Robbie Cano, don't you know! Besides, it would make John Sterling happy! Doesn't that count for something?

What do you think? Tell us about it!

Monday, November 16, 2015

We can be heroes: Seeing a David Bowie photo exhibit at the Morrison Hotel Gallery

David Bowie on the "Heroes" album cover. Sukita said this
was his favorite photo. © 1977 / 1997 Risky Folio, Inc.
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive ™

On Thursday night, I went to the Morrison Hotel Gallery on 116 Prince Street in Manhattan to see the opening of photographer Masayoshi Sukita's images of David Bowie. Sukita, from Japan, has been in Bowie's inner circle for decades. He has been able to get some of the most iconic photos of Bowie out there.

The event was sponsored by Double Cross Vodka, and they provided drinks at the opening. 

It was pretty cool to get to a gallery opening -- it's one of the reasons I like living in New York City. When I got to the gallery, there was a long line of people waiting to get in, but because I was part of the press, I didn't have to wait!

The event was extremely popular -- and crowded. People seemed to really like the images. My favorite ones were the ones of Bowie doing regular things -- taking the subway, walking around town, etc. But all the photos were arresting in their own way.
Here are some of the photos below. I asked Sukita which was his favorite, and his translator said it was the "Heroes" cover. 

If you want to see the pix for yourself, you can go to the Morrison Hotel Gallery and see them for free. The SoHo gallery is open seven days a week: Monday through Saturday from 11 to 7, and Sunday from 12-6. Their phone number is 212.941.8770. The images are also available for sale.

© 1977 / 1997 Risky Folio, Inc. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive ™

© 1977 / 1997 Risky Folio, Inc. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive ™

Photo of Sukita at the opening by John Mazlish.

Damon Webster

Monday, November 9, 2015

The war on autumn: the real problem with Starbucks' red cups

Me on the grounds of the Gideon Putnam Resort in
Saratoga Springs State Park. Notice the autumn
leaves in the photo.
I was in Saratoga Springs, New York this weekend for a Guideposts magazine writers' refresher workshop. Basically, it was like the quarter quell in The Hunger Games (we had all previously won one admission to their biannual workshops before.) But this event was for nice, not nefarious, purposes!

Anyhow, in addition to the great time I had learning and laughing with my fellow workshoppers, I loved seeing the fall foliage. One of the reasons I moved back to the Northeast from Texas is because I like having all four seasons. In Texas, you don't really see the brilliant colors of autumn leaves. Instead, it's hot, and as hot. But in New York, fall is terrific.I love the yellow, red, and most especially the orange colors of fall. So I was in heaven walking around this weekend and seeing fall, even if Saratoga is technically past peak when it comes to the leaves. I love savoring autumn.

From my Halloween visit to the
New York Botanical Gardens. I love fall.
When I was away, though, my Facebook page started to blow up with one of the dopiest controversies ever: the idea that Starbucks hates the baby Jesus because of their new minimalist red coffee cups. When I first saw a headline, though, I thought the story was about how it was too soon to have Christmas-related cups. I was in Starbucks a week ago, and it flummoxed me that I was drinking my Thanksgiving Blend coffee in a Christmas-related drinking vessel. 

I am officially tired of what I'm calling The War on Autumn; I am a firm believer in not having anything Christmas-related until after Thanksgiving is over. Let's stop rushing through the fall season to get to winter. I don't need to see Christmas stuff when we haven't even commemorated Veterans' Day yet. Enough already. Let me play Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" and eat my Thanksgiving turkey in peace, without having Christmas take over the holiday. (And that goes for Black Friday becoming Black Thursday, too!) That's the real issue with these cups, IMHO.

Then I heard what this kerfuffle was about -- that Starbucks "removed Christmas from their cups" (except the cups never said "Merry Christmas" or anything like that in the first place) because they "hate Jesus," according to backwards-baseball-cap-wearing doofus pastor Joshua Feuersten, In addition to wearing his cap backwards in a video, which only Ken Griffey Jr. should be allowed to do, he also falsely claims that they're not allowed to say "Merry Christmas" to customers. (Untrue as well, but at any rate, who the bleep needs to be told "Merry Christmas" when it's early November! Should I get in a tizzy if somebody doesn't wish me "Happy Easter" the day after Groundhog Day?) 

Look at the name! Shocking!
Given the outrage, and the outrage over the outrage about a coffee cup, I expected that there was some organized effort here. No, it's this one knucklehead, who misused the word "literally" (of course he did!) in his video, whining, and bragging about how he brought a gun to Starbucks. It is basically as if something I wrote in my blog became a national story, with millions arguing over it. Good grief.

This goober is a bona fide moron. How does Starbucks hate Jesus if they still carry Christmas Blend coffee, and Advent calendars? And the color of the cup does symbolize Christmas. 

And what is his solution to "prank Starbucks," as he calls it? For Christians to spend money in the store, and say that their name is "Merry Christmas," so that those baristas supposedly despise God will have to write that hated phrase on the cups. This might be the dumbest prank in world history. What he is doing is encouraging people to spend money in Starbucks. How does that hurt them, exactly?  The corporation will cry all the way to the bank! 

At any rate, this is a dumb controversy. and this pastor makes Christians look bad. Let's stick with the really wrong thing with these cups -- I don't want pumpkin spice or Thanksgiving blend coffee in a red coffee cup. End of story. Stop The War on Autumn, Starbucks!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mets-Royals World Series Game 5:
Do not go gentle into that Dark Knight

The Mets' season turned around when a player got emotional on the field when he thought he would have to leave the team. Last night, a player got emotional in the dugout when he thought he would have to leave the game. Unfortunately, Matt Harvey did not get the storybook ending Wilmer Flores got when he hit a walkoff homer two nights after thinking he had been traded. But the passion and determination of an outclassed Mets team to get to the World Series and put up a good fight against the Kansas City Royals made 2015 a memorable season.

Though the Mets went down in the series four games to one, the two teams were a lot more evenly matched than the final result would indicate. After all, the Mets had the lead in the ninth inning twice and the eight inning once in three of their losses. But when the other team comes back to win that many times, you have to acknowledge that they were the better team and more deserving of victory.

Dominant starting pitching backed by good hitting can get you to the World Series even if your defense is shaky, your bullpen is questionable, and your manager makes mistakes. But there's little margin for error against a team like the Royals, and even one of the most dominant pitching performances in Mets postseason history could not save them last night.

I liked the idea of Harvey coming out for the ninth, even though it went against his numbers showing that it was best to pull him after he had thrown 100 pitches. But at 102 pitches going into the ninth and a packed house screaming for Harvey, I have no problem with Terry Collins sending the Dark Knight out for the ninth. It also gave Harvey a chance to show once and for all that he really was willing to put Scott Boras' innings-limit circus behind him.

That said, once Harvey walked Lorenzo Cain on seven pitches, bringing his pitch total to 109, he should have been pulled. I am admittedly writing this in hindsight; at the time, I wanted Harvey to get another batter. But Collins' bullpen strategy fell apart the last few nights. He brought in Jeurys Familia Friday night in a 9-3 game to get him some work. But then he said he could not use Familia for two innings Saturday night because of the unnecessary Friday inning. And with numerous other options, Collins stuck with using Tyler Clippard as the bridge to Familia, only to see Clippard end up with the loss.

Using Familia in the Game 3 blowout was a way to enable him to regain his confidence. But maybe it was Collins who needed to regain his confidence after his bullpen moves backfired on Saturday, because he did not act decisive about what to do until after Harvey gave up the double to Eric Hosmer and another Royals comeback was underway.

Lucas Duda made a terrible throw to the plate to allow Hosmer to score the tying run, but David Wright cutting in front of Wilmer Flores to nab Salvador Perez' grounder probably also played an important role in the disastrous play. Had Flores made the play, Wright could have stayed closer to third base, making it harder for Hosmer to break for the plate.  And Flores, in better position than Wright and with a better arm, probably would have gotten the ball to Duda faster, so if Hosmer still ran, Duda would have had more time to throw home and maybe would not have rushed his throw.

Duda's bad throw meant that three of the Mets' four infielders had critical miscues in this series. In five games, Murphy and Wright were each charged with two errors and Duda was charged with one (not last night, when his bad throw was not ruled an error).  Only Flores, who was not even supposed to be the shortstop before Ruben Tejada got hurt, avoided an E next to his name.

Last night, the Mets got only four hits, and that was in 12 innings. On Saturday night, they got just six hits and in Game 2, only two hits. For the Series, the team hit just .193. It's hard to win a World Series with that little production.

Once the game went into extra innings and the Mets had to go deeper into their bullpen, it was hard to have much confidence, especially considering the way this Series had gone so far. A five-run twelfth by the Royals just emphasized that as close as this Series seemed at times with the Mets constantly getting late inning leads, the Royals were the superior team.

In 1984, the Mets won 90 games after years of losing, but it would be another two years before they made it to the World Series. In 2015, the Mets won 90 games after years of losing, and got to the World Series on their first try. Despite the way it ended, this season has to be considered a huge success overall.

And let's not forget who won the World Series the year after the Royals' last title in 1985. Wait till next year! Let's go Mets!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

NYC Marathon Weekend Part 3: What it's like to volunteer at the start line, and why fitting into the marathon jacket was a big deal for me

I'm all smiles at today's marathon
start line. Photo by Andy Cross.
Since Squawker Jon is out of town today, I am taking the liberty of doing a trilogy in the blog about the New York City Marathon, and the events connected with it. Jon would call it navel-gazing, but since he can't stop me, I'm going to type away! Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Anyhow, I volunteered at the Staten Island start line for the NYC Marathon this morning. I did this last year as well. As most readers know, I have lost over 60 pounds so far on my weight loss/fitness journey (over 40 of it this year), but I still have at least 25 more to go. I try to be upbeat, but I have to admit to having a lot of misery along the way. Some things I've spoken about, and some I've kept inside.

Here's one thing that I want to talk about now, even thought it was totally humiliating to me. It's about what happened last year when I volunteered at the marathon start line.

When you volunteer, you get a special blue and yellow jacket to wear during your shift, and that you can bring home with you. In November 2014, I went to pick up my jacket at the start line. Unfortunately, the biggest size they had then was a large. (No extra-large or extra-extra-large jackets left.) So I had to wear that jacket the whole shift, even though it was so small I couldn't zip it up, It wasn't just that I couldn't close it with a sweatshirt on under it. No, I couldn't zip it up with just a t-shirt on under it! How embarrassing. What's more, it took many months -- and many pounds lost -- before I could zip it up.

Some of the SIAC volunteers at the race.
Fast forward to November 2015. I asked for -- and got -- a medium jacket. And I was able to zip it up, even with both a thick hoodie and a long-sleeved cotton running club shirt under it. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but I can't tell you how happy it made me.

I know I am still overweight, but I've gone from "big as a house" to "chubby." And hopefully, by 2016, I will be officially "thin." Dare to dream!

Anyhow, that positive moment today was matched by a very positive experience volunteering at the start line corrals. I got to work with people from the Staten Island Athletic Club, my running club. Some of them I knew fairly well, some of whom I knew a little, and some of whom I only knew from Facebook and email correspondence. It was all a blast to see them today.

Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (yes, I'm dating myself here!)
While it was fun seeing everyone, but I especially liked meeting another Lisa, a fellow Staten Islander and a TV news producer. We know each other from Facebook, but this is the first time we met in real life. And we have a mutual admiration society thing going!

And seeing the runners was amazing. The marathon has 50,000 runners. There are three sets of corrals: blue, orange, and green. Blue, where I worked, is the most prestigious. Then there are four waves of runners, and six corrals per wave. I was working in Corral C. So we would not only see the runners in our corral, but the people past them, as they walked through to the bridge.

Kristin and Chre, just before the race
Most runners were chill. But some people flipped out if they didn't get to their wave on time, and would have to wait for the next group to run. I understood where they were coming from. But we still couldn't let them in, to their chagrin.

The vast majority of people were nice. I did notice that the runners in the last wave -- the ones who were running for charity, or doing their first marathon, or who had slower times -- were particularly friendly. So many of them thanked us for volunteering, which was sweet.

It was so many people, though, it could be a little overwhelming. Which is why it was funny when we were just talking about how difficult it would be to spot people we knew when we saw Kristin and Chre from our club! Was great to wish them luck before their race. Wish I could have personally wished good luck to the rest of the 23 SIAC members who ran the marathon. And to my cousin Jen, who ran the race for the first time.

Now, onto the big question people always ask me: when am I running a marathon? I plan on doing one someday. But I don't want to be on the road for eight hours! Let alone all the time it would take me to train at my current speed. So I want to make significant progress in not just weight loss, but my speed and stamina, before I do so. Whether that means I will run the NYC Marathon in 2016 or 2017 is unclear at this moment. I have met the 9+1 qualifications for 2016, but I haven't decided yet.

At this point, though, I was happy to see the excitement on fellow runners' faces, as they got ready to run the race of their lives. What a day!

NYC Marathon Weekend Part 2: My Dash to the Finish Line starts with a dash to the start line!

This is Part 2 (or, as Charlie Sheen would say, Part Deux!) of my New York City Marathon weekend trilogy. Squawker Jon will accuse me of navel-gazing, but since he's out of town today, I'm going to Squawk how I want to! To read Part 1, about my 5K with Kevin Hart, click here.

Anyhow, my life is always interesting. Weird, but interesting. Here's the most recent example. Saturday morning, I took the express bus into Manhattan for the Dash to the Finish Line race, where you get to run in part of the area comprising the end of the NYC Marathon, as well as getting to run by the United Nations and by Forty-Second Street, as well as up Sixth Avenue. Over 10,000 people participated, so it was likely the biggest 5K put on in town this year.

Anyhow, the baggage check was in Central Park, by the finish line, but the race was by the UN, I wanted to check a bag because I planned on going to the New York Botanical Garden after the race, getting a free annual membership with my ID NYC card, and gazing at the fall foliage. So my plan was to check my bag at the New York Health and Racquet Club location at 56th Street, go do the race, and shower afterwards

Normally, on a Saturday morning, the express bus will only take about an hour to go from Great Kills to Central Park. I got on a bus two hours before the race, so I thought I would have enough time. However, traffic was abysmal due to construction, and my bus ran very slowly. Plus, at 34th Street, it wasn't able to go up Sixth (due to the race, as it turns out) and it took a detour. At this point, it was 8:10, the race was starting in 20 minutes, and I was still far away from the race (and far away from checking my bag!) I was about to miss the Dash to the Finish Line. Yikes! What a nightmare!

I had signed up for this race last year, but was sick the day of the event and ended up missing it. I really didn't want to miss it two years in a row.

So what now? How was I going to extricate myself from this mess? I thought, WWHSD? That stands for What Would Harry Swan Do?  My late father was an extrovert extraordinaire. He was a real people person who knew everybody. This is a man who talked the NYPD into letting us park on the street at the old Yankee Stadium in a no-parking zone each week, so we would be able to not only park for free, but get home from Sunday games in a half hour -- in time for an early dinner!

Yet most of the four Swan children take after our introverted mother. As for myself, I am the closest thing to an extrovert we have in the family, but even then, I can be shy and even timid at times, especially when dealing with new people.

Anyhow, if my father were in this situation, he would have used his natural friendliness to talk somebody into helping him. So I channeled whatever minimal charm I have, combined it with my usual natural aura of helplessness, put on a happy, friendly face, and kept my fingers crossed that it would work!

The scene at the start of the race
Modell's Sporting Goods on 34th and 7th was open early Saturday morning, due to the World Series. So I approached a staffer there and explained my plight. He directed me to his manager. I pointed to my race bib on my shirt and told him the situation. I asked if I could please leave my bag there. He agreed to put it (and my sweatshirt) behind the counter, but said they couldn't be held responsible if anything happened to it. I agreed, shook his hand and thanked him, and left for the race.

At this point, it was 8:15 a.m. I figured I wouldn't be able to run to 47th and 1st that quickly to make the race, so I hailed a cab. After telling the cab driver my story, he got me there to the start line with minutes to spare! Yay!

And the race had such fantastic views, I was so happy to do it! I love running on Manhattan city streets. It feels like you are getting away with something. Glad I didn't miss it.

I am on the right, wearing orange. Not exactly
Shalane Flanagan, but I finished!
The Dash to the Finish Line had an extremely relaxed vibe to it, with runners going much slower than usual. So there were many more people in the back of the pack with me than there usually is.

Also, I have never seen so many people taking pictures during races. Especially when we got towards the finish line. I had to dodge people taking selfies on the course, with the end of the marathon as a backdrop. It was wild!

After the race, I went up to the Bronx to see the New York
Botanical Garden. This is just some of the stunning
fall foliage I saw.
Oh, and I had a friendly face at the finish line. Squawker Jon showed up. He even took got footage of me at the end of the race! What a morning. So glad I was able to do this 5K.

After the race, I picked up my stuff at Modell's, and was amazed to see how much Mets World Series stuff they had. Heck, I am still amazed to realize that the Mets are in the World Series in the first place! It's still stunning to me.

I then got cleaned up at the gym and headed up to the Bronx to go to the New York Botanical Garden. If you are a New Yorker, you need to get an ID NYC card. You can get year-long memberships at over 30 NYC cultural institutions. I had originally planned on going
The Day of the Dead parade.
to the Frida Kahlo exhibit they had, but it wasn't included as part of the basic membership, and I wasn't going to shell out $25 for it. So I toured other sights in the gardens, like the rose garden and the forest. The autumn leaves were just amazing.

They also had, in keeping with the season, and with the Kahlo exhibit, a Day of the Dead parade. There were skeletons and shenanigans and cool music, too. It was so much fun to watch this!

After going to the garden, I briefly went to the Bronx Zoo to get my annual ID NYC Wildlife Conservation Society membership. Then I got a $3 burrito at Chipotle (since I was in a running t-shirt and pants, I said I was going as a runner!) After I got home, I was so exhausted, plus I had another early morning coming up, with my volunteer work at the NYC Marathon today. So I ended up going to bed at 8 p.m., thus missing most of Game 4 of the World Series. Unfortunately, I woke up and put on the game just before Daniel Murphy's error. What a terrible time to wake up! Sorry, Squawker Jon! I hope I didn't jinx your Mets!

NYC Marathon Weekend Part 1: I ran with Kevin Hart (and yes, I got to meet him!)

Me before the Run With Hart 5K
Since the New York City Marathon is today, there were a lot of events this weekend surrounding this race. So since I am a runner, please indulge me in writing about them! (Hey, this Yankee fan has to have something to talk about these days, other than being a good sport about the Mets!) Here is my first post of three. It's about my fantastic experience of running with Kevin Hart and the Nike+ Running Club in Hudson River Park on Friday morning. 

Kevin Hart is my favorite comedian these days. Not just because he is hilarious, but because of his life story. His wasn't an overnight success story; he worked many, many years before he finally broke through to fame. Plus, his humor is so self-deprecating -- about him being 5 feet 4, about his upbringing, etc. And as my own humor is self-deprecating, I can relate. Hart also works harder than anybody else out there. He's known for this quote: "Everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to do the work." Good role model in so many ways.

Run With Hart

Anyhow, Squawker Jon heard something Thursday about how Hart was hosting a free 5K run in Manhattan this Friday, so as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to sign up and participate! Hart recently started running. Earlier this summer, he wrote on Twitter where he was going to run in Boston before a show, and thousands showed up to run with him. Since then, he has gotten really passionate about running, going from a 27 minute 5K to a 20+ minute 5K. And he wants to get people off the couch and kickstart their own fitness. So he teamed with the Nike+ Running Club to put on these Run With Hart 5Ks around the country, to get people of all fitness levels out there. 

A selfie before the race starts.
Hart wasn't even doing a show in NYC in connection with this run. Instead, he did a show Thursday night in Bakersfield, CA, flew out after the show to be at the run at Pier 26 in Manhattan at 7:34 a.m. Friday morning, then flew back after the show to Reno, NV. Now that's dedication. 

And his race was fabulous. I have done over 60 races in the last two years, and I would put this Run With Hart 5K among the top three race experiences I have ever had. First of all, there was great swag and grub -- especially impressive, given that the race was free! They had free Nike "Run With Hart" t-shirts, workout towels, and rubber bracelets for everyone. There was plenty of not just water, Gatorade, and bananas, but a wide variety of Kind Bars (my favorite!) as well. Oh, and there were even free Waffle and Dinges waffles for everyone after the race. A free and easy bag check system. And the people working there were so nice. The whole experience made me feel like a VIP. 

This is one of the photos Nike took of people
in the race. It happens to feature
yours truly in the middle.
As for the race itself, people from the Nike+ Running Club served as pacers/guides for the rest of us. One of the things I have never understood about the way I've seen pacers used in big races is that they only have them for a certain speed of people. For example, in New York Road Runners' half-marathons, the pacers only go up to pace a two hours and 30 minute time, even though those of us who are running slower than that could arguably use the services of a pacer even more than the faster people. Anyhow, at Hart's race, they had pacers throughout all levels of speeds in the race, with them exhorting everyone and cheering them on. I've never actually gotten to feel such positive treatment in a race before, so it was pretty awesome.

Best finish line experience ever!

After the race. My glasses get fogged
up when I run!
There was a stage at the event, and before the race, fitness experts took us through a warmup. Also, some running celebs were onstage, like Joan Benoit Samuelson. Hart was the last to speak before the race, talking about how he wanted to inspire people to improve their fitness. He then led the run. I run a lot in Hudson River Park, so I was familiar with the path, down towards Battery Park City by the Hudson River, and then back up to TriBeCa. 

What was new to me was the support line at the end. I finished in 38 minutes -- a very good time for me. When I was getting towards the end, the pacers were encouraging me. And at the last part of the race, there was a long line of Nike+ Running Club people and others on each side cheering the rest of the runners on. I got high fives from both sides. It was terrific! After the race, Hart himself gave me a high five and congratulated me. I was so excited to see him, I was a little starstruck! It was the greatest finish line experience I have ever had.

There were what seemed to be a good number of people behind me after I finished, which isn't always the case. It seemed like a lot of people who would normally not do a 5K were out there because of Kevin Hart, and they were running or walking or plodding their way across the finish line. And Hart stayed around to give high fives and encouragement to every last person.

I don't mean to sound like a total fangirl, but I can't tell you how cool it is to see a celebrity parlay his fame to help and inspire people like me. I recently wrote about some negative experiences I had when running. So when I see such a top-of-the-line operation, which was such a positive experience, I have to tip my Yankee hat and thank Hart and the Nike+ Running Club for putting on such a terrific event. I'd like to think that some of the people who went to this event will get inspired to get out there and run because of how much fun this race was. That would be wonderful to see. In this country, where so many people are obese and out of shape, doing events like the Run With Hart 5K can only help get others like I once was as off the couch and into a new life.

Mets-Royals World Series Game 4: Now Mets have their own Murphy the Goat

The Cubs are supposedly cursed because of a goat named Murphy was not allowed to remain at Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. Now another goat named Murphy in another World Series Game 4 has helped to doom the 2015 Mets.

Murphy was not the only goat, though. There are a lot of different names for groups of goats, such as herd and flock, but I'm going with tribe, because last night, all we needed was for Jeff Probst to say that the tribe has spoken, because the Mets are not going to be the sole survivor this year.

But while Bill Buckner was far from the only goat in 1986, his error on a ground ball was the lasting image, and Murphy is probably doomed to the same fate.  The image of Tyler Clippard walking two batters is just not as compelling. And neither is Terry Collins not going to the mound to take out Clippard after the first walk. Or Collins not leaving Bartolo Colon in to become the bridge to Jeurys Familia. Or Familia waiting in the bullpen rather than coming in for a six-out save.

But there is a clip from after the game of Collins saying that using Familia for a meaningless inning Friday night in a 9-3 game affected his availability for a six-out save. This is unforgivable. On Friday, we were told that Familia thrived on regular work and it was good to get him back on the horse after he blew the save in Game 1. And now the story changes.

Just as bad is using Clippard in the eighth inning because that's his usual spot, and he was great at it in August. But Clippard has been terrible after that, with a regular-season 6.14 ERA with four homers in 14.2 innings in September and October. Now he's given up runs in three of his eight postseason appearances, and Collins still thinks of him as his primary setup man.

Familia earned his goat horns when he gave up the game-tying homer in Game 1 and now he has two blown saves in the World Series. But while he did give up two hits in the eighth to allow the winning and fifth runs to score, the bigger culprits in the disastrous eighth inning have to be Murphy, Clippard and Collins.

Our tribe of goats would not be complete without Yoenis Cespedes, who may need his own section on the lowlight reel. Cespedes failed to appear when he was introduced before his first World Series game, then promptly muffed a fly ball that resulted in an inside-the-park home run. Last night, Cespedes somehow kicked a fly ball across the outfield. (I heard a radio caller this morning say that Cespedes was a three-sport athlete - baseball, soccer and golf.) Then Cespedes capped off last night's debacle by being doubled off first after he thought Lucas Duda's liner would hit the grass.

Cespedes, Murphy and Clippard are all going to be free agents. At different times, it looked as if all three should be re-signed. Now it's goodbye, Clippard and most likely goodbye Cespedes, whose head does not always appear to be in the game.  Granted, he is injured, though the circumstances of that injury are murky. But it just seems hard to commit long-term to him, especially at a huge salary.

We're still getting to know Cespedes, for better and worse, but we've known Murphy since 2008. You're not signing him for his fielding. But he's a good hitter, even if that home run streak was not typical, and if and when the Mets let Cespedes go, if they don't bring Murphy back they will need to find another second baseman who can hit. Howie Kendrick and, yes, Ben Zobrist are also free agents.

This has still been a great run and a great year. But it's a shame that the World Series has turned on errors by Murphy last night and David Wright in Game 1. The two Mets with the longest tenures. The two Mets whose numbers are worn by the most fans (according to my unscientific observations).  It's not over till it's over, but it's getting late early out there. Let's go Mets.