Monthly Archives: July 2009

The most depressing team in sports, and Lochte sets another record

pirates

So I’m home in New York this week on vacation, and while  I was at a Brooklyn Cyclones game minor league baseball game Thursday night (great time, by the way) I got to thinking about the most depressing team in sports.

I’m talking about the team that, year after year, absolutely pulverizes its fans hopes and dreams, the team that you constantly ask yourself why you bother rooting for. The team that doesn’t even seem to care about you at all, and cares about getting better even less.

For a long time, there were a lot of contenders. You had the Tampa Bay Bucs, who were horrendous for 20 years, but then they got better. You had the L.A. Clippers, who were run by the stupidest executives in sports, but managed to make the playoffs a few times at least.

You had the Arizona Cardinals, who draped themselves in fuility but managed to get to the Super Bowl last season, pleasing its sun-baked fans in Phoenix.

But I think it’s fair to say now, without equivocation, that there’s only one true deserving choice as, by far, the most depressing team in pro sports:

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and meet your Pittsburgh Pirates! Seriously, meet them. Because I’m pretty damn sure you couldn’t pick them out of a lineup.

I’m not a Pirates fan, and never really followed them that closely. But I have to believe that to be a Pirates die-hard, circa 2009, has to be a soul-crushing experience. Your team is currently undergoing its 17th consecutive losing season. Seventeen! That, my friends, would be a record for consecutive crappiness in any major team sport.

The Pirates built a beautiful new ballpark in 2001, but decided to buck the trend started by the Orioles and Indians, and continue to stink right on from the old park to the new one.

If you’re a Pirates fan, there’s no sense getting attached to any good players on your team, because by the team they’re decent, they’ll be traded before they can make any real money. Nate McLouth, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez are this year’s examples, but look into the past and you can find plenty of ex-Pirates stars (Jason Bay, Jason Kendall) who were dealt as they were in their prime.

Their drafting and scouting would have to improve to be called putrid. Do you realize this franchise has had a Top 12 pick in the MLB draft for the past 10 years, and has NO solid major league players in that mix to show for it? Let me know when you see Andrew McCutcheon, Paul Maholm, or Bryan Bullington tearing it up in the majors.

They can’t attract any quality free agents because, really, who the hell would want to play there? And they’ve got a cheapskate owner who is making a profit but won’t invest in the team.

Add it up, and I have to think rooting for Pittsbugh is like hoping Commack High School could beat the Yankees. Maybe Barry Bonds cursed them when he left as a free agent. Maybe the success of the Steelers (2 Super Bowls this decade) and Penguins (three Stanley Cups in the last 18 years) has forced the sports gods to at least give Pittsburgh one terrible team.

Whatever it is, I can’t imagine how sad it is to be a Pirates fan. My heart goes out to you poor souls. And the next time I bitch about my pathetic New York Jets, I’ll try to remember: It could be worse.

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**On a much more uplifting note, my man Ryan Lochte had a fantastic performance and set a new world record Thursday in the 200 intermediate medley, swimming it in 1:54.10. Lochte, the pride of Port Orange, Fla., didn’t get to beat Michael Phelps in the race at the FINA World Championships in Rome, but he did avoid the upset plague this week: both Phelps and Aaron Peirsol, who NEVER lose, got beat in their races Tuesday and Wednesday. (Totally off the subject, everytime I write “FINA” I think of the world soccer organization FIFA, and I start giggling when I remember that their chief has the single worst name I’ve ever heard: Sepp Blatter. Seriously, that’s worse than Stubby Clapp.)

Lochte broke out his diamond-encrusted grill for the post-race press conference; he wore a similar one a few years ago at the Worlds. Guy’s just different, but he loves to have fun.

Anyway, Lochte’s got two events Friday, including the 200 meter backstroke, which might see he or Peirsol break another world record.

With Lochte, I’m thinking if he sets another world mark, he’ll break out the M.C. Hammer pants and a Carrot Top wig.

My new hero

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So my heroes used to be Don Mattingly, John McEnroe, Wesley Walker and Mark Messier.

I’d say with the exception of McEnroe, I chose pretty wisely as a kid. I thought Johnny Mac was so cool for the way he blew up at umpires and humiliated them, until I grew up and learned that for all his remarkable talent, he was just a big baby and remarkably immature. I outgrew McEnroe and was sort of ashamed that I used to love him.

But I’ve got a new hero now, and he’s kinda different from any other role model I’ve ever liked.

His name is Lance Allred, and he’s a 6-foot-11, deaf, OCD sufferer who’s a former Fundamentalist Mormon and grew up on polygamous compounds in Montana and Utah. He’s been battling in basketball his whole life, and for three shining games in 2008, finally made the NBA.

He just wrote an astonishingly honest, hilarious, forthcoming and tragic book about his life called “Longshot,” and I finished reading it last night.

To say it’s one of the best sports books I’ve ever read would be an insult, like calling Rembrandt just one of the 17th century’s best painters. Allred’s book is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in my life.

Unlikely, you say? Wait till you hear his story. He was an awkward, gangly child who was seen as a bit of an outcast since his father “only” had one wife. He became deaf immediately after being born but was undiagnosed for years.  He was told by a Sunday School teacher that he couldn’t hear because of sins he’d committed in a previous life (I hope that teacher got fired immediately, but I’m sure he didn’t.)

Eventually, his parents broke away from the compound and moved to Utah, before another family split made them homeless for a short while.

As a kid, Allred struggled to find his place (you know how kind kids can be to children who are different), and he finally did on the basketball court. Of course, that only brought more suffering. A much-beloved coach at the University of Utah named Rick Majerus treated Allred unconscionably while he was there, humiliating and destroying Allred’s confidence and once telling him he “was a disgrace to cripples.” (Majerus was eventually investigated for his behavior, and resigned from Utah shortly after Allred transferred).

Allred became a star at a smaller school, but then found himself battling through the bizarre and highly unpredictable world of minor league basketball in Turkey, France, and the United States (if for no other reason, buy the book to hear Allred’s wickedly funny description of travel life in the NBA Developmental League). 

There were so many times Allred wanted to quit, and so many times coaches and others gave up on him. But he finally made it to the NBA, if only for a few days, and when you get to that point in the book, you almost feel like cheering.

In his beautiful writing style, Allred weaves metaphors about life and basketball together with meditations on religion, the monotony of practice, and too many other topics to count. He refused to blame others for his failures, and is quick to credit others for his success. He’s funny, smart and had me looking at some things in a whole new light.

I got to meet Allred last month at an NBA summer league camp, after having heard about him on this NPR podcast, “Only A Game“. I wrote this column about him for my newspaper, and I was so impressed with his intelligence and humility that I knew I had to read his book. It blew me away.

Lance Allred will not become a major superstar, of  that I’m pretty certain. But he’s why I love sports; proof that beyond the reprehensible reputations of Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress and Barry Bonds there are good guys with amazing stories to tell of will and determination.

I defy you to read this book and not become a fan of Lance Allred. If money’s tight and you’re not able to buy “Longshot,” you can probably find it at your local library.

“I do not care about the money, or the fame,” Allred writes in a letter to God in the book. “I just want to say that I set an “unreachable” goal and I made it.”

He certainly did.

Michael Vick has paid his debt. Let him play.

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My mother-in-law is pretty far from what you’d call a sports fan.

Wonderful woman that she is, she couldn’t tell you the difference between John Elway, Dan Marino or Wayne Gretzky if you put them in a police lineup.

She doesn’t watch sports, follow sports, or care about sports; one time while on a car trip I asked her over the phone to “check the score” of some game, and it was as if I’d asked her to explain quantum physics. She was completely flummoxed.

Anyway, I relate all this because about two or three times a year, she gets really angry about something that happens in the world of sports. I feel like if she’s fired up about it, plenty of other non-sports fans are, and Monday evening she was all kinds of fired up about the Michael Vick reinstatement to the NFL.

Before I go into why I think Roger Goodell did the right thing by conditionally allowing the felonious Vick back into the league in October, pending certain conditions, I want to stipulate the following, before I get tons of angry comments (actually, I’d be happy for ANY comments at this point, but that’s another story).

Michael Vick has been a disgusting excuse for a human being. His pathetic abuse of defenseless dogs, his blatant lying to everyone about his involvement, and the frightening and methodical way he ran a dogfighting ring puts him just below bat excrement on my list of favorite things.

He deserved to be punished severely, and he was. He absolutely, positively should live in shame for a long time in the public eye for what he did.

But I’m having a hard time agreeing with people, like my mother-in-law, who think he should never be allowed to play pro football again. They argue his deeds were so heinous that he should never be allowed the right to resume his profession.

I don’t get that. Let’s think about what has happened to Vick in the last two years: He lost his NFL career and his major contract with the Atlanta Falcons, costing himself more than a hundred million dollars.  He lost all of his endorsers. He was convicted of a felony. He spent nearly two years in prison, and for the rest of his life he will have to live with the memory of what he did (and, I’m sure, he’ll have to live with the animal-loving masses who no doubt will stalk him wherever he ends up.)

Now that he has paid his debt, is he not entitled to go back to work? If he was a banker or a lawyer or a gravedigger, would he not be allowed to try to pick up the pieces of his life and resume his career?

This is America, where getting a second chance is practically written into the Constitution. Was Vick’s crime more disgusting than most? Sure. Is it worse than athletes who beat their wives or get charged with DUI manslaughter like Donte Stallworth and Leonard Little, NFL players who aren’t suffering 1/10th the penalty that Vick has gotten?

One other thing that people who are railing against the NFL seem to be forgetting is that no team has to sign him. There are no guns to anyone’ s head.

It would take a coach and general manager who are awfully secure in their jobs, and in their team’s popularity with its fan base, to risk the backlash of a Vick signing. I fully expect huge PETA and/or ASPCA protests at any NFL stadium Vick would play in this year, or any year. Who could gamble on him? I’d say New England, because Bill Belichick is pretty bulletproof up there, or maybe Pittsburgh, coming off a Super Bowl win. And then there’s the Detroit Lions, who are so pathetic that perhaps their fans wouldn’t care about Vick’s transgressions if he helped them win.

Look, I think Vick should absolutely be scrutinized and banned permanently from the NFL if he even does anything remotely outside of the law.

But how long do we as a society need to punish a person? I’m not saying forgive Michael Vick, because he doesn’t deserve that yet.

But by allowing him to attempt to pick up  the pieces of his shattered life, the NFL is simply giving Michael Vick a second chance.

A chance that all of us in this country deserve.

“Rescue Me” and Rickey’s induction speech

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So I’m one of those people who gets really mad when my friends and family don’t watch a TV show I recommend heavily.

I think I have a secret fear that if I don’t zealously spread the word, it’ll get canceled.

I told everyone I knew to watch “Freaks and Geeks,” still the best show about high school ever. Few did. It got canceled after 18 episodes.

I raved about an old Jay Mohr show called “Action,” which was hilarious but criminally unloved. I loved “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which lasted a whole season.

After the pilot, I spread the gospel of “Dirty Sexy Money.” “It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s well acted, and it’s probably way too smart for most of America!” I exclaimed. It too got canceled.

With that track record, friends and family have grown skeptical. But dammit, sometimes I’m right. And from the first episode in 2004, my favorite show on television has been FX’s “Rescue Me.

If you are not familiar with it, a brief primer: It’s about life in a New York City firehouse post 9/11. The adventures of Ladder 62 make for the most hilarious yet heartbreaking show I’ve ever seen. In one minute, you’ll be busting out laughing at the wildly inappropriate humor. A few minutes later you’ll be devastated by the drama.

If you haven’t seen it, I beg you to give this hilarious clip a try. Or this unbelievably heart-wrenching one.

No show I’ve ever seen does comedy and dark humor better. Denis Leary is the star and is a genius. He plays Tommy Gavin, who has so many terrible qualities but so many great ones. Leary has been on other shows before and I’ve always watched them, because the dude is flat-out funny. When I was 14 I wore out his “No Cure for Cancer” comedy cassette, I played it so much. (The joke about the guy with the voice-box pulling up to the drive-through at McDonald’s still kills me).

Turns out Leary, who is one of the writers, is also a great actor, and the rest of the cast is fantastic, too. There’s Franco, the Puerto Rican tough guy who gets all the ladies and was revealed this season to have some interesting 9/11 theories. There’s Mike the probie, who is just so stupid but so endearingly earnest. There’s Ken (aka Lou), a great foil to Leary’s Tommy, who’s unlucky with women but has a great heart. There’s Sean, a great partner for Mike who has great comic timing and facial expressions.

There are lots more terrific, well-drawn characters, too, including a pair of crazy women Tommy’s constantly ping-ponging between. (For fans of the show, yes, I know that’s an old picture of the cast I’ve got up top, but I’m still mad they killed off Jerry the Chief a few years ago. I loved him.)

I don’t know why the Emmy Awards people keep snubbing this show, but it’s in the middle of Season 6 now and it’s still fantastic.

OK, end of arm-twist. It’s on tonight at 10 on FX, and it’s well worth your time.

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**On another note, I was wildly disappointed in Rickey Henderson’s Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech. Not only was Rickey one of my favorite players growing up (at least when he was a Yankee), but the dude was 100 percent unintentionally funny. He spoke in the third person constantly; one of my favorite Henderson stories was when, disgruntled with the team he was on, he called every GM in baseball and said “This is Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey, letting you know that Rickey is available in a trade.”

Then there’s the story, which may be apocryphal, when he went up to John Olerud and said he played with a guy in New York who also wore a batting helmet in the field.

“Um, Rickey, that was me,” Olerud allegedly said.

Anyway, Henderson’s speech was anticipated since he was elected in January; what would such a strange dude say on the biggest day of his life?
Sadly for us, it was a straight, emotional, speech. Rickey didn’t even call himself “Rickey” during the 14-minute talk.

I’d say it was a pretty big letdown. Oh well. We still have the great Phil Rizzuto speech from1994 to appreciate.

The Teddys of New England

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I’m not sure if HBO planned it this way (it’d have been very smart if it did), but in the past three weeks the channel premiered two brand-new and extremely good documentaries on men called “Ted” who both are inextricably linked with New England.

Ted Williams, the greatest baseball hitter who ever lived, and Ted Kennedy, who’s been serving in the U.S. Senate for 46 years (I admit, that number astounded me, even though I knew he’d been there forever. Let me use a sports metaphor to put that into perspective: Ted Kennedy has been running for, or been in the Senate for the entire history of the New York Mets franchise. Amazing.)

I watched both movies this weekend, and thought both were terrific. You wouldn’t think there would be that much in common between them other than Massachusetts: Teddy Ballgame was a San Diego kid who grew up and could do something better than anyone else in the world: hit a baseball between two fielders.

And Teddy Kennedy, well, he’s an indestructible force of nature, for good and bad, who’s been a part of the American political scene longer than anyone else.

A couple of things I think connect the two men, which came into focus after watching the two movies:

**Both of them gave people plenty of reason to dislike them, yet have ended up being mostly beloved. Williams was a jerk to a lot of people: teammates, the media, his own family, sometimes.

**They both had difficult childhoods, though for very different reasons. Williams was neglected by his parents and forced to grow up fast, while Kennedy suffered tragedy after tragedy. Two siblings died before he was even 15 years old, which I don’t think most people remember about him.

** You want your flawed heroes, here are two very flawed men. Williams was a jerk a lot of the time, an absent father to his kids, and he seemed to resent how much Joe Dimaggio won, and yet “The Splendid Splinter” could get to only one World Series.

(Still think that might be the best baseball nickname ever. Although it’s hard to argue against “The Human Rain Delay,” which was what they called ex-Indians slugger Mike Hargrove. He got the name because he took so damn long between pitches, stepping out of the box and what not. See, the things you learn on this blog!)

And as for Kennedy, well, where do you start with his flaws? He was a heavy drinker for most of his adult life, an accidental murderer of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne on the island of Chappaquiddick 40 years ago, and an egotist who commanded the spotlight everywhere he went.

But both men were so human, with their foibles so out in the open, that I think perhaps they became larger than life when they succeeded.

A few other thoughts on each movie, both of which are showing on HBO all month and on HBO On Demand:

** I knew Williams had a love-hate relationship with Red Sox fans, but I was honestly shocked to learn that as early as 1940, after his amazing rookie season, he was getting booed at Fenway. The guy had just hit .327, drove in 145 runs, and finished fourth in the MVP voting, and he’s getting yelled at by his home fans? Crazy.

**His temper was legendary, but I thought the best example in the movie was the anecdote told by one of his former wives, who said he once ripped the phone out of the wall in their house, then demanded she call the phone company to have them come fix it. Funny if it wasn’t so scary.

**Robert Redford chose No. 9 for the Roy Hobbs character in “The Natural” because he idolized Ted Williams. Didn’t know that.

** I know the “Ted Kennedy has endured so much tragedy” angle is as cliched as it gets, but when you see it all put together at once, it’s still breathtaking in its sadness. Brother Joe and sister Kathleen die early in his life. Brother John murdered while President. Then Teddy nearly dies in a plane crash. Four years later, other brother Robert shot while running for President. Then Ted’s son gets bone cancer and has to have leg amputated. It’s just staggering.

The man is truly indestructible, like the knight in the famous Monty Python sketch who gets his legs and arms cut off in a fight then screams, “Come back, it’s only a flesh wound!”

** I find it sad that Chappaquiddick has almost become an afterthought in the Kennedy legacy. A woman died. Kennedy drove off a bridge, escaped, tried to save her, then went back to his room and never reported that she was down there. Truly horrible, despicable behavior. I like so much of what Kennedy has done as a senator, but it’s really hard to respect him as a man after what happened in July of 1969.

**Also found it interesting that during the 1970s busing crisis in Boston, Kennedy was a pariah. He was booed and pelted with debris because he actually supported interracial school busing.

I came away with more admiration and respect for both 20th century giants after seeing this. Check them out if you have the chance.

P.S. The link on the Ted Williams reference above is to an Esquire story by Richard Ben Cramer, and it’s one of the single greatest pieces of sportswriting ever. If you have 20 minutes, it’s definitely worth your time.

The world’s greatest swimmer (not named Phelps)

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So three years ago, my sports editor in Daytona Beach asked me something about Ryan Lochte.

“Who?” I replied innocently. He rolled his eyes, muttered something, and went back into his office.

To be fair, I don’t think most people had heard of Ryan Lochte in 2006. He was an international swimmer, sure, but he’d been out of college only a year, had swam at one Olympics (he got a relay gold and an individual silver in Athens in 2004), and wasn’t really known for much.

Now, I can tell you more than you’d ever want to know, since at my newspaper I’ve been on the “Lochte beat” for two years. In threatening to eclipse Vince Carter as the MFAFDB (or as you might call it, Most Famous Athlete From Daytona Beach), Lochte has become a major star.

The dude is 24 now, and has six Olympic medals to his credit. In the past two years he has emerged as the biggest rival in the pool to Michael Phelps. Lochte has beaten Phelps a couple of of times (of course, Phelps has beaten Lochte much more often), and last year at the U.S. Olympic swim trials the two staged a couple of epic duels.

At the Beijing Olympics, Lochte nabbed two golds and two bronzes, and set another world record, in the 200 backstroke.

Now if you follow swimming or the Olympics, you may know all that already. But being that I pretty much ate, slept, swam and breathed this guy last summer, (and wrote yet another story on him in today’s News-Journal) I thought I’d share a few things you might not know, because, hey, it’s my blog.

— Lochte’s a different kind of cat, in more ways than one. He didn’t really get serious about swimming until he was about 16; until then he just drove his dad, Steve, a respected national swim coach, nuts. Even for the first couple years at the University of Florida he wasn’t considered a star. Then he blew up and the rest is history.

— He’s also well … different. He’s got the “Spicoli” from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” thing down to a science. When he looks at you, his eyes are kind of vacant, and you’re never quite sure if he’s really paying attention. He’s terrible at returning phone calls, which isn’t atypical for athletes, except his own Mom (a sweetheart of a woman named Ike) often can’t get him on the horn.

— He’s turned into a gay icon, for some reason (well, probably because he looks good in a swimsuit); he’s been on the cover of several gay magazines and judging by the message boards I’ve seen, has thousands of gay fans.

–He eats candy all the time. I mean, ALL THE TIME. His mother still sends him bags of candy each week.

— He’s not exactly known for his timing; he got a stomach virus in Beijing, two days before he was about to race, because he brushed his teeth with water from the tap even though, like, 5,000 people had warned him not to do that.

— Because of his laid-back personality, he’s become in some ways a bigger fan favorite with the swimming community’s fans and media than Phelps. Phelps is pretty rigid and scripted; you never know what Lochte will say or do.

It’s funny, sportswriters like to say that we don’t really know these athletes, even when we cover them for years. In Lochte’s case, it’s completely, and literally, true.

I’d say I’ve interviewed him in person 6-8 times, and maybe over the phone another dozen, and I’m honestly not sure he’d remember my name if I didn’t remind him of it each time we meet. He’s basically a good guy, though.

Like I said, he’s just a different dude. But he’s an amazing athlete and a fantastic swimmer. The World Championships start today in Rome, and NBC is televising it at noon. Something called the Universal Sports network will have coverage throughout the week, and then NBC will televise the finals next weekend. Lochte isn’t going head-t0-head with Phelps this meet, so he’ll probably come home with a world record or two. (Though the way swimming is going right now, it’s a shock when a world record isn’t broken. So much controversy over the different kinds of suits; I say, let ’em all swim naked, and we’ll have a fair race.)

If you get a chance, check out my story on Lochte in today’s News-Journal, and on the tube today.

Look for the guy who looks slightly confused, but is going faster than everyone else, and you’ll see him.

**Sunday afternoon update: Lochte got his first gold medal of the Worlds, teaming with Phelps, Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian to win the 4×100 free relay. Lochte has four events left to swim.

My new favorite opening day, and a hilarious wedding video

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So Opening Day to me used to mean only two things: The first day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training for the new baseball season, and the actual Opening Day, the first week of April.

But as I said before, baseball and me are pretty much broken up. I don’t have the passion for it anymore, and I don’t even think I noticed those two old landmarks last spring.

Now, the two best dates for me, this year, are today and Sept. 13. Because today, the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills players started reporting for NFL training camp. And Sept. 13 is the first Sunday of the NFL season.

I can smell it. I can taste it. Football is just around the corner.

After a long hiatus, the memories are all wafting back into the mind’s eye.

The blinding speed of the wide receivers breaking open past the defense. The lightning-quick feet of the running back, dancing through holes like a Baryshnikov in cleats. The bone-crunching hit by the middle linebacker on a tight end who has the temerity to come across the middle.

I miss it so much during the offseason. Even though I’m a New York Jets fan, and I know the upcoming season will bring misery and end without a championship, just like the last 40 have, I still am as excited for football’s return as a kid on the night before his birthday. (My family, knowing the insane  level of my Jets fan-dom, has often asked me how I would react if the Jets ever actually, you know, WON a Super Bowl. I tell them not to worry; it’s never going to happen, so that question will always be hypothetical)

I don’t know exactly when the NFL surpassed baseball as America’s No. 1 sport; it could’ve been in the late 1980s, when the San Francisco 49ers brought offensive beauty to a new level. Or maybe it was during the Dallas Cowboys’ heyday in the early 1990s, when the team everyone loved to hate (including me) was on top.

Whenever it was, the NFL is clearly No.1 right now. Check out the thousands of people who go to training camp just to watch practice for a few hours, or the people who will pay ridiculous amounts of money for personal seat licenses, just for the right to purchase tickets to a game.

I can’t wait for the sounds of the sport I love to come rippling into my ears. I love the roar of the crowd after a sack, and the dead silence when the visiting team scores.

Aah, I love it so much. Training camps are open. Preseason’s just around the corner. Everybody’s still undefeated. The Jets might still win it all this year …

Game on.

P.S. So I love it when people take an old tradition and completely invent something new. This was from a wedding in Minnesota recently; it’s maybe the best opening to a ceremony I’ve ever seen. It’s just people having fun and completely acting in a wonderfully happy way. It’s already been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube. Enjoy.

Ah, New Jersey, the land of kidney-selling

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A few weeks ago, in the midst of the moronic and childish New York state senate standoff, I wrote on my friend Jeff Pearlman’s blog that after all those shenanigans, I almost wished I was from New Jersey.

Delightfully, New Jersey has fired back with some sleaze of its own.

I almost don’t know where to start on this whole New Jersey politician/rabbi/corruption story; it’s almost too easy to make fun of.

If you’re not aware of what happened, 44 people were arrested in New Jersey Thursday on corruption charges, involving money-laundering, bribery, and kidney-selling (yes, kidney-selling).

This baby has it all: dirty politicians, including some, like the mayor of Hoboken, who ran on “anti-corruption” platforms. Sleazy rabbis funneling money to Israel and elsewhere, and of course, body-part selling.

Now, disappointingly for writers like me, the rabbis themselves were not directly involved in the kidney-selling part, though a Jewish guy, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, was.

The jokes are endless with an orthodox Jew being involved: Was he unable to touch dairy after handling the kidney?  Did he have to make sure no ham or pork products had been ingested by the person whose kidney he was taking?

And most excitingly, was the kidney stolen on the Sabbath?  Because, you know, I’m pretty sure it says somewhere in the Torah that along with electricity and traveling in a car, organ-harvesting is also forbidden on that holy day.

This scandal is so beautiful; even longtime New Jersey scandal-watchers are saying this is bad, “even for New Jersey.” My favorite parts so far have been the sheer brazenness of the Rabbis (I always love it when religious leaders who always preach about morality have their hand in the cookie jar), and the quote from the mayor of Hoboken, Peter J. Cammarano, to the FBI informant during one of the deals, just before he was elected:

“Right now, the Italians, the Hispanics, the seniors, are locked down. I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still going to win 85 to 95 percent of those populations.”

Well Pete, that sounded like a hypothetical then, but now, you can get that chance! Lets’ s see what it takes to get rid of him.

See, there’s a reason these stereotypes exist about New Jersey, and Louisiana, and Illinois politicians. It’s BECAUSE THEY”RE TRUE!

New Jersey has always had an inferiority complex about New York, and rightfully so. New York has better everything than New Jersey, except, apparently, corrupt officials.

So congratulations, New Jersey. You’ve once again made me proud to be a New Yorker.

And believe me, the next time I stop at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, I’ll think twice before ordering the kidney bean salad.

The rush to claim racism

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One of the things I hate about our society these days (besides Paris Hilton and those idiots at Fox News) is the incredible rush to judgement everyone makes.

Quick, a story has happened, don’t worry if you know all the facts, have a take, any take! Blast somebody, cry foul, demand immediate justice … the other side of the story be damned.

Our 3-year-old’s mentality (“I want it and I want it now!) flared up again over the last few days, when the story of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has been chewed up and spit out by the media and the blogosphere.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Gates, a brilliant man who’s one of the foremost African-American historians alive, was arrested Thursday at his home for disorderly conduct. He had arrived at his home in Cambridge, Mass., from a trip to China. A white neighbor of his thought he was trying to break in, called the cops, and Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct.

This story has gotten an enormous amount of attention; even President Obama was asked about it.

And for the most part, the reaction was consistent: How could the Cambridge cop, Sgt. James Crowley, arrest such a prominent man, in his own home? What a racist officer he must be, and how disgraceful is it that in 2009, when we have an African-American president, that stuff like this can happen.

First of all, any white person who doesn’t think this goes on to black people on a regular basis is just delusional. I don’t care how far we’ve come, racist behavior by white police officers and other public officials happens all the time, still.

But look a little deeper at this situation, take a deep breath, and let’s look at what actually happened. Gates is a pretty famous guy, but he’s not someone you’d instantly recognize. So the idea that the white woman who didn’t know it was him, and just assumed he was an ordinary black person, is not lunacy.

Then, there’s this: Gates was having trouble getting into his house, all parties stipulate. So he asked the cabdriver who’d driven him there to help him get in the house.

Imagine you’re the neighbor, and you see two men trying to jimmy open the front door to a nice house. Is it so wrong for her to call the police?

Then let’s look at what happened inside the house. When the officer, Crowley, arrived, he told Gates there was a report of a break-in. Gates reportedly got angry and demanded the officer’s badge number. Crowley said he asked Gates for some identification, and that Gates initially refused.

Eventually, Gates started getting agitated and yelled at the officer, and Crowley then arrested the professor for disorderly conduct.

Put yourself in Crowley’s shoes for a moment: He’s got an angry man yelling at him, he’s been told there was a burglary in the house, and the man won’t identify himself.

I’m not saying Crowley acted totally correctly; you could make a strong argument that once he learned who Gates was, the arrest never should’ve been made.

But again, there is some nuance here; Crowley didn’t know who Gates was, according to the police report Gates was screaming at the officer, and I don’t think we should automatically brand Crowley “a racist cop” as so many have.

The charges were dropped a few hours later, and of course I understand why Gates is angry. But please, can everyone just take a step back and not try to make this into a Rodney King or Amadou Diallo-type incident?

This is not a black and white story, and if people would just learn a few of the facts, the knee-jerk cries of racism, that do no one any good when they’re unproven, might die down just a little bit.

The genius of the Harry Potter books

HarryPotter

Back in 2004, my then-girlfriend, now wife, asked me if I wanted to go our local Barnes & Noble at midnight for a Harry Potter Book Release party.

I believe “Um, excuse me?”  was my reply. Of course I knew by that point about the Harry Potter phenomenon; four best-selling books had already come and gone, and you’d have to have been living in one of Osama bin Laden’s caves to have not heard about this boy wizard who could do magic.

But I’d never picked up one of the books, or read an excerpt. My wife is one of those people who locks themselves in a room for 12 hours when a new Potter book arrives, not resurfacing until she’s finished.

So I had no interest in Potter, but, because when you’re dating you’ll pretty much go anywhere a woman wants, I tagged along.

I was amazed at what I saw. Hundreds of kids dressed up like their favorite characters, roaming the store. People passing out stickers professing their love to Draco Malfoy or Ron Weasley. Kids comparing notes about what they thought the new book would be like.

Honestly, it looked like a “Star Trek” convention for little people. And so, after a little more prodding by other people I knew who were devout Potter-philes, I dived in.

So far I’ve read six of the seven masterpieces; I just finished “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” over the weekend. Yeah, I know I’m behind, but I started late, and I like to take six months to a year between books; it seems to make me appreciate them more.

And not that J.K. Rowling needs any help from me,  but I want to spend a few minutes telling you why, if you haven’t given them a try, you should.

For one thing, they’re wonderful adventure stories. The plots are complex, but not too complex that you’ll get confused.

Sure, it helps if you’ve read them in order, because you know the history of the characters, but you could easily pick up “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and enjoy it on its own.

The details are so clever and amusing, too; Rowling spent so much time crafting each story, and each character, that everything that the characters say and do rings true. Of course some mishap will happen to Neville Longbottom, and of course Hermione Granger will get frustrated at Ron’s antics, etc.

The writing itself, of course, also sets the books apart. Rowling is a master at the language, and she makes you feel so emotionally attached to the individuals in her stories that you truly do feel their hopes and dreams.

I’m awfully tired of people deriding the Potter books as “children’s literature.”  They’re way more than that. They are true works of art, able to be enjoyed as much by 13-year-olds and 63-year-olds.

I’ve got one book left, and I almost don’t want to start reading it, because I know it’s the last one.

Anyway, if you’ve been a Potter-phobe before, check out “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and just read a few pages.

You’ll get sucked in, whether you mean to or not.