One of the greatest spectacles in U.S. sports is The Kentucky Derby. While I have been to Churchill Downs on a number of occasions, I have yet to make it to that iconic palace for its greatest annual event. So instead, every year in the week leading up to this event, I give a reread to the great Hunter S. Thompson feature “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” to satisfy a nagging itch that could probably only be scratched by a bender I’m no longer willing to undertake.
“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” is a significant benchmark for a number of reasons. Thompson was still finding his way in the “New Journalism” movement of the time, and after it was published it became the first of his pieces referred to as Gonzo–a moniker that was and will be forever synonymous with his revolutionary work. It also marked the beginning of a lifelong creative partnership between Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman. But it also provided a bit of social commentary about what it meant to interact with the “whisky gentry” of the South nearly half a century ago, and you can’t help but notice how little has changed since.
Personally, I’m connected to this piece in two ways. At this year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, I caught the documentary “For No Good Reason,” a film about Steadman’s art and relationship with Thompson (Johnny Depp features prominently as well). It’s a great picture for Thompson/Gonzo fans, and the beginning of the Steadman-Thompson partnership at the time of the 1970 Kentucky Derby is featured prominently. The other personal connection is to Michael MacCambridge, contributor to the Grantland website who annotated “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” for the site–and taught me sports journalism at Washington University in St. Louis. Maybe he wouldn’t want me bragging about that, but it happened all the same.
Enough about me. The Kentucky Derby happens later this afternoon. Before then, do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read the Director’s Cut version of “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” over at Grantland (language warning). And resist the urge to Mace everyone you see today.
The tale is well known. In 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no hitter against the San Diego Padres while under the influence of LSD. It’s the stuff of legend for baseball aficionados and psychedelic adventurers alike, but both groups want to know the answer to same question: How in the hell could someone pitch a no-no while tripping on acid?
Ellis’ career and life were more than just one great performance under the most bizarre of circumstances, however, and “No No: A Dockumentary” explores the man he was on and off the field. The documentary premiered Saturday at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas as part of the annual event’s new “South By Sports” effort.
The no hitter is the central event around which “No No” revolves, but it is far from the only focus of the film. I count myself among probably many who didn’t know much more about Ellis than the acid event, but he was a lot more than that and “No No” does a great job of telling the whole story of the man.
Ellis was a fairly polarizing figure in his day, and his day was a fairly turbulent time in history. In “No No” I learned about his baseball career, his civil rights activism, his flamboyant personality, and his substance and physical abuse problems. I also learned about how Ellis was able to right the ship and use his experiences to mentor troubled and at-risk youth long after his Major League Baseball days were over. He was far from a perfect man, but Ellis managed to overcome his faults and accomplish a lot of good before his death in 2008 from a liver ailment. The film covers his ups and downs and features interviews from teammates, family members, and close friends. Footage of Ellis himself is from before filming for this movie began, but its inclusion punctuates the story perfectly.
“No No: A Dockumentary” is an incredible film that would be really hard to improve upon. It is laughs, it is tears, it is a redemption story, it is a baseball story. And if you enjoy any of the aforementioned even a little bit, it is a can’t miss. “No No: A Dockumentary” is one of the best baseball documentaries I’ve ever seen, and the long, sustained applause from the audience at its conclusion tells me I’m not alone in that assessment. Seriously, when it comes out, see it.
This week marked the 30th anniversary of the release of Van Halen’s epic album 1984. I could sit here and wax poetic about the greatness of each song, the unbelievable sales the album achieved, and how it played into the departure of David Lee Roth from the band. But that’s all been done so many times I’m afraid Google would laugh at me if I added another document like that to its search results. So here’s something a little more personal.
Van Halen’s 1984 is easily the largest brick in the foundation of my love for all things music. In fact, it might just be the entire foundation.
I was born in 1977, so Van Halen has been around almost as long as I have. But like most kids in that 7-8-9 year old range, my mid-80s music tastes were still pretty much limited to what my parents owned or what happened to come on the radio. I’m not entirely sure how much airplay Van Halen got in those days before 1984, but I either never heard it or never recognized it on the stations that dominated our house and cars. We listened to a lot of music, and we had a lot of records—just no Van Halen that I can recall.
Then my parents decided it was time to step out of the 70s and into the 80s and bought a portable stereo with a cassette player and tuner known in those days as a “boom box.” My dad also joined Columbia House, the music club catalog service that would send you new cassettes (or records, at that time) you chose every month, or a preselected hit album unless you told them not to. Back then I think the introductory offer was six for a penny or something like that. Anyway, I’m pretty sure by that time “Jump” and “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher” had made it through even our stereo speakers via popular radio, so that first shipment of cassettes included 1984.
I don’t know if it was fascination with the new medium or just a budding desire to listen to whatever new music came my way, but I listened to those first cassettes every chance I got. Eventually I would start building my own collection of music outside of the children’s records and random 45s I had scattered among my parents’ collection, and it was all cassettes. I still listened to a lot of the stuff my dad was now acquiring on cassette as well, but 1984 was always a go-to for me—so much so that, inevitably, the tape ended up in my collection permanently. I played the shit out of that thing, so much so that the white plastic yellowed and most of the screen printed track listings were rubbed down to mere ghosts of the black lettering they once were. I was in awe of Edward Van Halen’s guitar virtuosity, Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony’s thunder, and David Lee Roth’s bravado. My love for Van Halen was off and running.
As I got older, friends turned me on to the new incarnation of VH with Sammy Hagar at the helm. By the time I started high school, I owned every Van Halen release on cassette. Not long after, I got my first CD player. I had evolved into full-fledged geekdom over Van Halen by then, so of course I re-bought every album on disc—but one of the first ones was, of course, 1984.
And then something happened that would change me and my music obsessions forever. At a friend’s house as a teenager—probably while I was preaching to my eye-rolling comrades about how great Van Halen was and/or how Eddie is the greatest guitarist who ever lived—my friend’s dad caught wind of my love for VH and said he had something I might like. He brought out a copy of 1984 on vinyl that was still partially in the original shrink wrap. He said he bought it when it first came out because he liked “Jump” but didn’t really care for the rest of the album, so it had been played once. I was in awe once again but, oddly enough, I couldn’t quite figure out why. At that point in the mid-90s, vinyl was nowhere near its resurgence. Records were the dusty old fossils parents brought out to reminisce about polyester days gone by. A child of the times, I had a respectable cassette collection that I was slowly pushing toward obsolescence by a growing CD collection. But this record immediately jumped out to me as a beautiful, pristine work of art and I had to have it. The black vinyl was so clean I could see myself in it. It even still smelled new. I think I gave him $10 for it; at the time, it probably wasn’t worth half that. But you can’t put a price tag on love at first sight.
Since that day, I’ve acquired about 1,000 records of varying condition and worth, both monetary and sentimental. But 1984 is still my most treasured record, and always will be. It was the first hit of a long, steady addiction to vinyl. Strangely, it’s not even my favorite Van Halen album musically. But as is true in every aspect of life, you never forget your first. And listening to it today still gives me that same flood of awe and wonder it did nearly 30 years ago and every day in between.
Even though I’ve made a few over the years, I’m not really sure what the point is of making a New Year’s Resolution. I get the symbolism of a new beginning and wanting the road ahead to be better than the one in the rearview mirror. But I’m not sure any of my resolutions ever stuck. I’ve had much more success with positive change when I said “fuck it” and spontaneously jumped in head-first. If you’re going to do something, do it.
I promise I’m not discouraging others from making resolutions—just stating that they’ve never worked for me. I know I’m not alone on that island, just like I know there are tons of folks who make their annual covenant with self and follow through every time. We’re all different, obviously, but we’re all really kind of the same too. Raise your hand if any of these sounds like you:
Would I like to lose that last 20 pounds? Sure.
Would I like to finish that project I’ve never been able to polish off? Sure.
Would I like to put myself in a better financial position, eat healthier, learn to play an instrument, learn a foreign language, volunteer in my community, take a cooking class, or become a helicopter pilot?
Sure. All of that sounds wonderful.
But I can’t do it all in one year. Hell, all of that stuff would take me at least ten. So what if I pick one and fail? Can I start another one as a March resolution? Seems a bit too gimmicky for me. I’m all for making lists, but this isn’t picking up groceries or figuring out the best songs of 1972. This is supposed to be me bettering my life. Not that I have a lot to complain about in the first place…there’s just always room for improvement, no?
And that idea is what led me here. There is always room for improvement. You super goal-oriented people: how long do you revel in the achievement of a goal before you start working toward the next one? It would be very easy for me to keep one of the resolutions above and, at the same time, completely blow it in another area of my life. That’s not really success in my book.
So I’m not making a New Year’s Resolution on January 1 of 2014 or any of the following years I’m fortunate enough to remain on this earth. But I am adopting a new motto. This may be something you’re down with and want to try; if so, more power to you and good luck. Or maybe you love the idea of a yearly resolution and think I’m a weirdo; if so, that’s fine too. I just think I’ve come up with something meaningful to my life that doesn’t ever have to change, but at the same time could bring about tons of change every day of every year going forward. This isn’t anything groundbreaking or planet-saving, but at 12:01 every 01/01 I’m going to say it to myself. Ready? Here it is:
“Do it better this year than you did it last year.”
Simple, yet potentially outstanding no matter what I achieve (or don’t). Here’s to living up to it. Cheers, and Happy New Year.
After St. Louis won Game 5 of the NLDS, the Cardinal Nation Twittersphere was obviously jubilant and busy. I happened upon a tweet by fellow Cardinal blogger Dennis Lawson that talked about the hug Adam Wainwright got from Yadier Molina at the conclusion of Wednesday night’s clincher and compared it to the hug Jason Motte got from Molina at the securing of the last out of the 2011 World Series. After a quick exchange, Dennis remarked “Seriously, I want to celebrate the end of a work day with a Yadi hug.”
It’s a funny mental picture, depending on your job. And it got me thinking: that would actually make a great “This is SportsCenter” commercial.
You’ve seen these spots advertising ESPN’s flagship news and highlights show; athletes or mascots or pop culture luminaries interact with SportsCenter anchors in the offices or on the set of the network’s headquarters and awkward hilarity ensues. Albert Pujols as “The Machine,” somewhat vanilla football commentator John Clayton as a metal head, and this misunderstanding in the lunch line are a few of my favorites. Proposing ideas for these commercials is certainly nothing new, but I’m going to give it a whirl. I’m emulating the “This is SportsCenter” model so of course the settings and cast will follow suit.
SportsCenter anchor John Anderson gets out of his car to head into work at the start of the day. He is met by Yadier Molina in full uniform and gear (but carrying his mask), who walks Anderson into the building like he would walk from the bullpen to the dugout with that day’s starting pitcher. While they’re walking Molina says “OK John, you have a tough day today: full NFL schedule, MLB playoffs, hockey highlights. Here (hands Anderson a sheet of paper) is your list of catch phrases; stick to the game plan and we should get through OK.” Anderson agrees with everything Molina says.
Cut to the lunchroom, and anchor Scott Van Pelt is looking in the fridge. He says “Hmm, I wonder what John brought me for lunch today…” Suddenly the door is slammed shut, almost smashing his hand. Van Pelt straightens and turns; Molina is standing there (full uniform and gear, but again no mask) slowly shaking his head and says, firmly, “NO STEALING.” Van Pelt mumbles an apology and sulks out of the room while Molina looks at him disapprovingly.
Cut to the SportsCenter studio, showing Anderson in the middle of anchoring but from over his shoulder so the ESPN cameras and teleprompters are visible too. Among the cameras is Molina in his crouch (full gear with mask). As Anderson is setting up a highlight, Molina puts down a two fingers sign; Anderson pauses for an instant to glance at the catch phrase sheet Molina gave him earlier and smoothly delivers catch phrase #2.
Anderson, obviously tired and a little disheveled after a long day, punches out at a time clock and, turning, raises his hands in relief and joy. The camera then pans back to show Molina doing the same thing and running toward Anderson; they hug and jump and yell as if they just won the World Series while “This is SportsCenter” appears on the screen.
I’m not sure if all of that could be squeezed into 30 seconds; maybe the lunchroom scene would have to be a short follow-up commercial. But I think it works. Because let’s face it…we’d all be a little happier at our jobs if we knew even the toughest day might end with a hug from Yadi.
Right. So it’s the closing moments of what would have been Hunter S. Thompson’s 76th birthday. Not coincidentally, I’m in the closing sips of a glass of a pretty good 5-year rum.
If not for the good doctor, I’m not sure I’d enjoy writing—and, for that matter, reading—as much as I do today. I never wanted to be HST; I just wanted to capture that bite. It’s not something that can be properly explained but you know it when you see it. I could be talking about anything—sports, politics, pop culture, cooking, laundry tips—and then, crunch, like a shark through unsuspecting flesh. Fear. Loathing. The bite hits you and you can’t turn back. Maybe you’re inspired or horrified or tickled or disappointed. Regardless, your brain carves out a little niche and shoves those words in. And they’re in that little cranny forever. It’s a legacy to which all writers should aspire, content be damned.
No one can capture and relive the frenzy that was Thompson’s life; at least not fully. But your own life can take on Gonzo qualities if you really want it to. Because I always viewed that state of being as completely subjective. Live your life. Take chances but always be smart. Fight for what’s right. Do it with a buzz or do it without; it doesn’t really matter as long as you make your own rules in spite of theirs and manage to not get caught along the way.
Thank you, Doc. For everything. Maybe someday I’ll come up with a proper tribute.
Res ipsa loquitur.
Last week, Danny Knobler of CBSsports.com wrote a great article about the St. Louis Cardinals and their decision process for letting Albert Pujols sign elsewhere while eventually re-signing Yadier Molina and how that was the right move for the future of the franchise. I have no dispute with any part of the article, so there’s no need to go through it here—but I highly recommend reading it if you’re a fan of the Cardinals, interested in how to build and maintain a culture of winning, or just love the business of baseball in general.
But on a personal note, the piece struck a chord with me and somewhat related decision I had to make a few years back.
In 2009, Busch Stadium hosted the All Star Game. It was the first time the Midsummer Classic was held in St. Louis in 40+ years, and anticipation was high. The once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the festivities was the catalyst for us to get partial season tickets, knowing that was our best shot at securing tickets for the All Star festivities as well. We were correct; as soon as they were available, we purchased tickets to the game, the Home Run Derby, the Fan Fest, all of it. As All Star Weekend drew near, I was surprised with one more All Star-centric proposition: as an early birthday present, I could select an All Star batting practice jersey for my gift. The jerseys were red, of course, with the great All Star logo featuring the Gateway Arch, and just a hint of the powder blue beloved by so many Cards fans—including myself. Though they weren’t the only players selected from that ‘09 team to represent the Cardinals on the National League squad, for me there were really only two choices: Pujols or Molina.
I have written about this kind of decision before; in fact, it was earlier in 2009. But that was just off-the-cuff thinking out loud, before I was faced with actually making the decision. And it was one I had a LOT of trouble making. At that time, Pujols was still peaking as the best hitter in the game. His importance to the Cardinals’ lineup was never higher, especially since former fellow “MV3” members Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen were now with other teams. Based on that and the words from his own mouth, it seemed unfathomable that Pujols would ever wear a different uniform. On the flipside, Molina was quickly coming into his own as an elite player. His defense was never in question, but his light offensive numbers and clunky base running usually relegated him to the bottom of the order. Then, in 2008, he topped a .300 batting average and 50 RBI for the first time. He was getting on base much more often and striking out very little. His importance to the franchise was high before, but if his offense kept coming around he too would be harder and harder for the Cardinals to let walk. It was a decision I put off until the very last second; even as we pulled up to the Cardinals Team Store I was still mentally flipping the coin. On the one hand, the 2009 All Star Game would be an event that could never be taken away from either player regardless of whether they left for free agency someday. On the other, I couldn’t imagine wearing any jersey or shirt of a former Cardinal while he was playing for a different team. You know…root for the name on the front, not the one on the back…
And then I made the decision.
To this day, the jersey I chose still hangs in my closet—which is probably where it will stay, at least until Pujols’ contract with the Angels expires. The Cardinals have much better foresight than I do.
Hard to believe I’ve gone an entire year without a Nooner. That’s just sad, in any context.
This thought crossed my mind the other day, and it won’t leave me. So I have to get this out into the open for all to peruse:
Why is it that saying “I’m having a salad for lunch” seems perfectly normal, yet—even though it is 100% the same thing—saying “I’m having leaves and roots for lunch” makes me think of someone taking a fork and diving face-first into a yard waste bag?
Personally I’m enjoying my lunch of garden clippings. Maybe for dessert I’ll treat myself to a tree ovary.
That’s an apple, you sickos.
Moving to a new house is always a big deal. When that new house is more than 800 miles away from the only area you’ve ever inhabited in your 35 years, it can be a little jarring—to say the least. I could probably go on for a couple thousand words about the things that are different between Central Texas and the St. Louis area, how much I miss friends and family, etc. Austin/Round Rock is great, but it will never be home because home can only be Belleville/St. Louis. But for now, let’s focus on baseball.
As a Cardinal fan, baseball is VERY different now.
I was a partial season ticket holder in the Left Field Bleachers at Busch Stadium for five seasons; now, the closest Major League team is at least three hours away. I know, I know…”First World Problems.” But you really do come to expect going to ballgames being a significant part of your life each summer. It impacts your budget, your availability, your perspective of the game…and when it’s gone, you lose something.
It would probably be different if I still lived in the St. Louis area. I could watch or listen to the games like everyone else does, and while I’d miss going to 20 or 40 games each year, I’d still get more than my fill of daily baseball. But even though I’m able to pick up KMOX in my car most evenings, I have to resort to MLB.TV to see or hear the play-by-play. It’s a great technology to have available, and I’m grateful for it—except for one thing.
Yes, there is a pretty significant delay for both the radio and TV broadcast streams to get to whatever device I happen to be using to catch the game that is in progress. That probably would not be an issue if I was just interested in game action. But no, I also have to be addicted to Twitter during the game. I love the social media aspect of watching the Cards and seeing what everyone—writers, broadcasters, bloggers, fans—have to say about what’s happening. It’s like a game within the game. I also love participating in that aspect of the experience. But now, I’m sometimes minutes behind everyone else. Maybe it isn’t all that important being first, but seeing game updates before the feed gets to my Blu-Ray or phone or computer is…well, it’s just unnerving. I don’t even care that much about being surprised as I watch. It just sucks to know everything that happens before it happens (on my screen, anyway). I’m always a batter behind…sometimes two. Yikes.
Again, I know…total “First World Problem.” Twenty years ago, this move would have me wrapping foil around a boombox antenna in the hopes of picking up the signal from St. Louis at best, and waiting for game updates the next day on SportsCenter or, if I was really lucky, the Austin American-Statesman at worst. In that context, I’m not complaining one bit. And down here I do have access to different baseball than I’ve ever had before—namely the Triple A Round Rock Express and the University of Texas Longhorns. I’ll still catch Cards’ games any way I can, and I’ll still be a weirdo on Twitter as much as possible. It’s just not the same as it was. And I miss that.