Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thirteen Black Aces

Yesterday at McAfee Coliseum, baseball's Oakland Athletics honored the four members of the Black Aces with historical connections to the A's: Dave Stewart, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Vida Blue, and Mike Norris.

Who are the Black Aces? I'm delighted that you asked.

The Black Aces are the (to date) 13 pitchers of African American heritage (including one African Canadian, Ferguson Jenkins) who have won 20 or more games in a single major league season. The name "Black Aces" comes from a book written by Grant (with assistance by journalists Tom Sabellico and Pat O'Brien), examining the careers of these noteworthy athletes. Grant also immortalizes the accomplishments of several Negro League pitchers whom he believes would have been 20-game winners in the majors, had they not been barred by segregation.

I highly recommend Grant's book; it's one of the most heartfelt and eye-opening sports reads of the past decade. In hope that the more baseball-minded among you might be encouraged to check it out, allow me to provide this brief introduction to the 13 Black Aces, presented in order of the date upon which each entered this exclusive club.
  • Don Newcombe — Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1949-51, 1954-58), Cincinnati Reds (1958-60), Cleveland Indians (1960); three Black Ace seasons (1951, 20-9; 1955, 20-5; 1956, 27-7; all with the Dodgers). The major leagues' first great black pitcher, Newcombe remains the only player in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards. (He was, in fact, the first recipient of the National League Cy Young, in 1956.) In addition to being a dominating pitcher, Newcombe was also accomplished at the plate — a fearsome slugger, he was probably the best-hitting pitcher since Babe Ruth.

  • Sam Jones — Cleveland Indians (1951-52), Chicago Cubs (1955-56); St. Louis Cardinals (1957-58, 1963), San Francisco Giants (1959-61), Detroit Tigers (1962), Baltimore Orioles (1964); one Black Ace season (1959, 21-15 with the Giants). The much-traveled Jones, nicknamed "Sad Sam" or "Toothpick Sam," led the National League in strikeouts three times. In his Black Ace season, he led the senior circuit in earned run average and was named National League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Jones died in 1971 at the age of 45.

  • Bob Gibson — St. Louis Cardinals (1959-75); five Black Ace seasons (1965, 20-12; 1966, 21-12; 1968, 22-9; 1969, 20-13; 1970, 23-7; all with the Cardinals). Gibson was the most terrifying hurler ever to step onto a major league pitcher's mound. Famed as much for his intimidating demeanor as for his awe-inspiring fastball, Gibson made even great hitters' blood run cold. A talented all-around athlete — he won nine Gold Gloves as the National League's best fielding pitcher — Gibson played pro basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before focusing on baseball. He was the National League Cy Young winner in 1968 and 1970, the league's Most Valuable Player in '68, and the MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series.

  • Jim "Mudcat" Grant — Cleveland Indians (1958-64), Minnesota Twins (1964-67), Los Angeles Dodgers (1968), Montreal Expos (1969), St. Louis Cardinals (1969), Oakland Athletics (1970, 1971), Pittsburgh Pirates (1970, 1971); one Black Ace season (1965, 21-7 with the Twins). The man who gave the Black Aces their name is probably better known today as a baseball broadcaster (for the Indians and the A's) and historian than he was as a journeyman pitcher. He enjoyed his best seasons in Minnesota during the mid-1960s.

  • Ferguson Jenkins — Philadelphia Phillies (1965-66), Chicago Cubs (1966-73, 1982-83), Texas Rangers (1974-75, 1978-81), Boston Red Sox (1976-77); seven Black Ace seasons (six with the Cubs: 1967, 20-13; 1968, 20-15; 1969, 21-15; 1970, 22-16; 1971, 24-13; 1972, 20-12; one with the Rangers: 1974, 25-12). Canada's best-known non-hockey sports export, Jenkins was the first player from the Great White North to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He's arguably the most successful "finesse" pitcher in modern baseball history, along with another Cubs legend, Greg Maddux. Like fellow Black Ace Bob Gibson, Jenkins spent a season playing basketball with the Globetrotters. Fergie's entry into the Hall of Fame took a year or two longer than it should have, as several writers initially refused to vote for him due to a drug-related arrest in 1980 that resulted in his temporary suspension from the game.

  • Earl Wilson — Boston Red Sox (1959-66), Detroit Tigers (1966-70), San Diego Padres (1970); one Black Ace season (1967, 22-11 with the Tigers). Earl Wilson holds a special place in my baseball memories, as he was a star for Detroit in the years when I first became a Tigers fan. (I switched loyalties to the Giants in the mid-1970s when my family moved permanently to the Bay Area.) Wilson is probably best remembered by historians for two unique accomplishments: he was the first African American pitcher employed by the notoriously desegregation-resistant Red Sox (Boston was the last team in the majors to integrate, in 1959 — a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier); and he's one of only two pitchers (Rick Wise was the other) to hit a home run in a game in which he pitched a no-hitter (against the Los Angeles Angels, in 1962). A former catcher, Wilson maintained his power stroke throughout his career, hitting 33 home runs as a pitcher — only four other major league pitchers hit more.

  • Vida Blue — Oakland Athletics (1969-77), San Francisco Giants (1978-81, 1985-86), Kansas City Royals (1982-83); three Black Ace seasons (1971, 24-8; 1973, 20-9; 1975, 22-11; all with the A's). Vida is my all-time favorite pitcher, and ranks alongside Barry Bonds and Willie McCovey as one of my all-time favorite baseball players, period. It's sad to imagine the statistics he might have compiled, were it not for the drug habit that plagued him during the prime of his career. The American League MVP and Cy Young winner in his breakout 1971, Vida became the first pitcher to start All-Star Games for both leagues (1971, for the AL as an Athletic; 1978, for the NL as a Giant). It never ceases to strike me as bizarre that three of the pitchers most statistically similar to Vida — Catfish Hunter, Hal Newhouser, and Don Drysdale — are in the Hall of Fame, while Vida is not. (My argument would not be that Vida belongs in the Hall, but rather that Hunter, Newhouser, and especially Drysdale don't belong there.)

  • Al Downing — New York Yankees (1961-69), Oakland Athletics (1970), Milwaukee Brewers (1970), Los Angeles Dodgers (1971-77); one Black Ace season (1971, 20-9 with the Dodgers). Whatever else Al Downing might have done during his lengthy major league career will always be overshadowed by the fact that he was the pitcher who served up the ball that Henry Aaron belted to break Babe Ruth's career home run record. Downing was a solid journeyman whose best years, aside from his 1971 20-win campaign, came in the mid-'60s when he was a starter for the Yankees.

  • J. R. Richard — Houston Astros (1971-80); one Black Ace season (1976, 20-15 with the Astros). His career cut tragically short by a near-fatal stroke in 1980, Richard was on a path toward a Hall of Fame career. Standing six-foot-eight, he was one of the most physically impressive athletes I ever saw. Sadly, Richard fell on hard financial times after his baseball skills evaporated, and wound up homeless on the streets of Houston. I understand that he has recovered his life in recent years, as a minister and social advocate.

  • Mike Norris — Oakland Athletics (1975-83, 1990); one Black Ace season (1980, 22-9 with the A's). Of all of the Black Aces, Norris is the only one who can accurately be described as a flash in the pan. His stellar 1980 campaign established the high point of a brief and otherwise unremarkable major league career, marked mostly by arm injuries and off-field struggles related to drug abuse. He's had some health challenges in recent years, resulting in physical impairment — he was walking with a cane at yesterday's ceremony.

  • Dwight "Doc" Gooden — New York Mets (1984-94), New York Yankees (1996-97, 2000), Cleveland Indians (1998-99), Houston Astros (2000), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2000). The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'" I don't know whether Whittier was either a prophet or a baseball fan, but were he either, he might have been writing about Dwight Gooden. His career derailed prematurely by injuries — a derailment exacerbated by chronic problems of a pharmacological nature — "Dr. K." fell from future Hall of Famer to has-been (or, in the words of a memorable Sports Illustrated headline, "From Phenom to Phantom") throughout the 1990s. His drug and legal problems continue to this day — he spent several months in prison last year on a probation violation. At his mid-'80s peak, however, Gooden was as terrific a pitcher as I've ever seen. "It might have been."

  • Dave Stewart — Los Angeles Dodgers (1978, 1981-83), Texas Rangers (1983-85), Philadelphia Phillies (1985-86), Oakland Athletics (1986-92, 1995), Toronto Blue Jays (1993-94); four Black Ace seasons (1987, 20-13; 1988, 21-12; 1989, 21-9; 1990, 22-11; all with the A's). Of all the players I've seen in my 40 years of baseball fandom, Dave "Smoke" Stewart underwent perhaps the most dramatic and impressive career renaissance I've ever witnessed. A mediocre — at best — pitcher in his early years with the Dodgers (we San Francisco fans used to joke that his nickname came from the way Giants hitters smoked the ball around Candlestick Park whenever Stewart came into a game against us), Rangers, and Phillies, Stewart suddenly blossomed when he arrived in Oakland in 1986. Seemingly overnight, he transformed from a lackluster hurler to the best pitcher in baseball over a four-year stretch from 1987 through 1990. During those four years, Stewart dominated his league like no pitcher since the heyday of Sandy Koufax. He pitched well, if less overpoweringly, for another three seasons afterward. These days, the 1989 World Series MVP (against my Giants, no less) writes a superb baseball blog called Throwin' Heat. Fans of the nation's pastime will enjoy Dave's insights.

  • Dontrelle Willis — Florida Marlins (2003-present); one Black Ace season to date (2005, 22-10 with the Marlins). The only Black Ace currently active, Oakland-born "D-Train" reminds me somewhat of the young Doc Gooden. He's not quite as dominant, but he hopefully lacks some of Doc's unfortunate baggage. At this writing, Willis is putting together a solid 2007 season — he's 7-3 with a 3.96 ERA after two months. If that pattern holds, he could easily repeat his Black Ace record of two years ago. I wish him all the best... except when pitching against the Giants.
And now the sixty-four-thousand dollar question: Why have we seen only 13 African American 20-game winners in the 60 years since Jackie Robinson? That's a discussion for another time.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

How's that for a topper?

What? Charles Nelson Reilly is dead? I didn't even know that he was sick.

What? Charles Nelson Reilly was gay? I didn't even know... well, yeah, I did, too. (Didn't we all?)

My earliest memories of Sir Charles, like those of many of my generation, date back to the '60s sitcom The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, wherein Reilly played fussbudgety Claymore Gregg, the heir and landlord, respectively, to the series' two title characters. And of course, like many addicted to Saturday morning TV in the '70s, I recall Reilly eking out a living in embarrassing kidvid dreck like Lidsville (which, though beneath Reilly's considerable talents, was actually enjoyable) and Uncle Croc's Block (the less said about which, the better).

But mostly, I remember Charles for his seemingly unlimited witty ripostes as a game show panelist, verbally sparring with Gene Rayburn and Brett Somers on Match Game, or trading double entendres with the likes of Rose Marie on Hollywood Squares.

Which, when one thinks about it, is rather a shame, because not many people who laughed at the flamboyant bon vivant in the Coke-bottle glasses and Day-Glo ascot realized that the guy was a Tony Award-winning stage actor (for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1962) or a Tony-nominated theatrical director (for The Gin Game, 1997). All of which, he was.

Your fans will miss you, Chuck. Count me among them.

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Memorial Day

And on this memorial day we shall fall short of our duty if we content ourselves with praising the dead or complimenting the living and fail to make preparations for those responsibilities which present times and present conditions impose upon us. We can find instruction in that incomparable address delivered by Abraham Lincoln on the battlefield of Gettysburg. It should be read as a part of the exercises of this day on each returning year as the Declaration of Independence is read on the Fourth of July. Let me quote from it, for its truths, like all truths, are applicable in all times and climes:
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it cannot forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

"The Unfinished Work." Yes, every generation leaves to its successor an unfinished work. The work of society, the work of human progress, the work of civilization is never completed. We build upon the foundation which we find already laid and those who follow us take up the work where we leave off. Those who fought and fell thirty years ago did nobly advance the work in their day, for they led the nation up to higher grounds. Theirs was the greatest triumph in all history. Other armies have been inspired by love of conquest or have fought to repel a foreign enemy, but our armies held within the Union brethren who now rejoice at their own defeat and glory in the preservation of the nation which they once sought to dismember. No greater victory can be won by citizens or soldiers than to transform temporary foes into permanent friends. But let me quote again:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Aye, let us here dedicate ourselves anew to this unfinished work which requires of each generation constant sacrifice and unceasing care. Pericles, in speaking of those who fell at Salamis, explained the loyalty of his countrymen when he said:
It was for such a country, then, that these men, nobly resolving not to have it taken from them, fell fighting and every one of their survivors may well be willing to suffer in its behalf.
The strength of a nation does not lie in forts, nor in navies, nor yet in great standing armies, but in happy and contented citizens, who are ever ready to protect for themselves and to preserve for posterity the blessings which they enjoy. It is for us of this generation to so perform the duties of citizenship that a "government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

-- William Jennings Bryan, Arlington National Cemetery, Memorial Day, 1894


Sunday, May 27, 2007

A golden anniversary

Happy 70th birthday to my favorite piece of steel that I can't clip inside my pocket: the Bay Area's most magnificent manmade landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge.

After 30 years of living here — and despite the fact that, during my last two years of college, I crossed the span five days per week — I still gasp a little every time I exit the Waldo Tunnel southbound and the Golden Gate Bridge rises into my view. It's a truly awe-inspiring work of engineering mastery combined with unparalleled artistic majesty.

People have designed and built plenty of cool things all over this planet, but the 'Gate is assuredly near the top of the "cool list."

My most dramatic memory involving the GGB: Ten years ago this August, my family and I were northbound on the 'Gate (we'd just left a performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Cow Palace) when we learned via a radio news report of the death of Princess Diana. Because Diana was KJ's personal heroine — she remains Diana-obsessed to this very day — the bulletin struck our car with an overwhelming tsunami of emotion. I can't imagine a more powerful place to hear such tragic news.

May the local paper-shufflers never mar the aesthetic grace of this incredible structure by installing an anti-suicide barrier.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Walk like an Egyptian

I know, I know... quite a few of you are all jazzed up today because it's the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars film, which premiered in theaters on this date in 1977.

SSTOL regulars know that I'm not much of a Star Wars fan. I've mentioned before that when the original film opened, I saw it twice — not because I was enthralled by it, but because everyone else I knew babbled so enthusiastically about the picture that I was certain they couldn't be talking about the same cheesy, derivative, abysmally acted movie I saw the first time. So this 30-year celebration holds no joy for me.

On the other hand, here's a news flash that gets my motor running.

This week, the media distribution company BCI announced the upcoming DVD release of The Secrets of Isis, the classic '70s TV series starring JoAnna Cameron as the lovely and stalwart Egyptian-flavored superheroine. The complete three-disc box set will be available on July 24.

Now that's what I'm talking about.

It's about time the mighty Isis received her just due. I speak here of the original, accept-no-substitutes model, not the almost unrecognizable "reimagined" version of Isis that DC Comics trotted out in the weekly comic series 52 recently — the one whose death triggered the worldwide slaughter perpetrated by Captain Marvel's nemesis, Black Adam. And certainly not the Isis-in-name-only who appears from time to time in The Legend of Isis, a comic book created by Bluewater Productions. (In fairness, I do enjoy the latter series for what it is, even though I wish they'd called the lead character by a different name. It's a fun, entertaining comic. I highly recommend the trade paperback that incorporates the first several issues.)

So, in celebration of the announced DVD release, here's my little tribute to the Saturday morning superstar. Leading off, Isis takes to the skies, in this recently commissioned artwork by Michael McDaniel.

Next, we get Isis up close and personal, in a nicely rendered portrait by Scott Jones, the artist better known as Shade.

Finally, the great Michael Dooney takes Isis back to her Egyptian roots, in this stylish, beautifully delineated piece.

I can hardly wait for July 24. "O mighty Isis!"

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

And the American Idol is...

...Jordin Sparks!

Good choice, America.

Jordin was our family favorite from the beginning of the competition, in part because she was familiar to us from her appearances on America's Most Talented Kids a few years back, and in part because her family is the one that looks the most like ours. (Although I'm pretty sure Phillippi Sparks would kick my butt in the father-on-father physical challenges.)

Jordin might not have been the best singer in this year's Idol cast — Melinda Doolittle held that distinction — but Jordin has that ineffable je ne sais quoi that none of her competitors possesses: star quality. Your eye immediately tracks to her whenever she appears on camera. Her personality lights up the screen.

Vocal coaches will help Jordin refine her monumental, but often poorly controlled, singing talents. (As everyone associated with the show kept reminding us ad nauseum, she's only 17. That powerful voice will only get bigger and richer in the years to come.) But no coach can teach charisma — you're born with it, or you aren't.

Jordin exudes it. She'll be a superstar long after Idol has run its course.

It couldn't happen to a nicer kid.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's Hump Day, and I'm a little dromedary

It's that kind of Wednesday that has me scratching my head and asking myself rhetorical questions. (Yeah, like that's different.) Let's raise the pop culture periscope and peer around at the news of the week thus far.
  • Katie Holmes apparently has her knickers in a twist because some teenaged porn star wannabe is using the stage name Katee Holmes. As though Katie didn't forfeit her right to personal dignity when she married Mr. Scientology. Or maybe the TomKitten is just afraid someone's going to think she's related to the late John Holmes.

  • What? Arnold's getting a divorce? Oh... Tom Arnold. Color me not caring all of a sudden.

  • If you were wondering why Paula Abdul was sporting a fat lip on last night's penultimate episode of American Idol, it's because Paula recently tripped over her pet chihuahua and pulled a face-plant, breaking her nose in the process. At least, that's the version of the story that doesn't involve alcohol, drugs, or Corey Clark.

  • Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and his partner won this season's competition on Dancing with the Stars. Apolo's breathing a sigh of relief, as he'd never be able to show his face in an Olympic Village again if he lost a dance contest to a former boy-band wimp named Joey Fat One. What? It's Fatone? Ooops. My bad.

  • Britney Spears huffed her way off an airline flight this week because the plane didn't have leather seats. Given the Britster's much-publicized disdain for undergarments, I wouldn't want to be the next person using her leather seat unless I had a spray can of Lysol handy.

  • So far, that's two underwear references in this post. Can we pull off the trifecta?

  • These two events occurred within the same 24 hours: (1) Jerry Falwell, the televangelist founder of the Moral Majority who once blamed gays and feminists for the 9/11 terror attacks, was buried; (2) Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of ultraconservative Vice President Dick Cheney, gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Coincidence? I think not.

  • Speaking of Jerry Falwell, imagine how stunned I was to hear that he had died of a heart attack at the age of 73. I wasn't even aware that he had a heart.

  • Now there's gratitude for you: The girlfriend World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz handed a promotion and a raise — an action which resulted in Wolfowitz's being forced to resign amid allegations of cronyism — has dumped the erstwhile executive. Quoth Wolfowitz: "Women... can't live with 'em, can't do 'em a favor without public scandal and unemployment."

  • The feuding cohosts of The View, Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, pitched a fit at one another this morning on the air, as Rosie called Elisabeth a coward for not defending her against conservative misinformation. Are there two human beings I care less about than Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck? Oh, yeah... Tom Arnold and his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

  • New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced this week that he is officially running for the Democratic nomination for President. In related news, four out of five Americans surveyed identified "Bill Richardson" as the character who's married to Jessica Alba in the Fantastic Four movies. The fifth American identified New Mexico as "the place where Taco Bell food comes from."

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Welcome to Fall Schedule Hell

In my next life, I'm going to be a television programming executive.

So far as I can determine, it's a job that requires no talent, no foresight, no sensitivity, and no ability to either predict or produce successful results.

In other words, it's right up my alley.

Should you doubt my assessment, friend reader, please consider that some television programming executive greenlighted each of the following series for the upcoming fall season. Now, granted, I haven't seen any of the pilots for these shows. But I'm a reasonably intelligent individual — with the Jeopardy! tapes to prove it — and I can tell you that not a single one of these series has any chance of being a hit. Much less, of being any good.

Just attempt to imagine, if you will, any sane and perceptive person wanting to impose this dreck on his or her fragile psyche:
  • Journeyman (NBC). It's billed as "a romantic mystery-drama" about a newspaper reporter who travels through time. They lost me at "romantic mystery-drama," which is a good thing, because otherwise I'd have been laughing hysterically at the point when they mentioned "travels through time." This must be about the guy who used to write the paper that showed up on Kyle Chandler's doorstep every week on Early Edition.

  • Cavemen (ABC). The hypersensitive Neanderthals from the Geico insurance commercials get their own situation comedy. Has everyone at ABC already forgotten the Max Headroom debacle? Oh, that's right — the people running ABC today were in kindergarten when Max Headroom was on.

  • Kid Nation (CBS). In this reality series, a motley collection of 40 preteen and early adolescent kids are turned loose to create their own miniature society in a New Mexico ghost town. I know what you're thinking — I read Lord of the Flies, too. I wouldn't want to be the fat kid with glasses in this show.

  • Moonlight (CBS). An immortal vampire plays detective. I didn't watch this when it was called Forever Knight or Angel, and I certainly won't be watching it now. Why don't TV vampires ever go into more logical professions — say, meatcutting, or vascular surgery?

  • Viva Laughlin (CBS). X-Men star Hugh Jackman is responsible for this bizarre bit of business. It's a "musical drama" about a casino in Laughlin, Nevada (what, you thought Biloxi, maybe?), in which the characters will frequently pause the action to lip-synch pop tunes. Two words: Cop Rock. Not even Wolverine has the power to save this one.

  • Chuck (NBC). Given that the Peacock Network is going all Heroes, all the time this fall (seriously — all but one of NBC's new series revolves around a science fiction or fantasy element), I should not be surprised that 30 Rock scheduled this red-headed step-child of WarGames and D.A.R.Y.L. It's about a youthful computer geek who gets a Super-Pentium processor lodged in his skull and turns into a one-man counterintelligence agency. Yeah, that'll be good.

  • Reaper (The CW). A guy discovers that his parents sold his soul to Satan, so he has to run around capturing escapees from Hell. (Some of whom, apparently, have taken up jobs in television programming.) Of course, it's on The CW, so no one will ever even know it was on.

  • The Return of Jezebel James (FOX). Two sisters who hate each other reconnect when one becomes a birth surrogate for the other. Aside from its seemingly limited premise — once the baby comes, where does the story go from there? — this offering does have two positive factors in its favor: costars Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, who could make a knitting bee seem fun.

  • The Bionic Woman (NBC). Some jokes write themselves.
Now, I ask you: Don't you suppose you and I could devise better programming than this over a sushi lunch some afternoon? I think we ought at least to try.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

I am Wonder Woman: Hear me roar

As Comic Art Friday regulars have surely figured out by now, my collection boasts more images of Wonder Woman than of any other single superhero. (The Scarlet Witch is a distant second. Mary Marvel will in all likelihood leap up from third within the foreseeable future.)

Why Wonder Woman, you ask?

Diana the Amazon Princess captured my attention early in my comic-reading years, back when I was a hardcore Marvelite and pretended not to read anything with the DC Comics bullet on the cover. I always admired the image of a powerful woman; one who could outfight and outwit even the deadliest of supervillains. Marvel didn't have a heroine of Wonder Woman's strength potential until Ms. Marvel debuted in 1977. Thus, in my formative years, the mighty Diana stood head and shoulders above all others.

Let's face it: Wonder Woman is a female power fantasy. (A fantasy, incidentally, shared by many men — including Diana's creator, psychiatrist and sexual theorist William Moulton Marston.) In her best comic book adventures, Wonder Woman has always been presented as a role model for young women, a testament to the fact that sisters can do it for themselves. In a universe that is home to such alpha males as Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman takes second place to none. And, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, she does it all in a bustier and high heels.

Today's an exciting time for Wonder Woman fans. For only the second time in her seven-decade career, Diana's ongoing adventures are being scripted by a female writer — best-selling author Jodi Picoult, who's doing a nice job with the character in a six-issue arc of Wonder Woman. Better still, when Jodi leaves the book, she'll be handing the reins to one of the finest writers now working in comics — Gail Simone, currently the scripter of Birds of Prey and Gen13. Also, waiting in the wings for next year is the much-anticipated companion series All-Star Wonder Woman, to be written and illustrated by legendary Wonder Woman cover artist Adam Hughes.

Even though my teenaged daughter is not much of a comic book reader, I'm glad there's a Wonder Woman out there to remind her that she can be whatever her talents, interests, and abilities enable her to be. All she needs is confidence, determination, and inner strength.

Bulletproof bracelets and a golden lasso help, too.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Voices in Harmony in concert Saturday!

All right, already — I'll get back to my usual arcane mutterings in just a moment. But first, a word from our sponsors.

Those of you living in the San Francisco Bay Area — and you know who you are — would be doing your ears a ginormous favor if you dropped by Spangenberg Auditorium in Palo Alto this coming Saturday. (That's May 19 — Armed Forces Day, in case you don't have a calendar handy.)

Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, Voices in Harmony — currently ranked seventh in the world, and looking to leap into the top five this summer — will rock the house as only 100-plus perfectly synchronized, testosterone-fueled larynges can. Under the direction of world-renowned conductor Dr. Greg Lyne, ViH masters the musical gamut from show tunes to jazz, from pop to gospel. (And yes, we'll throw in a little barbershop for you hardcore fanatics.)

Special guest performers for this concert date will be the stellar vocal jazz ensemble Clockwork, and one of the West Coast's top male quartets, Late Show. As the great Don Cornelius used to say, you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey.

Or, to be a tad more contemporary, this is one bomb-diggity fresh joint, yo.

Trust me, kids — you haven't heard anything like Voices in Harmony. You just haven't. I don't care how many choruses, choirs, or vocal groups you've experienced previously. And I'm not just saying that because of that handsome smiling devil in the center of the second row. (At least, not entirely.)

So what are you waiting for? Go buy some ducats for either the matinee or evening performance, clear your Saturday schedule, and prepare to be blown away.

Believe the hype.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Hero of the Day: Ready Freddy

Congratulations to San Francisco rookie outfielder Fred Lewis, who hit for the cycle in Sunday's romp over the Colorado Rockies.

For the baseball-illiterate in the crowd, hitting for the cycle involves getting a single, a double, a triple, and a home run all in the same game. Only 24 players in the Giants' storied history have accomplished the rare feat, most recently Randy Winn two seasons ago. (Barry Bonds, the king of all things Giant for the past 15 years, has never hit for the cycle while wearing the Orange and Black.) Lewis became only the fourth major leaguer ever to hit his first career home run as part of a cycle.

Lewis was called up from the Giants' minor league affiliate in Fresno just four days ago. His previous experience in The Show was 13 garbage-minutes games for the G-Men late last season.

Let's hope the kid keeps the hits coming.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Listen, bud — he's got radioactive blood!

A few gazillion dollars later, I believe it's now safe to report that Spider-Man 3 is the monumental motion picture hit of 2007.

How apropos, then, that Comic Art Friday seizes this opportunity to share the Spidey love that currently bathes the universe.

Fans of the movie series know by now that Spider-Man's lady love is one Mary Jane Watson. It wasn't always so in the comic books. At the beginning of the Wall-Crawler's existence, back in the early 1960s, Peter Parker had a crush on Betty Brant, the secretary (that's what we used to call administrative assistants in those politically incorrect times) of Peter's boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Later, Peter fell headlong into love with picture-perfect blonde Gwen Stacy. He ping-ponged back and forth between MJ and Gwen for years, until Gwen's untimely death at the hands of Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. (Both Betty and Gwen turn up in the Spider-Man movies, but Betty is merely a background presence — never a romantic interest — in the series, while Gwen, who debuts in the latest film, resembles her comic book incarnation only in name and physical type.)

In this rough pencil sketch by Comic Art Friday regular Al Rio, Spidey and MJ take a swing through the streets of New York City.

One of these days, one of my favorite inkers is going to take this piece in hand and transform it into finished art. (He just doesn't know it yet.)

Next, our friendly neighborhood arachnid goes solo in this dynamic drawing by Space Ghost artist Scott Rosema.

In recent years, Marvel has published a number of series set in what is popularly referred to as the "MC2 Universe," a possible alternate future (about 20 years from the Marvel Universe "now") in which Spider-Man is retired from superheroics. In the MC2 version of what's to come, Peter and Mary Jane Parker have a teenaged daughter, May (nicknamed "Mayday"), who has inherited her father's arachnid powers. Mayday Parker fights evil — much to the chagrin of her parents, who fear for her safety and wish she'd content herself with normal adolescent activities — as The Amazing Spider-Girl in a thoroughly enjoyable book by that title. Spider-Girl, written in rambunctious Silver Age style by former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, and capably rendered by the veteran team of Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema.

In the drawing below, another artist named Ron — Ron Adrian, best known for his work on such DC Comics titles as Supergirl, Flash: Fastest Man Alive, and Birds of Prey — presents the female offspring of Spider-Man in all her web-slinging wonder.

Meanwhile, back in the "real" Marvel Universe, there's another former paramour of our favorite Wall-Crawler prowling about. Felicia Hardy — better known to the world at large as the Black Cat — enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship with Spidey for decades, usually coinciding with those dramatic moments when Peter and MJ were on the outs for one reason or another. A former cat burglar (like you would never have guessed that) and career criminal, Felicia reformed through her association with Peter, and became (more or less) a force for good. These days, she's a member of the super-team Heroes for Hire, in the current Marvel series of the same name.

Here, pencil artist Jeffrey Moy (best known for his run on Legion of Super-Heroes) and Jeff's longtime inking partner W.C. (Cory) Carani give us an eye-popping look at this tempestuous twosome.

And that, Spider-Fans, is your Comic Art Friday. Consider yourselves webbed.

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Pardon the interruption...

Dang, I've been away for a while. Sorry about that.

To make a long story as brief as possible, we had a ton of stuff go down this past week plus. Sad to admit, SSTOL fell low on the priority list.

KJ was readmitted to the hospital last Thursday due to a serious postsurgical infection. Her surgeon had to take her back into the operating room to (a) reopen the original site where the rod was installed in her femur, (b) clean out the infective material, and (c) reseal the incision. KJ then spent the next several days getting pumped full of IV antibiotics, under the watchful oversight of a local infectious disease specialist.

She's at home now, and will continue to get the antibiotic infusion twice daily for the next six weeks. I hook her up to a little infusion module every morning and evening. (You know it's serious when someone trusts me to administer drugs.) It takes about two hours for each infusion to work its way into her bloodstream. She still feels lousy, but is somewhat better than the nadir she fell into before the most recent hospitalization.

Ah, cancer. It's a long haul.

Believe me, you don't even want to know the other junk we've been wading through. As someone once observed, poop rolls downhill, and we're living in the valley.

Anyway, I'm back on task, and I owe you a Comic Art Friday. I'm busily working on it now. Drop back by in a few hours for all the superheroic goodness.

Oh, and thanks for all the kind e-mails and prayers. We'll take 'em.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's Up With That? #48: What's this green stuff in my Cha-Cha Bowl?

Thirty years after serving 10 months in federal prison for smuggling marijuana, former Giants star Orlando "The Baby Bull" Cepeda has been caught once again with the evil weed.

The CHP busted Cepeda the other afternoon, blazing down I-80 at 83 miles per hour. When the Hall of Famer rolled down the driver's window, a certain unmistakable whiff alerted the arresting officer to the fact that Orlando had been doing another kind of blazing as well. A search of Cepeda's Lexus by a drug-sniffing police dog turned up both ganja and a bindle containing a suspect white powder, believed to be either cocaine or methamphetamine.

Giants cognoscenti will recollect that Cepeda's much-deserved enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame was delayed by more than three decades, as the former slugging first baseman's drug conviction prevented him from garnering the votes necessary for election. Cepeda was at long last inducted by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee in 1999, after an intensive PR campaign mounted by the Giants.

In recent years, Cepeda has been visible as a member of the Giants' public relations staff, and as the namesake of Orlando's Caribbean BBQ, a food concession at AT&T Park. This popular snack stand is the home of the world-famous Cha-Cha Bowl, a faux-Latin riff on the basic rice bowl. Being a dedicated hot links and nachos kind of ballpark diner, I've not had a Cha-Cha Bowl myself, but I'm told that they're mighty tasty.

Just don't try to smoke one.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007


To paraphrase the late Lewis Grizzard: Elvis is dead, and I'm feeling a bit scattered myself.

With everything that's going on around here — both the stuff you know about and the stuff you don't, for which you ought to be eternally grateful — my perpetually diffuse focus is even more fuzzy than usual. So let's go the quick-hit route.

Now watch the colortinis as they fly through the air:
  • Brickbats and boo-hisses to the moron who ruined my Tuesday evening commute to chorus rehearsal for the foreseeable future, by dumping 250 yards of molten steel, concrete, and asphalt on my section of the McArthur Maze. Nice going, ace.

  • Did I mention that he's a convicted criminal with a history of heroin abuse? Why am I not surprised?

  • Freeway disasters aside, it's a fine time for sports fans here by the Bay:

    • The Warriors, who haven't seen the NBA playoffs without satellite TV since the early days of the Clinton Administration, are poised to dump the Dallas Mavericks and advance to Round Two.

    • The offensively anemic Giants have turned their once-flagging fortunes around, behind the smoking bat of Barry "U.S." Bonds (742 career home runs, and counting) and the hottest starting rotation in the major leagues — the other Barry (Zito), the two Matts (Cain and Morris), my homie from Pepperdine (Noah Lowry), and the resurrected Russ "Lazarus" Ortiz.

    • The Sharks are threatening to make a run at the Stanley Cup. (Say it with me: It's soccer on ice, with sticks.)

    • The A's are... well, nobody cares.

  • While the universe spirals into entropy (why is it so hot? and why are we in this handbasket?), high school students in Charleston, West Virginia, are ticked off because their educational administrators won't allow them to simulate sexual intercourse on the dance floor. Says senior Crystal Lucas of the school board's ban on booty popping, grinding, bumping, humping, hunching, goosing, freaking, and dirty dancing: "It makes me not look forward to my senior prom." Oh, to be young and feckless. (Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls.)

  • A sad note: Sax player and bandleader Tommy Newsom, for years the butt of Johnny Carson's ridicule on The Tonight Show, has passed away from liver cancer at the age of 78. After all those years of merely looking dead, Tommy now really is.

  • Britney Spears has canceled tonight's comeback performance, scheduled for L.A.'s Forty Deuce nightclub. According to reports, the concert's promoters determined that after several rehearsals, the Queen of Trailer Trash Pop "wasn't quite ready." (Translated: Not sober enough to remember lyrics, or to avoid an embarrassing tumble off the edge of the stage.)

  • Four years ago today, President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the war in Iraq over. "Mission accomplished," remember? "The United States and our allies have prevailed." Funny how many brave men and women we keep losing, in a war that ended four years ago. Then again, it's really not funny at all.

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