Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eight Bits of Baseball Fun: RBI Baseball

I realized recently that one of my most prized possessions is a mint condition eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. It's in mint condition because my brothers and I have always taken good care of our stuff, and it's a prized possession because sometimes you just get the urge to play a video game that has only two main buttons and a directional pad.

There's something magnificent about the fact that I got in on the ground floor of the Nintendo revolution and that the same small gray box that brought me so much joy throughout the 1980s is still alive and kicking, giving me the (Nintendo) power to face Piston Honda in the Punch Out ring, smash Koopa Troopas with Super Mario and hit a home run with George Brett.

That last example is the one that brings me back to my eight-bit roots most frequently: the original RBI Baseball. In a world of baseball video games that offer photo-realistic stadiums and computer-generated players who share the same facial expressions and superstitious tics as their real-life counterparts, I still crave the simplicity of this 1987 classic. The players don't really even have faces.

Aside from the nostalgia of using players who are now already inducted in or eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the controls are surprisingly nimble and a deft tap of the directional pad can yield a knee-buckling strike. The ability to steal a base with the push of a button always resulted in a devilish game of cat and mouse that allowed my brother and I to play out our sibling rivalry between the foul lines. The game also features a style of defense usually reserved for t-ball teams: When you move your left fielder to go after a ball down the third base line, your entire team moves in that direction along with him. Give me the simple life.

Adding to the nostalgia factor is RBI Baseball's MIDI soundtrack that is permanently etched on my soul. I just found a website that has all the game's greatest hits, including such favorites as "introductory game music," "game music with runners on base" and my personal favorite, the immortal "game music with empty bases." That one even has a techno remix. I think I just found myself a new ringtone.

Some people need their MTV, but I need my NES. If it ever dies of natural causes, I will not only bury it in the backyard, but also immediately hop on eBay to find a replacement. How else is Rick Sutcliffe going to throw a no-hitter these days?

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Dickens of a Christmas Reflection

I was quite derelict in my Christmas blogging duties this year, so I thought I would let Charles Dickens shoulder some of the load for me. After searching Project Gutenberg for yuletide-related reading material, I came across a set of Dickens essays. Apparently the guy really liked writing about Christmas.

I'm not sure why, but the essay entitled "What Christmas Is As We Grow Older" struck a particular chord with me, so I offer my excerpt of it below. Warning: Dickensian English ahead. Proceed with caution and Merry Christmas!

Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and every one around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete.

...And is our life here, at the best, so constituted that, pausing as we advance at such a noticeable mile-stone in the track as this great birthday, we look back on the things that never were, as naturally and full as gravely as on the things that have been and are gone, or have been and still are? If it be so, and so it seems to be, must we come to the conclusion that life is little better than a dream, and little worth the loves and strivings that we crowd into it?

No! Far be such miscalled philosophy from us, dear Reader, on Christmas Day! Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance! It is in the last virtues especially, that we are, or should be, strengthened by the unaccomplished visions of our youth; for, who shall say that they are not our teachers to deal gently even with the impalpable nothings of the earth!
Therefore, as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.

Welcome, old aspirations, glittering creatures of an ardent fancy, to your shelter underneath the holly! We know you, and have not outlived you yet. Welcome, old projects and old loves, however fleeting, to your nooks among the steadier lights that burn around us. Welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts; and for the earnestness that made you real, thanks to Heaven! Do we build no Christmas castles in the clouds now? Let our thoughts, fluttering like butterflies among these flowers of children, bear witness! ...Shining from the word, as rays shine from a star, we see how, when our graves are old, other hopes than ours are young, other hearts than ours are moved; how other ways are smoothed; how other happiness blooms, ripens, and decays—no, not decays, for other homes and other bands of children, not yet in being nor for ages yet to be, arise, and bloom and ripen to the end of all!

Welcome, everything! Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to your places round the Christmas fire, where what is sits open- hearted! In yonder shadow, do we see obtruding furtively upon the blaze, an enemy's face? By Christmas Day we do forgive him! If the injury he has done us may admit of such companionship, let him come here and take his place. If otherwise, unhappily, let him go hence, assured that we will never injure nor accuse him.
On this day we shut out Nothing!

"Pause," says a low voice. "Nothing? Think!"

"On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing."

"Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying deep?" the voice replies. "Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe? Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?"

Not even that. Of all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us. City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, thy people who are dear to us!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ron Santo: A Wonderful Life

Rest in peace, Ron Santo.With Cubs legend Ron Santo passing away during the Christmas season, I can't help but notice a parallel between his extraordinary life and my favorite Christmas movie, It's A Wonderful Life.

In the immortal holiday classic, George Bailey is a man with lofty goals whose life is not going according to his plans. He wants nothing more than to leave the small town of his birth, attend college, travel the world and plan big cities. None of that ever happens, but divine intervention eventually leads George Bailey to realize the enormous impact his existence has had on the lives of those around him. He didn’t need the recognition, wealth and fame he so craved to make a lasting impression on the world.

It’s A Wonderful Life might as well be subtitled The Ron Santo Story. Ronnie had dreams of winning a World Series as a player, of being recognized for his outstanding career by being inducted into Cooperstown and of watching his beloved Chicago Cubs win the World Series from his post in the broadcast booth. None of that ever happened, but Santo didn’t need a visit from Clarence the angel to embrace his wonderful life. He knew how blessed he was and that he could use his talents and fame to positively impact the world around him.

And did he ever.

As I alternately laughed uproariously and choked back tears today listening to interviews with Santo’s colleagues intermingled with highlights from his Cubs broadcasting career, I realized anew the impression he made on my life. Usually when a notable athlete/celebrity/dignitary passes away, I feel a sense of detached sadness, but this is the first time that such a passing has filled me with a true sense of grief. I will add my sentiments to the throngs of people who never met Ronnie in person, but feel as if they’ve lost a dear friend.

Many people have already said that Ron Santo was the consummate Chicago Cubs fan and that is certainly true. I spent many a summer day sharing the heart-pounding experience of a Cubs game with Santo and play-by-play man Pat Hughes. While Pat stuck to the script and gave a gripping account of the action on the field, Ronnie could be counted on to deliver the exact rollercoaster of emotional responses that every other Cubs fan was feeling. He was the unapologetic, loud-mouthed, die-hard Cubs fan in the booth and that is exactly what we wanted him to be. Anyone who complained about his lack of skill as a color commentator or listened to the Pat and Ron Show expecting to hear great insight from Ron Santo was completely missing the point and quite simply barking up the wrong tree.

Santo embodied the often bipolar nature of the Cub fan. His blood pressure would rise and fall with the tenor of the baseball season. He would exult in a come-from-behind victory, howl during a horrible inning and mope after a tough loss. But win or lose, he was always back the next day and he was always expecting victory. At a very young age, Santo hitched his wagon to a team that frequently serves lemons to its fans. Thankfully, he quickly developed a winning recipe for lemonade.

Beyond the baseball diamond, Santo saved himself some lemonade, too. He faced adversity with a smile, even when it forced a dramatic altering of his goals and plans. His battle with diabetes has been well-documented and cost him a longer playing career and eventually both of his legs. Anyone who doubts the depth or authenticity of his eternal optimism need only watch This Old Cub, the excellent and inspirational 2004 documentary that shows the rigorous routine of his daily life. Better yet, you can read about it in his own words.

Cubs baseball will never be the same again. The Pat and Ron Show has had its series finale (sadly wasted on one of the most forgettable Cubs seasons in recent history) and the team has lost its greatest booster.

But for once, at least the posthumous canonization of an athlete is well deserved. Santo’s life was an inspiration. I’m sure he would want his death to be a wakeup call for all of us: No matter what you’re going through, it can still be a wonderful life.

Thanks, Ronnie. Rest in peace.

[Originally posted to my Cubs blog, Nearly Next Year]

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Honeymooners...Starring Jack Benny?

I love classic comedy and I grew up watching reruns of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on The Honeymooners--the gold standard of television sitcoms. If you've never had the pleasure, see what you've missed before reading on.

Virtually every situation comedy that followed The Honeymooners has borrowed something from that show. It set a high comedic bar with a perfect blend of clever writing, one-liners, physical comedy, and stellar performances (except for Norton's wife Trixie...I never could understand why they chose to surround such a terrible actress with a set of comedy geniuses).

My love for and familiarity with this show made me ecstatic to uncover a hilarious parody that aired on The Jack Benny Show in 1958, two years after The Honeymooners was off the air. In the sketch, Audrey Meadows reprises her role as Ralph Kramden's wife Alice, while singer Dennis Day performs a spot-on impersonation of Ed Norton and Jack Benny himself appears as Ralph Kramden.

The clip below is actually Part 3 of the sketch, but it demonstrates Benny's unexpectedly deft impersonation of Jackie Gleason's well-known character. If you're so inclined, start at the beginning of the sketch to get the full effect.

This is one of the best parodies of the show that I've ever seen, and there have been a lot of Honeymooners parodies over the years. I always thought of parody--especially one show parodying another--as a form of comedy that didn't really succeed until Saturday Night Live and other more "modern" efforts, but Jack Benny has clearly proven me wrong.

P.S. This blog usually serves up Christmas-themed posts during the Christmas season, so here's the Christmas connection: I discovered this Jack Benny episode while I was watching a classic Christmas episode of his show. Check out the full episode here and thank me later. If you actually watch it, I can guarantee you will be on the floor laughing at the character played by Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny).

Friday, September 3, 2010

September in Song

It's Labor Day weekend and somehow Summer 2010 is officially coming to a close. For those of us in Chicago, it was as far-too-brutally hot a summer as it was a far-too-brutally snowy winter, so for once I can't say I'm all that sorry to see it coming to an end.

Weather-wise, early September is probably one of my favorite times of year. The humidity is gone and there's a crispness to the air that hints at the coming winter without reminding you how much you're actually going to hate that.

September is one of my favorite times of the year musically as well. Maybe it's the end-of-summer blues, but for some reason, many artists have chosen to write contemplative, slightly uneasy, moving, bitter or beautiful songs about the waning days of summer and all the emotions that can accompany that transition. Without further ado, here are my Top Five September Songs. Put 'em on your iPod and go enjoy these precious few weeks of glorious pre-fall weather.

5. Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day

We'll start with the most recent. This one is bitter to the max, overplayed on the radio to the max and not even really one of my personal favorites. But it is September-themed and most of the other songs on this list are a bit dated, so I thought I'd include something hip for the kids. Green Day gets angsty in a formulaic, high school way. Whatever they're crying about probably won't matter at all in a few years. Wake them up...or don't.

4. September by Earth, Wind and Fire

OK, now we're getting somewhere. Unlike Green Day's effort, this song can't get enough of September, which is more like how I feel about it. The song revels in how much fun Earth, Wind and Fire had in a particular September and compels you to remember it, too. Also, it's really catchy. Your foot is tapping right now. You didn't even notice.

Bonus: YouTube band Pomplamoose provides an equally foot-tapping cover!

3. September in the Rain by Frank Sinatra

If you get past the opening riff that sounds like an off-key version of the theme from Jeopardy, you'll hear Sinatra's pretty little rendition of this pop standard. It manages to be sentimental and wistful without being emo. Take a note, Green Day. This song originally appeared on what is arguably my favorite Sinatra album, Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!!. Any album that has three exclamation points in its title has got to be good.

2. September Grass by James Taylor

I came across this song randomly on Pandora and was taken in by the smooth guitar licks and the fact that James Taylor's voice hasn't changed at all despite his long, hard livin' career. This song came out in 2002, but Sweet Baby James has still got it and does a great job integrating wistful end-of-summer imagery into an easy listening love song.

1. The Summer Wind by Frank Sinatra

Ah, yes. Old Blue Eyes (and he was already past the September of His Years when he recorded this song) gives us the official song for the end of the summer. Any summer. Every summer. And he doesn't even have to mention September. The song's arrangement evokes exactly what Sinatra is singing about and even sort of sounds like that crisp wind blowing through the trees that I mentioned earlier. I can't explain it. Also, the song is used as part of the score in Matchstick Men, which by extension is a great movie to watch during this time of year. (but that's a separate list for a separate post)

What other end-of-summer songs should I be listening to? Now is the time!