Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Issue # 24 is Out, and See Mike in Cali!

Hey all, here's a quick update on the goings on in Zisk-land.

First, issue #24 is out! If you're a subscriber, it should have arrived by now. (Email Steve if it hasn't shown up by the end of this week.)  The fine folks at Quimby's in Chicago, Atomic Books in Baltimore, Strange Maine in Portland and Razorcake have copies available.

Second, my co-editor Mike Faloon is in California this week. Wednesday he'll be taking part in a cool reading in Camarillo as part of Zine Party 2014 at UC Channel Islands. Todd Taylor from Razorcake will be reading, as well as some other great folks. Go say hello!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Bear Bottoms: Clark the Cub and the Statistical Argument Against Pantsless MLB Mascots by Jake Austen

The offseason signing that made the most impact in Chicago baseball this year is, sadly, Clark the Cub. Though a menagerie of living bears (and dogs, and a rooster) served as mascots for the Chicago Cubs over the team’s long, challenging existence, Clark was introduced this winter by a team that had resisted such temptations for the entire Modern Mascot Era.

The Beatles weren’t the only history makers to land in New York in 1964. That was also the year the Mets’ ballheaded Mr. Met was introduced as a costumed “walk around” character, as opposed to just a logo, and as opposed to the actual animals, disabled people, children, and inanimate objects that served as real-life mascots in the prior century of baseball.

A walk around Clark will appear at events (mostly charity stuff—we are promised he will not cavort in Wrigley’s holy aisles) and a cartoon version will appear on kiddie Cubs merchandise. It was the cartoon version that set off the uproar, for several reasons. The most baseball reason is that unlike the crosstown White Sox, who made a series of unspectacular but seemingly smart moves since ending their unlucky ’13 campaign (including getting a touted Cuban, recruiting position players with good fundamentals and clubhouse reputations, and classily giving Paul Konerko a curtain call season), the Cubs pretty much only acquired Clark. The most obvious reason to deride Clark is that if anything could be more generic than a big cute teddy bear, it’s one with a stupid, cocky grin and a backwards baseball hat. But the main reason Clark deserves derision is the most serious one: he’s not wearing pants! Is a bare-bottomed mascot fundamentally a problem? We shall explore that momentarily, but not before making it abundantly clear that no pants on Clark, named after the bar-lined street upon which Wrigley is built, is a serious problem.

Unlike the backwards cap-wearing Poochie on The Simpsons, Clark is not so much a rad dude as a dude. First of all, his backwards cap is adjustable, with one of those plastic fastener things, so unlike many mascots, he’s definitely not on the team, he’s a fan, perhaps one of the rowdy Bleacher Bums. And when one encounters a Cubs fan on Clark Street in a backwards baseball hat with a cocky attitude it is hard for your inner-George Zimmerman not to profile him— your first impression might be “malevolent drunk asshole.” And if such a dude is in a no-pants situation, good things are not about to happen.

That said, assuming that nearly all actual animal mascots were pantless pre-1964, determining how many Modern Mascot Era characters forego trousers can help determine whether Clark is just going with the flow, or is deserving of his instant appropriation as a naughty Internet meme. Before delving into team-by-team crotch covering data collection, one important finding is worth sharing: There are three distinct body/character types that most mascots fall into, which seems to determine if one wears breeches or breaches indecent exposure statutes. Mr. Met kicked things off by introducing the slim regular guy type, basically a normal human being wearing a giant puppet head, and almost always fully clothed. In 1978 the Phillie Phanatic popularized the rotund monster type, with a big, furry, comical belly made funnier by lack of slacks.And in 1990 the Mariners Moose introduced the idea of an athletic, cool character, and these buff body mascots (like Sluggerr and Southpaw) wear full team uniforms because they are powerful peers to their teammates, not goofy clown companions.

So, without further ado, let’s stare at some mascots’ loins….

ANGELS: Scoop and Clutch were fully clothed bears. The Rally Monkey in cartoon form usually does not wear pants, but when an actual monkey is utilized they wisely keep him covered up down there, so in real life he’s a tally for the pants side.

ASTROS: The Astros best mascot, Orbit the alien, lets his space junk waggle. But their many other shorter-lived mascots all wore pants. Junction Jack and his jackrabbit family, Jesse and Julie, wore top to bottom clothes. And military protocol kept the knickers on cavalry rider Chester Charge and the higher ranking General Admission.

ATHLETICS: Although the A’s have long had a logo of a bat-wielding elephant, wearing naught but an “A’s” blanket over his broad back, Stomper, their walk around mascot since the late ‘90s, is fully uniformed.

BLUE JAYS: Ace and his son Junior wear pants, albeit weird cutoffs (perhaps the ragged edges are supposed to mimic feathers?). Diamond (Junior’s mom?) wore long pants, and sexy pink platform shoes. In the ‘80s and ‘90s BJ Birdy was naked.

BRAVES: Homer the Brave went from Native American to Mr. Met clone, but never went natural. Rally (a rotund monster) was pantless, and The Bleacher Creature just wore a cap and creepy smile. The wisely abandoned Chief Noc-A-Homa was not a puppet character, but a person in Native American garb living in a teepee in the bleachers, and though he preceded the Modern Mascot Era, he shamefully co-existed with costumed creatures into the 1980s.

BREWERS: Bernie Brewer, as a regular guy, totally human puppet character better wear pants! Bonnie
Brewer (not a puppet suit, but a real, live sexy lady) wore lederhosen.

CARDINALS: Just call him freeballing Fredbird. Also bottomless: alternate mascot Rally Squirrel.

CUBS: Oh, Clark!

DIAMONDBACKS: Baxter Bobcat wears no pants, though his jersey is longer than Clark’s providing smocklike modesty. Their Luchador mascot wears pantalones.

EXPOS: Youppi! wore no pants, and was arguably creepier than Clark, because he has a flesh-colored face beneath an orange beard made of the same orange fuzz that covers the rest of his body, making it appear that he is a hirsute human going bottomless. Now the Montreal Canadians mascot, he sometimes wears hockey pants when he skates. Souki, a Mr. Met ripoff that preceded Youppi!, wore pants.

GIANTS: Lou Seal is a somewhat rotund, pants-free seal. The short-lived Crazy Crab had no pants, but only his arms and legs were exposed outside of the shell, which is like clothes, but no pants is no pants, so give indecency a tally mark.

INDIANS: Slider is a rotund furry, whose pantlessness reveals yellow crotch spots that he should get looked at.

MARINERS: Mariner Moose debuted in 1990, and was the first mascot I ever saw that had a cool, athletic persona, instead of being a goofy clown or devious trickster. Though not that muscular, and possessing a gentle soul that kids love, I credit him with the rise of the buff body type mascots. He wears a full uniform, though he also has a shorts-pants version.

MARLINS: Billy certainly seems to have pants, though why a fish has legs is confusing enough, so maybe his colorful leg covering is supposed to be fish scales, but they’re baggy, so I’m counting them in the pants column.

METS: Mr. Met, the granddaddy of mascots, the ballbrained bastion of mascot-dom, the standard setter, wears pants, as does his wife, Mrs. Met.

NATIONALS: Screech, the bald eagle was initially a young bird in an oversized jersey, but no trousers, but he’s since come of age into a slim, uniformed bird in baggy pants. On Mother’s Day we get to see Mama Screech who wears a dress, which covers her rump, so that goes in the pants column. And while many teams have racing costumes (something you give fans to wear between innings for a footrace, like the sausages in Milwaukee), Washington uses their racing president characters as pinch hitting mascots, having them make appearances and do skits, and giant headed Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, William Howard Taft, and George Washington always wear pants.

ORIOLES: Other than cleats, socks and stirrups, the Baltimore’s Oriole is naked as a jaybird.

PADRES: The Swingin’ Friar wears no pants, but his full-length robe certainly counts. That said, I hear he goes commando. Though the San Diego Chicken was not officially a MLB mascot, he appeared at hundreds of Padres games, and thousands of other major and minor league games, so let’s count him…in the no pants column.

PHILLIES: The Phillie Phanatic is the prototypical rotund monster, his Muppet-esque design and massive popularity influencing antics, design, and pantlessness for the rest of mascot history. He replaced Phil and Phillis, who wore pants, or half pants (they were Revolutionary War characters so they wore breeches).

PIRATES: The pantless Pittsburgh Pirate Parrot is complimented by the pants-clad pirate Jolly Roger.

RANGERS: Seventies mascot Rootin’ Tootin Ranger wore pants, which isn’t that impressive because he’s a cowboy. Buff-bodied 21st Century mascot Captain also wears pants…and he’s a horse!

RAYS: Both Raymond and DJ Kitty are naked from the waist down, though Kitty is usually behind turntables.

REDS: Mr. Red and Mr. Redlegs (both baseball-headed, but not Mr. Met ripoffs, as they appeared as logos in the ‘50s, only becoming real living boys post-Mr. Met) both wear long pants, the latter to keep his already red legs out of the sun. Lady friend Rosie Red wears a full League of their Own-era uniform. Their rotund monster buddy Gapper lets it all hang out.

RED SOX: Wally the Green Monster wears highwaisted shorts and a belt, looking kinda old man-ish. His friends Lefty and Righty, a pair of walk around red socks, despite being a different article of clothing, wear pants.

ROCKIES: Dinger is not only pants-free since ’93 (actually ’94, but it didn’t rhyme), but he wears a short, peek-a-boo jersey, and his name sounds dirty. That said, he seems more like an exhibitionist child than someone who’d roofie you on a Wrigley rooftop.

ROYALS: Sluggerr is one of the buffest buff body types, appropriately introduced at the heart of the steroids era, and perhaps ‘roid rage explains some of his actions (he’s been sued for a hot dog gun attack and photographed freaking a naked stripper). You’re forgiven for not noticing his full uniform if you fixated on his gruesomely mutated, or perhaps surgically modified, head, which has crown-like points jutting from his cranium.

TIGERS: Though Paws wears an oversized, crotchcovering jersey, a trouserless tiger can’t hide his stripes.

TWINS: T.C. is pants-free. Their prior mascot, Twinkie had a kind of feathered diaper, and that’s weird enough to go in the no-pants side.

WHITE SOX: Ribbie and Roobard, rotund monster mascots from the ‘80s, kept their undercarriages aerated. The unofficially official mascot Andy the Clown (who was costumed in the sense that he was a clown) wore pants. Waldo the White Sox Wolf wore pants (though I think they only had animations and drawings of him, never a costumed character). And the current mascot Southpaw (a buff type) wears a full uniform. He is very nice to my son and hugs him a lot, which I might not allow if he were half naked.

YANKEES: The short-lived ‘70s mascot Dandy seemingly wore pinstriped pants, but the Seuss-like character appeared to perhaps have pinstriped fur. But I’m going with pants.

Thus, the numbers can’t lie: out of 69 (!) characters in the mascot era, 46 covered themselves, and 23 didn’t, and I don’t need Sabermetrics or a calculator to figure that a .666 average, while Satanic, is also Hall of Fame worthy. The numbers don’t lie: Clark should wear pants! That said, if in his current state of half-dress, the backwards-capped bear inspires the team to end their 106- year championship drought, I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire Chicago Cubs starting lineup plays in jerseys and jockstraps in ’15.

The Zisk Book Review Corner by Mark Hughson

A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight For Free Agency In Professional Sports, by Brad Snyder

There was much I learned from this book, but the biggest shocker came when I was halfway through A Well-Paid Slave and realized that it was not written by a baseball scribe, but by a lawyer. After that revelation, the style of writing and the overall focus made a lot more sense. The book is extremely detailed, (for example, I now know that pitching coach Howie Pollet brought the salad to the Cardinals’ 1962 spring training barbeque), and when Flood’s case hits the Supreme Court, the actual game of baseball takes a back seat to legal procedures and politics.

That being said, the book is not without merit. It consistently shades Flood as a brave (but flawed) hero, balking at a $100,000 salary to do what he believed was right. The fact that commissioner Bowie Kuhn and all the team owners are portrayed as moustache twirling villains, counting their money in the backroom, is satisfying as well. Snyder takes the time to establish Flood as a strong, civil-rights minded individual, highlighting the racism he endured in the minor leagues and his trade from the Reds to the Cardinals in ’57, after which he vowed never to be “treated like property” again.

Even though every ballplayer alive today owes their wealth to Flood, he is generally not recognized by them. However, he was a household name in the late ‘60s, both as a player and as a media/sports tabloid icon, and the star power of the book is pretty solid. He was a good friend of teammate Bob Gibson. Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg testified on his behalf at his trial. During Flood’s brief return to the major leagues he butted heads with then-Senators manager Ted Williams.

Aside from the fact that I now feel like I’m qualified to practice law in at least three states, the book
did pour a lot of baseball info into my brain. I think the biggest lesson involved just how unfair the reserve clause was. In terms of salary, yes, it was unfair, but from a baseball lover’s perspective as well—and that includes both the players and the fans. For example, let’s say you were a darn good first baseman. You could be a starter on another team for sure. Except, you aren’t on another team, you’re on the Twins with Harmon Killebrew or on the Reds with Frank Robinson. Those guys won’t be scratched off the line-up card anytime soon, and you’re stuck riding a bench, sometimes during your prime years. But what if you truly are a superstar, and you deserve to be an everyday player? Maybe the manager will trade you to a team that could use you. No, actually, they won’t, and for that exact reason. Some great baseball players lost their chance to play, not because the players deserved punishment, but because teams did not want superior talent to go to the competition.

It was kind of a harsh reality, and Curt Flood’s fight was indeed martyr-like—he more or less became a penniless recluse for the last 20 years of his life. Not a very “sunshine and green grass” baseball book. However, the benefits of what he did are still seen in the game today, and this book recognizes that with a great amount of respect. And detail. Lots and lots of detail.

Goodbye, Kiner's Korner by Brian Cogan

Ralph Kiner lived a good, long life. He came, seemingly out of nowhere, to become one of the great
sluggers of his era. He had to be shut down after ten years in baseball due to a bad back. Today, they would probably build him his own mobile whirlpool to drive back and forth to the stadium. There would be special trainers and a masseuse and even a towel boy (same uniform as a bat boy) whose one job would be to run over with a towel as Kiner got out of his “whirlpool on wheels” to make sure that he was relatively dry by the time he stepped to the plate. Heck, any team today would very likely buy a separate private plane for someone who could consistently hit home runs with a ratio of 7.1 home runs per 100 at bats. In that ten-year span, Kiner averaged over 100 RBIs per season, while leading he National league in slugging parentage in three of his ten years in baseball.

When a lot of hitters’ careers are over, that’s it. (Had their also been a DH back then, perhaps Kiner would have hung on for a few more years and might have hit over 500, or even 600 home runs.) They had their time in baseball. It was fun, they met some pretty girls, had some great poker games on the road, then retired to some sleepy town to open a bar and tell the same stories over and over again. Then there was Ralph Kiner. Instead of opting for the easy life of local celebrity, Ralph Kiner decided that he would rather tell old war stories on the new medium of television, and so instead of opening “Kiner’s Korner,” the finest suds place in Alhambra, California (where he was raised), Kiner joined the New York Mets.

The Mets were a colorful team cast of cast-offs, has-beens and players well past their expiration date, and if you really want to experience the ‘62 Mets in retrospect, go and read Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anyone Here Play this Game?, which nicely evokes the fans overall sense of bemusement at the new team’s futility. Maybe it was because of manager Casey Stengel’s indefatigable chuckle in the face of yet another game ending strikeout, or even the overall goofiness of some of the early players sheer inability to even come close to playing actual baseball, but deep down, I think that many Mets fans, and many baseball fans in general, give credit where credit is due. The Mets have consistently had the best announcers in baseball, from the original trio of Kiner, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy, up to today’s troika of goofiness, Keith and Ron and Gary. Mets announcers have been light years ahead of most other teams. And for all of that time, up until last season, for over fifty years, Ralph Kiner was a part of it. Even when Bell’s Palsy made him slur his words and made his announcing sound as
tanked as (supposedly) he and fellow announcers Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy got after every
game, Kiner never gave up and just before he died, the one thing he had discussed with his
family, was the possibility of doing even more games the next season.

Enough has been written about Kiner’s malapropos, once even calling himself “Ralph Korner” during a game, and you can read the standard obituaries for that, but I’d like to mention one thing that most people left out of their fond remembrances of Kiner. Don’t get me wrong, those of us of a certain age loved Kiner’s Korner almost as much as the actual ballgame. What other team would allow the other teams stars to be interviewed after a Mets game? While that was certainly one of his legacies, to me, it was how much I associated him with baseball and with the Mets. That for over five decades and to millions of people, he was the face and voice of the Mets. Nelson left the Mets in 1978 to announce for the Giants for the next three years Murphy moved over to be exclusively on radio in 1982 and that left Kiner as the last of the three on television. He was paired with a who’s who of announcers afterwards, including Tim McCarver, before he started to ease up his workload and let the kids take over, first Keith in 2002 and then Gary and Ron 2006.

Kiner never “retired” per se. He was just phased out gradually. I’m not sure if it is my general paranoia about the bone-headed moves of various Mets owners and tone deaf inconsistency that makes me think that Ralph was a little “old fashioned” for a new game where Sabermetrics demanded that every time a new hitter approached the batter’s box, an array of statistics must be thrown at the audience (“Brooks is batting .327 against left handed hitters during Thursday games in April!”) as if manna to the fans, wandering starving in a desert of meaningless statistics. My theory is that the Mets management knew that Ralph would lovingly mangle those statistics just as he would mangle the players’ names. They thought they would graciously slide him into retirement, bringing him back a few times a year for old time’s sake. Maybe it was Kiner’s frustration with his speech problem that made him cut back. Either way, it wasn’t as jarring as it could have been. We loved Gary and Keith and Ron, but when Ralph was there, the booth had an entirely new dimension, it sounded both livelier, and more focused. I think, even towards the end, the three younger announcers were always a bit in awe of Kiner. Even Keith was usually on his best behavior when Kiner turned up to announce a game.

And now, Ralph Kiner has passed away. There are still players alive from the 1962 team, but as far as I can tell, (there may be an elderly groundskeeper I’m missing) this severs the last line to the 1962 team. It also severs a link to baseball in the 1940s, to players who served in World War II and accepted less money when the team wasn’t doing well. The passing of Ralph Kiner will be commemorated by the Mets. There will be a Kiner’s Korner in the stadium, as well as a patch for the players to wear this year. But Ralph is gone and with Ralph, one of the last links to a time when baseball really was the national game. I’m not naive enough to think that no one cared about salary in the old days. But hearing Kiner reminisce, even well into his eighties and nineties, the way he talked about baseball, the game itself, the hopelessly bloated monstrosity of today’s baseball game, just seemed like so much fun. If you are reading Zisk, you are probably a baseball junkie, hopelessly hooked on a team (you have yours, I have the Mets) who’s owners seem hell bent on squeezing every little bit of fun and spontaneity out of a wonderful game. When I heard Ralph Kiner’s voice, I knew that no matter how the Mets did, I was going to enjoy the broadcast. I obviously never heard Ralph when I was at the stadium, cursing the Mets and wondering if I had enough spare change to somehow get nine dollars together for a beer, or maybe a pretzel and a half in a stadium seemingly designed by someone who had never set foot in a major league stadium before. And then I could say to myself, if you were watching this at home, you would be having fun not because it was cheaper, but because Ralph is calling the game. And sitting there, in the cheap seats, at least I knew that Ralph was there, in the booth that I couldn’t see from my cheap seats, probably mispronouncing a player’s name, and then I realized, it’s enough to know that Ralph was present.

Here’s a real fact about baseball fans, the teams don’t make the sport fun, we as fans, make things fun ourselves. The teams don’t own the team, we do. If that’s the fiction I needed to get me through the game again, then Ralph provided that for a long time. We will still have fun at a game, but when I look over at Kiner’s Korner, I’ll realize that a huge part of what made the game fun for me is gone.