Archive for May, 2009
If you’ve been following our Brag Photo of the Week feature over the last week or two, you know that I busted into the vaults here and held a very unique group of four completely different historical autographs at once. Way too good to show all at once, so I’m revealing them one at a time. Last week, I showed you the Napoleon Bonaparte signature we had in house. For this week, it’s legendary boxing champion Jack Johnson.
As was the case with Napoleon, Jack Johnson’s life was far too amazing and accomplished for me to try summing up here, so I’ll point you to the Wikipedia entry for your education. Johnson’s life was filled with remarkable athletic achievement in the face of blatant racism. We’re talking early 1900s here, so even Jackie Robinson shattering the color barrier was unheard of. I mean to be frank about it, Johnson won his first World Heavyweight title in 1908, a few months after the Cubs won the 1908 World Series.
Ouch Cubbie fans, I really didn’t mean to rub salt into the wounds there. Was trying to show how long ago Johnson did his thing, and ended up pointing out your futility instead. I guess it’s universal like that. Want more context? Jackie Robinson wasn’t born until 1919.
From a boxing history standpoint, Johnson was significant in that he used what’s standard strategy today in his fights, reacting to his opponent’s moves and striking when an opening was created. This “mental chess” aspect of the sport (often referred to as The Sweet Science) was still a new concept in boxing at the time (and helped elevate perceptions of it as time went on). Being a black athlete in the era, this smart strategy made Johnson a magnet for criticism and all kinds of racist commentary, but he racked up victories all the same.
The above picture is from Johnson’s 1910 “Fight of the Century” against Jim Jeffries, which was culturally significant for America on a number of levels. Click here for a great summary by Ken Burns on the PBS website, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Ali vs. Frazier (another “Fight of the Century”) was bigger.
And of course, this one will end up with a fortunate Upper Deck customer as well. I feel privileged to have held it, even if just for a few minutes.
Next week, “a sinner”. Put in quotes, as to show the general perception by the public towards his profession, and not a reflection of my feelings in any way. I’m sure he was actually a kind person removed from that. It goes with the theme of “a saint” two weeks from now, is all. Please don’t hurt me.
Joe Mauer may single-handedly force me to order the MLB Extra Innings package if he keeps hitting like this.
The Twins catcher is on one of the all-time great hitting tears I’ve ever seen — certainly among players belonging to my favorite baseball team — and sadly I’ve missed much of it so far.
Of course, one of the crosses to bear of being a Twins fan, or of any other small-market baseball franchise for that matter, is that any time a player on your team enters the conversation among the best players in the game, it comes complete with speculation about which Country Club franchise that player will end up with once he hits the open market as a free agent (see Santana, Johan).
Indeed, there was already no shortage of Yankees, Red Sox and other teams’ fan forums and bloggers licking their chops over Mauer’s impending free agency following the 2010 season, and that speculation has increased dramatically now that Joe has added home-run power to his great batting average and exceptional defense. Remember, this is a guy who is the only catcher in the history of the American League to win a batting championship, and he’s already done it twice at the young age of 26.
But as far as Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Cubs and Dodgers fans are concerned, speculate all you want — you can’t have Mauer. The sooner you all accept this reality and move on, the easier it will be. He will never hit that free-agent market.
Here’s a prediction for you: Joe Mauer will someday be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and when he does he will be wearing the hat of the Minnesota Twins — the only Major League team he’ll have ever played for.
Yeah the Twins are scrooges, and they have time and again let their fans down by failing to lock up popular, star players in time to stave off their free agencies (see Hunter, Torii), thereby being forced to either let them walk away for nothing or trade them for whatever they can get (see Viola, Frank). But mark my words, Mauer will be different.
Twins fans are still smarting over Santana’s departure two winters ago. It’s very difficult to accept the fact that my team traded away the best pitcher in baseball, and possibly a future Hall of Famer himself, in the sweet spot of his prime. The fact the Twins seemingly didn’t get much value in return only makes it sting worse. Twins fans had trouble accepting that both Johan and Torii were lost in the same offseason, but the truth of the matter is the team’s brass was looking a few years down the road in letting them leave. Because there’s no way the Twins could have afforded to have big fat contracts for Santana, Hunter, Mauer and former AL MVP Justin Morneau on the books all at the same time. They chose, presumably, to focus on the latter two components of that equation.
The Twins are penny-pinchers, make no mistake, but they’ve also shown in the past that they will occasionally spend the dough on their cornerstone players. In this case, there were just too many cornerstone players to accommodate at once, so priorities had to be set (Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually sticking up for Twins GM Bill Smith).
Remember, Kirby Puckett became the first $3-million man when the Twins gave him a three-year deal for $9 million in 1989. At the time, it was the richest contract in baseball history. The Twins recognized that Puckett was an extremely valuable commodity who was worth the investment, and they did what they needed to do.
As popular as Puckett was in his day — the most popular Twins player in Minnesota in my lifetime — Mauer is more popular still. One of my favorite Twin Cities radio personalities, KFAN’s Dan Barreiro, long ago labeled Mauer “The Baby Jesus,” because the man can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of most Twins fans and Minnesota media members. He is “One of Us,” born and raised in St. Paul, taken with the first overall pick in the draft of 2001, and he was already on the radar of Minnesota sports fans while winning high school state championships in baseball, football and basketball at Cretin-Derham Hall long before the average guy in the rest of the baseball universe knew who he was.
There are only two scenarios I envision where Mauer ever hits the open market. One, the Twins upset him by trying to low-ball him when negotiations begin on his next contract extension, and I don’t believe that will happen. The other possibility is that, having lived in Minnesota his entire life, Mauer decides he actually wants to sample life in the spotlight of New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. But it’s hard for me to imagine the seemingly humble Mauer, with his “Aw, Shucks” persona, yearning for that kind of attention.
Because I don’t think money is going to be the driving force for Mauer. That’s not to say he’s going to sign for nothing, all for the love of playing in his home state. But I believe that he would accept less money than the market might bear to stay home, close to his tight-knit, baseball-loving family, and continue playing with his buddy Morneau.
Oh yes, don’t underestimate the deep friendship between the Twins’ top two sluggers. The two of them shared a bachelor pad in their younger days with the Twins, and Mauer stood up as a groomsman in Morneau’s wedding this past winter. That friendship doesn’t guarantee anything, but if the two wish to continue playing together for the same team — and I believe they do — it would obviously be far easier to do so by staying put. Morneau is already locked up long-term, and the word around the Cities is he is an active lobbyist in convincing Mauer to do the same.
As Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman wrote in a column earlier this week:
The Twins have Morneau signed to a long-term contract through 2013.
But what about Mauer? Like Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports, Inc., said the other day, “The Yankees have already got him measured for a uniform.”
But then Bell added, “Rest assured, we will find a way to keep Joe.”
(Wow, I can’t believe I just quoted a Sid Hartman column. I feel dirty.)
In addition to being the best catcher in baseball — and if he continues to hit at anything close to his current clip, one of the best hitters in the game, period — Mauer, with his GQ good looks, has made baseball fans and Twins fans out of thousands of women who would not otherwise have embraced the team. Let’s acknowledge a reality here: While there are legions of women in this world who love baseball and sports for the competitive aspect and the game itself, there’s also plenty of women who enjoy sports simply because they enjoy watching good-looking, athletically-built, genetically-blessed and extraordinarily wealthy young men. And Joe Mauer is a lot of all those things (so is Morneau, for that matter).
In every way a pro athlete can be marketable and valuable to his team, Mauer is close to the ideal. So with (insincere) apologies to the blue-blooded fans of all of baseball’s power élite teams, time to move on to the next man crush. Minnesota’s version of the M&M Boys are going nowhere.
You’ve seen the hype, now see the challenge! Who will be crowned champion? Watch and find out.
Sorry, true sports fans. The above title likely makes you cringe, and I appreciate and sympathize with your visceral reaction. We proudly watch baseball, football, basketball and hockey as fans, cheering for true competition. Nothing is more American than seeing who is truly best, and the “entertainment” aspects of professional wrestling directly contradict these elements we hold dear. The outcomes are fixed, so the mainstream sees it as a bit childish.
But like it or not, professional wrestling has been a significant part of American culture for decades. It was closely tied to the expansion of television itself as a medium, followed by VHS, Closed Circuit Television, Pay Per View, the internet itself, and DVDs. So understandably, while the mainstream tends to disregard it, we’d be foolish to dismiss it as a relevant and profitable entertainment medium. And while many of us grew up watching wrestling, and then disregarded it later, I’m willing to bet than most guys, at some point, cheered for Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, John Cena and their ilk. And your grandpappy probably cheered for Bruno Sammartino. But I bet they’re mostly embarrassed to admit it in 2009. Why? Wrestling simply hasn’t been hip for about ten years now, since Steve Austin was chugging beers, and the nWo made wearing a wrestling t-shirt cool. Imagine that.
So what happened? Vince McMahon was seemingly at a point where he was getting what he truly craved: mainstream acceptance. The content got more raunchy and violent, and while sophisticated types still looked down upon wrestling, it’s hard to argue with financial success. So while parents and politicians protested and the content got edgier, WWE went public with an IPO, and the profits continued to pour in.
But like any entertainment form, professional wrestling goes in cycles, and the “boom” was over a few years later. It just so happens that in this case, the down cycle has been increased by the popularity of MMA and the UFC. As Dana White has gotten better at promoting his athletes’ characters and personalities (and consequently putting together matches the public will pay to see), suddenly wrestling has been overshadowed in the realm of mainstream importance. And it may never get it back.
Wisely, WWE has adapted by becoming more kid friendly, switching to a PG rating and even publishing a children’s magazine. Core fans have voiced their disapproval, but that’s where the consistent money is. Go through the motions, sell your $25 t-shirts, and profits continue to be steady, though never spectacular.
On the other side of the coin is TNA Wrestling, an organization that attempted to fill the gap left by Vince McMahon’s domination of the industry (competitors WCW and ECW went out of business at the start of the decade). Building a roster filled with some of the most talented independent wrestlers around, the company seemed ready to pounce on this opportunity. They aimed to create an innovative, exciting product that would appeal to niche fans at first, and from there potentially challenge WWE’s spot on top.
Without getting into all the messy details (if you think the politics in your office are bad, you should see what goes on behind the scenes at a pro wrestling company), somehow this plan got derailed a bit. While TNA prides itself on being an alternative (its company motto is “Cross the Line”), the talented roster has been weighed down by a less-than-creative creative team (redundancy intentional). Fans are generally intrigued by their roster but frustrated with the storylines and characters. Though admittedly, there is some loyalty there due to lack of any other alternative to McMahon’s product.
Now, Jim Cornette, who has been involved in the wrestling business seemingly forever (and is well respected), recently posted a well-written argument to his website attributing the wrestling business’ lack of success to the growth of “hardcore wrestling”. It’s a good read, you should check it out (FYI, it contains some mild profanity). And while he makes some good arguments on the surface, given context and perspective, his attitude is actually an accurate reflection of how the wrestling business is stubborn to evolve, talks down to the audience, and why it’s becoming less relevant with every passing year.
It’s a long piece arguing that “hardcore” wrestling (matches that ramp up violence to grab attention) is to blame for the downfall of the business. But he makes three very false statements. To paraphrase:
1. “If not for the growth of hardcore wrestling in Japan, the audience there would have always believed it was real.”
2. “If not for ECW popularizing the same format in America, fans’ expectations would be the same today as twenty years ago.”
3. “Because of hardcore wrestling, we’re out of ideas and can’t sell anything anymore. Not due to lack of creativity mind you, but because the audience got smarter. And we can’t fool them anymore, but I refuse to give them any credit all the same.”
Formats always need to evolve or die, and Cornette has attached himself to a romanticized “old school” mentality towards the business, with its roots firmly placed in the “carny” culture of years gone by. When the carnival came to town, wrestlers would put on matches and “work” the “marks”, convincing them it was real while maximizing profits. He mentions this mentality often in the piece, thinking old carny strategies are the way to go to keep profits up today.
But look, it’s 2009. And in the age of instant communication, online “tribes”, Twitter, Facebook and blogging, everyone has a platform (coming from me, the irony here is staggering), and almost all information is open and available. And like many businesses in this era, in this economy, you evolve or become extinct. So for all his accomplishments, Mr. Cornette does not understand that his audience has become smarter, and demands something that professional wrestling simply isn’t giving them in this day and age. That’s why they’re leaving: not because they got burned out on the violence in the matches, but because they got burned out on the same old, stale ideas. If you insist on still “working” the audience like an old school carny who gives them no credit (futile as it may be), you should at least start by understanding who your audience is.
Don’t believe me? Check out this excerpt: “Additionally, just who is it that ENJOYS this sideshow garbage? The same type of people who go to rock concerts to punch and bash each other in the face and beat each other up in the “mosh pit”–lower class, mentally challenged college-age (but not attending) guys who piss and moan about their depression and lot in life because they have neither the drive and determination nor mental acumen to change it. Any normal fans who see this type of show or attend one with these type of fans NEVER want to go to wrestling again.”
#1: I’ve been in lots of mosh pits throughout my life, and believe it or not, I graduated college. With honors. Ultimate irony? I also met my fiance in a mosh pit. She’s pretty awesome. And the singer in that punk band who was playing that night? He has a PhD, and a second career as a professor. He grew up in mosh pits too! Talk about showing how out of touch you are.
#2: Speaking from experience, anyone who went to an ECW show was actually hooked, period. To say they would never want to go to a show again is horribly wrong. In fact, ECW ran shows back in my hometown of Queens, New York at a horribly dilapidated Elk’s Lodge. In the winter, we freezed our butts off, and in the summer, we sweated profusely. And the house was always packed, we loved every moment of it, and no one ever complained about the conditions. That is what I’d call a “good product”.
#3: Grandpa Cornette sounds like he really wants the darn kids and their loud music to get off the lawn right here.
He even suggests that his own 90s independent Smokey Mountain Wrestling company drew bigger gates than ECW. Not accurate in the slightest, and if you go to any retail outlet, you’ll see plenty of ECW DVDs, and not many SMW ones. Even the most dedicated wrestling fans hardly remember that organization, much less with any fondness.
Now, wrestling has a certain “code”, again derived from the old carny way (remember that Simpsons episode?) So just by writing this, I’m probably “disrespecting a veteran of the business”, but I mean no harm. I personally worked for the now defunct Major League Wrestling for a while, years back, so I understand this. All I’m trying to say is that like many things today, what worked back then probably needs to evolve to work now.
And if you’re a wrestling promoter who still assumes his audience is as stupid as a kid playing a rigged carnival game? That’s exactly why people are ashamed to watch wrestling in the first place. Give them some respect and credit, stop this mentality of treating them like “marks” (AKA: “suckers” who are viewed as nothing more than ATMs), and maybe they’ll come back.
My parents actually came here from Europe when they were very young, but I’m definitely an American. I like baseball, broadband everywhere, big televisions, bigger sodas, and most critical where this blog is concerned: don’t like soccer too much (I know it’s called Football out there, but for the sake of my audience, please bear with me).
Now, even though I’m an American, I’m not stubborn enough to think we’re always 100% right, especially where sports are concerned. So while I don’t really follow soccer or care much for it, it’s never been from a place of negativity. Rather, my attitude tends to be, “I grew up in a country that doesn’t care much for soccer, so I don’t watch it. But because the rest of the world loves it so much, I’m just going to admit I’m probably the one who’s wrong here and missing out on something.”
And I’m fair about it too: unless it involves say, bungee jumping or eating weird stuff (you know, Fear Factor fodder), I’m perfectly willing to try new things. Last year, I went to an LA Galaxy game with a few fellow Upper Deck employees and associated friends, some of whom were big soccer fans. I tried to like it, I really did, but halfway through I was bored out of my mind. And with the Mets doing their usual bipolar rollercoaster act (I won’t even get into the Chargers, that’s a series of posts in itself), my sports attention was more or less accounted for.
However, my friends here still love soccer, and I’ve made a number of friends overseas. So, The Sport Everyone Else Lives For Except Us Stubborn Americans never truly came off my radar. And given today’s huge Champions League Final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United, I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to watch the biggest game of the year with educated fans who could let me in on what was going on.
In terms of strategic insight, I apologize that I can’t provide much here. I briefly contemplated bringing a pad to take notes for this here blog, but that would have taken away from the “Can I actually enjoy this sport?” factor. It took enough mental energy for me to just process what was going on as it happened.
That being said, the key point here is that I enjoyed it. Now, there are two caveats to why, and if you’re planning to give the sport a try, I recommend the following to make it worthwhile:
- Watch with someone who knows this stuff. Upper Deck’s IP Manager (that would be our Entertainment side of things) and overall awesome guy Omeed Dariani is a huge soccer fan, and was more than happy (not to mention patient) to explain what was going on to me as it happened. One hilarious thing I’ve always noticed about soccer is that even though the commentators speak in English, between the terminology and the accent, they’re always of zero help to me. In fact, if they really want to grow the sport here, I’d recommend porting over a “Soccer for Dummies” commentary team for the American audience. One that can explain the sport to us as if we’re third graders, with an accent we can understand.
- It was a big game with a lot on the line, and the players treated it as such. And no matter which sports you enjoy, it’s hard to not get wrapped up in the allure of “The Big Game”. It definitely felt like the European version of the Super Bowl, minus say, the captivating intrigue of which commercials would be most entertaining.
With these two elements in place, I have to say I actually enjoyed watching a soccer game for the first time. I’m admittedly very ignorant about the intricate aspects of the sport, but the two goals by Barcelona were athletically brilliant by any measuring stick you can find. Samuel Eto’o’s first goal was especially impressive, as he got around a defender with a brilliant move, and managed to get off a shot literally a millisecond before a defender got in there with a tackle.
The big plays, when they happen, are breathtaking. You have to be a stiff to not stand up and gasp a bit when a team gets close and takes a shot, goal or no. And for the first time, having a captive moment where I focused on the game and had people around me who could explain things, the time between those exciting moments was interesting. Perhaps a bit boring for American eyes, sure, but every action had a purpose, and with the stakes as high as they could be, you could feel the urgency. From Barcelona, anyway. Manchester United seemed a bit flat.
Will I become a huge soccer fan after this? Probably not. But I did truly enjoy watching a game for the first time, and now at least have a point of reference for why the rest of the world loves it so much. I’m sure I’ll watch a few World Cup games next go-around too.
So don’t feel guilty if it’s not your favorite thing in the world. It seems that a huge part of the intrigue of the game is having a team you live and die for, and in America we’re just not going to ever have that- even if you adopt a European team as your own, it’s not quite the same. At the same time though, if so many people enjoy it, there’s probably a reason. So at least give it a fair chance.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to ignoring the rest of the world’s favorite sport for a while. We’ve got the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals approaching, while baseball heats up. It’s a great time to be an American.