Sunday, October 25, 2015

An Ode to Everything Great About the Pennant-Winning Mets

The Mets won the pennant. The Mets won the pennant!!!

The Mets are going to the World Series.

I keep telling myself that in utter disbelief. In the days since my beloved New York Mets clinched the National League championship last Wednesday, handily dispatching the Chicago Cubs in a relatively anti-climactic four-game sweep, I keep finding myself reviewing all the events of this unbelievable postseason, trying to remind myself that it's real. Ya gotta believe. It's almost Halloween and the Mets are still playing baseball.

I've long felt a deep connection to this team and now they're in the midst of one of the most exciting stretches of baseball in the franchise's history. They've won three pennants in my lifetime, the first when I was 1, second when I was 15, and now a third during the year I turned 30. This has been a year of Mets fanhood I will never forget.

With a few days before the World Series starts, right now we can simply savor the Mets' incredible run to the National League pennant, and so I'd like to compose an Ode to the 2015 Mets.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Unprecedented Excitement of the 2015 New York Mets

In a few moments, my beloved New York Metropolitans will begin a series with the Chicago Cubs to decide the National League's representative in the World Series. In the aftermath of the Mets' improbable, incredible, unforgettable defeat of the Dodgers in the NLDS, I've been reflecting on what this team means to me.

My move to Austin in 2011 coincided with the Mets organization bringing in a new general manager to steer the organization back toward success after years of embarrassment and futility. This was the first time in my history as a Mets fan that I had trust and confidence in their decision-makers. New Mets GM Sandy Alderson was the original mentor to Billy Beane in Oakland and after joining the Mets he immediately brought in former Beane confidant and Moneyball co-star Paul DePodesta to help reshape the organization.

Now that I was living in a city with no major league team, in a state whose only MLB teams I had zero rooting interest in, I found my Mets fanhood deepened and intensified. My first summer here in 2011 was one of the hottest in the city's history and I didn't have many friends in town at that point, so I spent my days and nights following the Mets. They became a close companion. Of course they lost and lost some more as they would for the next four years, but I fell in love with this team unlike I ever had before.

My rooting interest in the Mets dates back to the mid-90s when I was captivated by switch-hitting catcher Todd Hundley chasing home run records (he hit 41 in 1996, breaking the record for most by a catcher and set a new franchise record for the Mets, although he never hit more than 30 in any other season). My dad had been a devoted Mets fan since their inception in '62 and the team's announcers have always been far more tolerable than those obnoxious hacks calling Yankees games. So I became a Mets fan. Throughout the 2000s I went to many dozens of games at Shea Stadium, including attending Game 2 of the NLCS in 2006 (described in detail here for a guest piece at Jay Jaffe's blog).

In all these years of following the Mets, I've never loved a team as much as this one. The division winning 2006 version was fun, but I disliked many key players and frequently disagreed with the manager and general manager's decisions. The 1999-2000 version comes closest as they had plenty of fun players to root for like Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, Edgardo Alfonzo, Turk Wendell, Al Leiter, etc.  Mostly what separates this Mets team from the pack is that so many of the players are either homegrown or were acquired as prospects and subsequently developed in the Mets farm system. I've been able to follow their whole careers, suffer through their growing pains and celebrate their achievements.

The finest hour for the 2015 Mets so far has to be Daniel Murphy's heroics in the deciding Game 5 on Thursday night, when he was responsible for all three runs (including the game-winner on a solo home run) in a 3-2 victory in Los Angeles. Murphy, or Murph as we call him, is for me the quintessential New York Met. Originally drafted by the Mets in the 13th round in 2006, he climbed the ranks and joined the team as a rookie in 2008 just in time for when they suffered a crushing late season collapse for the second consecutive year. He played solid-to-average baseball at a variety of positions through five seasons of almost entirely meaningless games, gaining a reputation for occasional hot streaks at the plate and a notoriety for awful plays in the field that seemed to embody the team's ineptitude as a whole.

Beyond Murphy's playoff heroics, the season's greatest moment had to be Wilmer Flores' walkoff home run against the Washington Nationals in his first game following a bizarre, typically embarrassing Mets debacle two nights before. Flores had heard he was traded, then could be seen crying on the field in the middle of a game. The trade never went through and the Mets came out of it looking stupid.* The 24-year-old Flores had been signed by the organization out of Venezuela at age 16 and clearly loved playing for them. His display of emotion deeply endeared him to fans and he became a folk hero whose legend was solidified in his next appearance. That night, unofficially dubbed "Wilmer Flores Night" by Mets announcer Gary Cohen right at the start, featured numerous highlight reel plays for Flores, four different standing ovations, and the team's most emotional home run of the season when Flores blasted a game winner against their division rivals and then proudly grabbed the Mets logo on his shirt before being mobbed by teammates at the plate.

*That entire week was a wild one, including the blockbuster 11th hour deadline trade to bring in star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Read about it all here.

Nobody, not even myself, envisioned the Mets winning their division this year yet they snatched it away from the heavily favored Nats pretty early on (they took 1st on August 2nd and never looked back). A second place finish would've been seen as a success. I'd have been happy if they'd won 85 games. They won 90. I would've still been content with their performance had they lost to the Dodgers in the NLDS. They won, twice knocking off two of the game's best pitchers in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (mostly thanks to dragon slayer Daniel Murphy).

Now they will open a series for the National League crown with the Chicago Cubs. If they cannot manage to overcome the Cubs' imposing collection of young sluggers, I'll be momentarily disappointed but will still look upon this season as a rousing success. After four years of futility, the Mets in 2015 outdid themselves over and over again, surpassing our highest hopes over and over again, providing magical moments over and over again. And the way this team is constructed, with a rotation full of young pitchers and a lineup of maturing hitters, it's not unlikely that they'll be able to do this again.

I can't offer an NLCS prediction here because I'm completely biased. The Cubs have an incredible team, one of the deepest lineups in all of baseball and a historically great pitcher atop their rotation. The Mets are led by flamethrowing starters, a balanced lineup, and a solid bullpen. They can win this series. The Mets can win the pennant. Who the hell saw that coming six months ago?

No matter what happens, I'm just glad we get to continue watching this amazing Mets team for at least another week or so.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Drought-Ending Inundation of Art

This blog has been dormant for so long I don't quite know where to begin in trying to reawaken it. So I'll start with some pieces of art by Frantisek Muzika that I found on Tumblr a while back and was blown away by.

(click to enlarge)

Muzika was a Czech surrealist painter active throughout the 20th century. Unfortunately, I can find relatively little about him on the internet despite the radiant splendor of his work. He was a contemporary of Dali's and his work bears some resemblances with its barren landscape backdrops and bizarre structures, but there appears to not even be any books about his work out there. I don't even know what these pieces are titled. But the contours and textures of these odd stone slabs mesmerizes me.

I stumbled upon them via Tumblr, a platform I've found extremely satiating to my hunger for visual art. (I recently set up my own Tumblr page, nothing special, but if you're interested check it out.) How else would I have been able to discover this somewhat obscure Czech surrealist master?

Speaking of obscure, underappreciated 20th century artists, my Finnegans Wake reading group and I recently stumbled upon a treasure trove of artwork by the relatively unknown painter Elsa de Brun (aka NUALA) and have now taken it upon ourselves to bring her work back out into the world. NUALA created a set of 43 pieces called "Valentines for James Joyce" inspired by lines from Finnegans Wake. These pieces are all in charcoal with a depth and complexity that astounded us when we saw them in person. As a result, we are now in pursuit of gathering these pieces into book form and possibly a future exhibition to remind the world of this forgotten, brilliant and fascinating woman.

As for under-construction art books involving Joyce...

A big reason for my lengthy absence of late is that I've been fully devoted to writing my first book, an exploration of some fascinating links between Salvador Dali and James Joyce centering around one particular painting. If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you're probably aware of the source material and how important this project is to me. This work has been going on for a very long time but it's now finally picking up and progressing toward completion. It's been a classic creative struggle in that the bigger and more significant the project is, the harder it is to work on, but a helpful guide to creative battles called The War of Art has helped me properly direct my focus.

With my writing energies being poured into to that project, my output on this and my other blog will likely continue to wane for a while but there remain tons of ideas ready to bloom both here and there so please do stay tuned. I also need lots of breaks from the artsy fartsy stuff so fantasy football, the MLB pennant race, and the latest greatest hip hop music should get writeups in the near future in this space as well.

In closing, another surrealist contemporary of Dali has intrigued me of late. German painter Max Ernst is properly recognized but I had never dug into his work much. Thanks again to Tumblr I've found some pieces that have really struck me with their mix of intricately detailed, vibrant bizarreness and precise, enclosed form.

Europe After Rain
(click to enlarge)

The Eye of Silence

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

For Bloomsday 2015

"I heard his words and their meaning was revealed to me."
 - Ulysses

This year to celebrate Bloomsday (June 16th, the day on which James Joyce's novel Ulysses takes place, named for the book's everyman hero Leopold Bloom) I'll be participating in some festivities over at Malvern Books on West 29th St here in Austin, starting at 6:30 pm. There will be music, food, drinks, readings from the book and I'll be delivering an introductory talk.

Incredibly, the Day of Bloom will be celebrated in many locales across the globe, including and especially China as The Guardian details.

To commemorate the big day here I'd like to share something I've been intending to post for a long time.

Below you can listen to the only recording Joyce ever made of himself reciting from his most famous book. It's a selection from the "Aeolus" episode, recorded in 1924, featuring a character delivering a speech likening the plight of the Irish with that of the Biblical Hebrews, with lots of Egyptian imagery.

Here is the text (loosely) to follow along. Notice his tone switching between the narrator, the speech, and Stephen's inner monologue:
He began:
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: Great was my admiration in listening to the remarks addressed to the youth of Ireland a moment since by my learned friend. It seemed to me that I had been transported into a country far away from this country, into an age remote from this age, that I stood in ancient Egypt and that I was listening to the speech of some highpriest of that land addressed to the youthful Moses.
His listeners held their cigarettes poised to hear, their smoke ascending in frail stalks that flowered with his speech. And let our crooked smokes. Noble words coming. Look out. Could you try your hand at it yourself?
 — And it seemed to me that I heard the voice of that Egyptian highpriest raised in a tone of like haughtiness and like pride. I heard his words and their meaning was revealed to me. 
From the Fathers
It was revealed to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted which neither if they were supremely good nor unless they were good could be corrupted. Ah, curse you! That's saint Augustine. 
Why will you jews not accept our culture, our religion and our language? You are a tribe of nomad herdsmen; we are a mighty people. You have no cities nor no wealth: our cities are hives of humanity and our galleys, trireme and quadrireme, laden with all manner merchandise furrow the waters of the known globe. You have but emerged from primitive conditions: we have a literature, a priesthood, an agelong history and a polity. 
Child, man, effigy.
By the Nilebank the babemaries kneel, cradle of bulrushes: a man supple in combat: stonehorned, stonebearded, heart of stone.
You pray to a local and obscure idol: our temples, majestic and mysterious, are the abodes of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Ammon Ra. Yours serfdom, awe and humbleness: ours thunder and the seas. Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is an host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles at our name. A dumb belch of hunger cleft his speech. He lifted his voice above it boldly:
But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition he would never have brought the chosen people out of their house of bondage nor followed the pillar of the cloud by day. He would never have spoken with the Eternal amid lightnings on Sinai's mountaintop nor ever have come down with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw.

The sound quality is poor but the powerful message still resonates.

There is great significance to this seemingly random passage from Joyce's giant book.

He insisted it was to be the only selection he would ever record. Even though Joyce told Sylvia Beach (the book's publisher and supporter) that he'd chosen this passage "because it was declamatory and therefore suitable for recital," Beach knew there was something else to it. "I believe that it expressed something he wanted said and preserved in his own voice," she wrote.

Listen to those final words again:

"graven in the language of the outlaw."

Joycean scholar Sebastian Knowles wrote of this final line:
On the recording, you hear Joyce's relish of "outlaw," reinforcing his own role as an exile, as the writer in an outlaw language, and as a participant in the outlaw creation of a new Irish literature. But the central word is "graven," as an engraving, as a text that is both positive and negative, and as a voice that is in several senses coming from beyond the grave.
And I'd like to add: Joyce the outlaw was also being publicly excoriated and condemned for his "obscene" and "filthy" book. At this point, in 1924, he had equal fame and notoriety. The greatest novel in the English language was banned, confiscated, and burned in the US and the UK for over a decade after its publication in 1922.

That final line is Joyce's eloquent middle finger to the authorities, the phony arbiters of moral justice.

Happy Bloomsday!

(This post owes a great deal to an old James Joyce Quarterly article by Adrian Curtin entitled "Hearing Joyce Speak: The Phonograph Recordings of 'Aeolus' and 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' as Audiotexts.)"

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reviewing a Recent Baseball Book Reading Binge

The end of winter each year inevitably brings with it a rekindling of my intense passion for baseball and 2015 was no different. I've been on a steady binge of absorbing baseball books for a few months now so here are some reflections on what I've been reading.

Baseball Prospectus 2015

Now in its 20th year of existence, this annual guide (featuring essays covering all 30 teams plus analysis/commentary on over 2,000 players) has undoubtedly faded a bit from its glory days but the 2015 version is the best one they've produced in many years. With editors Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski taking over in 2014 there were significant changes made to the format in an attempt to recapture what made the BP annual so special in the first place. Last year's edition was the first one ever to have by-lines on each of the 30 team essays while they brought in a bunch of recognizable baseball scribes to write each one. This experiment continued with the 2015 edition and works mostly for the better, but the luster of this fresh approach is starting to wear off. Bringing in a bunch of outside writers to cover each team has begun to feel rather gimmicky. I'd prefer to see BP make greater use of their own impressive stable of writers.

That complaint aside, BP 2015 is a terrific read that I'll be going back to throughout the baseball season. They've really revved up the wit, snark, and silliness (witness the emoji in Clay Buccholz' comment, the poetry for Hiroki Kuroda, and the oddity of Didi Gregorious' channeling of Derek Jeter) with an abundance of impressive, extremely creative writing while not sacrificing anything in the way of hardcore statistical analysis. That is what's always made this book so special after all; the extreme amplitude of information and heavy analysis held up by the light-hearted, creative, humorous writing style. I love the BP annual not so much for its acute baseball insights as for its stats-based writing about the game. This edition certainly provides that.

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