Peanut Butter Knife

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What happened to baseball? ...Or, Am I Becoming a White Sox Fan?

Though I'm not usually pegged as being a particularly rabid sports fan, those that know me will surely recognize that baseball is up there with music, food and politics as a particular passion of mine. This year though, I was just never able to muster much enthusiasm.

I was raised to be an Indians fan, and since about 1982 when I was old enough to understand what those guys with the hats were doing with the balls and the bats, I've followed the progress of the Tribe game by game; on radio, on TV and in the papers (and later on the internet). It was a unique thrill to wake up in the morning and pore over box scores, memorize statistics and ponder various trade rumors and possibilities. I cut my teeth as a Tribe fan in the 80s when there wasn't much reason for excitement about the team. Players like Pat Tabler, Scott Bailes, Felix Fermin, and Brook Jacoby were among my early favorites. I watched what few "stars" we had getting traded away and go on to greater glory in bigger cities that I'd never seen. Yet every year, hope springs eternal and I'd be gobbling up the sports pages as rabidly as ever. Of course, the 90s were the payoff for me. I might not have suffered as long as most Indians fans, but I'd taken a few lumps to be sure. By now, I was old enough to grasp the finer points of the game. The strategy, a good defensive play, a pitcher's duel, or just the relaxing feel that watching/listening to the game has every spring and summer.

When the Tribe began rebuilding in 2002 I was on board with that as well. Though it sucked to lose guys like Bartolo Colon and Roberto Alomar, I knew the farm system had been depleted and felt like the prospects we were getting in return showed a great deal of promise. The rebuilding also coincided with my moving home to NE Ohio. I suppose on a symbolic level, I felt as though the Tribe's rebirth was mirroring my own attempts to get a fresh start and redefine who I was and what I was capable of being. I continued to follow the Indians as intently as ever through those brutal seasons of 2002-2004, I started keeping up with minor league players as well and attended Captains and Aeros contests. In 2005, it appeared as though the plan was coming to fruition with the Tribe staying in contention until the last day against an historic White Sox team.

Last October, I found myself in the hospital with an undiagnosed and completely baffling liver problem. In the end, this turned out to be the result of gall bladder disease and I was able to have surgery and have been in good health ever since. But for those first few months before being diagnosed, I didn't know what to think, it was the scariest time of my life. My first night in the hospital was the same night as Game 4 of the World Series and as I lay in the hospital bed with my roommate hacking and wheezing next to me, I found myself rooting hard for the White Sox to win it all.

During my nearly 4 years in Chicago, I'd felt a certain sympathy for the White Sox. Their fans were die hard baseball fans, yet the local media always gave significantly more coverage to the Cubs, even in 2000 when the Sox won the central. Wrigley may be a temple for the game, but so many people who pack the bleachers there are more content to drink beer and pay little mind to the glorious game unfolding around them. I don't mean this as a swipe at all Cubs fans (in fact the only MLB hat I own and wear is a Cubs hat), as a Tribe fan, I certainly admire their tenacity and dedication and have known many who are just as passionate and knowlegable about the game as anyone. Yet Sox fans had suffered just as much as their north side brethren with little of the "lovable losers" embrace that the Cubs enjoyed.

I was thrilled by the Sox watching the '05 Series. They were built around fantastic starting pitching and an offensive lineup of hard nosed rejects from other organizations. Their GM, at one time the only minority GM in the game, had been ridiculed mercilessly for his offseason moves and seeing his vision vindicated amidst so much criticism was a story that anyone can respect. I loved seeing the coverage of people all over the much maligned south side celebrating the Sox victory and I wished I was there in the city, feeling the excitement that must have been charging through the streets, even up to my old northwest side neighborhood (Irving Park/Pulaski area). Really, I wished I could be anywhere than some cold tiny room at Akron City Hospital. If the Sox could win the World Series, then certainly I could survive whatever this was affecting me.

At the time, I didn't question my loyalties. After all, the Tribe wasn't playing, so its not as though I was rooting against them. Besides, the White Sox had been suffering since 1919, longer than the Indians and with the way the Tribe looked in '05, '06 would be their year for sure, right? Then came the terrible offseason moves. Not even making a competitive offer on Bob Howry, trading away Coco Crisp and Brandon Phillips, and signing non-entities like Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson. While everyone else in NE Ohio was ecstatic about the Tribe's possibilities for this season, I had a sinking feeling that we were taking a big step back. This wasn't the AL Central of old anymore, we were now in the division with the world champs for the first time ever. As the season got underway, I began to notice that watching this year's Tribe play, whether they won or lost, was a joyless experience. The players didn't seem to have the same spark or personality of old, the manager talked in meaningless corporate double speak and the front office seemed ever content to rest on their laurels. I stopped watching the games, I looked at the box scores in the paper still, but not every day and not with the intent of memorizing the player's stats or the teams W-L record. Not even the late season additions of talented rookies like Jeremy Sowers, Ryan Garko and Shin Soo Choo really did much to rekindle my interest in the game.

Now the season is over and I'm left wondering. What happened to my love of this game? Is the increased corpratization, skyrocketing salaries and steroid scandals finally taking its toll on me? Was watching the 2006 Tribe really just that boring and monotonous that it sucked the life out of a lifetime fan such as myself? Or, did my (albeit temporary) defection to the White Sox last autumn shatter over 20 years of loyalty to the Indians? I've followed the Indians longer than I've followed anything else in my life. Certainly I've rooted for other teams before when the Tribe wasn't involved in a game or playoff series, but the 2005 World Series added a very personal dimension to watching those games that made it more than just watching a game. After the heartbreak of the '97 Indians, the '05 White Sox delivered for me at a crucial moment. But in the end, what does that say about me and my ability to stay loyal to the things that matter? On a grander scale, what does it say about my own attachment to place and to home and the aforementioned attempts at self-rediscovery?

Tough questions to be sure, and I may be over analyzing. After all, it is only a game.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lost Sounds: 1. Gastr del Sol Camoufleur

The first in an occasional series on great albums that may have slipped through the cracks of the modern musical hype machine.

Though GDS principal Jim O'Rourke titled his 1997 album of acoustic guitar instrumentals Bad Timing, perhaps that moniker might have been better applied to Camoufleur, Gastr del Sol's swan song, instead. The core duo of O'Rourke and David Grubbs had already split at the time of it's release, resulting in little press and no touring. Furthermore, the album represented a pretty significant shift in the group's overall sound (if not their approach), alienating fans of their earlier, noise-driven experimental work. Adding to all that, 1998 can be viewed in retrospect was the beginning of the end of the post-rock zeitgeist, leaving Camoufleur an underappreciated gem from one of underground rock's most forward looking eras.

It is hard to believe that this album is now almost 9 years old. At one time, I hyperbolically intoned that it was responsible for me moving to Chicago. Perhaps there were a host of other factors involved in that decision now, but its easy to see why I was so moved at the time. The melding of experimental sounds, international folk music (for lack of a better term), and classic Beach Boys-inspired pop was an eye opening brew that was not only in tune to what else I was listening to at the time, but led me down paths to discover music by artists as disparate as Edith Frost, Van Dyke Parks, Oval, Charles Ives, and John Fahey to name a few, not to mention a host of Indonesian gamelan recordings.

Musically, Camoufleur is an expansive musical soundscape where words wrap around acoustic guitar figures set adrift over a gently pulsing mix of horns, percussion, piano and electronics. "The Black Horse" begins with a fanfare of guitar, fiddle and drums based upon Vietnamese folk music before evolving into a meditative, vaguely Japanese acoustic guitar drone that sounds like a dark, rainy Fall evening. "Mouth Canyon" is O'Rourke's lone vocal contribution to the album, a reflective snapshot washed in a bath of steel guitar, listening to it feels like driving through a run down part of Chicago's west side at sundown on a wintry Sunday evening. Opener "The Seasons Reverse" is GDS' most upbeat moment, a shockwave to those who had come to expect brooding experimental sounds from the band. Acoustic guitar, drums and synths engage in a percolating tug of war that might be reminiscent of popcorn popping before giving way to dueling steel drum and trumpet solos (!) worked in so effortlessly, you'll wonder why more artists aren't using that combination. Edith Frost's vocals on "Each Dream Is An Example" are effervescent and seem to arrive in the song as if from on high. The coda to "Bauchredner" brings the whole album home with a soaring homage to Americana.

I've let this one sit on the shelf for much of the past few years. In part, as my tastes changed I seemed to move away from sounds that hinted of avant-gardism. I also went through a period right after moving back to Ohio where I was staying away from Chicago music. It cut a little too close to the bone for me. Through the magic of the ipod though, I've rediscovered this album over the last month and hearing it fresh once again, I can see why it captivated me so much at 21 when I was on hunt for new, exciting sound combinations; but I'm finding it relevant once again at 29, where the reflective, almost haunting moods are echoing with deeper resonance.

In short, this is an album that I wish more people had heard. Instant recognition and hype, however, is not usually a good thing; though to let this album slip into total obscurity less than a decade later would be the far greater tragedy.

Gastr Del Sol "The Seasons Reverse"

Gastr Del Sol "Mouth Canyon"

Buy here or here.