Monday, January 31, 2011
Winning isn't everything. That appears to be the belief at ESPN, where personality trumps success in their programming. Tiger Woods finished 44th in last week's golf tournament at Torrey Pines. Not exactly a great result, but apparently not bad enough to prevent a player who has not won in over a year from getting more coverage from the world wide leader during the weekend than the winner, young phenom Bubba Watson, and the second place finisher Phil Mickelson (a hugely successful golfer in his own right).
Such treatment is par for the course in sports media these days. Even when Woods is out of contention almost every shot of his is shown, everything he does on and off the course is scrutinized and dissected. The casual fan probably couldn't name another golfer.
Tiger's fame is a by-product of the burgeoning sports media empire dominated by the ESPN family of networks. Their various channels spend an inordinate amount of time on only one participant among a hundred, letting us know virtually everything about him while telling us little or nothing about the rest of the field.
Thanks to ESPN Tiger has become as much a celebrity as he is an athlete. Maybe that's okay considering golf is an individual, not a team sport. We can't accuse him of being selfish or "making it all about him" because when he steps onto the course, it really is all about his play.
Sadly though, this "cult of personality" driven media coverage is not limited to golf. The four letter network have also deified the likes of Brett Favre, Barry Bonds, and Lebron James. James, who has yet to win an NBA championship in seven NBA seasons, was given the nickname "King" while still in high school.
As tired as I am of hearing about Tiger while the other hundred golfers actually in contention are ignored, my ire is really raised when these players of team sports are treated as the only people that matter. The following are true stories, which will show you the depth of ESPN's obsession with certain individuals.
In the days leading up to NFL training camp, I started to refer to ESPN's seminal show, Sportscenter, as Favrecenter (apparently the station's Linda Cohn agreed with that assessment). The show dwelt on every mundane detail of the quarterback's decision to play or retire. I would put on the Spanish subtitles just to see something different on the bottom of the screen, but to my horror it read Favre, Favre, Favre, Favre, Favre......
During 2006 Barry Bonds had his own TV show on ESPN, "Bonds on Bonds." The network also had a reporter, Pedro Gomez, whose sole job was to report on the fascinating world of Barry Bonds. I know there is a lot of pressure for a 24-hour sports news network to provide programming, but clearly there is no better example of overkill than this Bonds fetish.
The ESPN relationship with Lebron James comes close, however, most notably with his program "The Decision," a thirty minute self-aggrandizing mess that severely hurt the star's reputation, especially after he used the time to spurn his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and "take his talents to South Beach" as he so eloquently put it. Pro basketball coverage on the network is so skewed towards James and his Heat as well as the Los Angeles Lakers (led by another "personality," Kobe Bryant) that one would think they are the only teams competing for the title. All the while the San Antonio Spurs, a real "team" without any superstars leads the NBA with an impressive 40 wins against only seven losses (and the Boston Celtics actually have the second best record).
As much as ESPN may want us to think otherwise, however, these athletes are not alone in their endeavors. Favre, as he discovered during a painful season where most of his anatomy was disfigured at one time or another, is useless without an offensive line. Lebron can't win a single championship without other great players like Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh around him, as he learned to his horror in Cleveland. Barry Bonds retired without ever winning a World Series. You can't drive in runners who aren't on base no matter how many steroids you purportedly inject into your system.
My point is, these are team sports that can't be won by individuals regardless of how great they are (or the media tells us they are). The three superstars I highlighted here have combined for a grand total of one championship in forty plus professional seasons. The aspect of team seems to be lost somewhere in this avalanche of star-centric coverage.
But don't we need heroes you might ask? Isn't the cult of personality ESPN creates just a response to something we all have a secret yearning for, a superman who can perform feats the likes of which we can only dream?
Many of us do have the need for heroes and I think that's perfectly healthy. There is no doubt that athletes like Bonds, Favre, and James all have the amazing ability to change games, to make more of a difference than the average player.
All I ask of ESPN and other sports networks is that they remember that there are other guys out there on the field. Would anyone object if they showed a great block by the left tackle once in a while? How about a highlight of Udonis Haslem setting a screen to get Lebron open for a jumper? Why not a video of Barry Bonds trainer shooting him up in the buttocks?
Okay, maybe not the last one, but you get the point - our heroes are nothing without the teammates, coaches, and support staff around them. Even Tiger Woods has struggled without his old swing coach, Butch Harmon. In the end all of these superstars are fallible, worthy of our awe perhaps, but not worthy of our worship. So let's drop the cult of personality - there are plenty of great sports stories out there that don't involve Brett Favre's next bowel movement.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Welcome to our third edition of the name game here at Thoughts Askew, where today we will be looking at the greatest players ever to sport a last name somewhere between Kason Gabbard and Maicer Izturis. Actually, most of these players weren't exactly Hall of Fame fodder, but their names certainly are. You'll notice that although names beginning with the letter "i" were admissible this go around none managed to make the cut. I'd put Pete Incaviglia on here, but he once hit a baseball through the outfield fence so I tread lightly around the man. Much respect, Pete.
This time around we did some voting to get the people involved and to perpetuate the myth that we live in a democracy. Thanks to those who helped narrow down a field heavy with contenders. Presented here is our starting nine and bullpen. Others who received votes will also get a brief mention.
1B: Dick "Doc" Hoblitzell: Besides a steady bedside manner and an encyclopedic knowledge of STD cures, Dick Doc proved a solid major league first baseman, starting nine years for the Reds and Red Sox during the 1910s. Hobliztell even made a great tea out of pine tar that would clear up an ugly case of the clap in no time.
Also receiving votes: Chicken Hawks.
2B: Jack Glasscock: Our weiner-centric theme continues with poor Jack Glasscock, whose successful seventeen year career (1879-1895) was brought to a tragic end in 1895 when his fragile wang finally broke. Even the Dick Doc could do nothing for him.
Also receiving votes: Howdy Groskloss.
SS: Turkey Gross: I'm guessing Thanksgiving is not his favorite holiday. Gross was most likely not a favorite of Red Sox fans either after batting .094 in a short stretch with the team in 1925.
Also receiving votes: Rich Hacker. A perfect descriptive term for many of the power-hitting, strikeout machines of the modern era (Rob Deer I'm looking at you), Rich Hacker struck out in 12 of his 33 professional at bats while managing a stellar .121 batting average.
3B: Dick Hunt: Although often confused with a weekly event at your local gay bar "Kittens," Dick Hunt actually managed a short stay in 1872 with the Brooklyn Eckfords. According to Baseballreference.com, this counts as a viable major league career so fuck it, he's on the squad. By the way, if you've ever wondered if anyone put two and two together and united Dick Cheney and Duck Hunt, wonder no more.
OF: Ducky Hemp: Another bizarre name from the 19th century, Ducky reminds us that hemp can be made into many fine legal products. If you want to get involved in anything illegal please see a certain member of the team's pitching staff.
OF: Bill Goodenough: Dicks and 19th century players seem to be the theme of this particular roster and although Bill does not fit the schlong bill, he was Goodenough to play for the 1893 St. Louis Browns and gosh darn it, people like him.
OF: Drungo Hazewood: Drungo only pawn in game of life. Believe it or not, Hazewood's given name really was Drungo. What that means in American I can't be sure, but rumor has it that Drungo is another word for idiot in Australian slang. Let's just give his family the benefit of the doubt and assume they were unaware of that fact. Hazewood's baseball skills, or lack thereof, seem to indicate he was a bit of an idiot at the plate, or at the very least unable to hit a curveball, slider, fastball, changeup, etc. Drungo had five plate appearances for the 1980 Baltimore Orioles and managed to avoid striking out on only one of those occasions.
Also receiving votes: Nick Goulish, Dummy Hoy (he was deaf, boy they were sensitive folks in the 19th century), Bug Holliday, Willie Horton (follow the link if you're too young to know why his name might be considered funny), and Dick Hall (to think, we could have had even more Dicks on this team)
C: Bubbles Hargrave: Not exactly a manly appellation for someone in such a macho vocation, but the decade of the 1920s Hargrave spent with the Reds was a different era. Apparently the strange nicknames ran in the family - Bubbles' brother was known as Pinky. I'm kind of surprised they never got their own television show. Who wouldn't watch the "Pinky and Bubbles Hour?" Oh wait, television hadn't been invented yet, never mind.
Also receiving votes: Johnny Gooch - my personal favorite (that's what I get for listening to the masses), Gooch just sounds like the edgy friend of every teenage character in 1980s comedy. It seems only yesterday that Mike Seaver was hanging out with Boner and the Gooch on "Growing Pains." Also, according to urbandictionary.com gooch is a synonym for grundle. Case closed.
P: Buck Hooker: Who doesn't like a cheap whore? Apparently the Cincinnati Reds, who only gave Buck a couple of appearances just after the turn of the 20th century. The going rate at the time was only 50 cents - oh to think of those bygone days when a buck really did go a long way. To think that once you could get a hooker. Nowadays all you can do is feed a starving child in Africa. Hard times.
P: Dick Hyde: We've all been there - Momma is angry, time to go into hibernation. Seriously though, now we know who Dick Hunt was searching for all this time. Reminds me of the old Robert Louis Stevenson story Dick and Hyde, where Hyde, a pitcher for the Nationals during the 1950s, would blame Dick every time he got into trouble.
P: Herb Hash: Your source for a variety of illegal narcotics, Hash served with the Red Sox from 1940 to 1941. Life wasn't all roses for Herb afterward as he was stalked by drug sniffing dogs and spent much of his life fulfilling his high school superlative, "most likely to be stopped by airport security." Thankfully, Jihad Muhammad came along in 2005 to take the heat off of Hash. He wasn't able to enjoy his new-found freedom to travel for long though, dying when his meth lab exploded in 2008.
P: Oral Hildebrand: Hildebrand was gifted the name Oral by his parents and contrary to some filthy innuendos that have flying around, he did not earn the moniker through his prowess in the art of cunnilingus. He was, however, able to earn a ten year career pitching in the American League during the 1930s.
Total non sequitur here, but I was thinking, if Oral was gay this team would be full of happy Dicks. Just be gentle with the Glasscock there bud.
P: Ed Head: Only Dick Head or Mike Hunt would have made a more appropriate closer to the G-I team, but since neither never rose above the minor leagues or even existed for all I know, we'll have to settle for the poetic Ed Head. Our latest source for sexual entendres won twenty seven games pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers during World War II.
Also received votes: Russ Heman, Pretzels Getzen, Noodles Hahn, Chief Hogsett, Jimmy Gobble, and Val Kilmer's favorite, Ed Huckleberry.
Monday, January 10, 2011
Arenal* volcano allegedly sits adjacent to the Arenal* river and Arenal* Lake, a man-made reservoir formed as part of a hydroelectric project in 1979. I say allegedly because despite the fact that I spent two days with my family at the Arenal* Paraiso Hotel, none of us ever spotted the elusive volcano.
*Costa Rican law states that all landforms and places within a fifty square mile radius of the volcano include the word Arenal in their title*
For much of the year, including the entirety of our visit, Arenal Volcano lies shrouded by mystery, reticent to show off its figure to the adoring masses. Clouds surround the peak, which stretches to the height of 5,358 feet, even when the rest of the sky is clear.
Things could have been worse I suppose. The volcano is still very active - an eruption on my birthday in 1968 presaged my ominous coming and also killed 87 people. Trees had grown inside the crater and the locals believed the mountain was dormant. Whoops!
The only warning Arenal gave came when the local streams began to heat, forming hot springs at an area called Tabacon that is still popular with visitors today as a natural jacuzzi. The town of Tabacon was destroyed in the 1968 eruption and many of the residents killed, but there are always trade-offs in the search for tourist dollars.
Arenal, the youngest of the Earth's Costa Rican vents, is still quite active today. I may not have seen the peak, but at least my family and I managed to avoid toxic gases, super-hot magma, and huge rocks falling from the sky. Word is none of those things make for a great vacation unless Chevy Chase is involved.
All of these disasters seemed possible when we took a hike in the area beneath the volcano's shadow on our second day. During the stroll we passed signs warning us that we went farther at our own risk. Sad that I had forgotten the volcano-appeasing virgin I always carry on such occasions, I vowed to run as fast as I could as soon as the mountain began to rumble. Fortunately, my plan never came into play, as statistics show fat ass out-of-shape people usually fail to place in a foot race with lava, gas, and ash.
The only injury occurred when my mother stumbled, suffering a minor laceration to her hand. She may have been distracted by the beauty of the lava fields, where, a mile or more from the volcano's base, we could walk amongst a symbol of the Earth's immense power. The pile of rocks upon which we trod told us all we needed to know about Arenal's impressive throwing arm. Clearly the volcano would be a number one draft pick if not for signability questions and the fact that its passes would burn off the arms of even the most sure-handed receiver.
The abundance and diversity of Costa Rican wild life also continued to amaze us on our hike, as we spotted an eyelash pit viper, two great curassows, a crested guan, and a bevy of olive-throated parakeets.
I guess that's the moral of the story of my Costa Rican vacation. I may never have seen the top of Arenal, but as I learned, the riches of Costa Rica don't ever disappoint you for too long. If you aren't able to see one thing, just keep on moving or better yet, sit still and pay close attention - never doubt that there will be something incredible and unexpected waiting for you there. At the very least you can get a volcano burrito at the Taco Bell in San Jose or a Mount Arenal Volcano dessert at the Paraiso restaurant. Personally, I bought a refrigerator magnet so I could see what the goddamn thing looked like.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
After a climb up what is (hopefully for the sake of the country's inhabitants) the worst road in all of Costa Rica, we arrived in Monteverde. The clouds must hang a little lower nearer the equator, for despite the fact that the area is only 4600 feet above sea level, the feathery pillows of the sky were all around, above but also below us at times.
The rain was not like the steady showers we received in Tortuguero, but a light misting, quickly broken and followed by hours of sunlight before the precipitation returned. The odds of sighting a rainbow were high and we even spotted a double rainbow, which have been known to cause fits of endless spazzing in the uninitiated.
The natural bounty of the land continued to astound me, especially the colorful fliers known as aves to the locals. Never much of a bird nerd before, I was hit with a fever that was fortunately not cowbell-related or even malarial in nature. Or not yet anyway -if I keep forgetting to take my pills that could be next. Oh well that's just another fun part of the experience when traveling in the rain forest right?
Where was I? Oh yeah, I was admitting to my new found love for the birds of Costa Rica and there was plenty to feed my need in Monteverde. I saw the Motmot, the official bird of Nicaragua and the resplendent quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, both spectacular birds with long tails and a regal bearing. I also saw about ten million clay-colored robins, Costa Rica's representative, perhaps the most boring bird in the world.
I was reminded by our guide Paulo that we almost picked the turkey for the same role in the United States. Well Paulo, Benjamin Franklin was a senile and no doubt syphilitic old man and the founding fathers wisely didn't listen to his incoherent, cracked-out ramblings, so suck it.
Even the insects were interesting in Costa Rica, as we discovered after being suckered into the Butterfly Garden, only to find out that much of the tour was about spiders, millipedes, beetles, and even roaches. I guess "Roach and Tarantula Garden" didn't have the same ring to it. I shortly forgave the dishonest bastards who are going to hell because of all the interesting information they gave us about the smallest of the nation's wild life - outside of the wonderful assortment of intestinal parasites also available there, of course.
The garden also eventually delivered on the butterfly pledge, giving us the chance to see the Blue Morpho, one of which was famously killed by Time magazine in order to hold the insect still enough for a cover story about Earth Day. The postman butterfly, known for always ringing twice, and the clear winged butterfly, known for the transparency of its lies (pictured above weaving a web of deceit), were two of my other favorites.
Although we also met a monkey and a pack of coatis in Monteverde, I tire of discussing smelly animals (reminder to self: take a bath sometime this week). One of the new experiences my mother had planned for us in Costa Rica was a chance to do something called zip-lining.
Zip-lining is great - unless you are scared of heights, so I pretty much spent the whole time pissing my shorts. Once I ran out of urine, however, I was able to settle into the experience and really enjoy the thrill, knowing that the equipment was safe and reliable and our guides were professionals who had been doing this job since they were eighteen (they were now grizzled twenty five year olds). At no point did our two helpers attempt to kill us, although the intent to injure my brother and I was clearly there on a couple of occasions.
I also recommend that you turn down their idea of rappelling, which involves being dropped from a great height at the speed of gravity until you are convinced you are going to die and have a heart attack. At that very moment, the guides stop your fall and you land gently on the ground alive, if the paramedics arrive in time to treat your cardiac arrest. Hopefully the ambulance doesn't have to drive to Monteverde.
Seriously though, I really enjoyed zip-lining quite a bit, as did my brother and my mother. I highly recommend that you give it a try, especially if you are a total ass hole of whose presence the world would be well rid. Sorry, I didn't mean that, just a little edgy from a lack of caffeine. Unfortunately, I don't drink caffeinated beverages anymore so sadly my state of mind is unlikely to change any time soon.
Sadly, our time in lovely Monteverde came to an end all too quickly. Another jaw-breaking, teeth-rattling journey lay ahead, as we left the cloud forest and headed to the live and very active volcano of Arenal. Don't worry about my safety, I brought my own virgin.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
After leaving coastal Tortuguero, my family and I headed via bus and van to our next destination, Monteverde. After passing a road sign reading only 30 kilometers (20 miles or so) to go I felt relieved, knowing that a long day of travel was almost over. When the driver announced there was still an hour left to our hotel as we moved from tarmac to dirt road I wondered how the road could be that bad. The Costa Ricans behind the wheel of previous rides had never been scared to drive fast and aggressively and our current pilot was no exception. I was quickly educated as to the source of the problem.
There are two roads to Monteverde, both of which I had the opportunity to bounce up and down upon. They are without doubt the worst paths I have ever experienced. The ground was more often a pot hole than flat earth. The way was winding and steep, the shocks on the van had been rendered useless by the relentless pounding. There were no lights and at times the fall off the side of the road was hundreds of feet with no guard rail present to correct a driver's error. At one point our vehicle had to pass a Mack truck around a corner, with only inches to spare between us and the long plunge to the valley bottom.
As for my poor body, the internal organs were spinning like the numbers in a slot machine, shuffling into disorder. There were no seat belts in the back of the van (a common feature I noticed throughout the week) and had there been I probably would have suffered from whiplash anyway, as the auto bounced from pothole to pothole like a whack-a-mole trying to escape the hammer wielder's death-blow.
After a beating Rocky (aka a boxer who does not use his hands to protect his face) would be proud of, the visibly shaken driver (who had to go back that same night on those hellish roads to his family in San Jose!) parked at the Cloud Forest Lodge on the outskirts of Monteverde. He got the biggest tip my grateful family dispersed to a driver that week for managing not to kill us all despite plenty of opportunities to do so.
In summary the roads to and from Monteverde are not recommended for those with heart conditions, loose teeth, or a will to live. However, as in Tortuguero, Monteverde was worth the adversity and the terrible terrain proved a smart bit of protection for the area. From what I found the next day, if the place was easy to reach everyone would want to live there.
Next: In Monteverde
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Rain forest: a two word term which leads one to expect two things - rain and forest. Tortuguero National Park, with a yearly rainfall of about twenty feet and a seemingly impenetrable jungle canopy filled with enough green to make the Lantern, the Giant, and envy all jealous.
I spent two full days in and around Tortuguero National Park and only on the last day, as I prepared to depart, did the bashful sun make an appearance. Rain was a constant, barely letting up for much more than fifteen minutes at a time, killing my camera battery and drenching even my supposedly water-proof clothing. The sky's only variation in color during the day consisted of slight changes from one shade of gray to another. The Park, located on the Northeast coast of Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border, boasts sandy beaches, but the ocean currents are so powerful there swimming is not allowed.
Maybe to you all of this sounds like a prescription for a dull and rather wet vacation, but Tortuguero was one of the most worthwhile destinations I have ever visited, for here I found the real heart of Costa Rica and the two keys to the country's recent popularity as a tourist destination: the wildlife and the tico (the word Costa Ricans use when they refer to themselves) guides.
Even for a place whose economy is largely based on ecotourism, the nation's biological diversity is astonishing. I had never in my short life seen such variety in so short a time outside of a zoo. We took three separate excursions while in Tortuguero, one through the jungle and two in an open boat down the rivers and canals that cut through the Park. At times it seemed as if there was a new species of bird, reptile, insect, or mammal waiting around every corner of the path and every bend of the river.
To list each animal I saw would be almost mind-numbing - with the help of my family (whose cameras survived), I took a picture of everything I could. There was really no other way to possibly remember the cast members of the vast menagerie of different species constantly crossing our path.
The oropendula, sloth, howler monkey, poison dart frog, great curassow, and Jesus lizard are just a few of the characters I saw that make up Tortuguero's star-studded cast. With 250 mammals, almost 900 birds, 225 reptiles, 175 amphibians, and over 500,000 total animals species living in Costa Rica the mere hundred or so I personally saw are just a drop in the bucket. The tremendous variety and uniqueness of the fauna alone give me an excuse to return one day. The elusive tapir will one day be mine.
The privilege of spotting so many of nature's wonders would have been impossible without the other key to the success of my travels in Tortuguero and elsewhere - the guides. The Costa Rican government has managed to make use of their natural wonders like no other country in Central America. They have concentrated much of their educational resources on training an exceptional group of people knowledgeable about every facet of the nation's flora and fauna.
All of our guides were also quite fluent in English, meaning that not only did they know the answers to our questions, they could communicate their knowledge to those of us whose Spanish consists of Hola, gracias, cerveza (fun fact: the Ticos say birra for beer instead of cerveza), and maybe a few curse words.
At Tortuguero our tour group was especially lucky, drawing the services of Jorge Luis, who grew up in the nearby rain forest and had spent many a day and night tracking through the jungle as a hunter in his early years. Now working full-time for the Tourism bureau, Jorge proved to be a Costa Rican Renaissance man with an encyclopedic memory of native medicine and a child's excitement for the various forms of life that kept appearing as if on cue.
Most importantly though, Jorge (and our other guides and drivers throughout the trip) had an extraordinary ability to spot camouflaged animals hiding in the thick jungle canopy. Without his keen eyes (aided by our also quite capable boat captains) I would have never been able to find some of the participants in the rain forest's version of "Where's Waldo?". On a couple of occasions I couldn't see organisms located only several feet in front of my face - and I was not alone. The Jesus Lizard and the caiman were two of the more ingeniously hidden reptiles whose discover by Jorge left myself and others stunned at what appeared to be his superhuman eyesight.
On the third day our boat left Tortuguero on the hour long ride to our bus for San Jose. A car ride of four hours lay beyond our planned noon arrival in the capital. Monteverde was next on the agenda and the trip there would be a challenging one, mainly in regard to the integrity of my internal organs, some of which are still situated in the wrong places.
Next: Bouncing all the way to Monteverde.
As a traveler the process of passing judgment on a country's merits can be a hard task, especially when the time available to compile the case for and against is as measly as one week. For this year's trip to Costa Rica, the flimsy evidence would be based on short excursions to Tortuguero, Monteverde, and Arenal, as well as a quick stay in the capital of San Jose.
My first day was spent in Costa Rica's largest city, San Jose, where the main airport and an entire quarter of the nation's population is located. I wandered the streets of downtown San Jose encountering a variety of interesting products like Bimbo bread and Darky chocolates, although I sadly missed my opportunity to purchase a Darky (yes I am going to hell).
I was able to sample some of the other culinary offerings, however, and I greatly enjoyed my first tastes of the local versions of ceviche and beef churrascos. Also, patacones, fried plantains served with black bean dip or guacamole, are an excellent side dish.
I had been forewarned by several people that Costa Rican cuisine was somewhat bland, but I found that was true only of the food offered in some of our hotels, the local establishments put out some tasty products, although I will admit diversity is somewhat limited. Costa Rica will never be confused with Paris, but that doesn't mean you won't enjoy some very good meals there.
The beer was also quite tasty after the insult to the art of brewing that I was presented with during my trip to Spain last year. The Spanish should stick to wine and leave beer to the professionals in England, Belgium, Germany, Czech, etc. The Costa Rican strengths were Pilsen and Imperial (pretty much the official national beer) both of which proved to have a very crisp flavor, not too sweet and too bitter with an easy finish.
San Jose, although the central organ of commerce there, is not the heart of Costa Rica, it is a dirty, crowded place and I don't recommend spending more than a day there. Thankfully, the capital is not indicative of the country as a whole - as I would discover on my subsequent journey.
Next: an excursion to Tortuguero