From Paris to under Stephen King’s dome and back.

So, let’s write about books.

After another successful haul of books thanks to Christmas, I have an incredible amount of prose to add to my already excellent haul of books from last year. Slowly but surely that pile is being whittled down- the classic mantra of all book readers.

Books are little wonderful collections of art in my opinion. All that energy and work, hours of angst and blissful inspired glory, spilled page after page, all neatly bound, ready to be lost in…if you are ready to take the plunge.

Recently I finished two books that appear far apart on the literary spectrum but they were worth the slow coffees, teas and snacks I had as I flipped through them.

Each book is rated on the typewriter (remember those?) scale from one to five. The more the better.

PARIS 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

By Margaret MacMillan

Take a peek at the world map, see it all divided up by borders, both manmade and natural. If you ever wanted to know how most of those pieces of this great puzzle were created, read this book.

Paris 1919 is internationally renown so it won’t mean much to heap further mounds of praise on it but rest assured, the accolades are all well deserved. The research and writing which went into this political history book, which centres around the Paris 1919 peace conference, is incredible and a joy to indulge in.

As the world reeled from the end of the First World War its prevailing powers were bent on justice, acquisition of power, land expansion, global positioning and control. The strength of MacMillan’s research and style really delivers “fly on the wall” moments again and again as she unfurled those six months in Paris.

If you love history and politics, add this to your bookshelf ASAP. If you ever wanted a better understanding of Germany pre-World War Two, the Middle East, the Armenian genocide, Italy’s inability at political stability, Japan and U.S. relations pre-World War Two…and there is more, read this book. One thing I can tell you is this…the butler did not do it.

5/5

Under the Dome

By Stephen King

This 1,074 word opus by the master of fright, scream and all things macabre was a workout to carry around for its sheer size alone. For the record, I am a huge fan of Stephen King’s Darktower series, if you are ever going to read some King, read this series first. Under the Dome has nothing to do with that awesome series though it is the longest King book I have read since finishing the Darktower journey.

What continues to amaze me about King is, love him or hate him, he has an incredible imagination and impeccable story-telling capabilities. He is not lavish and technically great as a writer, according to some, but that does not matter. Dear reader, the man knows how to spin a tale. Under the Dome is about a sleepy town which becomes enclosed in a massive dome, essentially becoming the world’s biggest snowglobe.

How quickly does this town go to rot “under the dome”. Who is the first to crack? Who is the first to try to capitalize? And…who will stand up and fight? As King explores the small-town psyche of Chester’s Mill, Maine, you at times get the feeling that his descriptions of people in crisis, even under these fantastical circumstances, might not be that far-fetched.

A good read for a long book, not one of his best but it is worth getting lost in for a bit. I only have one issue with the book but I won’t ruin it for you, if you commit to this opus, you are in it for the long haul!

3.5/5

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The Saturday Six: November 20, 2010

Our first prime minister takes a break on a downtown Charlottetown bench where many a thing is Anne of Green Gables, such as the store he is looking back at. PHOTO: VINCE VERSACE

Here are some random items to start your weekend. Here are your Saturday Six:

GOODBYE PAT : Pat Burns, former coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils, where he won a Stanley Cup, has passed away from cancer. A true sports leader of men, his style and honesty was refreshing. The timing of his passing is hard to ignore, he left this life the night before his two beloved teams, the Habs and Leafs, square off in Montreal tonight.

WARTORN 1861-2010: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has ravaged thousands of soldiers during and after their tours of duty worldwide. This doc was incredibly insightful into the cross many a government leaves brave soldiers to carry once they return home. The doc’s focus is on American soldiers but remember, PTSD knows no borders and is something Canadian soldiers are also afflicted with, learn how it impacts their families and lives.

BABY HEARS MOTHER’S VOICE: About as poignant a video as you can get. Watch as an eight month old baby hears his mother’s voice for the first time thanks to a cochlear implant.

WHAT’S THE RUSH? : First the disclaimer, I am not a Rush fan. I have always appreciated their music and contribution to rock and like a handful of their songs. However, if you watch Rush:Beyond The Lighted Stage, that could change. This doc definitely paints a clearer picture about this iconic Canadian band that has remained cool by not trying to be and creating some progressive music along the way.

AGGRESSIVE PAT-DOWN AT AIRPORT: Heightened security at airports always draws long lines and headlines. However, asking a cancer survivor to remove her prosthetic breast just seems wrong.

A BLACK HOLE IS BORN: NASA recently announced the birth date of a black hole. The first flash of it was noticed 30 years ago by an amateur astronomer and the rest is now reality….

One dinger at a time: LaMacchia memories

Al Lamacchia during his St. Louis Browns days.

When I saw the headline that Al LaMacchia had passed away recently I quietly enjoyed recalling the few chats I had with the former Toronto Blue Jays executive.

LaMacchia was a former Toronto Blue Jays scouting co-ordinator and vice president. He was with the Los Angeles Dodgers when he recently died at the age of 89. I was lucky enough to meet LaMacchia a handful of times during the early 1990s because he would drop my parent’s supermarket on St. Clair Avenue to shop.

Sometimes he picked up tangerines, other times chestnuts. He had a friendly customer-shopkeeper relationship with my father and typical to the Italian culture(likely other immigrant ones as well) everyone is a ‘paisan’ when you speak the same language, even a little.

There are no tear-jerking memories of grand conversations or life-changing advice that I recall between LaMacchia and myself. However, what I do recall was a kind, sharp dressed, older man who took the time to talk baseball with an Italian-Canadian teenager wearing a white apron selling fruit.

Back then, the Jays were a baseball juggernaut and were on the cusp of winning back-to-back World Series championships. The SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) had opened in 1989 and getting a ticket to a game was like striking gold.

Carter celebrates hitting the 1993 World Series clinching homerun. "Touch'em All Joe," great Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek quipped.

The Jays owned this town from 1985, when George Bell dropped to his knees after catching a fly ball to cinch up our first American League East pennant to Joe Carter’s dramatic, heart-stopping World Series winning homerun off of ‘Wild Thing’ Mitch Williams.

During my first baseball conversation with LaMacchia we talked about how good was the flamethrowin’ Juan Guzman and could Duane Ward be a full-time closer. I was talking ball with a Blue Jays head honcho and he was actually listening to me, what an impression he left.

Then, when he handed me his office phone number before leaving and said to call him if I ever wanted tickets…well I almost passed out into the tangerine crate display right then and there.

Another conversation I recall was about how base stealing wizard Rickey Henderson could help in their 1993 World Series run. I also remember talking about the serene Cito Gaston and his merits as a manager of the Jays.

Once I stopped working at the family business I never did run into LaMacchia again. I remember a couple of years ago, while stuck in traffic commuting into the city, hearing baseball guru writer Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun talking about how great Blue Jays scouting used to be and he mentioned LaMacchia among the other Toronto scouting stalwarts.

I looked up LaMacchia’s stats on baseball-reference.com before I started typing this post. First thing I noticed was a picture of a younger version of the face I met over grocery produce a few times.

Lamacchia had 16 appearances with the St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators. Sure, his numbers were not distinguished but he had made it to “the show”, which counts for something.

Also, the fact the Blue Jays renamed their top scouting award in his honour a few years back shows what an impact he made as an executive and scout.

In the end, for one former grocery store kid, LaMacchia’s classy demeanour, kindness and love of the game made for Hall of Fame-like memories, as brief and fleeting as they were over a bag of chestnuts or handful of fruit.

One dinger at a time- what is baseball about?

When I think of baseball I immediately go to the cracking sound the bat makes on solid contact. That moment of explosion from brain process to muscle snap to unleash a swing, whether a violent chop or fluid smooth, on that baseball daring to get by – always a freeze frame moment.

Recently I had a great baseball weekend; enjoying my hometown Toronto Blue Jays against the Cleveland Indians at the Rogers Centre one day and then the Toronto Maple Leafs, our Intercounty League Baseball team, in a playoff game at Christie Pits the next. Same game, different talent levels but baseball, at its simplest, is about the swing of that bat, the slide into home and the pop of the catcher’s mitt, no matter the size of the cheque.

At the Indians-Jays game an armada of red-shirted Korean exchange students, none older than 12, filled the five rows in front of us in our section. They were participants in a student exchange program run out of a Belleville. We figured they were attending the game to catch some ball in the impressive dome on a sunny day with the massive CN Tower stretching high above.

Then, Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians came to bat.

The Korean kids went wild. Here was their reason for being there. I remember when Willie Upshaw or Jesse Barfield would step into the batter box, at good ole Exhibition Stadium, and I would go wild too.

Cleveland's Shin-Soo Choo. Photo by Keith Allison

However, my reaction lacked the national fervor these kids were exhibiting. Add in their teachers and chaperones losing their minds cheering for Choo, you then understood, this was not just their hometown hero but their national hero. You could not help but cheer a bit too, not just for Choo but for them as well, or at least I thought.

How great would it have been for those kids to see Choo, a five-tool star player for Cleveland, hit a home run? They cheered mightily to get his attention and when he hit a double, eventually scoring a run, he might as well have found the cure for cancer- a hero for the ages…on this day anyway.

Near the tail end of the game, Choo came to bat again. The Korean kids started hollering and chanting their hero’s name. They had made this section of the Rogers Centre their own.

This was the last moment of their international baseball experience before it became a memory. With each pitch, foul tip and swing, they tried to soak up every fleeting minute of it.

As they chanted in rhythm, we looked over to our left, to a young Blue Jays fan, probably around five or six years old, in our row.

He had his right foot up on the back of one the chairs before him.

What was our loyal Blue Jays fan doing?

In synch with the clapping and rhythm of the Choo chants, he was quietly giving the thumbs down to the Indians star, while wearing a devious grin.

Baseball…it truly is about the kids.

One dinger at a time, from baseball asterisks to carp

The following is the first in a series of posts about the Great American Pastime of baseball. We are not sure how many entries there will be, once our fingers started tapping on the keyboard about this game we love, the words kept flowing.

What does a Canadian of Italian heritage have to say about baseball? Well, let’s sit back with our game program and find out. Consider this series like a long essay or better yet, a tight, nine-inning pitching duel between a flame-throwing righty and a crafty, off-speed, lefty.

Group picture of the Boston Beaneaters and New York Giants, Major League Baseball Opening Day 1886. Charles Radbourn, back row far left, gives the finger to the camerman. PHOTO COURTESY Of: 19cbaseball.com

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“I see great things in baseball.  It’s our game – the American game.  It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism.  Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set.  Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us,” – Walt Whitman

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It is 600 with an asterisk (*) and how can it be any other way?

When Alex Rodriguez slammed his 600th dinger off Blue Jays Shaun Marcum, joining the elite 600 plus homers club, how could we not consider it #600 with an asterisk in the early days of baseball’s post-steroid era?

The asterisk argument is more metaphorical than an actual push to have an asterisk affixed to a homerun total. For an entire era of baseball fans the homerun feats of A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa carry asterisks and questions marks, let alone upturned middle fingers.

Why so crass with the middle finger? Because that is what every player who has taken steroids or some other stimulant or drug to improve his focus, longevity and strength did to the great game of baseball, let alone us, the baseball fan.

A-Rod has already admitted to taking steroids only during his playing days with the Texas Rangers. Somehow he expects us to believe he has stopped. May be he has but how can we believe he has not? The baseball legacy of this already gifted player is forever ruined but at least he fessed up to it unlike Barry Bonds.

A-Rod takes a mighty cut against the Orioles during the last afternoon game, and second last game, at old Yankee Stadium. PHOTO BY: Vince Versace

Bonds, the supposed all-time home run king, has been tarred and feathered through implications and evidence via the BALCO steroid scandal but was never proven guilty of steroid use. More on Bonds later but if it looks like a duck and flies like a duck, do you need to hear it quack to be convinced it is a duck?

As Bonds chased Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s homerun mark of 755 you could count me among the ranks who wished would have failed. No baseball fan truly considers his 762 lifetime homeruns a legitimate total against Aaron’s final total. Bonds’ total carries a big fat, asterisk in bold and what a shame. It robs not just himself and Aaron but also the game and its fans the joys of enjoying the feat and revelling in it.

Still the true home run king to many baseball fans. PHOTO COURTESY Of: Wikipedia

I still remember the Year of the Longball, 1998, when McGwire and Sosa swatted their way through the summer chasing Roger Maris’ hallowed record 61 homeruns in a season. I loved the drama of their battle and the chase of history. Tracking each of them daily, finding out who was bested who on a particular night was riveting and some say that chase saved baseball, bringing it back into the hearts of Americans and all baseball fans alike.

McGwire’s eventual 70 dingers seemed unassailable at the time with Sosa finishing a close second with 66. Bonds would eventually set the new mark with 73 in 2001. Amazing, over the course of three years, Maris’ magical 61 homers in 1961 was broken three times when, for 37 years, players only flirted with the mark. Was it the era of the longball? Strike-three to that idea, it was baseball’s steroid era.

Here Mark McGwire his 564th homer his career on July 14, 2001, moving him ahead of Reggie Jackson for sixth on the all-time list. PHOTO COURTESY Of: Rick Dikeman

Fast forward to 2005, McGwire and Sosa are among 11 baseball players and executives subpoenaed to testify at a congressional hearing on steroids. During McGwire’s testimony he declined to answer questions under oath, stating he was there not to talk “about the past” but to be positive about the subject. Eventually, he would go into deep seclusion and by January 2010 admit that he used steroids on and off for a decade. “Big Mac” regrets his actions, though he claims his steroid use was for health reasons and not for performance enhancement.

Sosa’s lawyer would speak for him at that same 2005 congressional hearing, claiming he never took any performance-enhancing drugs, though it was reported that his name was on a 2003 list of baseball players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

That entire 1998 homerun chase between McGwire and Sosa is now nowhere near as magical, it is as dirty and soiled as a two-week old baby’s diaper.

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check back for the next post of:

One dinger at a time, from baseball asterisks to carp

The Saturday Six: July 17, 2010

Windsor's lady in the water. A late smoggy late fall sunset last year provided the creamy hue for this shot. PHOTO BY: VINCE VERSACE

YOUR SATURDAY SIX PHOTO:

As I walked along the Detroit River’s banks, on the Windsor side, last fall, I discovered some amazing and unique art installations scattered in an area called Odette Riverside Park. The bronze statue in this photo is called Anne and it was created by Leo Mol. The sense of serenity in that park, as the creamy sunset unfurled itself, was quite the treat.

Now that you are serene, here we go to your Saturday Six:

The BP oil spill…how big is it?: So BP has managed to put a cap on its gushing oil mistake in the Gulf of Mexico which started back on April 20. Want to know how big that spill is in the context of where you live? After clicking here you’ll get a better sense for this environmental catastrophe.

D’oh! “Antennagate”- Apple doesn’t understand social media?: So Apple is getting lambasted and skewered for some antenna problems with its iPhone 4. From the Catholic church to Barack Obama, when you are deemed the biggest, the best or the baddest institution or personality, the knives will always come out at your missteps, whether small or large. It’s a phone folks, it needs a tweak or two, big deal. However, this argument that Apple does not understand social media is interesting, not sure I agree with it though.

Look up, wayyyyyy UP, say hi and wave!: The Secure World Foundation recently presented its concerns at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. Yes, outer space has an earthly committee so we do not screw that up too via orbital debris, planetary defense and space sustainability. Among the junk floating above you right now are people too!

LeBron and Miamigate: The mess LeBron James made of leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat leaves you wondering if he’s been living too high above the rim. No one can begrudge him wanting to win but producing a one hour show, called “The Decision” to stick it to his hometown fans by telling them he’s going to Miami, on television, was tasteless. Let the spoofs of his show begin as well.

“Web Fads”- do you miss…: Hot or Not? Dancing Baby? Ellen Feiss? Some web fads ring a clear bell, others, a dull knock, do you remember any of these web fads?

Now that is a ROAD!!! : Want to see how much of a hot-shot driver you really are? Think some road layouts are ridiculous in your city…do they compare to these?