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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Murph Listens To What?

First, a confession: I have an artsy-craftsy side. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise—after all, I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. You can't really grow up somewhere like Portland without some of its cultural, um, "quirkiness" rubbing off on you. If you’ve seen the new IFC series "Portlandia," you know exactly what I’m talking about (it's a must-see for Oregonians and non-Oregonians alike, in my opinion.) One of my favorite episodes, “Put a Bird On It,“ illustrates that quirk factor to perfection. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Anyway, it’s true, I love the arts in all forms. Musically, I was raised on the Beatles. My sister Sue and I used to go down to our basement and lip sync to whatever the newest Beatles record was at the time. She usually got to be Paul, and I would have to settle for Ringo. (Come to think of it, why’d I pick Ringo when John was available?) My love for the Beatles stayed strong through my early teenage years, but then came the 70s with bands such as CCR, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, America, as well as the whole southern rock movement (the Allman Brothers Band, etc.). I was crazy about them all. The late 70s and early 80s probably deserve a separate post altogether (a cautionary tale about the dangers of polyester and disco), as this was the period when my musical tastes really began to expand. Through it all, though, no matter what else caught my ear, I always came back to the Beatles. They were my bread and butter.

Over the years since then, my kids have led me to a wide range of musical styles and artists. These days I really like The Decemberists, The Red River, Kurt Vile, The Raconteurs, Midlake, Local Natives, Band of Horses, Pinback and a long list of others, which brings me to the idea behind this post. A few years ago my son Chad told me that I might like this one particular band—one whose name sounded, to me, more like a brand of refrigerator than a music group. “Wilco,” they were called. He said they had all sorts of 70s soft rock and other classic rock influences going on (“Dad Rock,” in other words). I was intrigued—I fit the fatherly profile after all. He bought me a couple of their albums (Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and I gave them a listen. And with Wilco that’s all it takes—one good listen and you're hooked, end of story. I bought Sky Blue Sky soon after and wore that album out, too. I couldn’t get enough.

Then, in February of 2008, Chad called and invited Nanc and I to Chicago, where he, his wife Mindy, and our first grandchild, Finn, were living at the time (Chad was getting his Master’s degree at the University of Chicago). He said we should try to visit the same week Wilco would be playing the Riviera (it was apparently part of a five night stand and they’d be playing their entire catalogue). How could I say no? I mean, seeing Wilco in their hometown, at a Chicago landmark no less? This seemed like a no-brainer, so we did it. It’s tough to put into words the experience of seeing them live. “Fun” doesn’t really cut it—maybe “electrifying” would be better. Yeah, electrifying. Wow! I’ve been to a few concerts in my day, but nothing like this. Man, Jeff Tweedy—that guy is the real deal. He’s just…a dude, you know? I mean that as a compliment. Not many other creative geniuses seem as stable and down-to-earth as Jeff Tweedy. I realize that a band’s creative output is sometimes enhanced by the frontman’s (or frontwoman’s) eccentricities. And, it’s true, sometimes an off-kilter view of the world can lead to unique and memorable art. I get that. But Jeff Tweedy proves it doesn’t always have to be that way. He has an amazing ability to create music that resonates with a huge range of people without being someone that’s impossible for regular folks to relate to.

To me, Wilco isn’t just a throwback to classic rock; they are classic rock, often doing it even better than those who influenced them in the first place. I can’t really explain this in musical or technical terms, so let me illustrate with an example. I had a business meeting a few days ago, and as I walked in I heard some familiar music playing in the background. My first thought was, “Hey, that’s cool, they’re playing some Wilco.” But then, after a few seconds, I realized it was a Beatles song from Abbey Road. It caught me by surprise—I couldn’t believe how much they sounded like each other. And that gave me an idea.

I decided to make a Wilco-Beatles playlist (Beatco, I called it) on my iPhone. With the meeting about to start, I hurriedly picked out songs from Abbey Road, Magical Mystery Tour (“Strawberry Fields”), Sgt. Pepper (“Getting Better”) and mixed them in with tracks from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sky Blue Sky, Summerteeth (“She’s a Jar”), and Wilco, the Album ("Wilco"). I got it together just in time for our lunch break, went out to my car and popped in my newly created Beatco album. That afternoon, on the drive home after the meeting, more Beatco. Running errands later that afternoon—more Beatco. Needless to say, it was amazing. Maybe the best playlist of all time.

A few thoughts hit me during “Heavy Metal Drummer.” They were confirmed after listening again to the “Impossible Germany”-“Polythene Pam”- “You Are My Face”-“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”-“Sky Blue Sky”-“Golden Slumbers”-“Hate It Here”-“Carry That Weight”-“On And On” portion of the playlist. Here’s what I realized, plain as day:

1. Beatco was the album that Abbey Road wishes it was.

2. Jeff Tweedy has the voice Sir Paul wishes he had.

3. Nels Cline is the session guitarist the Beatles should have had. I mean, c’mon, have you heard those solos on Sky Blue Sky? Put him on some Beatles albums and we’d be talking about Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, BB King, Duane Allman, and Nels Cline. And not necessarily in that order.

So there you have it. That’s my Wilco story. “Dad Rock”? Maybe. “More Classic than Most Classic Rock”? Definitely.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Parenting: It's Not About Us

Quick thought today about raising kids. One of the major challenges of parenting is figuring out the right level of involvement in our kids' decisions about their lives, their interests, and so on. Specifically, should we push our kids toward (what we view as) the most potentially successful or desirable path for them, or should we stand back and let them gravitate naturally toward their own interests (even when they are not what we might envision for them) and offer encouragement in other ways, using a different set of criteria?

Mckay, one of my younger sons, taught me a great lesson about this awhile back. He must have been around 11 years old at the time (he's now 19). On the way to one of his little league games, I asked him, “McKay, so...what’s your favorite position?”

He looked at me and said, “Oh, probably benchwarmer.”

I chuckled a little. “Haha that’s funny, McKay, but seriously... what’s your favorite position?” He quickly shot back, saying, “No, I AM being serious. I like sitting on the bench with everyone else, laughing and goofing around and stuff.” You can imagine this wasn't exactly the answer I had in mind when I asked the question. So I said, “Well, McKay, remember the other day you were in the outfield and you got the ball at the warning track and threw that kid out at second base? That was amazing, buddy! You're really good at baseball!” McKay then said something I'll never forget.

“Well, I may be good at it, but it doesn’t mean I like it.”

I had to think about that one for a minute.

It was a simple, but enlightening, point: sometimes kids don’t enjoy the things they're naturally good at. And, even if they do enjoy those things, they may not be passionate about them. We can all understand this idea, I think, but as a parent it can be easy to forget, mostly because we like to see our kids succeed. Although for many people there's a clear connection between talent, success, and enjoyment, we can't just assume it works this way for our kids. They may have the first two, but that doesn't mean they'll necessarily get the third. As parents we need to be careful and always check our motivations. We should ask ourselves, for example, "Do our kids really enjoy activity X as much as we like watching them do well at it? Are they having fun developing that talent? Does it motivate them to improve and progress? Or are they miserable in spite of their abilities and despite their achievements?"

We need to help our kids figure out, first, what they really like to do. Then we need to help them figure out how to improve themselves in that area of their lives. Talent, success, and interests may not always align perfectly, and if that’s the case, we need to make sure we’re helping them find their passion and not our version of it.

And, through it all, the most important thing we need to remember is: Parenting is not about us. It's about them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jorge Posada Pulls A Ferris Bueller?

Last Saturday night, about an hour before the Yankees and Red Sox were set to play, Jorge Posada went in to manager Joe Girardi’s office and told him he couldn’t play. Posada is, in my mind, a Yankee great. He’s been a rock behind the plate for over a decade and a clutch hitter for the Yankees during their championship years. But Saturday night he was told he'd been dropped to 9th in the line-up. I don't think this should have come as much of a surprise. His batting average is .165 and he doesn't have a right-handed hit yet this season. But, there it was. He wanted to sit out rather than hit 9th.

Posada’s decision raises interesting questions about the tension between the individual and the group in the context of a team sport. Professional athletes must be driven, focused, and sometimes even selfish and stubborn to succeed at the highest levels. Pete Rose, for example, used to say he was the most selfish player on the field because he wanted to get a hit every single time he got up. There’s no question these attributes can contribute to personal and team performance. But there’s a dark side to this type of ambition. In short, it can cause you to temporarily forget that you’re playing a team sport. One reason team sports are so interesting to me is that they usually require ambitious, self-focused people to think hard about the desires of a variety of other people—namely their teammates, manager, position coaches, general manager, and owner—if they want to accomplish anything for themselves. Egos must be sacrificed for the good of the group, but sometimes this can be difficult to do. And the resulting damage can be both personal and collective. Indeed, not only can blind ambition lead you to make very dumb decisions with unrecognized personal risks, such as using steroids or HGH, but you can also undercut the very people that helped you get where you are. This tension is apparent in the twilight years of a successful player's career, when they may not be playing as well as they used to.

So here’s Jorge Posada, the great Yankee catcher, in the middle of a batting slump, and probably at the tail-end of his career. He sees he’s been dropped to 9th in the line-up, goes into Joe Girardi’s office, says he can’t play, without explanation, and the Yankees take him out. This is strange. When you play a team sport (or even when you work in a business), you do what your manager says. Period. Certainly, there needs to be good communication between you and your manager, but when a decision is made, you do it. To be fair, it looks like communication may have been a factor in Posada's reaction. Joel Sherman, of the New York Post, said that after all that Posada has done for the Yankees, and since hitting 9th is so symbolic and probably something that would not go over too well, Giraridi should have talked to Posada about this possibility at least a couple days before the decision was made. I agree. Posada apparently found out he was hitting ninth when he got to the ballpark that day. Both sides could have talked and maybe avoided this major blow-up. Girardi was trying to help him get out of his slump by playing him, but maybe 8th could have worked. Ninth, really? There are a number of Yankees struggling...maybe someone else could have hit ninth. That would have shown Posada some respect, and Posada probably would have reacted with respect towards Girardi. Good managers are not only good tacticians, but they are also good communicators...or at least they try. Nevertheless, Posada should have stayed in the line-up. I mean, he's really been struggling. In the words of my high school coach Jack Dunn, lately Posada's been a switch hitter that hits three ways: "left, right and seldom”.

Focusing on oneself can slowly erode the foundations of effective teamwork: respect for the team and respect for the manager. If you have respect for your manager and teammates when things are going well, you can’t abandon that when you are struggling. Some may say he doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment. For example, David Ortiz, seizing on the chance to stir the pot with Yankeee fans, said the Yankees were wrong to do this to one of their own. But let’s remember that Posada’s making over ten million dollars this year to add to the tens of millions he has made over his career. He’s produced, he’s been a leader, and he’s been handsomely compensated for it. Now he just needs to remember that the best leaders are those who know when to lead and when to follow.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Stay tuned: More fun to come!

Don't forget to join me on twitter now: @DaleMurphy3

And stay tuned for my new website (coming in the next few weeks!): http://www.dalemurphy.com/

Speed and Quickness in Baseball

Ken Bradley of the Sporting News asked me recently about speed and stolen bases coming back to baseball. Here are a few of my thoughts on the topic, followed by my answer to Ken’s question about whether or not we’ll ever see 100 stolen bases in a season again. (Look for Ken’s upcoming survey in Exit Poll at Sportingnews.com.)

In my day, speed was a highly valued commodity in baseball. When I was playing, plenty of guys were drafted for one main reason: because they could just flat-out fly. The basic strategy of management in that situation was something like, “well, if we can teach him to just put the ball in play somehow, we’ll be all set. That’s all he’ll need to do—make contact and then run like the dickens.” This was a pretty common way to look at it, in fact. In the early days of the Kansas City Royals Academy, for instance, the philosophy was to first and foremost draft good athletes and worry about the particulars later. In other words, you didn’t draft these guys as position players. Instead, you drafted them for their raw horsepower and then figured out how to fit them into the system. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that defenses seemed to cover a lot more ground in those days. Speed was valued in a big way, and it showed. Just the other day, Bob Denier, a great leadoff hitter and base stealer for the Cubs and Phillies in the 80s, put it to me this way (I’ll paraphrase): “Murph, remember when, like, every team had at least one guy who could steal 70 bases a year? And the Cardinals had six?”

I wasn’t one of those guys drafted for their wheels. Mine were functional, sure, but not knock-your-socks-off amazing. In May of 1974, right after high school, I was invited to a Phillies pre-draft workout, and one of the drills was the 60-yard dash where we paired up and ran for time. My numbers weren’t that impressive, and they looked even worse because for some reason I partnered up with Willie Wilson. Yeah, that’s right. The 60-yard dash with Willie Wilson. You’d think I would’ve found a fellow catcher, someone to help my cause. But, of course, I picked Willie, who went on to become one of the best base stealers of all time. I had no shot.

Anyway, all that said, I think it’s great that speed is coming back to the game. I expect a couple of things to happen as a result. First, because speed will be a bigger plus than it has been in recent years, scouts will look at young players differently. This will probably encourage more fast kids to see baseball as a viable option in addition to, say, football. Second, fans will see more “small ball,” that is, more bunts, hit and run plays, stolen bases, and triples (the latter being, for a lot of people, one of the most exciting plays in baseball). But I don’t think these changes will necessarily shift the game away from its recent focus, namely, the home run. (I’ll say more about that in a minute.) Still, I think we’re seeing signs of something I’ve always believed: baseball fans aren’t just in it for the long ball; they’re in it for the drama, the pure thrill of the competition--and small ball's a great source of drama. Indeed, with steroids out of the game, we’ve seen homeruns go down but fan attendance remain constant.

Now, will anyone reach 100 stolen bases in a season again? I say no. First of all, I don't think anyone right now is equipped to do it. Jose Reyes is probably the best bet among current players, but I suspect we’ll probably see even better base stealers in the near future, kids who are probably in high school right now and/or at least a few years away from the big leagues. But I don’t think anyone will ever get to 100 again, though someone may come close. Why? Well, first, to even have a sporting chance you need a stellar on-base percentage, and that’s no easy task. Ricky Henderson, for example, had a .414 OBP when he stole 108 bases, and Vince Coleman was at about .360 OBP when he stole 109. The bigger reason, however, is that even though we'll surely see players with 100 stolen base-caliber speed, most ballparks these days are geared toward hitters, which means that teams don’t really have any incentive to be designed for speed or to focus on the “small ball” tactics that can generate stolen bases. Think, for example, about the St. Louis Cardinals in the days of Vince Coleman. Back then they played 81 games a year at the old Busch Stadium, but they also played a lot of games at those classic Astro-turfed 'speed' parks like Olympic Stadium, Veterans Stadium, the Astrodome, Three Rivers, and Riverfront. Some of these parks favored hitters, some favored pitchers, but one thing’s for sure: they were all fantastic for runners.

So, with Astro-Turf dead and gone (no complaints here) and hitter’s parks here to stay, I think that despite speed’s return, power will continue to be emphasized.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Willie Mays

I saw that Willie Mays turned 80 last week so I wanted to share a few memories and thoughts about him. People always ask me who my favorite player was growing up, and I’ve always said Willie Mays (and Johnny Bench, too, once I started playing catcher in high school).

I’m a native Oregonian—a Portlandian, more specifically—but when I was in elementary school we spent a couple of years in the San Francisco area. My dad worked for Westinghouse, and in the mid-1960s he was transferred down to sunny California. This turned out to be a transformative event in my life, as it may have been for any 5th grader just starting to discover baseball. Indeed, those were good times for Bay Area baseball fans. The Giants had a great team: Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Ray Sadeki, Jim Davenport, Jim Ray Hart, and, of course, Willie. Everyone loved Willie.

I have so many fond memories of those days. I mostly remember cold nights at Candlestick Park with my dad. We’d be there, freezing in the Westinghouse seats, sometimes in a box at the loge level and other times in the bleachers. I always loved watching Willie warm up before the game. He’d throw for a while with the other outfielders, and when he was finished he’d gently toss the ball up over the fence to the fans. I remember watching the kids, all gathered around, scrambling for it.

And then, of course, the basket catch. If there was a relatively routine fly ball, Willie would camp under it and just wait. Then, instead of catching it above his head, like most outfielders are taught, he’d turn his glove over, almost casually, and catch it below his waist. It always seemed so risky to me. But Willie had flair. A kind of artistry went into everything he did on the field. I swear, there was something almost poetic about the way his helmet would fly off every single time he’d run the bases.

At some point my dad got me a Willie Mays signature outfielder’s glove. It was a MacGregor and made of kangaroo leather. I used to take my Willie Mays baseball cards and compare the top row of webbing on Willie’s glove with the webbing on mine. I remember one time sitting there and counting, one-by-one, the stitches and the leather loops on each, which to my amazement were the exact same. I was convinced—absolutely convinced—that my dad had somehow gotten me one of Willie’s old game mitts. To this day I’m not even sure where my dad bought that glove, so, who knows, maybe it’s true :)

I also remember hitting a lot of imaginary home runs in those days (if, as a kid, you ever had a baseball bat, a handful of rocks, and a whole lot of free time, then you probably know what I’m talking about). We lived in an apartment in Redwood City for awhile, and I’d spend hours in the rear courtyard area, smacking rocks over the fence with the trusty bat I got at Bat Day. I’d count every single one, pretending I was getting closer and closer to Willie’s all-time total. It was the stuff of dreams: listening to ballgames on the radio, hitting rocks over the fence, and imagining I was a star big-league ballplayer like the great Willie Mays.

Willie retired shortly before I started playing, but I’ll never forget meeting him for the first time early in my career, at Candlestick Park, when the Braves were visiting the Giants. It was one of the great thrills of my life.

Happy (belated) birthday, Willie.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Welcome to Murph Talks

Hello everyone. My name’s Dale Murphy. During my career in the Major Leagues, I was known among reporters as a pretty boring interview...I guess I just never had much to say. But no more! After almost 18 years of retirement, I’m excited to be officially joining the blogosphere.

Believe it or not, I’m a grandpa now, and I’m closing in on 60 years old. People often ask me what I’m doing these days, where I’m living, and just generally what’s going on in my life. That’s where this blog comes in. Honestly, it’s a little intimidating for someone like me—someone who’s always kept their private life, well, private—to start laying it all out there in a blog, so bear with me as I get the hang of this thing. Of course, when I was playing, my performance on the field was always public, but, you know, it’s a whole different thing to have your ideas and opinions out there for everyone to see. So here goes nothing.

I’ll be blogging on a bunch of different subjects, from baseball to politics to raising kids and back again. I’ll probably throw in a few movie and music reviews, too, just to keep things interesting. Because more than anything I want to keep it interesting. And, who knows, maybe even a little bit surprising sometimes, too, like next post when I talk about my undying love of big-haired heavy metal bands (just kidding).

I’m not all that technology-savvy, so my son Chad will be helping me organize these posts. Thanks to him for that. My wife, Nancy, as always will be providing key logistical and moral support, such as making sure my jokes are funny enough for primetime. Thanks, Nanc.

And thank you for reading.