Thursday, February 28, 2008

Leap day

Oh, how I wish I'd been born some five months and change earlier... I could have been a Leapling! Chalk it up to my weird, numbers-loving dorkiness, but Leap Days are pretty much my faves, so much so that I convinced the first ex-fiancée to push her preferred wedding date of January 29 (apparently, that had been her parents' wedding anniversary -- like I gave a shit!) back a month so we could get married on Leap Day. Hard to believe sixteen years have already passed since my first narrow escape! But why use this once-every-four-years bonus day to reminisce about my failed engagements? Better to commemorate the greatest Leapling I know of: the late, great Gioacchino Rossini, who would have celebrated his 54th birthday today.

Even those whose only exposure to classical music comes from the occasional movie or TV show soundtrack are familiar with Rossini's music. The famous "Figaro, Figaro" aria? From Rossini's most popular opera, "Il Barbiere Di Siviglia." The fanfare music of The Lone Ranger? From Rossini's "Guillaume Tell" overture. The incongruously chippy music during the gang fight scene in "A Clockwork Orange"? From Rossini's "La Gazza Ladra" overture. Rossini's music is characterized by very upbeat, catchy melodies, and extremely clever orchestration. Rossini almost single-handedly popularized the conspicuous but always tasteful use of every conceivable orchestral bell & whistle to score his exhilarating overtures. That, along with his penchant for not-so-subtle dynamic increases, earned him the wonderful nickname, "Monsieur Crescendo."

A quirky man with an even quirkier sense of humour, Rossini enjoyed a friendly rivalry with Giacomo Meyerbeer, a fellow opera composer who also resided in Paris. There are many a wonderful anecdote depicting the various pranks and practical jokes Rossini played on Meyerbeer, but my favourite Rossini/Meyerbeer story took place during Meyerbeer's funeral. Rossini, of course, was in attendance to honour his friend. Meyerbeer's nephew, who fancied himself a composer, wrote a funeral march for the occasion. Once the funeral ended, the unfortunate nephew sought out Rossini to ask him how he'd liked the composition. The maestro's reply: "It's perfectly competent. But I wonder if it wouldn't have been more delightful if you had died and your uncle had written the march."

That rather wicked sense of humour permeates pretty much all of Rossini's music. The lovely overture to his long-forgotten opera "Il Signor Bruschino," for example, actually calls for the second violinists to tap on their music stand with their bows! The effect is hilarious but also oddly enjoyable, and rather than distract or detract from the music, actually complements it. Such was the genius of the birthday boy, Monsieur Crescendo.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Ryan Express

This past Thursday, the Texas Rangers, apparently tired of decades of futility, tabbed Nolan Ryan to be their new Team President. Personally, if I cared any less about the Rangers, I wouldn't care at all. The occasion, however, was newsworthy to me, since Nolan Ryan is pretty much my favourite baseball player of all time. In revisiting Ryan with myriad fellow sports geeks, I was, and still am, astounded at how quickly Ryan's been forgotten. True, he's not a self-serving media whore (Cal Ripken) or a money-grubbing loser who'll hawk pretty much anything for a buck (Pete Rose), but still... in this inflated numbers, steroid- and HGH-ridden era, it's important to remember the accomplishments of clean players, especially when those clean players dominated the competition and set records that, God willing, will never be broken by today's pathetic little bitches. Just as Cal Ripken was the most durable player of his era, and Pete Rose was the best pure hitter of his era, Nolan Ryan was easily the best pitcher of his era. In fact, Ryan is the best pitcher of my lifetime, bar none.

Whenever people discuss relatively recent dominant pitching stretches, Orel Hershiser's scoreless innings steak and Dwight Gooden's phenomenal 1985 season are immediately brought up, and rightly so. But in my opinion, Nolan Ryan's entire career should be considered a dominant pitching stretch. To put it plainly, Ryan was a no-hitter waiting to happen every single time he stepped on the mound. In addition to his MLB record seven (seven!!!) career no-hitters, Ryan also threw a dozen one-hitters, and countless two-hitters. He lost bids for no-hit games in the ninth inning at least four times that I can remember. Hitters didn't have a lot of luck making contact against Ryan -- his .204 lifetime batting-against average is, again, an MLB record. The best chance to get on base against Ryan was to choke up on the bat and hope his persistent bouts of wildness would result in a walk or HBP -- Ryan is the all-time walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches leader. Some more Ryan records: 5700+ strikeouts (no other player even comes close to sniffing 5000); six seasons with 300+ strikeouts; fifteen seasons with 200+ strikeouts; 26 games with 15+ strikeouts; 215 games with 10+ strikeouts; struck out the side 331 times; and, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, he's the only player to strike out the side in nine pitches at least twice.

Considering that the classy, decent, and honourable Hank Aaron had to watch that POS Baroid Bonds surpass his lifetime homerun record, it's comforting to know that at least Ryan's records will not be beaten anytime soon. No current pitcher can even get a whiff of Ryan's consistent excellence. It actually makes me want to puke when so-called pundits refer to Roidger Clemens or Faggo Martínez as the best right-handers they've ever seen. Are you f*cking kidding me? Clemens is a roided up jack-ass whose gonads magically shrank every time the postseason came around; hell, he even managed to get himself thrown out of a game so he wouldn't lose to Dave Stewart for the umpteenth time. As for Martínez, he's a pathetic little bitch who was more concerned about preserving a potential no-hitter than protecting his teammates during that infamous game when he hit the first batter he faced, only to have the Devil Rays send out stiff after stiff to bean Red Sox batters in retaliation. Rather than protect his teammates by retaliating in kind, Faggo Fagtínez kept on playing it straight because he didn't want to lose his no-hit bid. It goes without saying that I cheered myself hoarse when John Flaherty broke up the no-hitter in the ninth inning. It's only fitting that both of those arsewipes are in the public limelight this week along with Ryan, as it provides a wonderful parallel: The point I'm labouring to make here is that Ryan was not only a durable, hard-throwing phenom, but that he also epitomized class, sportsmanship, and competitiveness. I can't imagine Ryan letting teammates get drilled over and over without retaliating for fear of getting ejected during a game in which he had not yet allowed a hit. My God, Ryan routinely hit guys when they had to balls to try to crowd the plate on him! I can guarantee that if that little bitch Pedroia went up against Ryan, he'd either stop diving over the plate or be black & blue with assorted bruises. I can also guarantee that if Baroid Bonds confidently crowded the plate with his protective Darth Vader gear, Ryan would raise so many welts on his ass that Baroid would have a tough time finding a spot in which to inject himself. And while we're on that subject, I also can't imagine Ryan pumping himself full of steroids and hormones in the hopes of gaining an unfair competitive edge. In fact, towards the tail end of his stellar career, Ryan struggled with various injuries, as would befit a normal, well-conditioned 40-something year-old man who routinely threw as hard as he could. In fact, Ryan made light of his nagging injuries in a series of Advil commercials where he groaned after playing catch with his son, then recommended Advil by drawling, "It relieves the pain without being tough on m'stomach!"

The 1993 season was Ryan's last, and it was doubly memorable for me. During the dog days of August, White Sox third baseman Robing Ventura crowded the plate against Ryan and homered. Predictably enough, the next time he came up to bat, Ventura crowded the plate again, and Ryan plunked him. I'll never understand why Ventura took offense and charged the mound, but I guess that's not important. What is important is that 46-year old Ryan calmly waited for 26-year old Ventura, then put that petulant little arsewipe in a headlock and proceeded to pummel his arrogant face repeatedly. I only wish he'd had a chance to put him over his knee!

Two weeks later, the Rangers played a weekend series in Cleveland. My then-fiancée scored tickets to the Ryan game and presented them to me for my birthday -- I should have married her for that Herculean feat alone... but I digress. And so, on Sunday, August 15, 1993, I finally saw Nolan Ryan pitch in person, for the first and only time. Even though Ryan's arm and shoulder were finally betraying him, he was on his game that day, throwing seven innings of sharp, two-hit ball. The final score was Texas 4 - Cleveland 1. As it turns out, that was Nolan Ryan's final career victory. It's the only time in my long, rabid, and infamously fanatic sports "life" that I wasn't upset at seeing my team lose.

I doubt very much that we'll ever see the likes of Ryan again. Sure, there have been a few pitchers that threw as consistently hard as Ryan -- Buffalo Colón, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joel Zumaya come to mind -- but none that did so with such remarkable consistency and downright miraculous longevity. Nolan Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter on May 1, 1991, at the ripe old age of 44. It's fitting that the last out he recorded on that game was a strikeout, and even more fitting that his victim, the great Robby Alomar, ended up on his knees while flailing awkwardly at the greatness that was The Ryan Express.