Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Happy Ending

No one can find them, which most are taking as a sign that the wayward whales are safely back in the Pacific. I'm not sure what it was about this story that was so compelling; I feel somewhat goofy that I got caught up in it as much as anyone. I guess it was time to put the cynicism to rest for a while; now that it is good and rested, I'm sure that it will again appear on these pages, very soon.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Homeward Bound

They've had their fun, and they're nearly home:

Delta and Dawn pick up steam in Bay
By Dorothy Korber - Bee Staff Writer

By 1 p.m. Tuesday, the wayward humpback whales Delta and Dawn were deep into San Pablo Bay, about six miles west of the Carquinez Bridge on their seaward trek.

The mother and calf have gone beyond the Napa River, avoiding a wrong turn there. They seem to be moving west at a steady clip.

"Everybody's really excited that hopefully these animals are heading out. Everybody's got their fingers crossed," said Jim Oswald, spokesman for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

The whales are moving on their own without any human assistance. The flotilla of vessels tracking them are there primarily to monitor their health and keep them from harm's way from ships and boats in these busy channels.

On Monday, authorities fished out at least two people who jumped into the water to attempt to swim with the whales, and issued verbal warnings to nearly two dozen others on piers and in kayaks. The whale team continues to ask boaters, kayakers and others to respect the 500-yard safety zone around the humpbacks.

Before reaching the Pacific, the whales have two more bridges to navigate: the Richmond/San Rafael and the Golden Gate.

But the Carquinez Bridge seemed to pose no obstacle to the pair. After some hesitation, they swam beneath its spans while a freight train rumbled by, blowing its horn. There was also a plane overhead and vehicular traffic on the bridge -- plus a gallery of onlookers.

Earlier this morning, there were euphoric shouts from spectators as the calf breeched from the water in a silvery spray - behavior typical of healthy whale young.

Researchers think the antibiotics administered over the weekend are taking effect -- their skin condition is improving with some of the lesions sloughing off.

This 20-day saga has been a virtual treasure trove for researchers seeking to understand whale psychology and physical health. They have been taking still photos, video, and studying the whales' every move from tail lobbing to breeching -including their sometimes seemingly erratic behavior.

I would add that the saga has also been a nice diversion, particularly since it appears that the hoped-for happy ending is imminent.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Direct Hit = 50 Points?

It's difficult to tell whether this is a sign of desperation or just an attempt to liven up the three-day weekend, but officials have now decided that the best way to get the whales moving is to shoot water at them.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hank and Barry

Hank Aaron's statement this week, reaffirming his previous decision to skip Barry Bonds' record-breaking home run, was odd. According to the AP report, when asked why Aaron said, "I traveled for 23 years, and I just get tired of traveling. I'm not going to fly to go see somebody hit a home run, no matter whether it is Barry or Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or whoever it may be. I'm not going any place. I wish him all the luck in the world."

Aaron has always struck me as a man of honor and integrity, which is exactly why I think he is being dishonest in this instance. I think he is very troubled by Bonds' assault on his record, and I think he believes that Major League Baseball should consider action to "stigmatize" the record (a la the asterisk next to "61" that Roger Maris had to endure for years), because of the likelihood (or certainty, depending on your point of view) that Bonds would not have gotten close to 755 without the use of steroids.

No, I don't have the ability to read Aaron's mind, and yes, I could be wrong. But I just can't believe that a man as thoughtful as Aaron would come up with such a lame excuse, unless his true motive was to avoid having to say what he was really feeling.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"The Whales Are In Charge"

Unfortunately, it's beginning to look as if this story may not have a happy ending. Either that, or these whales are a lot smarter than people are giving them credit for, and are toying with everyone:

"The whales are in charge, obviously, and we have to be accommodating to what they want to do," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "But we have to seize on any opportunity we have to urge them to get down the river."

On Tuesday, the whales continued to frustrate a small army of humans who tried to help. An armada of boats deployed noise-making pipes across the Sacramento River for three hours, making a dull clanking that could be heard by spectators on shore.

It seemed to have no direct effect on the whales' behavior, despite the collective will of hundreds of spectators observing from the water's edge."

(Sacramento Bee, May 23)

Meanwhile, Bee columnist Marcos Breton puts his cynicism in check (registration required), and offers the following:

I started this column with the intention of slamming them and the people fascinated by them. But I don't have the heart.

What would be gained by trashing the parents who took their kids to whale-watch in Sacramento -- and the media attention that followed?

And what would be gained by lecturing you for caring more about stray whales -- about mammals steeped in mythology -- than complex issues mired in politics?
Nothing. There is no cynicism being sold here, because cynicism takes no imagination.

If anything, the whales seem like a metaphor for issues beyond our control. They are reminders of how we can't shape nature to our liking.

They underscore how some issues tug at our hearts for reasons that make no sense.

Where else but along the Delta do you see such a vivid collection of well-meaning people and opportunists, with cynics sniping from the sidelines?

Maybe the whales die. Maybe they make it back to sea. Either way, life on land awaits our attention -- if we choose to pay attention.

I think Breton has it mostly right, although I'm not sure he gives his readers enough credit. Most people, I suspect, are paying attention to bigger issues back on land, and are so discouraged about the prospects of finding solutions to the weighty problems of the day that the whale story has been a welcome diversion. If they make it back safely, that is.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Oh, Frick

I admit to starting off tonight's American Idol finale in a bad mood, because it was so obvious that Melinda could sing rings around both Blake and Jordin. Notwithstanding Paula's "frickin's" and the overall enthusiasm of both Randy and Simon, it struck me as a pretty desultory finale. They both seem very nice, but I can't imagine either Blake or Jordin ever making much of a mark in the marketplace. But...God knows I've been wrong before.

The voting should be very interesting, because Jordin clearly won the night on a performance level...BUT...her victory was due almost solely to her ability to outclass Blake in singing a truly awful song, the songwriting contest winner. Have at me, but it's really hard for me to put in words how much I hate songs like that.

Prediction? Jordin.

Best career? Either Melinda or Lakisha.

UPDATE: Alan Sepinwall agrees, particularly about the last song:
Now, is that fair, America? Asking Blake to sing this song is like asking Dennis Kucinich to dunk a basketball. Asking Jordin to do it is like asking Paris Hilton to be nasty and conceited. It just comes naturally to her, and she hits a sustained glory note near the end that Blake would never in a million years even think of attempting. History was already on Jordin's side, as she had never been in the bottom three, and the only person to accomplish that and not win was Clay Aiken, who lost on a night when producers underestimated the number of votes that would be cast and the phone banks got swamped. And whoever you think was better in the first two rounds, Jordin made Blake look absolutely foolish on the coronation song. If the votes are based entirely on these performances, Jordin's going to win in a landslide. Blake's only prayer is that his fanbase is bigger and more rabid than Jordin's fans and the casual voters put together.

Have I Died And Gone To Heaven?

A blog devoted entirely to apostrophe abuse.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Whales On Their Way?

Against all odds, it appears that the wayward whales of West Sacramento may be on their way home:

Whales abruptly leave Port of Sacramento
By Deb Kollars - Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
Published 6:06 pm PDT Sunday, May 20, 2007

The two whales stranded in the Port of Sacramento's turning basin left the lake waters and began swimming southward Sunday afternoon, possibly prompted by two tugboats that left the port to meet a large ship docked downstream.

As of 8:15 p.m. Sunday, the mother and her calf were about 18 miles downstream of the Port's turning basin and continuing southward in the deep water ship channel.

The scientists and animal rescue workers began following the whales in boats in an attempt to herd them downstream.

The scientists had given the animals a day of rest and relaxation Sunday while they planned a rescue effort slated for Tuesday that involved banging on underwater pipes to force the animals southward. Instead, they began placing the pipes on vessels to begin the noisemaking as soon as they could to continue pushing the animals downstream.

Brian Gorman, public information officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the two tug boats had been berthed at the port. They left at 2 p.m. to meet the 581-foot Sanko Jupiter, a huge ship parked at the Agrium Dock one mile south of the port.

When the tugs crossed into the Deep Water Ship Channel, the two whales started heading the same direction, Gorman said.

"We immediately launched several vessels to follow them," he said. The team of veterinarians, scientists and animal rescuers worried the large Sanko Jupiter would stop the whales in their tracks. To their great relief, the whales kept going.

"They have safely passed the Sanko Jupiter," Gorman said.

Until that point, the whales had been circling the turning basin, continuing to delight the crowds gathered on the levees to watch. Sunday's crowd of onlookers swelled to 10,000, nearly twice the size of the day before, said West Sacramento Police Sgt. Trent Tyler.

As the whales began to head into the shipping channel, the crowd rushed after them.

"They followed them until they ran into a fence," Tyler said of the throngs of onlookers.

He said officers planned to stay at the channel, uncertain whether the whales might turn back. "We're not deciding the chapter is closed," Tyler said.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Whale Update II

According to The Sacramento Bee, thousands of people drove over to the Port in West Sacramento today to view the whales. The initial rescue attempt on Friday was unsuccessful; a new try will be made on Tuesday.

From The Bee:

Whales continue to draw crowds
By Bobby Caina Calvan and Dorothy Korber

Saturday, May 19, 2007

On Saturday, thousands of spectators lined the levee to catch a glimpse of Delta and Dawn, the humpback mother and calf who swam through the Delta to wind up in the deep water shipping channel just south of Sacramento.

The whales obliged, surfacing every couple minutes and inspiring oohs and aahs from their admiring watchers.

Police were out in force to provide traffic and crowd control.

"We're geared up and everything seems to be running OK," said Sgt. Trent Tyler of the West Sacramento Police Department. "But we're not really encouraging people to come - we'd rather have them watch the whales on television and read about them in the paper."

The lure of the awesome creatures themselves proved irresistible. West Sacramento police estimated that 10,000 spectators showed up Saturday, and said they expect a similar crowd Sunday.

Rolando Perales, who arrived shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday, planted his folding chair atop the levee, then settled in with his iPod, cell phone and digital camera to watch the show.

"To be honest," Perales said, "I'd rather see these guys go home. Not to be mean - this is a once-in-a-lifetime event - but they don't belong here. ... I sure hope they find their way back, but while they're here, we have to enjoy the view. This is not their place to die."

A sense of history and witnessing a historic event swirled through the crowd.

The scene on the levee was festive, with frolicking children and dogs of all sizes. Babies in strollers snoozed under beach umbrellas. A few entrepreneurs seized the chance to sell cool drinks to folks who had made the dusty quarter-mile trek to the best viewing spot.

One mystery was the unexplained appearance of portable toilets stationed along the levee, two per station. Throughout the week, authorities have made a point of not providing such facilities to discourage the public from showing up.

"Those are unexpected," Tyler said of the toilets. "We didn't know who ordered those. Maybe somebody jumped ship and decided to start accommodating people."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Whale Update

I can tell the whale rescue has begun, because all of the news helicopters are hovering right outside my office window. What fun!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Whales In West Sacramento

I mean, come on - how many times in my lifetime will I get the chance to write a headline like that?

And why does it matter, you ask? Well, the office where I work in West Sacramento is about a mile (perhaps less) from where the two wayward whales are currently lolling, in the deep water channel of the Port of Sacramento.

I haven't had a chance to drive over there today, but have heard that it's a real circus atmosphere. The Sacramento Bee reports this afternoon that a rescue is planned for tomorrow morning, and hopefully they will make it back home without too much trouble.

Not earth-shattering news by any stretch of the imagination, but kind of cool nonetheless.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Another Odd Halberstam Footnote... recounted in I Never Played The Game, by Howard Cosell. I'll be posting more about Cosell's book in the future, because it doesn't paint a very pretty picture of Howard's mental state in his later years. But despite the book's paranoid tendencies, this is an interesting anecdote:

David Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize based on his reporting from Vietnam for The New York Times. Later he achieved literary fame as the best-selling author of two books in particular, The Best and the Brightest and The Powers That Be. We first met in the early 1970s but never really had much contact. Then one day, while talking business with Roone Arledge, he said to me, "By the way, what the hell does David Halberstam have against you?

"Beats me," I said. "I hardly even know the man."

"Well, I met him at a party the other night, and he was all over me. He's got a real bug up his ass about you."

I shrugged. "What can I tell you, Roone? He's obviously got a problem. I know he has a childlike devotion to the Knicks. He's very immature about it. I've heard from Mike Burke [then the president of Madison Square Garden] that he bothers him with phone calls, telling him who should start, who should sit on the bench. The guy's a nut."

A couple of years later, in December 1982, Halberstam authored a vicious attack on me in Playboy magazine. Apparently, he couldn't contain himself any longer. In the article he called me, among other things, a bully and a monster, and went so far as to say I was merciless and violent. This from a man I had only a passing acquaintance with. It was the worst kind of cheap shot I had ever read. He ended the article with a ludicrous attempt at psychoanalysis, trying to get inside my head and figure out my various neuroses. He never even bothered to call and talk to me!

There were asides in some of the columns Halberstam wrote for ESPN that also betrayed a passionate hatred of Cosell. In the end, I don't know how meaningful any of this is for either man's legacy, but I find it interesting.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An Odd Footnote on David Halberstam

I was not a voracious reader of David Halberstam's books, but I enjoyed the four that I read: The Best and The Brightest, the Pulitzer Prize winning book that put him on the map; The Breaks of the Game, the first of his books on the NBA; Summer of '49, his account of the 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox; and October 1964, a book - similar in tone and style to Summer - focusing on the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals.

For some reason, an odd note about Halberstam's career has always stuck with me. In the 1991 edition of The Baseball Book, the successor to his legendary Baseball Abstracts, baseball analyst and historian Bill James wrote about Summer of '49. "Wrote about" does not really do the article justice; essentially, James ripped Halberstam a new one, pointing out literally dozens of factual errors in the book, and strongly criticizing his apparent lack of fact-checking. Over the course of the piece James worked himself to a near-frenzy, and closed as follows:

I'm not trying to tell David Halberstam what his standards should be. I can't make up standards for anyone but myself. But hell, I hire a research assistant, and Halberstam's a lot bigger name than I am. Why on earth didn't he hire somebody who knows something about baseball to read this book carefully before it came out?

The intriguing question is, is Halberstam this careless with the facts when he writes about the things he usually writes about? There are two possibilities, one frightening and one irritating. It is frightening to think that Halberstam, one of the nation's most respected journalists, is this sloppy in writing about war and politics, yet has still been able to build a reputation simply because nobody has noticed.

What seems more likely is that Halberstam, writing about baseball, just didn't take the subject seriously. He just didn't figure that it mattered whether he got the facts right or not, as long as he was writing about baseball. And that, to me as a baseball fan, is just irritating as hell.

If Halberstam ever responded to James' criticism, I'm not aware of it.

And in the end I'm not sure what, if anything, this says about Halberstam's legacy. Having said that, I still think it's interesting.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Better Late Than Never, But Still Way Too Late

Prince of the City is being released on DVD.


For those unfamiliar with the film, Prince of the City is one of the great, unsung American film classics. Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, and many, many others, the film is based on the true story of Bob Leuci, a New York City police officer who was part of an elite unit within NYPD that dealt exclusively with major drug dealers. The "princes of the city," as they came to be known, lived by their own code, created their own justice system, and enjoyed the fruits of their efforts - for instance, if they determined that it was unlikely that a drug dealer would go to prison based on physical evidence, they'd steal his money, throw him out of the city, and threaten him with death if he was ever seen again.

Finally, Leuci (who in the film is called Danny Ciello) suffers a crisis of conscience, turns himself in, and agrees to go undercover to root out corruption within the unit. Under one condition - he will never give up his partners.

The movie then tells the story of Leuci/Ciello's slow, inexorable descent towards doing the one thing that he wants to avoid above everything else - and the collateral damage that is done along the way.

It's painful to watch at times, but there's no question that it is a great, great movie - one that was criminally underappreciated at the time. I still remember the day that I saw it for the first time - June 8, 1982. And where I saw it - the UC Theatre in Berkeley. And who I saw it with - three of my best friends from Cheney Hall, who I had to drag away from Game 6 of the NBA Championship Series between the L.A. Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers. But hey, it was only playing for one night.

It's been years since I've seen it, and I can't wait to see it again.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Still Pondering

A week or so ago, my 12-year old son, who has always devoted a lot of thought to such questions as "who would win in a fight - Batman, or Spider-Man?", has finally come up with one that has me completely stumped:

Would you have trusted Elvis Presley with your wallet?

So many variables in play...

Pre-Army Elvis?

Sixties movies Elvis?

'68 comeback Elvis?

Slow, painful and ultimately tragic decline Elvis?

For now, I have to say "yes." But Colonel Parker? That would be another matter entirely.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Every now and then, there's an upset in the world of sports which is so shocking, so stunning and so unexpected that it takes your breath away. The Warriors' demolition of the Dallas Mavericks falls into that category. I get that it's all about matchups, but you sit there and ask yourself, "How can this happen? How can a team that lost 25 more games than their opponent over the course of a season triumph in a seven game series without holding the home court advantage?

It obviously takes a lot of talent and good coaching to win 67 games, but I honestly can't see how Dallas can ever recover from this. If last year's loss in the Finals to Miami was the Titanic, where they slowly sank below the waves, then this year's loss is the Hindenburg - a giant explosion, falling in flames in mere minutes. It got so bad last night that I joined Steve Kerr in feeling sorry for the Mavericks, although even at that point I enjoyed the look on Mark Cuban's face when they showed him in the stands. I actually like Cuban - his blog is great - but when you invest that much into something (and I mean emotionally, not monetarily) related to sports, you're just asking to have it all come crashing down on you.

And what can you say about Dirk Nowitzki? Fairly or not, he now stands on the precipice of having his career defined by this series, even while he remains a strong contender (odds on favorite?) for this season's MVP award. But at his level, what you do in the big games is what counts. And in what may have been the biggest game of his life, he disappeared; a total non-factor who looked timid and as if he had no business being out there. It's sad, because he's a good guy. But in much the same way that David Robinson needed the Spurs to win a title after he was schooled by Hakeem Olajuwon after winning his first MVP award, Nowitzki desperately needs to win a title, or he will forever remain someone stuck in the "the agony of defeat" category.

But let's also give some credit to the Warriors, and their incredible crowd, which reminded me a lot of what it was like when the Sacramento Kings returned to the playoffs in 1999 after a 14-year absence. There is literally nothing in the world like an unexpected victory in sports to give you a high - and whatever happens from here on out, the Warriors deserve to bask in the glory of this triumph until next October, when the grind begins again. They were all great, but I have to single out Matt Barnes, fellow alumnus of Del Campo High School, and Baron Davis - what a courageous, incredible performance. When he pulled the hamstring, my first thought was, "that's it - it's over." Suffice to say that it wasn't.

And on behalf of bearded men everywhere, let's also honor Baron for having one of the great beards in the sporting universe - none of this soul patch, Van Dyke, "whatever you want to call it but please don't call it a beard" stuff for Baron - full on hair, and lots of it. The way it should be done.