Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Really? Only Four Posts in September?

Yes, I know. It's a poor performance--numbers-wise, anyway--after a fairly active summer. Needless to say, September has been a beating in a lot of ways, but not to worry...I'm alive and well, and I'm preparing for an autumn of rants, raves and wordy posts about whatever comes to mind (which, as always, could be anything).

The Boston Bruins start their regular season tomorrow night, and if I weren't bone tired right now, I'd have at least 1500 words to spill about my favorite Boston sports franchise and by very far the most disappointing of the local four. But that will have to wait for October...which, as I finish this post, is about 10 minutes away. Unbelievable.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mall Stalkers

A confluence of circumstances has driven me recently to visit several local shopping malls. By malls, I mean real malls--the indoor kind, not strip malls or anything that requires driving from store to store or walking outdoors at any time other than from car to mall door and back (and, sometimes, even that path is mostly covered).

We're talking about the Fast Times at Ridgemont High-style mall, the kind that Jake and Elwood go careening through in The Blues Brothers. Like many teens of the '80s and early '90s, I was a bit of a mall rat in my youth. (Shockingly, small-town North Texas and the far-flung suburbs south of Dallas aren't flush with entertainment opportunities for teens--or, at least, they weren't in my high school days.)

I'm young enough to have (always unsuccessfully) scouted out-of-town chicks and strutted in my Midlothian High School Panther Regiment (that's what we called the band) jacket at brightly lit, wide-aisled, food-court-festooned shopping explosions very much like the ones we still have today.

I'm also old enough, though, to remember Mall 1.0, the dark, narrow-pathed, sometimes creepy indoor shopping center that had a large cafeteria instead of a food court and planters full of dying or fake flowers in the aisles instead of kiosks. We'll get back to the kiosks in a minute...they're kind of the point of this whole diatribe.

Surprisingly (ahem), I'm quite nostalgic about the late-'70s mall experience. I liked the brown parquet floors, the gray- or red-brick interior walls, the Orange Julius that actually took the space of a whole store, Wyatt's Cafeteria (in the old Red Bird Mall in South Dallas, anyway) and its fried fish fillet and strawberry shortcake...and the dark, foreboding, back-alley-style aisles that led to some lonely Bag 'n Baggage or T-Shirts Unlimited at the end of a string of spooky, un-rented, cavernous retail spaces. (Hey, we are going back to the malaise era here, after all.)

The mall used to be relaxing, with almost a sedative quality. Muzak softly played the hits of the era--pretty much throughout the mall--without bothering with words or proper instrumentation. The anchor department stores--the old Sanger-Harris was a personal favorite--offered relative luxury and resplendent merchandising that held them in stark contrast in comparison to the mostly tacky clothing shops and trinket troves of the aisle stores.

The old Westcliff Mall in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff maintained its dingy '70s feel well into the '80s. In it was a ladies' fashion store called Margot's La Mode that carried clothes that were regularly so unappealing that the shop eventually earned the nickname "Margot's Commode."

The malls of my childhood weren't entertainment complexes with bright lights, polished floors, trendy music and constant stimulation. They were shopping centers, and they served the purpose of letting people buy clothes, home furnishings, electronics and maybe a refrigerator or lawn mower at Sears, and then dine on cafeteria fare before driving home in enormous vehicles sans the use of seat belts.

Needless to say, I hate the modern mall and avoid it most of the time. But I've been in a slew of them this week doing the kind of shopping that really does require a mall visit--more on that in another post. The modern mall is sensory overload for me--my muscles actually contract when I hear loud, trendy music pouring out of the overbearing Abercrombie & Fitch or smell pizza and and the acrid sarcasm of youth in the food court. (I will say, however, that mall Japanese food--pretty much anyplace I've ever had it--is a guaranteed first-rate meal. I would seriously choose mall Japanese food over some of the most expensive dinners I've consumed over the years.)

And then there are the blasted kiosks. (Really, that's why we're here, if you've made it this far.) Where did these things come from? When did they start growing like kudzu (look it up) in malls, with surly teens hocking cell-phone covers, panoramic photos of Gillette Stadium and all manner of jewelry and bizarre little toys?

And when--really, I want to know--did it become OK for said surly and-or vapid teens to stalk and attack innocent mall customers? Walking through a mall in 2009 is like running a gauntlet. At every turn, somebody's in my face, asking me to try a product or talk about a service or do something I otherwise did not come to the mall to do and have no desire to do, either. There are used-car salesmen in checkered sport coats and knit slacks who are more polite and less annoying than these mall sharks. There are telemarketers who have more grace and poise.

No, I don't want to switch my cell-phone provider. Actually, I'm not interested in signing up for DirecTV. Gee, thanks, but I think I can do without a poorly crafted piece of costume jewelry or a new facial moisturizer. Seriously, I'm just trying to get from Sears to the Japanese place in the food court--could I please do that in peace? It's bad enough that I'm being subjected to the blinding, deafening mall experience of the 2000s. I don't need to be harassed all the way down the aisle.

Of course, I'm always polite to the folks who work in kiosks--after all, they probably want to be there even less than I do. But whoever came up with the idea to stick these horrible things right in the flow of traffic and then instruct their overseers to hound people should have to spend the rest of his or her life constantly dodging kiosk people wherever he or she goes.

OK, sure, this was a bit of an old-man rant. But I don't care. I feel old in the mall. (I am old in the mall.) I want my mall back. I want dingy corridors and dark aisles and limited food options (except for the Japanese food) and Muzak and Sanger-Harris and unattractive decor and a sense of quiet--yes, even dull--shopping sanity. When I lived in France, there was a mall out west of Versailles (I really want to say that the name of the town it was in was Plaisir--or "pleasure") that had not changed since about 1981, as far as I could tell. It was magnificent--gray, dark, a little dodgy and thoroughly enjoyable. And there were no kiosks and no kiosk people.

Alas, back in the US of A, the mall of yore is gone. But, fortunately, I don't have much of a reason to visit the mall of today. Online shopping and the strip mall--which I don't mind at all, given the distinct lack of kiosks--have delivered me from having to live the modern indoor shopping nightmare. And if I really miss the "classic" mall of my youth, there's always Fast Times on DVD. So, maybe modern life isn't so bad after all. How's that for a happy ending?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Completely Unexpected Return of Summer

New Englanders love to use the same expression that I heard so often growing up in Texas: "If you don't like the weather here now, hang around for a few minutes and it'll change."

Unfortunately, that old saw doesn't hold true for either location. From December through March (or, if we're unlucky, November through April), the weather in New England doesn't actually change much at all. Cold temperatures, snow and freezing rain are on the menu pretty much all winter long; last year, we lost sight of grass and sidewalks sometime in December and didn't see them again--in my memory, anyway--until sometime in late March.

In Texas, the concept is much the same, even if the effect is different. From sometime in May until...well, mid-October in a good year, Texas is hot. Really hot. Blast-furnace hot. OK, there's the occasional thunderstorm or torrential downpour to break things up a bit, but the weather doesn't change very often in a Texas summer. It's pretty predictable. So, if you do hang around for a while in Texas, you'll likely just end up feeling hotter than you did when you arrived.

What we do have here in New England is seasons, and they tend to stick to a pretty strict schedule. Unfortunately, though, summer, which usually makes its debut sometime in June, waited until August this year to arrive. So, when Friday and Saturday last weekend came off cool and rainy (and followed several days with highs that struggled to reach 65), I resigned myself to the notion that fall had arrived. I even had a Spaten Oktoberfestbier at Sunset Grill last Wednesday night. On Saturday, I watched soccer and college football and mostly got into my fall-winter sports mode.

And then Sunday happened. Out of the blue--more like the gray, really--we got a stunning, June-like New England day. High of about 75, light breeze, high clouds floating in blue was amazing, fantastic and totally unexpected. Weather is an awfully big deal here. It dominates life for four to six months of the year (winter) and is always kind of in the back of everybody's mind. In places that get 300 days of sunshine a year, weather usually just sort of rests in the background. Here, it's a factor, a part of life that affects work, play and rest pretty significantly.

We don't waste a lot of summer here in New England. Hang around Greater Boston on a summer day, and you'll see people biking, swimming, jogging, motorcycling...whatever, doing stuff that we can't do for most of the year. Sitting at home by the air conditioner (for those who have one) is not a particularly popular option.

So, with Sunday turning out to be a gem, my wife and I headed for Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, Mass. (Yes, 75 and sunny is a beach day here, especially in September.) And the whole day was just fantastic.

We would have enjoyed the beach regardless, but what we didn't expect was...waves! Real waves, at least six feet high and maybe taller--a real rarity on New England beaches. I don't know why they were there or whether they're common in Gloucester, but I do know that I enjoyed crashing into them, body-riding on them and generally getting slammed around by them. This wasn't just a bonus Sunday; this was a super-bonus, huge-wave Sunday. Beautiful. As is so often the case, the camera didn't really capture the size of the waves...
but the surfers knew where to be when the tide was rolling in...
which hopefully gives me some credibility when I say that the waves were pretty high.

Anyway, I'm past the point of rambling now. The real point of this post is that living in New England has taught me to appreciate every sunny day, pond day, bike day and beach day I get. Oh, fall's beautiful, and even winter has its charms--although it's still very tough for me. (Spring is mostly rainy.)

But there are only a few months of summer every year (if we're lucky), and we got a little extra on the tail end of the season this year. There are beach days, and there are beach days. Some are fun; others are completely unforgettable. This one fell into the latter category, and I hope that when I'm sitting at home in mid-March next year yelling at the Bruins game on TV, I'll be able to look back on this post and remember that there's always hope after the snow melts. And that if I wait around a while--say, four months--the weather really will change.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Ballpark Mini-Tour Review: The "New" Kauffman Stadium

Ewing Kauffman was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, a tremendous philanthropist and the owner of the Kansas City Royals from the club's inception in 1969 until his death in 1993. The late Mr. K is a legend in Kansas City, not just because he made the Royals a model baseball franchise but also because he was the classic big-hearted, self-made, lovable rich guy who walked right out of some sort of cheesy feel-good movie or modern fairy tale and into the heart of the American Midwest--which, as it turned out, happened to be his native home.

Mr. K was the heart and soul of a franchise that began its rise to prominence in the mid-'70s, when the Royals won several AL West titles but seemingly always ran into (and lost to) the Yankees in the playoffs. In 1980, the Royals and their charismatic on-field leader, the immensely legendary George Brett, broke though and beat (swept in three games, actually) the Yankees in the AL Championship Series...only to lose the World Series in six games to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Finally, in 1985, the Mr. K's Royals snatched baseball's crown, winning the World Series over their cross-state rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, in seven mostly riveting and sometimes controversial games. The World Series win was either the greatest or second-greatest moment in Kansas City sports history, with only the Chiefs' upset of the Minnesota Vikings in Super B0wl IV to rival it. The fact that the Series victory came over the traditionally successful Cardinals, the standard bearers of baseball in the Midwest for most of the 20th century (and most of the 21st, too), was especially satisfying for KC fans. It was the greatest moment in Royals history.

The Royals haven't made the playoffs since. They were competitive into the early '90s but soon faded into Major League oblivion. It's a long, sad tale, but Mr. K's death in 1993, an unfortunate transfer of ownership, and the baseball strike of 1994 left the Royals a battered franchise. They've been among the worst teams in baseball for the last 15 years, and this season is no different--they're currently 31 games under .500 and battling the Washington Nationals to avoid (or achieve?--that first draft pick would help) the worst record in baseball.

It stands to reason, then, that the Royals renovated Kauffman Stadium--which was actually Royals Stadium until about a month before Mr. K died--and essentially opened what was in effect a brand-new park for the 2009 season. Struggling teams need ballparks that will attract fans, facilities that can pull them in with diversions that don't have anything to do with what's going on on the field. (Plus, a nice, new park sends a message to free agents that a team is serious about competing--even if KC's relatively low payroll and generally inept ownership don't.)

The "New K," as folks in KC call it, technically isn't new--it sits where the old stadium sat and is really just a renovated facility. But the word "renovation" doesn't really seem appropriate here--evidently, from what Royals fans say, the club pretty much gutted the place and rebuilt it from the ground up. And it's a masterpiece--a fitting tribute to Ewing Kauffman's legacy.

The defining feature of the "old" stadium was the fountains that flowed just beyond the center-field wall. Kansas City is the city of fountains, after all, with more fountains per capita (or per square foot, or per square mile, or something like that) than any other city in the world. (No, really, there's some statistic to that effect--I just don't remember what it is. Anyway, there are a lot of fountains.)

KC is actually a lovely city aside from a few rough neighborhoods, the likes of which exist, unfortunately, in pretty much every American city. KC's ever-improving Downtown, with its charming and authentic late-1800s feel, is full of pleasant surprises and trendy areas (for those who know Fort Worth, think of a larger version of Sundance Square), and the Plaza and Crown Center areas are fantastic--arguably world-class, especially in the case of the Plaza.

Anyway, the New K has kept the fountains flowing, offering a rushing-water sound in the outfield that's oddly pleasant and relaxing (and, unfortunately, fairly audible, given that the Royals don't pack the park very often these days).

Rumor has it that the fountains shoot into the air and light up with colors when the Royals hit a home run, bring out their closer to finish a game or actually manage to win--but, given that none of those things happened in the double-header we saw, I can't be sure exactly what the fountains do. By the way, that double-header was the result of a rain-out from the night before. The night of the rain-out, we spent several hours at the park hoping the game would start--which turned out, oddly enough, to be a lot of fun. And, yes, one ticket got us into both games of the double-header the next day. That would never happen at Fenway--but, then, the Sox will probably make the playoffs this year...

The New K is intimate without being suffocating and spacious without feeling soulless. That's the beauty of it. Fans can actually circumnavigate the park without leaving it, and the corridors seemed wide enough to accommodate a park full of fans, if the Royals could ever manage to have one. There were plenty of bathrooms and lots of beer and food stands, and the team store (always important to a souvenir junkie like me) was nothing short of fantastic.
Of course, the George Brett 1980 throwback t-shirt was (and is) a particular favorite of mine. In fact, the Royals, a franchise with a short but rich history, seem very concerned about reminding fans that the team used to be good. There are statues beyond the fountains of club legend Frank White, former manager Dick Howser...and, of course, of the great George Brett, one of my favorite athletes of all time and a childhood idol of mine even though I wasn't particularly a Royals fan. Here I am with George (sort of) wearing his jersey (sort of):
There's also the Royals Hall of Fame, brand new this summer (along with everything else at the New K, I guess), which was so crowded that I couldn't get into it either night I was at the park.

Aside from statues and nostalgia, there are plenty of entertainment options at the New K--and the great thing is that most of them actually have something to do with baseball! OK, so the fairly inexplicable miniature golf course doesn't...really...

but the pitcher's mound, batting cages and base-stealing area (I'm not sure what else to call it--it's a place where kids can run from one base to another and time themselves) all do.

But the crown jewel of kids' activities at the New K is the Little K, a fantastic little mini-park within the park where kids can, well, play baseball (with, apparently, some sort of adult staff member helping out a bit).
For the adults, there are plenty of wide-open spaces for dining or just walking around, each within eye-shot of a hi-def TV of some sort in case folks want to see how badly the poor Royals are losing.
And then there's the dominant feature of the park, the crown jewel--so to speak. Absent a skyline to show off--the park is a few miles outside downtown, right next to Arrowhead Stadium--the New K sports (as the old stadium did, but not in hi-def) a magnificent, crown-shaped, hi-def scoreboard and video screen. It's phenomenal, actually...and it sort of ties the park together somehow.
Behind the fountains and underneath the colossal scoreboard is a nice little outfield porch area where fans can wander up from their activities (or from eating some pretty darn good barbecue--this is KC, after all) and watch the game for a while. It's an open, pleasant and relaxed area that I can imagine could get to hopping if the Royals ever got involved in an important game. (You can kind of see it behind George in this photo:)
Everything considered, the New K is my favorite ballpark, beating out Nationals Park (which probably comes second), Busch Stadium, whatever Jacobs Field in Cleveland is now, the Texas Rangers' stadium (once known as The Ballpark in Arlington) and Minute Maid Park in Houston--where I never saw a game but did attend an event. Oh yeah, and Fenway...I liked the New K better than I like Fenway.

Kansas City is a lovely city that probably doesn't get the attention it deserves as a great American destination. And since the poor Royals are so awful, the New K doesn't get much time on national TV. But both places are worth visiting--and I'd love to go back to both. (One huge thing that I forgot to mention about the New K: it's a pretty car-dependent stadium, but that means that there are huge, often empty parking lots that are perfect for of the great traditions of American sports and an activity not possible at many ballparks. Nice.)

I loved the New K so much, in fact (and the fans in it), that I've started following the Royals. I've become a bit of a fan. I read the KC Star's coverage of the team pretty much daily and get an e-mail alert with score and stats from Major League Baseball after every Royals loss--sorry, I mean game. I'd actually love to see them get back to their winning ways. In the meantime, though, Royals fans will have to settle for having a first-rate ballpark that honors the good name of the team's founder.