Heard Any Good Books Lately?

Audio books are nothing new—they’re convenient and easy on the eyes, but they are expensive. Enter my new favorite Web site: Librivox.org.

As a volunteer-run, totally free service for digital audio books, Librivox lives up to its promise of providing “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.”

That “public domain” thing is the catch, but also a strength. Instead of endless copies of Stephanie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn, Flat Belly Diet, and other overhyped bestsellers, these are largely books that have (as my English teacher in high school would have put it) stood the test of time.

And—surprise—some of those English-class staples are actually enjoyable experiences! I just finished listening to Oliver Twist, and reveled in listening to Dickens’s meandering but devilishly clever prose.

One aspect of Librivox that took me aback at first is that different chapters may be read by different readers. So while it grates when a reader stumbles over words more common in the 19th century than our own, there are also unexpected pleasures to be had from listening to varied readers. I heard Dickens as interpreted by men and women in Southern American, New England American, South Asian, African, English, and Irish voices, and each lent its own appeal to the project.

If the air of a community reading attracts you, and you’re up for digging into titles you’ve heard about forever but haven’t read, log on and find out what’s in store for you. Here’s a tiny sample of the authors available:
  • Jane Austen
  • James Baldwin
  • E.M. Forster
  • HP Lovecraft
  • Nietzsche
  • Shakespeare
  • Jules Verne
  • Voltaire
  • Kurt Vonnegut

And there are also books in French, Danish, German, Chinese ... even Esperanto.

Give it a listen.

MLB Preview American League Central

Chicago White Sox:

This team is like manager Ozzie Guillen—you never know exactly what you’ll get. It might win; it might blow up like a bad chemistry experiment.

Strengths: The rotation frontend of Mark Buerhle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd isn’t spectacular, but it gets the job done. Bobby Jenks is among MLB’s elite closers. If Carlos Quentin is injury-free, he and the magnificent Jermaine Dye anchor a productive outfield. Catcher A. J. Pierzynski won’t win any congeniality awards, but he gets under opponents’ skins in ways that lead to wins.

Weaknesses: A backend rotation depending on Jose Contreas and Bartolo Colon is going to tax the bullpen. Centerfielder Brian Anderson needs to hit more, the Sox infield is a mess, and both Paul Konerko and Jim Thome look to be at the end of the string.

Cleveland Indians:

Some handicappers are picking the Indians to win this division. It wouldn’t surprise me.

Strengths: If Jake Westbrook is healthy, having him as a number three starter following Fausto Carmona and Cy Young winner Cliff Lee is pretty darn good. They have hopes for lefty Aaron Laffey as well. The Tribe has MLB’s best centerfielder in Grady Sizemore and the best catching tandem in baseball with Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach. Travis Hafner has pop at DH, as does shortstop Jhonny Peralto.

Weaknesses: If Westbrook can’t go, the starting staff is a shallow as the kiddies’ pool. Carl Pavano? Please! The Indians also think Kerry Wood is their closer. It would make a nice story, but don’t bet the farm on his arm. Who’s on third? Andy Marte is a bust and Mark DeRosa has been playing out of position. There are lingering and legitimate concerns that their lineup isn’t productive enough.

Detroit Tigers:

Last year’s biggest bust needs to improve fast or Jim Leyland will be the season’s first managerial casualty. He might want to keeps his bags packed. Just two years ago Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robinson, Justin Verlander, and Mike Maroth were supposed to make the Tigers dominant for a decade. The latter is now gone and the other three went 20-41 last year.

Strengths: If last year’s thirteen wins wasn’t a fluke, the emergence of Armando Galarraga is a plus. Miguel Cabrera (1B) will knock the cover off the ball (and keep area restaurants in the black), Curtis Granderson is one of the best in centerfield, and Magglio Ordonez is a thoroughbred. Placido Polanco (2B) and Brandon Inge (3B) are steady and underrated.

Weaknesses: The pitching is as a suspect as a hit-man in a jailhouse lineup. Edwin Jackson will help, but he’s not the savior. Dontrelle Willis looks to be a fraud and if the Tigers think Brandon Lyon is the answer to their closer woes they’re deluded. The Tigers are also stuck with clubhouse poison Gary Sheffield, who never was worth the trouble and is now a past-his-prime jerk.

Kansas City Royals:

This team has been rebuilding longer than the National Cathedral. It’s hard to see KC as anything other than a feeder system for real MLB teams.

Strengths: Zack Greinke and Gil Meche make a nice 1-2 in the rotation, and Joakhim Soria emerged to save 42 games last year. Alex Gordon (3B) has the potential to be a great player.

Weaknesses: Quick—name an everyday player who isn’t Alex Gordon. Okay, Mike Jacobs (1B) slammed 32 homers last year; he also hit .247. Jose Guillen is a decent player and Mark Teahen might be one, but when your big offseason acquisition is the vastly overrated Coco Crisp …. And the Royals think that Kyle Farnsworth will stabilize their bullpen! LOL.

Minnesota Twins:

Their pitching made them an early favorite, but Boof Bonser is now out for the season and Francisco Liriano’s health is always worrisome. Ditto new third baseman Joe Crede.

Strengths: In theory, the Twins starting staff—Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Glenn Perkins—is among the deepest in baseball (though they need to be more consistent for this to pay full dividends), and Joe Nathan is an elite closer. Catcher Joe Mauer? Make a list of superlatives; they all apply. Justin Morneau (1B) is a beast, Nick Punto (SS) is a quiet leader, and young outfielders Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, and Delmon Young are maturing.

Weaknesses: Second and third are question marks. Parsimonious ownership means there’s no fat on this roster; a key injury or two could send the Twins into freefall. And it’s hard to root for this team as long as they’re in that god-awful dome.


1. Twins—For their pitching depth and youth.
2. Indians—They seem a piece or two short of completing the puzzle.
3. White Sox—Watch Ozzie explode.
4. Tigers—Say goodbye, Jim Leyland.
5. Royals—Hope you enjoyed last year’s respite from the cellar.


Just Say No to Bad Irish Music

Run Away!!!!!

In an earlier post (“In the Spirit of the Bothies”—Celtic Corner) we suggested some wonderful Irish music for St. Patrick’s Day. Here’s a short list of what to avoid. It’s not a comprehensive list, so first a few general rules:

--If the music has been featured on PBS, there’s a high probability that it’s toxic and should be avoided.
--If the CD package looks like everyone on it has been airbrushed, put it back and wash your hands.
--If there is a full orchestra with more strings that an alley full of cats, there’s a high likelihood of excess.
--If one or more of the musicians looks cheesy enough to sprout mold, look elsewhere.
--Don’t even consider anything that has one or more of the following things on the cover: rainbows, leprechauns, four-leaf clovers, little girls in short skirts and fake boing-boing curls ….
--Anything that purports to tell “the Irish story” is a load of sentimental hooey from someone of third or fourth-generation Irish ancestry who has never actually been to Ireland.
--No actual Irish person sings “Danny Boy.”
--If there’s anybody on the cover whose last name is not Clancy and they’re wearing a white cable-knit sweater, move away from the CD rack.

By all means avoid these:

1. Lord of the Dance—"Riverdance" was pretty excessive, but can be forgiven as the first in its genre, but this production is a testament to Michael Flatley’s ego. Sheesh, the namesake song is from the Shakers, for heaven’s sake!

2. The High Kings—Ireland’s indigenous attempt to cash in on "Riverdance." The performers are talented, but the production is naff, and the material is a grab bag of tired old chestnuts.

3. Celtic Thunder—A blend of the Backstreet Boys and guys old enough to be their dads singing every sentimental song in the book, plus crap such as “Puppy Love,” a song that comes from that old American spaniel Paul Anka, not an Irish setter.

4. Celtic Tiger—Just when you thought Michael Flatley couldn’t get any more over the top he proved he could.

5. Celtic Woman—Oh dear! What if we collected a handful of pop tarts and told them to sing a few old songs with as much excess as they could muster? Well, that’s what happened.

6. Black 47—A lot of people like this band and they can knock out of the walls of your favorite watering hole, but anyone who glorifies the IRA from the comfort of New York City offends us.

7. Three Irish Tenors—See notes on PBS above. Whenever classically trained musicians try their hand at traditional music they generally boil it to blandness.

8. Celtic metal music—Actually, some of this isn’t bad, but there’s very little that’s “Irish” about it. Metal music is pretty much a North American phenomenon and when it migrates it usually doesn’t travel well.

9. Enya after 1989 and anyone else trying to sound like her. Enya’s early Celtic/New Age explorations were ethereal and magical; after 1989’s Watermark it’s all been recycling. This is pretty much true of all Celtic New Age with the exception of Loreena McKennitt.

10. The Corrs—Okay, you can have a little bit of The Corrs, but be forewarned: too many sweets ruin your teeth.

MLB Preview American League East

Baltimore Orioles:

For a team with a proud tradition and the best ballpark in America, it’s shocking to see the Orioles in such a sorry state. It will get worse before it gets better.

Strengths: An outfield of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and either Luke Scott or Felix Pie isn’t bad. Rich Hill will help the pitching staff and George Sherrill can be a premier closer if he gets enough chances. Melvin Mora (3B) has a good bat and Brian Roberts is solid at second, though he’s not the superstar he’s advertised to be.

Weaknesses: Just about everything else. Gregg Zaun as the everyday catcher? A pitching staff with just one pitcher who won ten games or had an ERA of under five (Jeremy Guthrie)? Cesar Izturis as the starting shortstop? Not enough in MLB’s toughest division.

Boston Red Sox:

The Sox are gambling that Takashi Saito can pitch in the AL, that John Smoltz has gas left in the tank, that Tim Wakefield is ageless, that Rocco Baldelli and Mike Lowell are physically fit, that Jacoby Ellsbury and Hideki Okajima weren’t just flashes in the pan, that J. D. Drew will justify his contract, that Brad Penny isn’t a bum, and that somebody can catch a knuckleball.

Strengths: Who wouldn’t want a staff that includes Josh Beckett, John Lester, Wakefield, and closer Jonathan Papelbon? Kevin Youkilis is the best pure hitter since Wade Boggs, Dustin Pedroia is the reigning MVP, and David Ortiz remains a dangerous hitter.

Weaknesses: The catching is weak and they should have moved on from Jason Varitek. Yes, Penny is a bum and no, J. D. Drew never will be special. Why they ever wanted Julio Lugo (SS) is a mystery, but his competition, Jed Lowrie, lacks range and ought to play third. Dice-K luckier than good last year. He can’t count on a repeat. This team is simultaneously deep and fragile. It could win it all, or finish third.

New York Yankees:

If the Yankees stay healthy—a big if on a team with rehabbing players (Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Chien-Ming Wang, Mo Rivera), aging stars (Johnny Damon, Andy Pettite), and fragile arms (A. J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain)—the new Yankee Stadium will be baptized with banner number 27.

Strengths: With Sabathia on board the Yankees pitching looks formidable. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy are just about ready if a starter goes down. Don’t be surprised if Mark Melanchon emerges as Rivera’s heir apparent, and Phil Coke adds lefty depth. The infield—Teixeira, Cano, Jeter and A-Rod—is the best in baseball.

Weaknesses: The defense is weak and the outfield is so unimpressive that another personnel move is likely. If A-Rod continues to self-destruct, the Yankees may bite a big financial bullet and try to move him.

Tampa Bay Rays:

They may be the reigning AL champs, but I think they overachieved last year and will tumble in ’09.

Strengths: Pitching is the key to the Rays. Unless the young arms burn out—as happened to the Tigers’ staff—Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine is pretty darn good, and Dave Price looks to be a stud. Evan Longoria has emerged as a star at third, and pitchers do not want B. J. Upton or Carl Crawford on the base path. Everybody on the team fields well.

Weaknesses: It’s hard to imagine that all of the pitchers will repeat their 2008 performances, and Kazmir doesn’t have the makeup of an ace. The Rays lineup is solid, but not imposing. Carlos Pena (1B) hits for power, but little else and Pat Burrell struggled to hit .250 in a loaded Phillies lineup against inferior NL pitching. Troy Percival’s days as a top closer are long past. If anything happens to Navarro, catching will be a problem.

Toronto Blue Jays:

Poor Toronto—just a few pieces short two years ago, then the economy soured, Burnett bolted, Vernon Wells got hurt, and Scott Rolen is seldom 100%. It could be a long year.

Strengths: Roy Halladay—the best right-hander in baseball. Alex Rios is on the cusp of stardom and, if healthy, B. J. Ryan will close out the game.

Weaknesses: After Halladay it’s a big falloff to Jesse Litsch. What’s it tell you when a team is looking at adding Matt Clement to its rotation? The everyday lineup features names such as Scutaro, Hill, Snider, and Barajas, so don’t expect Lexus performances on a Corolla budget.


1. Yankees—Simply too strong to be denied.
2. Red Sox—It’s unlikely all the stars will align, but enough for a Wild Card.
3. Rays—The year in which reality descends.
4. Orioles—Will slug their way out of the basement.
5. Jays—Will give up a lot of runs and won’t score many.


Pristine Beauty from Debra Cowan

Fond Desire Farewell
Falling Mountain Music 1054

This gorgeous album is reminiscent of mature projects from the likes of Judy Collins, Anne Hills, or Sandy Denny. Cowan covers songs ranging from bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley (“The Darkest Hour’) to Nic Jones (“Ruins by the Shore”) and Richard Thompson (“Jealous Words”).This well-crafted album balances sparse and melancholic arrangements—including superior renditions of “The Night Owl Homeward Turns” and “The Snow is on the Ground”—with unique mash-ups. Cowan describes her cover of Ray Davies’ “Alcohol” a blend of klezmer, honky tonk, and Kurt Weill. Toss in some Spike Jones and that’s about right. The gypsy café/jazz/folk cross of “Lili Marlene Walks Away” is another genre-puzzler, and producer Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) has his fingerprints all over the folk rock “The Rainbow.” At the center of everything is Cowan’s pristine voice, the loveliest flower in a verdant meadow.

Bobby Jindal Not Ready for Primetime


It didn’t break my heart to see Bobby Jindal go from a charging GOP elephant to an ass that even wimpy Democrats would have sent to the knackers; I despise the entire culture of greed and tax-breaks for the rich he represents. But his criticism of President Obama’s stimulus package was such an embarrassment that one wonders why Republicans see him as hope for 2012. He’s clearly not ready for primetime. Who would want the country in the hands of such an immature bumbler?

The GOP confuses the package with its contents. Jindal’s “response” to the stimulus plan—"we don’t want it"—was little more than a schoolboy’s playground tantrum—a political version of “I don’t like kickball so I’m going to sit here and pout.” His alternative? Other than the tried (and failed) GOP cliché of calling for more tax breaks for business and the wealthy, he doesn’t have one.

Jindal may yet prove himself worthy of the national stage, but that time is not now. At present he’s just a male version of Sarah Palin, an empty suit with what the GOP sees as the correct demographics—a person of color who isn’t African American (gotta surreptitiously shore up the suburban bigot base), a “business” background (based on just a few years as a consultant), a Southerner, a Christian convert, and photogenic. But his rising star credentials are bogus. He's only governor of Louisiana by default. He replaced Democrat Kathleen Blanco, who bumbled the post-Katrina cleanup and was so unpopular that she chose not to run for reelection rather than face electoral humiliation. Jindal won a four-way race against three unknowns, hardly an accomplishment that makes him presidential timber.

When even David Brooks judges Jindal’s performance “insane,” it’s time for reasonable Republicans—assuming they can muster a quorum—to find a better mouthpiece and let little Bobby grow up a bit.


MLB Preview: National League West

Arizona Diamondbacks

In a weak division that can probably be won with 85 victories, the D-backs have the pitching to get there. Whether they can score enough runs is another matter.

Strengths: Brandon Webb is one of the best pitchers in baseball and, if his shoulder is okay, Max Scherzer might turn out to be his equal. Adding Jon Garland to a mix that also includes the talented Dan Haren gives the D-backs a strong rotation. If Doug Davis bounces back this team could lead the league in ERA.

Weaknesses: And they’ll need to. When your third highest batting average is .248 (Chris Young) and your highest RBI total is 97 (Mark Reynolds), opposing pitchers walk out feeling like, well, Brandon Webb. Conor Jackson had a decent year in 2008, but not a great one. He, Stephen Drew, Eric Brynes, Chad Tracy, and others need to elevate their game or a lot of fine pitching will go to waste.

Colorado Rockies:

Losing lefty Jeff Francis is a big blow and trading Matt Holiday will hurt even more. There’s enough talent on this squad to surprise, but last place isn’t out of the question either.

Strengths: The Rockies offense can be pesky. Troy Tulowitzki (SS) is an igniter and Ryan Spilborghs (OF) has similar moments. Once guys are on base, Garrett Atkins (3B), Brad Hawpe (OF), and Todd Helton (1B) can plate them. Aaron Cooks manages to pitch as well in Corrs as on the road. If Ubaldo Jimenez has a better year, the Rox staff can get to Huston Street, he’s the division’s best closer.

Weaknesses: The staff has potential, but a lot of guys had bad years in 2008. Several teams sought catcher Yorvit Torrealba, for reasons that escape me. Helton’s health is a concern, and the middle relief is so-so. When you play half your game in Corrs Field so-so doesn’t get the job done.

Los Angeles Dodgers:

At this writing still no Manny. That may matter less than no Derek Lowe.

Strengths: The Dodgers are quietly putting together a very nice outfield with Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, though neither has yet lived up to their billing. If Manny Ramirez arrives both will improve; without is a question mark. Signing Orlando Hudson (2b) was wise. With Casey Blake (3B) returning and Russell Martin emerging as a premier catcher, the Dodgers offense is solid.

Weaknesses: Solid is not a word I’d use to describe their pitching. Chad Billingsley is their “ace” and he’s a three-guy at best. Their number two, Hiroki Kuroda, has back-of-the-rotation talent, and Randy Wolf won’t be the answer.

San Diego Padres:

His name keeps surfacing in trade rumors, but the Padres should build around Jake Peavy. There’s really no other reason to watch this club.

Strengths: Peavy, homers from Adrian Gonzalez (1B), flashes of brilliance from Kevin Kouzmanoff (3B), pitcher Chris Young’s potential, and that’s about it.

Weaknesses: Brian Giles is on the decline, the starting catcher (Henry Blanco) will be 38 this summer, and not a single member of the staff other than Peavy threw 160 innings. Ouch!

San Francisco Giants:

With luck this could be the team to break from the pack. If only they can score….

Strengths: The pitching staff could be awesome. It’s anchored by reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. If Matt Cain improves, Noah Lowry recovers from arm trouble, and Barry Zito finds his brain, the Giants staff could be lights out.

Weaknesses: The Giants offense redefines the word anemic. When a 35-year-old catcher (Bengie Molina) leads the club with 16 homers and his 95 RBIs are 25% better than the next guy on the list (Aaron Rowland), it makes you wonder why they wasted money on over-the-hill Randy Johnson instead of striking a deal with Manny Ramirez.


This is the worst division in MLB, so any prediction is a crap shoot, but here goes:

1. Diamondbacks—Strictly on the basis of proven (as opposed to potential) pitching
2. Giants—They won’t score runs, but neither will opponents.
3. Rockies—Could move up if they stay healthy.
4. Dodgers—Even if they sign Manny, he doesn’t pitch.
5. Padres—Subtract Peavy and this squad looks really ugly.


Disillusioned by Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar

I’ve loved films since I saw my first one at age five (it was The Music Man, for the record), and have watched the Oscars with enthusiasm since I was old enough to stay up late enough to see the stars come out that night.

So why did I turn off the set last Sunday filled with disillusionment? It wasn’t Hugh Jackman’s cheesy song and dance intro (at least he can sing and dance, something you can’t really say about otherwise fabulous past host Billy Crystal), and Jackman looks better in a tux too.

It wasn’t the set, which sparkled with myriad strings of real crystals that caught the lights. It wasn’t the red-carpet fashion show. It certainly wasn’t the award presentation style, which this year seemed especially respectful of all the nominees. (Loved the repeated use of “…they make movies” as in, “writers of screenplays don’t just arrange words, they make movies.) And I thought all the performances honored were worthy.

I think the disillusionment set in before the broadcast, while reading Ty Burr’s “What do the Oscars Mean?” article in the Boston Globe. It said, in part, “The Academy Awards are generally perceived and promoted as an imprimatur of quality…Nothing could be further from the truth. The Oscars are in fact a popularity contest designed not to award good movies but movies that make the film industry look good.”

Slumdog Millionaire, winner of eight awards including “best picture” honors, proves his point. It seems on the surface to be a good- and good-for-you film with a message that reflects well on the Academy. It’s about people of color for a start, and poor people of color at that. It takes place in a country other than America (gasp!), and it plants its feet squarely on the side of what’s morally right.

But a closer look reveals that, despite the Academy’s reputation as a haven for political lefties, the film it honored most this year carries a profoundly conservative message. The fact that it’s an Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is key. For all the genuine sympathy shown the residents of the Mumbai slum where the film was shot, the message is that a better life is something only individuals, not communities, can aspire to. Everyone loves a winner, whether it’s the film’s hero or the film itself, but director Danny Boyle’s film—worthy though it is of attention and awards—also reveals Hollywood’s dirty little secret: it doesn’t really understand or like poor people.

For decades, few of the “best picture” winners have dealt substantively with working-class life. And the notable exceptions—The Deer Hunter, Rocky, On the Waterfront, and The Best Years of Our Lives—date back to the 1970s and before.

If Hollywood had wanted to reward a film this year about what life for the working class of any country is really like, it could have given top honors to the exquisite Frozen River. Its working-class heroine’s goal isn’t winning a million; just cobbling together the few dollars needed to save her double-wide trailer from repossession. That’s not as dramatic as Slumdog’s rags-to-riches story, but it’s a lot more real.

And reality is the one thing that Hollywood simply can’t stand.

Renney Fired: What Took So Long?

New York Rangers’ General Manager Glen Sather has finally canned head coach Tom Renney. What took so long? Renney was as offensive-minded as a Quaker and this should have been done six weeks ago when there was still a chance of salvaging the hockey season. Renney’s replacement, John Tortorella, will light a fire under this tepid team, but it won’t be enough (and Pat Quinn would have been a better choice).

Six weeks ago it would have made sense for the Rangers to be trade-deadlines buyers, but with just twenty-one games left and not enough time to build a new offense the Rangers should proceed to step two: rebuilding. They need to do as baseball’s Oakland As did last year and simply admit that this team isn’t good enough to compete for a championship. At best this is a number six seed, not good enough to get past the gritty Bruins, the lockdown Devils, or the hungry Flyers, and surely not a serious challenge to the iron of the West: the Wings, Sharks, and Flames.

The smart move would be to write off the campaign and see if they can unload a few really bad salaries and gain salary cap space for next year, especially those of Chris Drury, Paul Mara, and Wade Redden. Drury needs to be in an open offense where he can poach and play wave-by defense (Ducks?) and the lumbering Mara needs to be some place where he doesn’t have to skate (like perched in front of a soft goal tender such as Chris Osgood). As for Redden, get a bucket of pucks for him—anything to lose that awful contract.

Step three is to see what some of the young guys are made of—Zherdev, Voros, Prucha, Sjostrom ... and build around Markus Naslund until help arrives next year. And to do that, step four needs to happen: Glen Sather should be shown the door as well. This is his team, not Renney’s, and Sather simply doesn’t know how to evaluate talent in the new NHL.

MLB Preview: National League East

Atlanta Braves:

In the offseason the Braves were like a rancher advertising for a mail-order bride. They courted everyone and ended up with: Derek Lowe, Garret Anderson, and an aging Tom Glavine. That doesn’t bode well.

Strengths: When he’s healthy Chipper Jones is as good as there is and Brian McCann might be the best catcher in baseball. Expect Jeff Francoeur to bounce back after an off year and Casey Kotchman is solid at first. Pitcher Jair Jurrjens looks like he’s on the verge of a breakout and Lowe is always steady.

Weaknesses: Tim Hudson’s health is questionable at best and any rotation that depends on chronic underachiever Javier Vazquez will struggle. This teams looks a lot like Kotchman—middle of the road.

Florida Marlins:

It’s hard to root for a team with a Wal-Mart mentality and it would be best for MLB to move or fold this franchise. You’ve not heard of most of its roster for the simple reason that most of it is just several years out of school.

Strengths: Thoroughbreds Dan Uggla (2B), Jorge Cantu (3B), and Hanley Ramirez (SS) anchor a first-rate infield. Cameron Maybin (RF) is a blue-chip prospect.

Weaknesses: Once you get past Ricky Nolasco every pitcher on the staff is suspect. Anibal Sanchez hasn’t pitched well since his no-hitter. Chris Volstad shows promise, but most of the staff needs more time in the minors.

New York Mets:
The addition of über-closer Francisco Rodriquez makes them a bettor’s choice to win the NL East, but count me among the skeptics.

Strengths: Johan Satana is, arguably, the best pitcher in the game and the Mets bullpen—which also added J. J. Putz—will be much better. The everyday lineup includes the wonderful David Wright (3B) and the potentially fabulous Jose Reyes (SS).

Weaknesses: Much like outfielder Carlos Beltran, the Mets look better on paper than they are on the field. Carlos Delgado (1B) might be done, there’s a controversy brewing over who else will start in the outfield (Tatis? Church? Reed? Anderson?) and the pitching staff has holes. Oliver Perez is Jekyll and Hyde, and both John Maine and Mike Pelfry would probably be better in the pen than in the starting rotation.

Philadelphia Phillies:

It’s hard not to admire the gritty reigning champs. The only significant change was to cut loose the overpaid Pat Burrell and replace him with the more consistent Raul Ibanez, who ought to flourish in Philly.

Strengths: The Phils have a nice balance of superstars—Ryan Howard (1B), Chase Uttley (2b), Jimmy Rollins (SS), Cole Hamels (SP)—and real blue-collar grind-it-out guys such as Shane Victorino (OF), Jason Werth (OF), and the ageless Jamie Moyer (SP).

Weaknesses: Closer Brad Lidge was perfect last year, but he still induces heart attacks and Ryan Madson is the closer of the future. The starting pitching is thin after number three starter Joe Blaton. Brett Myers and Adam Eaton need either to step it up or pack it in. I’m not sold on Pedro Feliz at third, but I’m willing to be astonished.

Washington Nationals:

One can only hope that MLB cleans this wreck from the tracks ASAP--empty seats, empty talent, and a city that doesn’t care. This team should have never left Montreal.

Strengths: It’s hard to find any. Ryan Zimmerman (3B) is the face of the franchise and he’s merely average. Nick Johnson (1B) is a good player when healthy, which is never. Elijah Dukes (OF) might be on the cusp of stardom; then again, he might be on the cusp of prison time.

Weaknesses: With Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns, and Adam Dunn on the same squad opposing pitchers are guaranteed 6-8 Ks every time they face the Nats. These guys can hit homers, but I wonder what the MLB record is for lowest team on-base percentage. And there’s no point in talking about the pitching staff until they actually have one.


1.Phillies—Once again, with extra cheddar on the cheese steak
2. Mets—Good enough for the wild card, but disappointment is their specialty
3. Braves—Will move up only if Phils or Mets meltdown
4. Marlins—Would be last except for…
5. Nationals—This team couldn’t win in the International League.

MLB Preview: National League Central

Chicago Cubs:

On paper the Cubs are the class of the National League. Of course, that was true last year as well. The problem for the Cubs for over a hundred years is that games get played on the field, not on paper.

Strengths: The Cubs pitching will get even stronger if the Jake Peavy deal ever gets made, but it’s nonpareil as it is. Who else in the NL is as deep as Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, and Rich Harden? And Geovany Soto does a nice job of handling them. The infield corners feature two beasts—Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, and Milton Bradley should help stabilize the outfield.

Weaknesses: Alfonso Soriano is a good player who will never be a great one because he’s undisciplined and uncoachable and Kosuke Fukadome may be a legend in Japan, but he’s a deadweight contract over here. Who’s the closer? If this team underachieves early, Lou Pinella won’t be around to collect the pieces.


If the Cubs bite the dust, the Reds have an outside shot at sneaking into the playoffs.

Strengths: They’ve got a young pitching staff that could break out at any moment, and Edinson Volquez already has. Keep your eyes on Johnny Cueto. If Bronson Arroyo bounces back and they get decent performances Bailey, Harang, or Owings, look out. David Weathers and Francisco Cordero will shut the door if the starters can get to them.

Weaknesses: Once you get past Brandon Phillips (2B), Joey Votto (1B), and Jay Bruce (OF), there aren’t many RBI guys in this lineup and even those three are not guys you’d pitch around.

Houston Astros:

The ‘Stros dumped payroll like watered Enron stock in the offseason. But in a six-team division, they’re still good enough to be in the hunt.

Strengths: Roy Oswalt is good for a W every five games. Even off steroids Miquel Tejada (SS) has power and Lance Berkman (1B) is a superstar. The outfield of slugger Carlos Lee, the productive Hunter Pence, and speedster Michael Bourn is very good and Darin Erstad is there to step in if Bourn doesn’t hit more than last year’s .229.

Weaknesses: The catching is weak and any pitcher not named Oswalt is suspect. It’s hard to fathom why Brandon Backe has been so bad, but right now the # 2 guy looks like an AAA pitcher. Mike Hampton is injured again and Wandy Rodriquez is now 30 and still hasn’t lived up to expectations.

Milwaukee Brewers:

They had their shot last year and fell short. This year they’ll fall much faster.

Strengths: J. J. Hardy is a marvel at short, and a lineup with Prince Fielder (1B), Bill Hall (3B), and an outfield of Ryan Braun, Mike Cameron, and Corey Hart can produce big innings.

Weaknesses: The Brewers will need to score in bunches because of lousy on-base performances. A staff that lost C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets not only lacks an ace, it lacks any sort of face card. Jeff Suppan? Manny Parra? Brandon Looper? Please! And why on earth is catcher Jason Kendall still in the majors?

Pittsburgh Pirates:

They’ve got a pretty ballpark. Too bad there’s neither a team nor fans to put in it. It’s time to put past sentiment aside and shut down the Pirates like a rusting steel mill. There’s not much here, not much on the horizon, this is a football town, there’s no money, and Roberto Clemente is dead.

Strengths: Paul Maholm kept his ERA under four and managed nine wins, the most on the staff. Adam LaRoche has some power, centerfielder Nat McLouth is a fine player, and second baseman Freddy Sanchez doesn’t suck. With any luck they’ll get traded.

Weaknesses: The rest of the team does suck. Pitchers Ian Snell, Zack Duke, and Tom Gorzelany have each been proclaimed the next big thing and none of them has even been mediocre. Merge the Pirates and the Nationals and you’d still have a lousy team.

St. Louis Cardinals:

This is the NL Central mystery team. I’d not be surprised if the Cards were in the thick of things, nor would I be shocked if they finished fifth.

Strengths: Albert Pujols! He’s not just good, he’s the very best player in all of MLB. Outfielders Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel give Sir Albert some support, as does Troy Glaus, when healthy. Yadier Molina is a solid catcher. Kyle Lohse has pitched much better than anyone would have predicted and Adam Wainwright might be on the cusp of a Cy Young award.

Weaknesses: Alas, plucky Chris Carpenter may never recover from his arm problems and the rest of the staff is thinner than bad gruel. And if there’s a more overrated manager in all of baseball than Tony LaRussa, I’ve not encountered him. Let’s see Tony find some pitchers on his stats charts.


1. Cubs—If someone forgets to tell them they are the Cubs.
2. Reds—If Jupiter aligns with Mars.
3. Cardinals—Because Pujols can carry them this far on his own.
4. Astros—Because Oswalt can’t pitch every day.
5. Brewers—Because the Selig family deserves to suffer.
6. Pirates—Because you can’t win with an AA roster.


Martin Hayes: Strings from an Interview

Fiddler Martin Hayes now lives in Connecticut, but he was born and raised in County Clare, the son of renowned fiddler P. J. Hayes. Martin first honed his craft in an area known for such musical legends as Tommy Potts, Paddy Fahy, Willie Keane, John Doherty, and Joe Cooley. And he learned those lessons well; he is one of the most-celebrated players of his time, known for mesmerizing concerts that lull audiences through grace rather than pyrotechnics. Here are some snippets of an interview conducted with Hayes in February, Look for a longer feature in an upcoming issue of Celtic Life.

On learning to play through the folk process: The music got in my bones early. It was like my first language…. Growing up in the midst of a community demystified the music and freed me. It was not something I had to ‘work’ on and I never felt I had to get to the bottom of it.

On what makes Clare-style fiddling unique: There’s an effort to play emotionally and this often gives the music a melancholy feel. It also tends to be more lyrical and less driving, with gentle melodies. Even in set dances it’s syncopated without having to go too fast.

On constructing concert sets: It’s my signature to play slowly, but I play fiery material and middle ground tempos to create relief. There has to be opposites… to contrast with regimented and formulated melodies. I look at the comprehensive picture and try to make the music appeal to everyone.

On his long collaboration with guitarist Dennis Cahill: Our longevity and accumulated knowledge of each other’s viewpoint is an advantage. But with Dennis, each tune is totally new thing. He never takes a one-size-fits-all approach; every melody is a new journey.

On what he’s thinking on stage: If things are going really well, nothing at all is in my head; I’m hearing, experimenting with, observing, and feeling the music.

On how his music has changed over the years: On the technical level … I can now play with better intonation, tone, and control of the rhythm, and that I’ve gotten rid of some nervous tics, but now I try to not try to let go of control so I can be available to things that emerge in the moment.

On being an award-winning musician: I don’t want to sound smug, but as soon as I get an award I let go of it. I know that I have a very tenuous grasp on the music. There’s no way to quantify music, and at the end of the day, all the awards mean nothing unless I can get up on the stage and make the music happen.

Arrogance in Beantown

Lest we forget, before he was governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick served on the board of Ameriquest, a firm known for making enormous profits through predatory lending. Patrick continues to feed little fish to the big fish, as the soon-to-enacted near doubling of the gasoline tax proves.

Massachusetts will soon have the highest gasoline tax in America, a whopping 42 cents per gallon. But if you think it’s to defray the commonwealth’s budget woes, think again. More than half of the increase is an avoidance measure aimed at not having to raise tolls and fees that apply to a single segment of Massachusetts society: those who live in or commute into Boston. Gee, we wouldn’t to make those who actually use the services pay for them, would we? No—let’s soak everyone instead. Of the remaining 16 cents, a mere three pennies has any chance whatsoever of being used outside west or south of Route 128, the ring road that encircles Boston.

Patrick’s toll-increase aversion scam is the exact opposite of what he should be doing. If he had the leadership skills and the moxie to take the long view, he’d support higher tolls in and around Boston as a way to insure the health of strapped public transportation systems. Want to keep Boston’s subways, commuter trains, and buses profitable? Increase their ridership. Take a page out of London, England’s book, where it costs a small fortune to drive a private vehicle into the city. The consequence is that most people don’t do so, and those who can’t or won’t break the habit pay dearly for the privilege. Boston should follow suit. Jack up the fees, take all the money from tolls collected inside Route 128, and earmark them for mass transit.

But the more distressing problem is the elitism implicit in the governor’s thinking.
He arrogantly likes to pretend that a gasoline tax is a non-discriminating user fee, but it’s a regressive tax for those without access to public transportation, which is pretty much everyone outside of Boston. The gas tax will make it even harder for unemployed Commonwealth residents to search for work, and it will take a substantial bite out of the budgets of those already struggling to make ends meet.

There are other revenue options a strong leader willing to take on the moribund legislature could promote: increasing liquor and tobacco taxes; luxury taxes on private boats, gas- guzzling vehicles, second homes, and undeveloped property; granting home rule to municipalities to allow them to enact rooms and meals taxes; and reconfiguring the formula by which high-income earners are taxed. But, Deval Patrick betrays the worst of two worlds: an elitist mentality coupled with amateurish administrative skills.

Disclaimer: I voted for him. Promise: Never again.