Archive for July, 2011

The Once and Future Blues

The St. Louis Blues – they’re not just an exciting hockey team to watch, but a bastion of charity and community awareness in the region.  Whether it’s the Des Peres Giant, goaltender Ben Bishop, raising money for our veterans, or alumni and current players teaching hockey to area youths, the team has become an institution in St. Louis.  And this week’s Blues Youth Hockey Camp is yet another example of how much they care about the people and city they entertain.

Think about it – when I grew up there was one player born in St. Louis in the NHL, Pat LaFontaine.  But he grew up in Detroit (poor guy).  Then Paul Ranheim (who played more than one thousand NHL games) and Landon Wilson (who got more than 300 under his belt) represented our fair city.  Still, hockey was nothing more than a club game just a couple decades ago.

Fast forward to today.  There are quite a few St. Louisans in the NHL, such as the Stastny brothers, Yan (now playing in Russia) and Paul, solid Calgary defenseman Chris Butler, the menacing former Blue, and now – it’s fitting – a Devil, Cam Janssen, and netminders Ben Bishop and Chris McKenna.  And that’s not the end of the list.

After decades of Blues hockey in St. Louis, the city is suddenly a hockey hotbed.  It may be a testament to St. Louis’ people that so many Blues players make the city their home.  True, our summers are hot; but the people are just as warm.  And the amount of players that stick around proves that.  If nothing else, you might say we’re “South Canada” because, in my experience, Canadians are just as welcoming as a people as St. Louisans are.  I saw ex-Blue, Gino Cavallini, at a charity hockey game raising money for the Disabled Athletes Sports Association, and asked him what it was that keeps the players here.  He said, “You bounce around so much and you find a place you love, and you find the people you love – a town that really takes to you – and it’s hard to move.”  To him, it was the people.  Gino was traded in 1992, but moved back in 2007.  “I called St. Louis my home, even when I was traded.  I’m originally from Toronto, but my home is St. Louis.”

To make St. Louis even more of a “South Canada”, the players who make the city their home got involved in local hockey.  From Larry Patey and Bruce Affleck to Patrik Berglund and Scott Mellanby, the boys in blue have given their time to local teams and players to make hockey so much more than something reserved for private schools and private teams.  Many high schools now have teams, and the amount of players from the area being drafted into the NHL proves how much hockey has evolved in the past couple decades.  Cavallini said hockey was bound to take off “when guys like John Wensink, Mike Zuke, and Larry Patey started retiring, and getting involved in (local) hockey – even before that it was Bob Plager and Noel Picard.  But you got to give credit to the local community and the volunteer coaches that are out there that have been avid hockey fans since the Blues came here in the late’60s.  And it’s starting to pay dividends.  This is a town where you can see, on any given night, alumni in a rink – or a present player with their kids in a rink.”  And the result of that is the great hockey coming out of this town.  “Per capita, we may have more kids playing hockey in college than any other hockey center in the U.S.”  At least we’re still beating Texas…

Some of the great local coaches Cavallini mentioned were at the Mills for the Blues Youth Camp, fostering the future of St. Louis hockey.  Even Blues GM Doug Armstrong’s son, Blake, who will be attending Tufts University in the fall, generously gave up some of his summer to help out.

Sure, it was neat to see Berglund and Bishop come out on the ice for a surprise visit with the kids.  But it is the time invested by local coaches, as Cavallini said, that has really made the difference.  It could be argued, however, that those guys wouldn’t be on the ice, or the kids themselves, had the Blues not become such fixture in the community.  Let’s look at some of those dividends Gino was talking about.

In this year’s draft, three area players were drafted by big league teams – two of which were taken in the first two rounds.  Scott Mayfield was drafted 34th overall this year by the New York Islanders, and will play for the University of Denver Pioneers this year.  Then Dave Lowry’s boys were taken later on – Adam in the 3rd round (by Winnipeg) and Joel in the 5th (Los Angeles).  (It should be noted that Joel was born in Calgary).  Dave Lowry should not be forgotten for his role as bodyguard of the dynamic duo of Brett Hull and Adam Oates.  He was much more than just an enforcer; Lowry also chipped some scoring, with 104 points in his 311 games through his five seasons here (53G, 51A, 432 PM).  He is now an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames.

In 2010, a Kansas City boy, Mark Alt, was taken in the second round by Carolina.  Then Rob Ramage’s son, John, was selected in the 4th by Calgary (currently a Wisconsin Badger), Tony Dehart was taken in the following round (Islanders), along with O’Fallon prospect Michael Parks.  Parks was taken by the home team, the Blues, and is committed to play at the University of North Dakota this year.

2009 saw one local boy taken, defenseman Chris Wideman, who’s currently playing for Miami University.  Scouts are already taking notice of the Ottawa Senators prospect’s smart play with the puck.

The point of all this is that it’s not just the Lowry and Ramage boys being drafted, or Basil McRae’s son, Philip (who proved to be an NHL talent last year with the Blues after they selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft).  There lots of talent here.  Area coaches are raising the bar, including ex-Blues.  So many ex-Blues are coaching, or are helping out when they can: Rick Zombo (Lindenwood University Lions), Jeff Brown (St. Louis Bandits), Al MacInnis, Kelly Chase, Keith Tkachuk; and the list goes on and on.  And this youth camp held by the Blues is one of the big reasons why St. Louis hockey is truly on the map.  Berglund and Bishop hung out, Mellanby did some instruction, as well as former NHL goalie and current Blues color commentator, Darren Pang.  I believe the instructors asked Panger to not wear a helmet so they could tell him apart from the kids (sorry, Panger!)…

Darren Pang with kids from the Blues Youth Hockey Camp (photo courtesy of David Pokorny)

Mellanby said, when it comes to amateur hockey, “St. Louis teams are going out there not just to compete, but to win; and they can compete with anybody in the world now.”

Nearly ten players born in Missouri have been drafted by NHL teams in just the last three years; three of which were picked in the top three rounds.  Hockey isn’t just a local club game anymore, and – thanks to the St. Louis Blues, their alumni, and local coaches and volunteers – maybe we’re seeing the next hockey great on the ice rinks of the St. Louis area.

As St. Louis as the Arch – Voltron is the Star of Comic-Con

 

Voltron Returns in "Voltron Force" (image courtesy of World Events Productions)

So, you’re probably like a lot of people out there.  You’re a child of the ‘80s, a decade of monumental animated shows, such “G.I. Joe”, “Transformers”, and my favorite, “Voltron: Defender of the Universe”.  Now you have children of your own.  You try to sit down and watch some of today’s cartoons with them, and you wonder, “What happened?”  It makes you hear the famous words of Peter Cullen (voice of “Optimus Prime” in Transformers and narrator of the original “Voltron” series) that began every episode in your head, “…And then came a time when Voltron was needed once more.”

Well, fret no more, because Voltron lives again!  “Voltron Force” airs on NickToons every Thursday night at 7:30, and it’s a welcome respite from the junk that most stations call children’s programming.  (You can catch up on back episodes by going to the Nicktoons website, or purchasing HD episodes on iTunes.)  The beauty is that it’s a children’s show that moms and dads who grew up with the show won’t have to be embarrassed at what they’re watching, or have to have their kids explain what the heck is going on.  It’s great to see that the same characters you couldn’t wait to see before or after school are the same that your kids can’t wait to see.  Keith, Hunk, Lance, Pidge, Princess Allura (I admit, my first crush when I was too young to know what a crush was), and even the polarizing Space Mice (to me, the Greek Chorus of “Voltron”) return to the show.  And the characters are excellently portrayed by some great voice actors, such as famous Canadian singer (“Hey Ocean!” is the band), Ashleigh Ball, as Princess Allura.  

Princess Allura, The Blue Lion Pilot (image courtesy of World Events Productions)

The other returning factor is that it’s all done right here in St. Louis.  In 1984, World Event Productions (a Ted Koplar company) bought a little show from a Japanese company named Toei.  Toei sent Koplar what they thought he ordered (a bit was lost in translation), which Koplar thought was even better.  Koplar noticed a great thing when he saw it.  As supervising producer, Jeremy Corray, said in an interview with me on LUTV’s “Mixed Media”, Koplar knew fans would understand the characters and plotlines.  Koplar said “you can watch this, not even know any Japanese – not even have the sound on – and get the characters.”  Can I send Mr. Koplar a “thank you” note?

They re-edited it for American kids (apparently, Japanese kids are allowed a bit more violence), re-voiced it, called it “Voltron”, and a legend was born.  You could say it was adopted and raised in St. Louis.  The new series, “Voltron Force”, is born and raised in St. Louis – a real hometown hero.  As Jeremy said, “It’s a local boy done good.”  To clarify, he mentioned most of the production of the series, such as voice acting and re-editing, was done out in L.A., “But Voltron headquarters was right here in St. Louis.  (Voltron is) a Midwest boy at heart – he’s as St. Louis as the Arch.”

Jeremy, also a native of St. Louis, couldn’t be happier to reboot an icon.  He put it best in his enthusiastic style, “As a die-hard genre fan and proud geekbot myself, being a part of all this is a dream come awesome!”

Just like me, Jeremy grew up with the show.  He knows what the fans love, and it shows on the screen.  In fact, he loves Voltron so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the guy in the Voltron suit in this exclusive picture.

Voltron at San Diego Comic-Con


Callbacks to the classic series abound, but it’s a show of its own.  It’s the perfect show to watch with your kids, or if you’re just a nerd like me who never grew up.  Jeremy said, “We knew we had guys like us, what I call ‘Generation Voltron’, guys who grew up on it – and it defines an era for them…What we did with ‘Voltron Force’ was specifically design the show to be – if you’ll excuse the marketing buzzword – a co-viewing experience.  We went after guys like me who now have their own kids, and have found that Voltron has become this inherited entertainment.”  So they wanted to entice the new viewers (specifically viewers 6 years old and up) to watch, but still treat fans of the original series with enough fan-service, as he put it, to “geek out about.”  And they absolutely have succeeded.  When you’re watching it with your kids, and “the first time Voltron forms ‘Blazing Sword’, you’re going to be six years old all over again,” Jeremy said.  But you don’t need kids to enjoy it.  It has already had the highest-rated premiere in Nicktoons history.

OK, you don’t have to still have Voltron on your bed sheets to miss something you grew up with – or appreciate quality animated programming.  Jeremy told me about running into recording artist, an icon himself, will.i.am of “The Black Eyed Peas”, at an airport.  While will.i.am was signing some autographs, one of Jeremy’s coworkers just stood beside him, and whispered, “Voltron.”   The recording star immediately turned around, and the conversation went from there.  Jeremy said, “It was like he wanted our autographs.”  Even the jocks love it, though; Kobe Bryant mentioned how the “Miami Heat have formed like Voltron”.  I guess the Heat’s version of Voltron suffered a bit of a malfunction, though…

You can see the excitement over Voltron’s return by checking out San Diego’s Comic-Con, the famous convention of comic book/cartoon companies that is every nerd’s fantasy to attend (including me).  Jeremy sent me this exclusive photo as proof of the elation of longtime fans.

Fans assemble at the Voltron Panel at Comic-Con

More Voltron fans at Comic-Con

With all the retelling of our favorite shows, I can’t say that I’m entirely satisfied with the remakes out there.  For instance, did anyone else feel betrayed by the G.I. Joe movie?  I might have had better plots playing with “Duke” and “Snake Eyes” on my couch when I was seven – certainly better dialogue.  Hopefully, the second installment will be much better.

Jeremy and the “Voltron Force” staff, however, have hit the mark.  The dialogue and plotlines are fascinatingly entertaining.  And it’s not just a collection of anime action sequences.  There is deep character development, smart techy stuff, and, of course, fantastic animation.  And the Voltron Universe hasn’t been overexposed like other icons of our childhood such as Transformers.  “There’s so much room to play with Voltron, so many origin things that we can have fun with.”  I’m seriously getting nerd-chills, Jeremy.

Your favorites are back, as mentioned, but there is a new twist to the reboot.  Things have changed since we were holding our breath until the next episode.  Though our favorite characters return, some younger characters have joined the team, and the original characters seem to be passing off the baton.  Relax, though; your characters aren’t going anywhere.  Jeremy says this transition is relative to the parents that watch the show, “It’s kind of like where I am as a parent – how do you deal with change?”  He mentioned how writer Todd Garfield did so well to create that mystique of “who are these characters, what are they going to do?  You’ll see how it all unfolds in some very clever and unexpected ways.”

Jeremy continued, “I can tell you just from the experience of watching it with my son – when my three year old is jumping off the couch and yelling, ‘I’ll form the head!’, it’s amazing; and it makes you appreciate” what your parents were going through when you were doing the same.  “What we did was take the things that really worked for the original series and just evolved them” for a more modern audience.  And it works.

Comic-Con has also become a bastion of comic/cartoon movie announcements, and Voltron stole the show.  The rights to make a movie about the original defender of the universe series have been bought by Relativity Media, who has had their hands in movies such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Social Network, and the upcoming Cowboys & Aliens – which Jon Favreau directed (Iron Man and Iron Man 2).  No word on whether Favreau will take the reins on the Voltron movie, but there is a rumor that I’m the favorite to play the little guy, Pidge…after all, no makeup will be needed – just the green tint in my glasses.

Pidge, the Green Lion Pilot (courtesy of World Events Productions)

Certainly, one good thing about the proposed movie is that Ted Koplar will be an executive producer.  This is the guy who’s behind bringing the series to St. Louis, and that should ensure the quality of the film.  And according to Voltron’s website, “The production will be led by producers Charles Roven and Richard Suckle of Atlas Entertainment (The Dark Knight, Man of Steel) and producer Jason Netter (Wanted).”  I’m getting those nerd-chills again.

Also, video games are available.  “Voltron Force: Ultimate Victory” is available to play for free on Nicktoons.com.  And a game-console title will be released this fall.  Stay tuned.

All in all, it’s great to see an icon return – and Voltron Headquarters is still in St. Louis.  Again, Jeremy said it best from Comic-Con, “From the THQ 5 Lions scavenger hunt, to the giant Voltron statue at Mattel, to the HUGE announcements coming at the first ever Voltron panel this year’s San Diego Comic-Con sends a signal to the universe that the Defender is BACK! We’ll keep you posted!”  And we’ll be watching.

For more info on the Voltron universe, go to www.voltron.com.

Special thanks to Jeremy Corray, Supervising Producer of “Voltron Force”, for the exclusive Comic-Con pictures!

The Real Captain America/Re-Launching a Rocket

The Real Captain America, David Backes (original image from blues.nhl.com)

 

The Real Captain America

When I saw there was a “Captain America” movie coming out, I was initially happy that someone wanted to make a movie about David Backes.  To my dismay, it’s about some weakling nerd from Brooklyn.  Bummer.

If you’re unsure as to whom should be the captain of the Blues, it’s American David Backes in my book.  And, unlike Steve Rogers, Backes doesn’t need Tommy Lee Jones (or whatever kind of freaky steroids they put the comic book hero Captain America on) to get motivated and into shape.  In an interview with one of the best – and classiest – broadcasters in the St. Louis area, Scott Warmann of KMOX, Backes talked about his offseason.  He said he nearly spent his entire summer training in preparation for another great season (82 games, 31 goals, 31 assists, +32, 93 penalty minutes in 2010-2011).  He said, “Hopefully, we can stay a bit healthier and continue that momentum that we started at the end of the season last year.”  We’re with, you David.  But why do I call him Captain America?

Backes was one of the leaders of the United States Olympic Hockey Team that nearly shocked the indomitable, Gold Medal-winning Canadian team in 2010.  And he will, no doubt, be an American leader next time around.  Because of his leadership on that team, my friends and I began calling him “Captain America”.  He seemed to take the defeat as hard as we did, and he took his frustration out on the rest of the league when NHL play resumed.  The Silver Medal just wasn’t enough for him, no matter how proud he and the rest of the team made The United States.  If you were wearing another team’s sweater, you were going to get pounded by him – especially if you had worn Team Canada’s sweater in the Olympics.  Talk about a real American hero…

Backes is saying all the things a captain should.  It was great to hear he was, again, as frustrated as I was once the playoffs began last year.  I thought I was the only sore loser when it comes to viewing the NHL Playoffs.  Once my team is out, I can’t bear to watch as much brutally entertaining playoff hockey as I should.  He explained, “It’s a bitter taste” to watch playoff hockey; “I don’t watch them religiously, but I’ll flip on ten minutes of a game or highlights, and see some of those guys who we dominated some of the years – especially Vancouver whom we played right with, and they ended up in the finals, and a Boston team we beat in the regular season that ended up winning the (Stanley) Cup.”

That’s what it’s all about for an unofficial captain of a team – winning the Cup.  Backes said he and his teammates know that’s what is most important.  Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Kent Huskins, and other new teammates know it, as well.  Those three guys already have their rings, but as Backes said, “they just want to hold the Cup over their heads again.”

When Warmann asked him his thoughts about being team captain, Backes (very captain-like) quickly brushed it off, especially with the new veteran leadership acquired by Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong this offseason.  He said Army transformed a talented young team into an “experienced team, now; we’re going to have veteran leaders that can keep us calm when things get crazy and give us a kick in the butt when we need it, too.”  He would love to be captain, but he said, “Even if it’s not me, I’ll be the same player I’d be with the ‘C’ on – trying to lead, trying to set examples with hard work, and trying to make things right and do what’s best for the team all the time.”

Though he wouldn’t take credit for persuading anyone, it should also be pointed out that Backes called Arnott and Langenbrunner before they signed with the team to help entice them to join up.  Again, that’s a team captain move.  The added size and experience on the Blues roster couldn’t have made too many Western Conference teams too happy.  The Blues were a pain as it was before the signings, and Backes agrees, “Those guys (the new signings) have played against the Blues, and know we got a hard working team that’s not fun to play against.”  And that has a lot to do with our Captain America.

I know our Captain America doesn’t quite have the ultimate villain that the big-screen Captain America does, the Nazis, but the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks are certainly villainous enough.  The Blackhawks are, well, the Blackhawks – Blues fans don’t have to learn to loathe our longtime regional rival.  And the Red Wings have been menacingly good for a maddeningly long time.  By the way, will Nicklas Lidstrom please retire?  The guy is 41, never seems to lose a step in his game, and has a hard time even missing a game.  In fact, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner – awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman – has never missed more than a handful of games in his entire career.  He’s like the Swedish Wolverine (sorry, I had to get another comic book reference in there).

Anyone who wants to be a captain cannot forget what he’s fighting for, and Backes certainly hasn’t.  He wants to win the Cup for his teammates and his organization.  But he certainly feels obligated to repay the loyalty of Blues fans.  He said, “It’s all about winning games, climbing the standings, and bringing the people in St. Louis what they have been supporting the Blues for so long now, and that’s winning a Stanley Cup.”  Please save us, Captain America.

 

Jonathon Cheechoo with the 2006 Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy (image from sharks.nhl.com)

Re-Launching a Rocket

And he does it again.  In last week’s post, we talked about Blues GM Doug Armstrong swooping in and saving the day by adding some quality veteran players to the talented young Blues roster.  Well, he donned his cape and did it again since then by acquiring Jonathon Cheechoo for a low-risk $600,000, two-way contract (according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).  Although Cheechoo hasn’t been the player he was years ago, he could be yet another vital component to the Blues prospective playoff run.  With all the additions Army made, the word “prospective” is hopefully no longer necessary.

Cheechoo turned 31 on the 15th of July, and injuries have hampered his production since he scored 56 goals and 93 points in 2005-2006.  The guy was one of the most dominant players in the league that year, winning the Maurice “The Rocket” Richard Award for leading the NHL in goals – and the Blues are looking to re-launch that missile.  A positive season in the AHL might be the very rocket fuel he needed.  As competitive as the AHL has become because of an influx of talent over the past couple decades (hockey is blowing up around Europe, the United States, even Mexico!), the “A” just isn’t the “N”.  Just having the NHL within the reach of his stick might be the dangling carrot Cheechoo needs to get his game together.  And don’t forget what the Blues strength and conditioning staff has done for its younger players.  Now that he’s (hopefully) healthy, Cheechoo could get the juggernaut-like power he had when he found the back of the net 56 times.  He doesn’t have to score fifty, though.  Cheechoo just has to add to the depth of a roster that needed all the help it could get last year due to the injury issues it had.

Even better about Cheechoo is his playoff experience.  With 59 career playoff games under Cheechoo’s belt, this acquisition now puts Armstrong’s total career playoff games added over the offseason up to 402.  And, as we talked about last week, before Armstrong’s superhero act this offseason the entire Blues roster had only 131 career playoff games on it.  That means Armstrong added three times more playoff games to the roster than it had prior to his hard work in the two months.  These guys are obviously as serious as the fans are about not just making it to the second season, but making a serious run at the Stanley Cup, as well.  It’s the kind of thing a prospective new owner might love to see.

And if you don’t believe me about hockey in Mexico, check out this link: http://www.hockeymexico.com/

Just don’t ask me to translate…yet.  It, along with the ridicule of my Spanish-speaking friends, makes me want to brush back up on those four years of Spanish I took, though.  Mexico’s Under-20 World Championships Team won the Gold Medal in Division III this year, earning them a spot in Division II next year.  However, I don’t quite see Army going after defenseman, and Team Mexico’s Captain, Manuel Escandon just yet.  And now you know too much about Mexican hockey.

The Blues Reward Their Fans/Cardinals All-Star Break Comes Just Soon Enough

SUMMER BLUES

Doug Armstrong
(image from stlblues.com)

 

It’s been too long.  The fans know it.  The ownership/management knows it.  And, most of all, the players know it.  No matter how much St. Louis hockey fans love their Blues, if someone talks about making the playoffs, Jim Mora’s famous feigned perplexity comes to mind, “Playoffs?”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3-eavMSBnk

To this writer, however, the more important question coming out of last season was, “What if we get to the playoffs?”  With a roster so young the team parties should be held at Chuckie Cheese, it was hard to find someone on the team that could take up the leadership role so desperately needed in the trench warfare that the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have become.  The team needed a hero.  Who would that hero be?  I have news for you – he doesn’t wear a jersey.  This year’s hero is Blues General Manager, Doug Armstrong.

“Army”, as he is affectionately known, heroically swooped in this summer and has answered my biggest worry.  The Blues young team has earned a reputation as one that is very tough to play against – when they’re on their game.  But how many times have we seen them get a couple bad breaks and end up losing by big numbers?  It’s the kind of pratfall a young team can get caught in (those darn kids and their emotions…); and it’s the last thing you want your team to be known for in the playoffs.

Well, Army came to the rescue.  He first traded for some new attitude by bringing in the versatile and exciting Chris Stewart last season.  And he somehow goaded the Avalanche into throwing in the extremely gifted defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (or defenceman, if you’re reading this in Canada…) on the deal.

Then the offseason came.  Honestly, the only coveted player on the market was Brad Richards; but the Blues obviously didn’t have the sixty million dollars (which just might get him a one-bedroom apartment in New York) he was looking for.

Army stood by and waited out the market.  The old Sun Tzu adage is to know your enemy.  Army wanted to see what his opponents would do before he made his decisions.  And his art of war could pay off for the Blues.

What did he do?  He only added 343 career playoff games to the roster.  Yes, 343.  Before the offseason, the entire Blues roster had only 131 career playoff games.  It doesn’t take a statistician to see what kind of difference that could make if the Blues make it to the playoffs.  Contrary to what many might have thought, Army must have been planning this all along.  “We’re in a place now where we really believe that we’re ready to take the next step.”

Army took his time to know what he would need (resigning the key young free agents like Patrik Berglund and TJ Oshie), what he had to acquire it (he got his budget about a month before the signings), and then went out and saved the day (with next to nothing).  He added Kent Huskins, whose 47 playoff games, coveted size (6’4”, 210), and revered steadiness (career +40), will help solidify an already talented group of defensemen.  And, as we learned last year with all the injuries on the blue line, you can never have enough quality defensemen.  Then he shored up the backup goaltender ranks by getting journeyman backup Brian Elliot to compete with the Des Peres Giant, Ben Bishop.  And then came the big two days, July 5th and 6th.  On the 6th, he added two former team captains in Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner.  The previous day, he recruited checker Scott Nichol to join the platoon.

Arnott will add some scoring touch around the net, and so will Langenbrunner.  For those who say they’re finished, remember how many people said Lance Berkman was finished when the St. Louis Cardinals took a chance on the man formerly known as “Fat Elvis”.  After working his butt off in the offseason, “Big Puma” looks more like “Medium Puma” (OK: “Extra-Medium Puma”), and is well on his way to a career year.  I bet Yankees fans wish New York wasn’t finished with him.

Forget offensive production for a moment.  What Berkman brought to the Cardinals was a different attitude.  And that’s what Arnott and Langs will bring to the Blues – not to mention their Stanley Cups.  Veteran leadership can go a long way in the protracted war of attrition that an NHL season is.  That is no rip on the current leaders of the Blues.  David Backes, Alex Steen, and Barrett Jackman deserve respect for fighting through these lean years of watching other teams in the playoffs.  It has not been their fault that the team has struggled through financial troubles.  Army alluded that he was still confident in their leadership by saying “our captain isn’t going to come from a free agent signing.”  Jackman emerged last year as a leader – by far his best year since winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie.  Backes, an All-Star, is a joy to watch as opposing players try to hit him and get the worst of their own checks.  Steen is a master with the puck, and his overall play has greatly improved while wearing the ‘Note.

Let’s not forget about the other warrior Army recruited, Scott Nichol.  Blues fans are going to love this guy – the kind of gadfly you love on your team, but despise when he plays for someone else.  Geoff Courtnall, anyone?  OK, he might not offer the scoring production “Courts” gave the Blues, but I doubt Nichol got anything close to the minutes “Courts” got.  Also, the Evgeny Grachev deal could end up being a huge plus for this team for years to come.  The 21-year-old man-child (6’4”, 224) just didn’t fit in with New York, and a new home (the antithesis of New York, actually) could be the best thing for the forward.  Again, look at Berkman.

Army said he wanted to create some competition in the lineup; my translation of that is he wanted to have a team of actual NHL players, and not two lines of AHL players like last year.

Head Coach Payne obviously appreciated it, “We’re ready now, and guys have to be willing to play their part and sacrifice a little bit so that this group is four lines deep and ready for the season.”  Payne had to be getting tired of trying to convince TJ Hensick that he was still playing college hockey…

We all know it’s time to return to the trenches of the playoffs.  This team is ready, and so are the fans.  The fans proved they were ready last year by filling up the Scottrade Center every game.  But nothing makes a team more marketable to a potential owner than playoff success.  Army said it best, “Our fan base has been patient; we want to show them that their patience is going to pay off.”  Somebody, please, get the hero a cape…

 

CARDS

Kyle Lohse, as Tony La Russa (Image from: baseballpranks.com)

 

Maybe Kyle Lohse should be handing in the lineup cards from now on.  Cards manager Tony La Russa turned in the wrong lineup Friday night.  Though some bloggers have ridiculously insinuated that the game was affected, baseball is far too complicated a game to say that substituting one player for another can be the sole reason for defeat.  No matter what, it appears that the All-Star Break couldn’t have come any sooner; TLR has worked through countless injuries to key players, an eye infection, and a sulking superstar.  It’s amazing they’re still tied for first place.  It’s a testament to the manager, and the attitude that Berkman (and others like Nick Punto) brings to the team.  And we can’t forget the gutsy performance of Matt Holliday this year.

By the way, what is it with the Cardinals and beating rookies for game-winning hits, as if they owe the veterans money?  Tony Cruz was attacked by his teammates after his winner Saturday night, another in a long line of vicious (but quite funny) assaults.  He took more punches than Devon Alexander did at the Family Arena in June – which was quite a lot.  If I was Cruz, the next time I get a game-winning single I’d keep running past first base and out to my car.

In Honor of Independence Day: “What Happened?”.

The Constitution of the United States

“WHAT HAPPENED?  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Adams, Hamilton.  Things were going well.  Then Ford, Quayle, Mondale, Agnew, Nixon, Clinton, Dole, Bush I, Bush II.  What happened[I]?”  – George Carlin

If one is to determine whether the United States Constitution is an undemocratic or democratic document, they must first ask themselves a millennia-old question that began with Socrates and the ancient Greeks: is our society what we like to think we are – a free society – or are we merely, as the philosopher would have called us, “the herd”?  Without the answer to the latter question, we cannot truly answer the former.  Of what use is a fully democratic constitution if “the herd” does not think for itself?  Arguments come easily with such a controversial issue.  There are supposed faults in the Constitution, but is the parchment the problem, or is the public?  Whether or not the problem lies in the regionalism that has developed in the country, or lies with the professional politicians (pun unintended), or lies in the media, a full democracy will only work if the public pushes more civic education.  So, perhaps, we should not rewrite the Constitution, but rewrite our definition of civic education.

Time Magazine’s recent cover depicting the Constitution of the United States being put through a paper shredder riled many, but it isn’t the first tract calling for reform.  Author Sanford Levinson believes the only way out of this mess is to completely overhaul the Constitution.  His book, Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct it), calls for the redrafting of the “sacred document” written by our founders in 1787.  It took this author over a week to get through the first fifty pages, as myriad arguments were born from every paragraph.  But it wasn’t all contentious.  Levinson used a quote from Thomas Jefferson to explain his mission.  “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors[II],” Jefferson once wrote.  Well, TJ, I would definitely call you founders effete, maybe even a bit dandy, before I called you barbarous.  But that doesn’t mean the Constitution was brought down from a stormy mountaintop, etched into stone by the fiery hand of god itself.

There were faults in the Constitution written in 1787; the founders knew it full well.  Benjamin Franklin said it best, but in his trademark ironic way, at the last day of the Constitutional Convention, “Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best[III].”  Faults are included, but another problem persists, and Levinson mentioned it.  He wrote that “People are happy as long as they get their pork[IV].”  We may not be the most politically-motivated country.  But why is that the case?  Why don’t Americans take more responsibility in a government that is supposedly for the people and by the people?  Perhaps it should be called a government for the people, but you can buy the people, instead.  Like the ancient Romans with their gladiatorial games and other spectacles, our society seems to keep the people distracted with entertainment and consumerism.  The running of the country is someone else’s problem.  But who’s to blame for such inertia?

The easiest area of society to blame for distracting the populace is the media.  The media has the uncanny power of manipulating the public, and it has since the inception of our government.  In 1796, when TJ was up against John Adams for the presidency, newspapers rehashed TJ’s lack of action against the invasion of Virginia by Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War.  The papers said that TJ, the governor at the time, supposedly, “left the state in the lurch when he fled to avoid capture by the enemy raiding party that appeared at Monticello in June 1781[V].”  Adams’ media handlers basically called TJ a coward – and Adams and Jefferson had one of the most chronicled “bromances” in American history.  Adams won by a couple votes, though we’ll never know for sure if the media drubbing was the cause.  Many other instances followed, where the media used emotional logic to sway the people’s sentiment to correlate with theirs, like the famous newspaper reporting of the U.S.S. Maine sinking in 1898, supposedly by Spain, with the headline “Remember the Maine!” that fomented public sentiment toward enacting the Spanish-American War[VI].  But the most recent example is the way the media compounded the economic downturn in 2008 – without consumer confidence, the market was slow to rebound.  If the media had continued its protocol of falsely inflating the market’s problems to inflate their ratings, consumer confidence would never have risen.  And neither would have our economy.

Is there something we can do about the media?  All we can do is hope they value their ethics as much as we tend to value their opinion.  But before you think that the press is the root of all of democracy’s evils, we should mention the importance of the press’ freedom.  Obviously, the First Amendment is one of the paramount stipulations set down by the writers of the Constitution.  However, I would bet that most Americans can name more members of “The Simpsons” family, or “American Idol” contestants, than they can name of the five freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment – or even five Founding Fathers.  The point is that James Madison and the other framers knew that power is tempting and hard to let go of.  And power is even easier to abuse.  Our founders knew that the press would be the ally of the people in keeping politicians honest.  (You’re right; I should change that to “as honest as a politician can be”.)  So is the press the enemy, as many call it?  If the press’s job is to keep politicians in check for the people’s benefit, then the press is the people’s ally.  And if the press is the people’s ally, but an enemy of politics, then who’s the bad guy?  Did you say, “The politicians”?  You’re on the right track; but let’s take a closer look at them before we grab our torches and pitchforks, and ready the gallows.

Speaking of the media, the engineering of the legislative branch of our government would have made great reality television, as our deified founders quarreled like little devils.  Just deciding on the representation qualifications/stipulations was like deciding who was going to clean the outhouse.  In Levinson’s book, he mentioned how he believes that the two-representatives-per-state ratio in the Senate to be unfair[VII].  Why would the founders make two houses, and make the determining factor in their respective representations completely different?

Levinson mentioned author David Hendrickson, who poignantly called the Constitution a “peace pact” between the states[VIII].  Equal representation was essential in at least one house.  One might say that the need for equal representation in the Senate is no longer necessary because back when the Constitution was written, they were acting as “Sovereign Countries (or States)” – something was needed to keep these competitors from each taking their ball and going home.  This isn’t some unprecedented phenomenon; regionalism (state-ism, if you prefer) started immediately; it was especially noticeable as Westward Expansion began.  When Daniel Boone slaughtered every Native American he could find west of the admitted states…OK, that’s unfair.  When Boone and other settlers like him displaced many Indians from their territories, the divergent needs and desires of the expanding American Empire proliferated rivalries and factions.  As Winston Churchill put it, “The East feared the approaching political dominance of the democratic West.  The West resented the financial and economic bias of the Eastern moneyed classes.  The forces of divergence grew strong, and only the elasticity of the federal system around the core of state rights prevented the conflict between a mother country and its sturdy children[IX].”  (And, in all fairness, go see the Daniel Boone home in Defiance, MO.  It’s a great piece of American history.)

Animosity between states in modern times is exponentially minute compared to the days of the thirteen “Sovereign Countries” of 1787.  But if we force ourselves to let the differences of our times get in the way of what is right, then we lose the point of equal representation altogether.  While it is easy to understand why equal representation might seem unfair to the bigger states, it is easier for the smaller states to imagine a country run completely by the bigger states – and how fair is that?  One House of Congress is already represented by population, so why must both houses?  If we have two Houses represented by population, then why not just have the bigger states absorb the smaller states.  Or if its representation must be determined by population like the House of Representatives, then why have the Senate at all?

TJ asked George Washington what need there was for a Senate?  Washington asked him why one would pour his coffee into his saucer, to which TJ replied, “To cool it.”  Washington explained that they should “pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”  Authors Christopher and James Lincoln Collier said this meant that “most of the men at the Convention were at least hopeful that a way could be found to create a Senate of wise men[X].”  Was this just some corncob pipe dream?  As we look at our current Senate, how many of us can name more than ten Senators we would call wise?  How about five?  More than one?  Can you name even one?  Regardless of whether or not any of them are wise, the representation in the Senate is not on top of this author’s list of things that must change.

So why do politicians do the things they do?  It seems that most of the time, politicians do what is best for their political party.  Washington was as sure of the rise of partisan battles as he was that it was time to retire (and the two probably had a lot to do with each other).  Author Joseph Ellis wrote about Washington’s departure from the presidency – how Washington wasn’t press-proof (even Common Sense author Tom Paine criticized his presidency, saying he “prayed for his imminent death”), and how his Farewell Address showed his desire for succeeding presidents and Congressmen to stick to his policy of “neutrality abroad and unity at home.”  And the “partisan bickering” that was developing only soured Washington’s taste for politics even more[XI].  One can easily get the feeling that Washington was growing less and less popular in his waning days, but he fought back.  The hero of the Revolution wouldn’t let a bunch of sneaky politicians, and the manipulative press, extinguish his star for posterity.  Washington blasted James Monroe after the latter accused the former of treason for removing him as foreign minister, and TJ for his lack of integrity in hatching a plot to lure Washington into writing inflammatory letters that they would publish to ruin his reputation (not TJ’s brightest moment).  Washington went on in his letters that TJ and the “French Party” – as he dubbed TJ’s party – were “determined…to subvert the Constitution”; “to turn the clock back to 1787, thereby repudiating the hard-won constitutional settlement.”  He felt that this was motivated by nothing but a desire for power[XII].

Ellis explained that TJ and Madison could have thought this was just a sign of the great man’s natural decline into age.  But Washington was right.  Ellis wrote,

“They had in fact been orchestrating a concerted and often covert

campaign against the Federalists since 1791.  They had played politics with

foreign policy during the debate over the Jay Treaty.  They had paid

scandalmongers to libel [Alexander] Hamilton and Washington.  And they had on several

occasions (as in the Genet affair, endorsing Monroe’s conduct in Paris)

engaged in skullduggery that would have been regarded as treasonable in

any modern court of law[XIII].”

Not that Hamilton and the Federalists were innocent of political maneuvering.  In fact, it was Hamilton’s political ambition, and his inability to compromise his aims, that helped inspire the forming of political parties.  Author Ron Chernow agrees, “The rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America.”  Hamilton was so either hated or loved that early on, “the political spectrum in America was defined by whether people endorsed or opposed Alexander Hamilton’s programs[XIV].”  But the development of the party system in America wasn’t as damaging as the commencement of the age of the “professionals”.

Author Morris P. Fiorina wrote about how American politics is chock full of seemingly tenured “professionals” who are merely “preoccupied with winning and losing.”  Men such as Eugene, and his son Herman, Talmadge in Georgia seemingly ran their counties/states through political bullying, or outright corruption.  These men gerrymandered and reapportioned their territories to influence their desired political outcomes (mostly white supremacy in the Talmadge cases)[XV].  Fiorina explains that they are men driven only for more power, “not at producing the good society, but at gaining power and place for one’s self and one’s party.”  Capriciousness is a politician’s hallmark, but they aren’t the only chameleons.  Consider how the Republican and Democratic Parties have almost done a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn in ideology since their respective inceptions.  The reason that Fiorina gives is what you might expect – money, or as he more eloquently calls it “material incentive”[XVI].  Ben Franklin saw compromise as “not only a practical approach but a moral one…On almost every issue for more than two centuries, this supposed fault has served the Constitution, and the nation it formed, quite well[XVII].”  The Constitution was born in an age of Enlightenment – The men at the Constitutional Convention strived to meet the middle road on many issues, making sacrifices to make their country better.  How things have changed…

No, it's not grandma's bridge club; it's the Founders signing the Constitution of the United States

Can there be a downside to a full democracy?  Just ask Socrates.  Socrates asked one of his notorious “yes-men” in Plato’s dialogues, “Do you not admire…the coolness and dexterity of these ready ministers of political corruption[XVIII]?”  Those who know how Socrates’ life ended won’t have to ask what that statement meant.  Socrates was always chiding politicians, and his rebuke of the establishment – even Athens’ democracy – eventually got him put to death.  It should be noted that Athens had the most interactive government for most of recorded history.  The people (well…freeborn males) actually did the voting on all issues put to vote.  Not even America had this type of suffrage until the “Jacksonian Revolution” in the 1820s and 1830s[XIX].  Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth by teaching them to question everything – from religion to (various gods forbid) politics.  But in this democracy where anyone could speak in the assembly, “nowhere in the many dialogues that touch on the trial of Socrates does Plato have any of his characters make the obvious point that Athens was untrue to its own principles in condemning Socrates[XX].”  Although the “gadfly of the state” was nefarious for criticizing his hometown’s establishment, the people had him killed for it – for living freely in a self-proclaimed home of freedom.  That must have been what Levinson meant when he mentioned the “tyranny of the majority[XXI].”

Levinson asked his readers if they thought it would betray the founders to rewrite the Constitution.  Just knowing that we have the freedom to rewrite our Sacred Document proves that, at least, the government born from the parchment still gives some power to “we the people.”  TJ once said, “Happily for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers, and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or restore their constitutions[XXII].”  So maybe it’s not the actual document that is undemocratic, but the people.   Prior to the Constitutional Convention, Franklin wrote to TJ about his concerns, “If it does not do good it will do harm, as it will show that we have not the wisdom enough among us to govern ourselves[XXIII].”  But if we don’t rewrite the Constitution, how can we do better?

Civics is a lost subject in the classroom, rapidly being found less and less important to math and science as the forgotten art of music in the classroom.  Yet this subject is what this author believes is the way to prove our society worthy of a more democratic Constitution.  Civics – and democratic classrooms where dissent is allowed (and even encouraged) – must be utilized to create the society of well-informed free men the founders intended.  Author D.L. Martinson wrote that administrators tend to shy away from “hiring social studies teachers who will facilitate a classroom experience where genuine learning about active citizenship in a democratic society becomes part of the socialization process[XXIV].”  Instead, we see more tyrannical classrooms, what some see as the necessary component of societal order.  This would be perfect if we were ancient Sparta, but with one difference – classrooms that churn out consumer-bees (instead of Spartan warrior-bees) swarming around our hives.

Only if the people take more responsibility in their proposed new legislative powers derived from a new Constitution will they truly form a “more perfect union”.  But it is up to this generation of Americans to set things right for generations to come by investing in civics in education.  Our old friend, Socrates, said it best, “Good nurture and education implant good constitutions, and these good constitutions taking root in a good education improve more and more, and this improvement affects the breed in man as in other animals[XXV].”  For right now, however, the political animal we have chosen is merely “the herd”.  We can do better; we must do better.

BIBLIOGRAPHY/FURTHER READING:

• Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

• Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship.  The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History fro the Notes of James Madison.  (New York: Random House, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2005).

• John Ferling.  Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)

• H.W. Brands.  TR: The Last Romantic.  (New York: BasicBooks, 1997).

• Winston Churchill.  A History of the English Speaking Peoples: Vol. 4, The Great Democracies.  (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993).

• Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986).

• Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washington.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

• Ron Chernow.  Alexander Hamilton.  (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

• Jimmy Carter.  Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age. (New York: Random House, Times Books, 1992).

• Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope.  Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America.  (United States:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2006).

• Walter Isaacson.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003).

• Plato.  The Essential Plato.  The Republic.  Translated by Benjamin Jowett with M.J. Knight.  Introduction by Alain de Botton.  (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1999).

• I.F. Stone.  The Trial of Socrates.  (New York: Random House, First Anchor Books Edition, 1989).

• D.L. Martinson.  “Defeating the ‘Hidden Curriculum’: Teaching Political Participation in the Social Studies Classroom.  Clearing House, 76(3).


[I] Geoge Carlin.  When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?  (New York: Hyperion, Comedy Concepts, Inc., 2004), 52.

[II] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), ix.

[III] Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship.  The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History fro the Notes of James Madison.  (New York: Random House, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2005), 154.

[IV] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8.

[V] John Ferling.  Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 89.

[VI] H.W. Brands.  TR: The Last Romantic.  (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 324.

[VII] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.

[VIII] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 14

[IX] Winston Churchill.  A History of the English Speaking Peoples: Vol. 4, The Great Democracies.  (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993), 135.

[X] Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), 150.

[XI] Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washington.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 245.

[XII] Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washington.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 246.

[XIII] Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washingotn.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 247?

[XIV] Ron Chernow.  Alexander Hamilton.  (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 306.

[XV] Jimmy Carter.  Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age. (New York: Random House, Times Books, 1992), 6-9.

[XVI] Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope.  Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America.  (United States:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2006), 188-190.

[XVII] Walter Isaacson.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 460.

[XVIII] Plato.  The Essential Plato.  The Republic.  Translated by Benjamin Jowett with M.J. Knight.  Introduction by Alain de Botton.  (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1999), 143.

[XIX] I.F. Stone.  The Trial of Socrates.  (New York: Random House, First Anchor Books Edition, 1989), 47.

[XX] I.F. Stone.  The Trial of Socrates.  (New York: Random House, First Anchor Books Edition, 1989), 230.

[XXI] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 204

[XXII] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 12.

[XXIII] Walter Isaacson.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 444.

[XXIV] D.L. Martinson.  “Defeating the ‘Hidden Curriculum’: Teaching Political Participation in the Social Studies Classroom.  Clearing House, 76(3), 134.

[XXV] Plato.  The Essential Plato.  The Republic.  Translated by Benjamin Jowett with M.J. Knight.

Introduction by Alain de Botton.  (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1999), 139.

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