April 2009

American and National League Centro

Will Johnson has been touring with his indie rock band Centro-matic for a long time — long enough that he has summer tour scheduling pretty much dialed in.

After his booking agent identifies the American cities Centro-matic will be hitting with its unique brand of alt-country tinged lo-fi pop, Johnson gets on the computer.

“I immediately hop over to MLB.com and start looking at the schedules to see who’s in town and what games I can go to,” Johnson says. “On nights off, I’ll definitely try to get to the closest park, and it doesn’t matter if it’s A-ball or ‘The Show.’ I’m just happy to get to a game. Without a doubt, it’s complete therapy for me and a real treat.”

On a solo tour four years ago, Johnson says he went to as many games as he played shows.

“I saw the A-ball team in Jackson, Miss., I saw a game in Pearl, Miss., on the way back, and I also caught the Montgomery Biscuits. I was just roaming through the South and went to a handful of games and it was great. I didn’t exactly come home in the black after all the money I spent on baseball, but I had a lot of fun.”

Johnson is such a seamhead that his personal notes on the band’s Web site, www.centro-matic.com, read like this: “It’s been a while, and that’s because I’ve been roughed up this summer by the heat, the inescapable white pants-ed and moppy presence of the Jonas Brothers, general ceremonies (opening and closing), and by being able to watch both live and archived baseball games on MLB.TV. It’s like they knew exactly what kinda Kryptonite would take me down, and good homeslices, it has.”

Meanwhile, Johnson has a huge list of baseball Supermen that he’s been looking up to since he was a kid.

He grew up in Southeast Missouri and took a liking to the St. Louis Cardinals, who gave him an early thrill by winning the World Series in 1982, the year before he and his family moved to Texas.

“I’m still loyal to my Cardinals roots,” he says. “Back in ’82, the buzz was pretty mighty and I was riding on a baseball high when I moved to Texas. I guess that buzz hasn’t worn off.”

Johnson also looks back to the privileged moments he experienced as a youngster when he got to see the bright lights of Busch Stadium in person.

“I remember seeing the Astros and Dodgers and the Giants in the Jack Clark days,” he says. “I had a Polaroid camera and I couldn’t stop taking photos. We had real good seats down low on the third-base line. We saw Ken Oberkfell and Ozzie (Smith) pretty close.

“For an 11 or 12-year-old kid, who basically ate, slept and breathed baseball, it was a real treat. I got to see the Forsch brothers, Tommy Herr and Bruce Sutter. It was great team to be so close to your heroes.”

Johnson’s current heroes thrilled him again in 2006, when he watched the underdog Cardinals pull off one of the most unlikely World Series championships in years by beating the Detroit Tigers

“It was truly amazing,” he says. “I was on Cloud Nine and I didn’t see it coming the way they seemingly backed into the playoffs. I had my doubting moments, which goes to show how little about baseball I really know.

“But I bought the DVD set for those gray days of winter, and it’s fun to sit back and watch it all over again because it was a good story. I was very, very proud of those guys. And that’s the beauty of the game. Stories like that keep me coming back.”

But those aren’t the only baseball stories that intrigue Johnson.

In addition to singing, writing songs and playing guitar for Centro-matic, which features Matt Pence (drums and percussion), Scott Danbom (piano, violin, backing vocals, bass) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar), and fronting a side band called South San Gabriel (both of which are featured on the recent album called Dual Hawks), Johnson is a folk artist who paints his favorite baseball players.

His collection includes works depicting Negro League legends Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, plus Bill Buckner, Alta Weiss, John McGraw, Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente.

The colorful paintings also include written descriptions of the personalities from Johnson’s point of view as a fan and amateur historian.

“I like to paint some of the under-the-radar folks,” he says. “I think people should know more about their stories. Like Bill Buckner, for example. My painting champions his contributions to the game, which I think are long forgotten. Most people just remember him for one thing.”

Recently, Johnson opened his first art show at the Record Ranch Gallery inside Cactus Music in Houston. 

Most of all, Johnson always remembers baseball and what it’s given him throughout his life.

He played shortstop until he “stopped growing” at the age of 14 and says he still has a heap of baseball cards in his parents’ attic. He also keeps scorecards (“I score every game,” he says) and has countless jerseys and a “ridiculous baseball cap collection that’s taking over my closet.”

And leave it to a songwriter to describe why he loves the game so much.

“I think it’s always just been the perfect pace of the game,” he says. “It’s such a conversational sport and one in which you can’t really can’t get too high or low day to day. In that way, it reminds me of how we live our lives as an independent rock band.

“We leave some cities feeling good and full of ourselves after a sold-out show, and the next night might be a thin crowd in a place we’ve never been. But the pastoral and poetic nature of the game makes it perfect.

“It’s the perfect game often played by imperfect people, that’s the thing that keeps me coming back to it.”

Here’s Will painting his sonic soundscapes with Centro (some artwork samples coming as soon as I figure out where they are in my email box):

 

Dead ball era

Today is a very meaningful day for Youneverknow. Twenty years ago on this very day, I saw the Grateful Dead for the first time at Irvine Meadows, not far from Angel Stadium, then called Anaheim Stadium, where Kirk McCaskill was busy one-hitting the Blue Jays in a 9-0 Angels win.

I had lit out from Tucson with my dorm buddies Keith and Bill and finally all those bad-quality TDK tapes came to life in front of my wide-open eyes. Things were never quite the same.

Here’s the set list:

Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, Irvine, CA: Friday, April 28, 1989

Cold Rain and Snow

Little Red Rooster

Peggy-O

Queen Jane Approximately

Just a Little Light

Ramble on Rose

Picasso Moon

Bird Song

 

Crazy Fingers

Playin’ in the Band

Uncle John’s Band

Terrapin Station

Drums

Space

The Wheel

I Need a Miracle

Standing on the Moon

Sugar Magnolia

Touch of Grey

 

E: Quinn the Eskimo

 

And because I can’t find any footage from my first show, here’s a particularly rollicking “Cold Rain and Snow” from Halloween 1980 at Radio City Music Hall:

 

The name game

 

Baseball fans might argue that nicknames just aren’t what they used to be.

Classics like Bip (Roberts), Pokey (Reese), Cookie (Rojas), Bake (McBride) and Boog (Powell, pictured above) have retired and moved out of our collective consciousness, replaced by a largely boring group of successors. Take, for example, some of the most high-profile baseball nicknames in recent memory: “Schill” for Curt Schilling, “Tek” for Jason Varitek, and “A-Rod” for Alex Rodriguez. Those aren’t real nicknames — those are lazy, simple name abbreviations that require minimal effort at best.

But all hope is not lost.

While the Major Leagues in the new millennium has nothing on the Negro Leagues of the 1940s, which produced by far the best nicknames ever (including “Cool Papa,” “Satchel,” “Turkey” and “Double Duty,” just to name a few of the well-known ones), there are still some good ones out there, even ones that don’t have to “stay in the clubhouse.”

Here’s Youneverknow’s starting lineup of the best nine nicknames in the big leagues, along with a pretty potent bench.

STARTING LINEUP

1. Boof Bonser, P, Minnesota Twins: He was born John Paul Bonser, which means it wouldn’t be surprising if his nickname was “The Pontiff” or something papal like that. Nope. As a child, he picked up the moniker of Boof, which puts him one digit ahead of Boog Powell in our book and in the good ol’ alphabet. Normally, childhood non-ball-related nicknames wouldn’t crack the starting lineup — see Jones, Chipper below — but when Bonser had his name legally changed to Boof, he exhibited the dedication and fortitude to get the ball every fifth day on our squad. 

2. David “Big Papi” Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox: Only a grizzly of a dude with a huge swing and a huger smile could pull off this nickname. Ever since Theo Epstein astutely plucked him out of the non-tender scrap heap in the winter of 2002, Ortiz, his monster bat and his authentic Dominican nickname have been as much of a part of Beantown lore as Fenway Pahhhhk itself.

3. Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas, DH, Free Agent: Thomas was given this nickname by the loquacious Chicago White Sox broadcaster, Ken Harrelson, who has a decent little nickname — “Hawk” — himself, and it stuck, big-time. There’s simply no better way to describe a man of cartoonish baseball proportion (6-foot-5, almost 260 lbs.) who played football at Auburn, or the damage he inflicts on baseballs on a nightly basis, as his 500-plus career homers has proven. Let’s hope he suits up for another big-league team soon. 

4. Travis “Pronk” Hafner, DH, Cleveland Indians: Still not sure how this one means “half-project, half-donkey.” Wouldn’t that be “pronkey?” Doesn’t matter, though. The nickname is random, it’s silly, and it somehow works beautifully to describe this behemoth slugger who grew up braving 20-below winters in North Dakota and looks like he was carved out of limestone with an ice pick.

5. Dontrelle “D-Train” Willis, P, Detroit Tigers: It’s a pretty simple nickname, but with the high socks, the cap turned slightly to the side, the huge leg kick and his infectious love and enthusiasm for the game, Willis turns it into one of the most perfect monikers in the business. Plus, it’s better now that he’s actually got a “D” on his lid.

6. Kenny “The Gambler” Rogers, P, Free Agent: Although it doesn’t take a Mensa member to figure out that this crafty southpaw vet’s got the same exact name as the white-bearded country crooner who dominated the 1970s charts with schlocky songs like, “She Believes In Me,” this is the right nickname for the pitcher. The song referenced in the nickname is a downright cool honky-tonk classic, with the unforgettable “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em …” chorus. And even this media-shy guy knows it’s better to be referenced as a casino shark than a rotisserie chicken, which would be the other option for this name.

7. Covelli “Coco” Crisp, OF, Kansas City Royals: He was born Covelli Crisp, which is interesting enough and helps explain how that turned to “Coco.” And while Cincinnati closer Francisco Cordero has the same nickname, cleverly taken from the last syllable in his first name and the first syllable in his last name, Boston wins the battle of Cocos because when you place this nickname in front of the last name Crisp, you’ve got, hands down, one of the great names in baseball history.

8. Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson, P, San Francisco Giants: Such a perfect way to describe a man who broke into big-league baseball with a never-before-seen 6-foot-10 frame, a 98-mph fastball, a sick slider coming from a wayward left hand, a magical, mystical mullet, a mustachioed scowl and a Hall of Fame career in front of him. The fact that Tim “Rock” Raines gave him his nickname makes it even more legendary.

9. “Everyday” Eddie Guardado, P, Texas Rangers: OK, so injuries have limited what used to be “Everyday” Eddie to “Hardly Any Day Lately” Eddie, but the sentiment is still there. This little closer with a huge heart has put up solid seasons finishing games for several teams and is now trying once again to get his game back in shape for the Rangers. Once his aging body allows him to once again take the ball every day, you know he’ll be ready.

BENCH

Roy “Doc” Halladay, P, Toronto Blue Jays: At first, it seems pretty lame — a pat, easy reference to the Old West. But there’s enough creative cache to make it a solid nickname when you realize that Halladay’s multiple injuries have him seeing the Doc more than most players.

Kevin “Youk” Youkilis, 1B/3B, Boston Red Sox: Again, a boring, typical name abbreviation, but we’ll cut him slack because he has his own MLBlog with the “proper” exaggerated spelling of the nickname (“Yooooouuuuukkkkk”) and his own Fenway chant. He’s also got one of the best goatees in the game, too. That’s gotta be worth something.

Tom “Flash” Gordon, P, Arizona Diamondbacks: It’s obvious but lasting, and anything that makes you think of the horrendously wonderful 1980 movie with Sam J. Jones as Flash and Max Von Sydow as Ming The Merciless is a very good thing.

Ken “Junior” Griffey Jr., OF, Seattle Mariners: It’s a pretty lame nickname at face value, but when you’re a surefire Hall of Famer with one of the best swings ever, everyone in the world knows you by this one name. That’s iconic and good enough for a spot on this team.

Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, P, New York Mets: It’s a great thing to be a 20-year-old September call-up who blows away everyone in the playoffs and helps win a franchise’s first World Series. It also earned him a much better nickname than plain old “Frankie.”

“King” Felix Hernandez, P, Seattle Mariners: There’s no pressure at all when you make the Major Leagues at 19 years old, fans expect you to win the Cy Young Award right away, and you get handed this nickname. No pressure. Right?

Larry “Chipper” Jones, 3B, Atlanta Braves: No doubt it’s a good nickname, but it was used long before he was in the Major Leagues, which means he loses points. Seriously, he could have just as easily been Chipper the aluminum-siding installer or door-to-door frozen meat-and-fish salesman. And, strangely, the nickname might have worked better then.

Eric “Captain America” Byrnes, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: Byrnes was known by this colorful, animated nickname when starring for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican winter leagues, and it’s perfect to describe his all-out, hair-on-fire style of play. But somehow the name hasn’t been brought back to the States, where he’s tragically known as “Byrnesie.” D-backs fans, you have the power to change this.

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