Sunday, August 13, 2006

My Five Favorites

Looking back over my last two entries, I realize that both of them:

a) are about baseball in some way, and

b) are more than a little negative.

That's not really how I wanted to develop the site. Sure, I'll write about stuff that interests me, but I don't want this to turn into the internet version of the bitter old man yelling at the local kids to keep their danged baseball games off his lawn.

Instead, I'll indulge in a bit of positive thinking and pass along the five folks I find most entertaining, informative, and just plain neat on this great Web-o-verse.

5. John Bonnes, MN Game Day

Back in 2003, I was poking around on the web when I came across this quirky-looking blog called Twins Geek. It was ostensibly a blog from a guy who was disappointed in the local media coverage of his baseball team, and thought that presenting alternative analysis and ideas would help round out the way people looked at the ballclub, and about baseball in the Twin Cities. Keep in mind that what we call the Twins Blogosphere really didn't exist at that point: there were a few folks writing and posting, but most of the 'big names' you'll find if you go looking through that portion of the blogosphere now weren't writing - most of them will tell you, without shame or irony, that it was Bonnes who convinced them to start writing, if only by example.

If it had just been Bonnes's baseball writing that inspired this reaction, that might have been interesting but ultimately dull - a bunch of people talking baseball, yowzah. But there was more to it than that: Bonnes would occasionally tell stories about his family (featuring The Voice of Reason, his wife; He's All Boy, his young son; and The Chatty, Chatty Princess, his younger daughter). He'd take a day to tell about some piece of local history, or to just talk about something that was bugging him. Some of this stuff got tied in peripherally to the ball team, but not all of it did. Not all of it needed to. It was good stuff. The people he inspired wanted to follow in his footsteps all the way, and so we got sites like Bat-Girl. Referring to Bonnes as the 'godfather' of the Twins blogosphere isn't meant to suggest a bloated, aging Marlon Brando - without Bonnes's influence, it would be difficult to imagine a Twins blogosphere that's as varied or as interesting as it is.

But if inspiring people to write about the Twins and their lives was the only thing Bonnes had accomplished, it would be hard to give him more than a nod and an 'attaboy'; sure it's admirable, but how does that make him 'good'? Well, Bonnes was good, too. You can say that a writer gets you where you live when you're so focused on finding and reading everything you can from him that the obsession gets you fired from your job; that's literally what happened to me, there in the middle of 2003. (Don't worry - I've had new jobs since then.)

In 2004, Bonnes got 'picked up' by the Star-Tribune, the largest local paper, to put his thoughts into electronic format for pay. That's living the dream. Even more importantly, Bonnes's site got something it hadn't had before - an avenue for reader comments. I was one of those who responded, almost obsessively, to the different things John had written. On those few days when he had to 'phone it in', I and a few others would contribute small pieces of our own.

John wasn't just tickled by that; after 2004, when the Strib decided to cut loose from Twins Geek, John started working on a secret plan for sports media domination that came to fruition in the spring of 2005 with John put out the call for folks to join him, and I was one of a lucky number who did. John, however, was having some growing pains - changing from being a writer to being, in effect, a manager of writing, seemed to wear him down bit by bit. He said as much in his farewell from blogging at the end of 2005, framed as the Three Rules of Breakups.

And then, in 2006, he came back:

Ummm….didn’t you break up with me?

[Shiver.] Is it morning already? I remember deciding that we’d do a shot every time the bride and groom kissed, and I vaguely remember dancing to Careless Whisper, but I’m having trouble piecing things together after that. How did we end up at your place? And, ummm, how ya been? Good to see you again.

He'd also worked out his bugs with being a writing manager; by the time his new blog was a month old, he'd taken the position as editor of Gameday Magazine, an alternative Twins program sold outside the Metrodome, and my own program-of-choice when I go to a game even before Bonnes's assumption of the editorial reins. Now, of course, it's another place I can go to get my Twins Geek fix, which makes the thing even better.

Great work, John. Keep it up, and you'll not only be running the team inside of five years, but the whole town in ten.

4. Diablo Cody, Pussy Ranch

Unlike with John Bonnes, I was late to the game when it comes to Diablo Cody. Some years ago, she started a blog, also called Pussy Ranch, intended to be her outlet to the world regarding her experiences being a part of the 'adult entertainment industry' in Minneapolis. By the time I found her, her blog had moved to the local alt-weekly City Pages. Thankfully, after my Bonnes experience, I was able to catch up on what archives I could find without losing my job.

But if The Cody was just another of a bevy of strippers and ex-strippers to blog the experience, and even eventually collect a book from those blog posts, I doubt I'd keep redirecting my browser to her blog as often as I do. Oh, sure, the occasional bewbie pic (NSFW, duh!) keeps me as interested as any other red-blooded American male, I suppose.

But here's the thing: Diablo's actually a writer, and a danged good one, too. Really, it's not just my opinion - she's writing the TV reviews at City Pages, so somebody thinks she's good enough to actually get paid and published in a newspaper. She's even written a screenplay that's in the process of being turned into an Actual Hollywood Film. Girl's got some chops. See for yourself:

I was digging in memorabilia at my parents' house this weekend and I found a handwritten letter I wrote to my "unborn children" when I was 17. (Lest you think Teen Diablo was an utter cheeseball, I'm pretty certain this letter was a mandatory high school writing assignment, probably for some ghastly religion course.) I devoured the missive eagerly, expecting it to be really immature and overwrought and clueless in that awesome teenage way. To my shock, it was chillingly prescient. I mean, I obviously haven't borne any children yet, but I do fuck someone's dad, so I dabble in parenting by default. And my parenting style is exactly what I predicted it would be back when I was a tender sapling myself.

Here's just one of the heartwarming sentiments I expressed to my hypothetical progeny: "I hope you like frozen pizza because you're going to be eating a lot of it." Oh snap! Take that, unborn hellions! The only thing colder than your supper is Mommy's frigid bosom!

It helps that her style works for me - girl also has the pop-culture down and down cold. Bill Simmons of wrote not too long ago that if he and a co-worker appeared on the World Series of Pop Culture, they could have anybody as their third and win easily. Well, I'm convinced that if Diablo Cody appeared on the World Series of Pop Culture, she could appear with two three-year-olds and beat anybody, including Simmons. Anybody can make a Skeletor reference while referring to a supermodel; it takes a true Child Of The 80's to not only make a Man-at-Arms reference, but to correctly remember that Man-at-Arms was not just Teela's father, but her adoptive father.

Lastly, and at the risk of sounding ridiculous, I believe Diablo's work contributes to society overall. No, not just the bewbie pics (yes, it's a different picture, and yes, it's still NSFW), but that is part of it. See, here's the thing: there's a controversial animal out there going by the name of 'sex-positive feminism', and for the most part it gets a lot of flack. In my opinion, much of that flack is deserved. There's nothing wrong with the idea that you can enjoy sex and still be a feminist; the problem is that a lot of folks take from that the idea that you can still be a feminist if all you do is enjoy sex. (There's some truth to the idea that a lot of this comes from the fact that men are usually the ones producing a good deal of the examples of 'sex-positive feminism'.) But Diablo is pretty clearly sex-positive, while also being an author, a screenwriter, a while sex is part of the package, it's actually a fairly small part overall. That's why I say that Diablo's work is good for society - showing your boobs doesn't make you a more interesting woman than you already were, but when you're already an interesting woman, showing your boobs doesn't (or in an ideal world, shouldn't) take anything away from that, either. (And in complete fairness, I should point out that Diablo's boob-shots generally only occur about once a year; it's not like she's doing the weekly Virtual Lap Dance on Danni's Hard Drive.)

Keep up the good work, Diablo.

3. Eric Burns, Websnark

The Internet was originally envisioned as a gigantic network of interconnected documents. Really. That's what old-school HTML is all about; putting stuff online that links to other stuff, so that if you're writing about, say, how much you like figurative art, you could then provide a link to a site that contains figurative art, allowing people to actually see what you're talking about.

Or you could have, if old-school HTML rendered images worth a dang.

See, old-school HTML was all about the text. It even invented a new word, since fallen out of favor: hypertext. This was the original name of 'text with links' - it wasn't just text, it was better than text! Better! Stronger! Faster! Or something like that...

Anyway, it's with a sense of irony that I present that small aside at the top of an essay about Websnark. One of the things that Eric Burns does on his blog/website/exercise in creative expression is review webcomics, an entire art form specifically invented and published on the Internet. So if we still lived in an age of old-school HTML, Websnark wouldn't have much reason to exist, you'd think.

You'd be wrong, but you'd think that.

See, while Burns looks at a lot of art, he's really all about the text. Not just in the stuff he reviews, either, but also in his own writing. Consider:

At this point, I'm wandering out of Sears and into the Mall, when I hear over the Sears PA "would Eric Burns please return to automotive? Eric Burns? Please return to automotive." This can't possibly be good.

It's not. I'm brought out to my car, and shown my rear tires. It becomes apparent within a couple of seconds that those need to be replaced as well. They're largely to 'bald.' Orson Welles had done his work well, damn his Paul Masson drinking hide.

I do some math in my head, don't like the answer, and say "will they last two weeks?" I get paid in two weeks, you see.

"Probably," the person said. "But we should do them today."

"Yeah, but unless you want to get paid by the sight of a fat man dancing, they're not going to be."

Burns writes about Bringing the Funny, and does it himself, but that's not the only reason he's on my favorites list. He's also among the most downright insightful folks I've read on the Internet, and oddly enough, it's easy to see why. He looks at a situation, even if it involves himself, and purges as much self-interest as he can while asking the question, "What's going on here, really?" That's the kind of thing that really gets me jazzed. And that's the kind of thinking that goes on behind two of the absolute best essays I've ever read on the Internet: one about entitlement and fandom, and one about things to do/avoid in making your web writing presence. Go. Read them. Nothing I say will convince you of Burns's ability as much as simply seeing it in action in those two essays.

As long as I have nothing further to say about Burns, let me point out that his co-conspirator Wednesday White also kicks some serious butt. I list Burns alone, though, rather than Burns and White together, because if White left Websnark for some reason, it would be a tragedy, and possibly even a crime, but Websnark could continue. (Whether it would or not is an open question, and part of the aforementioned potential crime.) If Eric Burns left Websnark, it would be over. Done.

2. King Kaufman, King Kaufman's Sports Daily

First, a brief aside. Some of you might have been surprised by clicking on that link next to Kaufman's name and being taken either to a web-commercial or for an admonition to watch a web-commercial. Yes, Kaufman is a professional sportswriter, not, technically, a blogger. In principle, this is a difference that should make no difference - each of the three people above Kaufman are also 'professional writers', in the sense that they've been paid on a continuing basis for regularly putting words on dead trees. Number one on my 'five favorites' list has published probably dozens of books and written literally hundreds (if not thousands) of print magazine articles. So why should Kaufman's status as an almost-behind-a-pay-firewall guy make a difference as to whether or not he's on this list? Well, it doesn't, but it could have: had I made this list three years ago, Kaufman's role on this list as 'sports guy getting paid by some media company to put his words on the Web' would have been taken by Rob Neyer, a guy who went from being Bill James's research assistant to one of the geekiest baseball writers out there. But about three years ago, made the decision to put Neyer's column behind the 'Insider' wall - you could only read his stuff if you subscribed to's paid service While I'm sure many did - Neyer's still writing for, after all - I didn't, and though Neyer's own site (linked above) could have been a 'Neyer fix', I simply got out of the habit of reading him and instead found Kaufman.

Kaufman, on his own merits, is still a very good writer. The main reason I like him, though, is that he not only manages to do two seemingly contradictory things in his sports writing, but do them routinely:

a) What he writes makes perfect sense, and

b) Nobody else is writing what he's writing.

You might think such a thing would be hard to do at all, much less do routinely. But looking more closely, it's actually easy to understand why this is. First off, Kaufman is willing to take some angles that other sportswriters either won't or can't take. Consider the following, written after the announcement that Warren Moon is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH:

What I can't get over is that he's the first black quarterback to be inducted. His story sounds like something out of the South in the days of black-and-white newsreels.

He had to listen to racist taunts from the stands as a high school and college player. He had to go to junior college because college coaches didn't think blacks could play quarterback. He had to go to the Canadian Football League because NFL coaches didn't think blacks could play quarterback.

What I can't get over is that Warren Moon is only six years older than I am, and we grew up in the same city, and it wasn't in the South.

This isn't the first time Kaufman's discussed race and sports, and it won't be the last. But unlike the rank-and-file sportswriter, who sometimes seems to bend over backwards to avoid talking about racial issues, Kaufman is willing to put them up front, and in the process, say some very sensible things that nobody else is saying. But Kaufman doesn't have to be talking about potentially explosive issues like race to earn his keep - he can just as easily talk about 'potentially explosive' issues like Alex Rodriguez:

But let's look at the case being made: After roughly a decade as the best player in baseball, including an MVP award last year, won while playing for the Yankees and getting booed by New Yorkers, and including the American League Player of the Month award in May -- this May, two months ago -- won while playing for the Yankees and getting booed by New Yorkers, Alex Rodriguez cannot produce while playing for the Yankees and getting booed by New Yorkers.

"See, the problem he has is you can't be better than the best, and at the best, he continues to get booed," [former GM and ESPN baseball analyst Steve] Phillips said, and buckle your seat belts, kids, he's about to veer into a logical ditch. "MVP, Player of the Month, it doesn't matter. He's not accepted in New York. He'll never be able to perform with the crowd on his back all season long."

Got that? Even when he's playing better than anyone else in the American League for a whole month or a whole year, he won't be able to play well because the fans are booing him.

I find it helps if you bang your head on a desk.

If you don't follow sports, particularly baseball, you might find it hard to believe that what Kaufman wrote here is all that rare; again, it seems perfectly sensible. Yet it is - consider this piece on, which purports to ask the question, "Why Do We Hate Alex Rodriguez?" while really doing very little other than desperately trying to confirm that, yes, fans, sportwriters, even small children in places that have never heard of baseball do, in fact, hate Alex Rodriguez.

Sometimes, the point he takes even becomes somewhat subversive. Many sportswriters are self-deprecating, though often that self-deprecation is merely the pose made by someone with a humongous ego to attempt to distract attention from the ego by saying, in effect, "If I really had this big an ego, could I say such things about myself? About Myself, I Say?" Kaufman not only downplays the knowledge, wisdom, and competence of himself and his fellow scribes; he then goes out and finds amusing ways to demonstrate it. Case in point: Over the past few years, Kaufman, during the NFL season, makes weekly predictions on winners and losers. A lot of folks do, and so Kaufman assembles their combined wisdom into an unofficial contest. One of the participants is his young son Buster, who was one when this schtick began, and whose picks were thus made by flipping a coin. Funny, right? Well, Buster didn't do very well those first couple of seasons, because a coin has a 50-50 chance of picking the 2005 Packers over the 2005 Seahawks, and while those games do sometimes come in (see link), they don't come in often enough to allow such a prognosticator to assemble a solid overall record. So for the 2005 season, Kaufman tweaked the rules for Buster's picks a bit: instead of flipping a coin for every game, Buster would only flip his coin when there wasn't a favorite of six points or more, otherwise he'd take the favorite. Buster finished in a tie for fourth in the 2005 contest, right next to Chris Mortenson, a man who earns his paychecks by being an expert on the NFL. That is seriously subversive.

When I was first getting started in the sports-blogging game myself with the original Contrarian Bias, it was John Bonnes who inspired me that such a thing could actually be done. But it was King Kaufman who provided my 'spiritual focus', so to speak - it seemed so simple to do what Kaufman was doing, which was to take sensible positions and write sensible things that nobody else was writing, and even throw in a bit of subversion along the way. My favorite piece on the old Contrarian Bias was a piece inspired by a Kaufman article that pointed out that the Red Sox teamed up with the guys from Queer Eye not only to launch the latter's season premiere in 2005 (right off the Sox's 'miracle' World Series run in 2004), but to promote the first of two gay-and-lesbian days at Fenway Park; I pointed out that, while the Twins had hosted such days in the past, they hadn't done so in some time, and in fact in 2005 would sponsor the Moonie-like Multiple Matrimony Night, where over seventy couples would take or renew marriage vows on the field prior to game time. No doubt the ceremony preserved the sanctity of marriage for the remainder of the year.

By the way, the first comment I got on that essay said, "David is gay." So maybe it's not really as easy as it looks. Still, if I had to do it again, Kaufman would still be my spiritual guide; nothing else even seems honest, by comparison.

1. Andy Ihnatko, YellowText

You will likely find yourself looking at this person's name and wondering, "Who is this?" Friend, by the time this section of the essay is over, you'll likely be thanking me.

You probably haven't heard of Ihnatko unless you're a Macintosh user back from before the iMac days, live in Chicago and thus know that Ihnatko is to legendary film critic Roger Ebert roughly what the aforementioned Rob Neyer is to Bill James, or have happened to run into a guy that looked an awful lot like John Popper from Blues Traveler before he lost all that weight.

I don't live in Chicago, and thus don't have the film-connection with Ihnatko that some do. I am a Mac-head from way back, though, and definitely remember Ihnatko as the most interesting, and perhaps not coincidentally most virtuosic writer for MacWorld magazine.

Aside: I just realized there's one more way you might 'know' Ihnatko, though it's a bit convoluted. You see, back in the day, MacWorld's web presence featured the scribblings of a Mac tipster, who clearly had contacts deep in the bowels of the Mothership; Mac fans have been as rabid as any fandom when it comes to obsessively wanting more information about their addiction. Many thought that this anonymous tipster, who wrote under the alias Naked Mole Rat, was Ihnatko, though I was one who thought it was another staffer, possibly David Pogue, simply trying to write as much like Ihnatko as he possibly could. And of course, some of you who read 'Naked Mole Rat' above immediately flashed to Kim Possible - and yes, Hollywood writers tend to be rabid Mac-heads as well, so it wouldn't at all surprise me if some NMR fan 'wrote' him into the Disney animated series as a homage, possibly even a homage to Ihnatko himself, though in fairness it should be pointed out that Kim Possible's Naked Mole Rat's teeth are far more bucked than Ihnatko's own.

This is a man of rare genius, because he's a man who gets my sense of humor. This is a man who nearly had me falling out of my chair with the title to a blog entry:

$338,000,000 Can Buy MANY Donuts

Go, read it. I'll wait.

This is the guy who opened another blog entry with the following:

TO: The World

FROM: Ihnatko

RE: My Orbiting Mind-Control Ray

Go, read that one, too.

The thing that gets me is that it seems so easy for him. Granted, he's been doing this for many, many years now, so once you've got a few billion words under your belt, maybe you can toss off a reference guide in nothing flat, add in a couple of magazine articles, and still post incredibly geeky, often uproariously funny things to your blog, all in the same week. If Bonnes is the guy who inspired me to start blogging, and Kaufman is the guy I wanted to be as a blogger, Ihnatko is the guy I wanted to be as a writer: the guy who, for lack of a better analogy, I wanted to be once I grew up. Of course, as I've grown up, I've come to realize that it isn't all that easy: writing professionally takes a lot of work, and though it's not menial physical drudgery on the level of cleaning toilets or digging ditches, it really is work. Years later, I'm still trying to get past the work part, or at least come to terms that the work part is going to keep me from ever being a 'professional' at this writing thing.

Either way, that recognition only increases my admiration for guys like Ihnatko, who've been doing it for as long as I can remember, and are still going strong. Frankly, that's the commonality among all five of the names on this list - they're all good, and they've all been doing what they're doing for long enough that, while it's still work for all of them, they can shrug their way past that and just get those words out. Kudos, folks, and thanks.

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