Wednesday, October 22, 2014

May some good fortune come to you, Todd Snider: a Review of His Strange Show in Baltimore last night

I jumped at the opportunity last night (Tuesday, Oct. 21) to see Todd Snider in concert at the Baltimore Soundstage, with Bobby Bare, Jr. opening the show. Since the first time I saw him live back in 2002, Snider has been one of my favorite live performers, a singer/songwriter right up there with Melissa Ferrick and Dan Bern for me as being consistently entertaining and engaging, with songs that run the gamut from heartbreak and loss ("Sing a Train Song") to frivolous hilarity ("Beer Run"). I've seen him probably 10 times or so over the last dozen years, usually at the Ram's Head in Annapolis, and even these days, when I'm not seeing live music like I used to, I still took the time out of a Tuesday school night to see the show.

I usually like to bring newbies to Todd Snider shows, like I was brought by a friend and colleague back in March of 2002, and two at our table were newcomers to Snider. Unfortunately, they got an experience that was unlike any Todd Snider show I'd ever been to before; from almost the opening song, there was a weird vibe between artist and crowd. In fact, immediately after the opening song in Snider's set -- his winsome "My Some Good Fortune Come to You" -- the crowd began shouting out requests to him. Now, Snider shows are often freewheeling events, but it seemed doing it that soon was kinda rude. And Snider thought so, too, glancing in that direction and saying, "I appreciate the enthusiasm, but, don't worry, I got this."

The crowd continued to talk and shout through the next song as well, so during the next break, Snider called them out more, especially a guy right in the front row, who was clearly drunk and, although I couldn't see/hear the interaction too much from where I was, Snider said to him something to the effect of, "It's cool if you want to talk to me the whole time while I'm singing, but can you go to a different part of the room? It's going to be weird now." The guy indicated he'd be on his best behavior, but by the next song or so, Snider had asked him to be removed. Snider took a brief break while security removed the guy, but when he came back, he was clearly rattled.

There were still great moments. I got goosebumps during "Play a Train Song". I'd never heard "Enjoy Yourself" and, cliched as it sounds, it made me want to book a trip and made me so regretful of not traveling more last summer (it also made me glad I'd sprung for concert tickets). His "Looking for a Job" captures working class braggadocio perfectly: "Watch what you say to someone with nothing to lose / It's almost like having it all." One of my favorites, "D.B. Cooper", totally rocked.

And the highlight of the show was when he got into his storytelling a bit. He spent 10 or 15 minutes telling his Jerry Jeff Walker story, which I'd heard variations of before, the one when he and Jerry Jeff (who is the one who taught Snider "the difference between a free loader and a free spirit are three fucking chords") had been out drinking one night in some city and they came across a lone busker playing Walker's seminal "Mister Bojangles" to "the moon and the stars and no one else." I'm not doing the story -- hilarious and transcendent in Snider's words -- justice at all, of course; maybe you should think about getting Snider's new book, I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tall Tales. Snider capped off the story with a performance of "Mister Bojangles", a beautiful moment.

But things still felt off, and Snider never really seemed to recover from the earlier interaction with the crowd and the one heckler up front. He forgot the lyrics to "Ballad of the Devil's Backbone Tavern", humming the last couple of verses, and, judging from his apologies, probably did it a couple of other times as well (I love the Devil's Backbone song, so I definitely noticed it for that one). His "Beer Run" was sleepy. It seemed like he was trying to go back to his standards to get his mojo back, but he just couldn't. He profusely apologized throughout the show, eventually saying, "Guys, I gave it my best, but I'm going to play a couple more songs and get out of here. If anyone wants their money back, I'm okay with that." He had played around 90 minutes (9pm - 10:30), which is pretty standard for a soloist folk show, and I doubt that anyone asked for their money back. But it was a strange show, and seeing an artist I love toil away apologetically onstage was a little tough at times. Sadly, Snider had a ton of instruments onstage, including a banjo, but he only used his regular acoustic guitar; he never even pulled out his harmonica. There was no reading excerpts out of his new book, which I'd expected, and there was no encore, even though the audience tried its best to call him back out onstage.

We still laughed a lot, and I still had a great time, and I still can't wait to see him again. Everyone has off nights. As a teacher, I can related to feeling rattled after a bad interaction with my audience, so I'm sympathetic. And I think Snider is too authentic to try to fake his way through a show, and he just couldn't. After a canceled gig at Ram's Head Annapolis in January, though, I sure hope he comes back to the Baltimore area sometime soon.

Bobby Bare, Jr.
Bobby Bare, Jr., opened the show, playing six songs with his 3-piece band, which rocked a bit. He was fun; he gets a lot of play out of his awkward nerdy stage presence; at one point, he said, "This is so nerve racking. You all keep staring at me!". His stage banter was pretty funny, at one point asking the whole crowd to shout out, "F*** Bobby Bare, Jr." after a tongue-in-cheek song about wanting fame. I found it difficult to hear many of his lyrics, though, over the (awesomely) pounding drums and keyboard, and I'm a lyrics guy, so I was a little disappointed in that. I bought his vinyl after the show to hear what he's like captured in studio.


It was my first time going to the Baltimore Soundstage, which opened fairly recently in a spot right across from Power Plant Live, a corner location that has had several different incarnations over the years, most recently Iguana Cantina (I think). It was a completely seated show, which I think was unusual for the club, and really a perfect venue for a Snider show. I purchased a 4-seat table worth of tickets for $157, a little pricey, but still under $40/ticket for seats that were pretty incredible. Beers were $10/each, so everything about the nice was a little pricey, although the price of parking was $14 off the $24 fee with validation. Split by 4 people, all in all it wasn't too bad, especially since I go to about 2 or 3 concerts a year these days.

All in all, this was a strange show, but a good one.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Keeping Things Fresh

I wanted a change from Richard III, which is my favorite Shakespeare to teach, but I'd done it several years in a row. So my colleague and I decided on Macbeth, which I hadn't read or taught in about 12 years. As of this weekend, I've re-read the play, but...

At the same time, over the summer, my 9th grade team decided on The Thing Around Your Neck by Adichie for our short fiction unit. I've read it and I think it's going to be a great teach, but...

...both units are starting tomorrow, and I don't have a solid sense of what day by day is going to look like. Final assessments are determined. But today is going to be a day of mapping out the month before we get there.

With the 9th graders, we're planning on students writing an essay connecting the theme of any two short stories in the collection (by the way, this is my first time teaching a short story collection). We plan on close reading of about half the stories, and having the students read the rest of the collection on their own.

Right now, we're struggling with a couple of paradigm shifts: how to use literature to teach concepts a little bit more effectively, and how to test for daily reading without using reading quizzes that take up a third of the class period (or more). We've decided we're going to pair the short stories, and I'm trying to figure out a way to gradually take scaffolds away as the students are comparing themes of the stories throughout the unit. I'm not exactly sure how to do this exactly just yet, so I'm going to be playing around with my thoughts on it much of the day.

With the seniors, they're conducting a "first draft reading" (term stolen from Kelly Gallagher) in class in small groups while I continue to record practice IB literary discussions in the hallway, so my task this weekend was to be able to give them enough directives and text-dependent questions so they can do so effectively.

It's important to keep things fresh but it's rare that this freshness happens at the exact same time with two different units. A quality backwards-planned unit makes everything for the next few weeks go well, but it's some work to get there.

I haven't been in school since Tuesday but, largely, neither have the students. Tomorrow I'll snap back to reality but today has to be a continuation of the planning I've done this weekend.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Ticker

I'm going to now be someone who blogs about health troubles.

For the last couple of years, I've been short of breath. Even though I regularly exercise, including and especially cardio, I have often found myself winded going up flights of stairs, and even though I've told myself it's because I need to get in better shape than I was, it still felt wrong. At times, I'd go into hacking fits of coughs and not be able to get out of them without difficulty. At other times, I'd laugh so hard I would have get on my knees so I wouldn't faint. I've had difficulty breathing, too, just unable to catch a good breath sometimes, even when resting, and definitely when doing hard cardio.

Over the last couple of years, an assortment of doctors have given me lung tests, chest x-rays, inhalers, and antibiotics to combat this problem. Everything came up negative. I didn't have asthma. I didn't have longterm bronchitis. Doctors were flummoxed, because not one of them looked in the right place: the heart.

I completed my first triathlon in August, something that made me pretty proud, but there were times during it when I felt like I was going to pass out. I thought it was because I didn't know proper form of swimming, and I'm sure that was part of it, but there were times when I literally could not put my head under the water or I knew I would have drowned. I was unable to hold air in my lungs even for a second because my breathing and heart rate were out of control. It was pretty scary. Combined with constant cold, clammy sweats, and generally feeling pretty crappy, it all continued to make me think that something possibly serious was wrong with me.

Finally, on the suggestion of a friend, I called my doctor, a new one, one who has been pretty awesome, and asked her for a stress test. And, while I did fine on the stress test portion of the test -- the PA commented that most patients are too out of shape to get their heart rate up to 170, but I was able to run until it got that high -- the resting nuclear portion of the test revealed some problems with my left ventricle function of my heart.

Flash forward a couple of appointments later -- an echocardiogram, then an appointment with a cardiologist, all weeks apart from each other -- and the diagnosis was cardiomyopathy, a blanket term for heart weakness. Throughout the tests, my heart's ejection fraction is only about 35-45%; normal is around 55-70%. The cardiologist remarked that he couldn't believe I've been able to be involved with athletics at all because my heart has had to work so hard to pump blood around my body.

It's all been pretty scary, partly because of the length of waiting between appointments, and partly because I began noticing so many other symptoms after my initial diagnosis: chest tightness, some chest pain, increased inability to catch my breath. I'm sure some of this was psychosomatic, but I'm sure some of it wasn't. Naturally, I think, I began thinking thoughts about mortality, even making the "I'm not going to buy any green bananas" joke a few times at school with my colleagues. Reading up on cardiomyopathy, at its worst, it's what often causes the sudden heart attacks you read about with young athletes. Scary stuff for someone who just completed a triathlon (and had a hell of a time training for it, always trying to catch my breath). It was probably time to defer my plan to run a leg of the Baltimore Marathon until next year (which I did, at a $25 charge) and to ease up on exercising until I got more of a clearance from doctors.

Causes of cardiomyopathy are mysterious; some are hereditary, some are virus-related, others have no known causes at all. I have a killer sweet tooth, but otherwise I eat a healthy, mostly vegetarian and no fast-food diet, and exercise regularly,  but carry extra weight that needs to be addressed. Still, it doesn't seem this is it. My hunch is that whatever virus I caught a couple of years ago that stayed in my lungs so long extended to my heart and weakened it.

Planning my unit at the hospital.
Of course, this is just a hunch. My cardiologist (yes, I now have a cardiologist) told me on our first visit, "We have to figure out how an otherwise healthy 37-year old who regularly exercises and runs triathlons can have a heart that is functioning so poorly." His first order of business was to perform a cardiac catheterization

I planned the minor surgery for PSAT day, when I would neither have students to teach or students to proctor. And the procedure was a bit scary. I read up on it, but for some reason I didn't picture it correctly. I expected some sort of IV fluid and dye contraption that would have me out in an hour. Instead, I was laid out on a gurney; I was shaved; I was asleep for much of it; I was at the hospital for hours. The nurses, however, were awesome, as was my cardiologist, who performed the procedure. The catheterization was done through my wrist, which made it easier than it would have been than if it was in my groin, but it still was painful (mostly the three times it took to get an IV going, and then the ache to my wrist afterwards). Thankfully, the catheterization revealed no blockages in my arteries. My cardiologist was happy about this, and I was too: it meant no surgery, at least immediately. I was imagining being wheeled in to get an emergency stent installed, or something like that, but, instead, I'm on three heart medicines and am set to see the cardiologist again in 2 weeks.

Initially, I thought I would be able to attend school on Thursday, but that quickly became crazy talk. I wasn't supposed to even drive for 24 hours after the surgery, and still have very limited use of my right hand. I'm sore and the blood bruise around my wound is spreading, and I remain worried about it breaking open. Friday is a PD day, and I think it's better to be safe than sorry and bleeding out on the hallways floor. I'll be back fresh on Monday, missing just two class periods (because of senior inaugural on Thursday, I wasn't scheduled to see them), and hopefully getting back to an exercise regime (which I'm cleared for, as long as my breathing doesn't get bad) this weekend or shortly thereafter.

Longterm-wise, we still don't know what is causing the heart weakness, but we're going to hope that the medicine works. I'm really, really glad I went in and know there's something physically wrong with me, that hopefully can be dealt with. I head back to the cardiologist in 2 weeks. This is a condition that doesn't just go away, but hopefully it can be managed. Wish me luck.

Back to Macbeth.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Gone Girl: The Book and the Film


As a good academic habit, I tell my students that I always want them to always have a book going, something to read before bed or during Silent Sustained Reading (S.S.R.) time in class. I've believed in S.S.R. a long time for building strong academic habits and developing stamina for long periods of silent assessment -- as well as more affective benefits of fostering the love of reading with books students choose themselves. So far this year, I've been modeling for my students; I always say to myself I'm going to model, but usually I get really busy and decide that this time is better spent grading or planning... but not this year. Therefore, whenever we have S.S.R. time in class, I'll engage in our class's sharing out that we do, and then I'll attempt (while I keep my eye open to all of them) to "get lost in a book" as well-- what I ask students to do, though it's easier to say than to do for many of them. 
With this in mind, I picked up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn on a recommendation by a colleague (somehow I missed out on the cultural phenomenon it was before she recommended it), and it was my Silent Reading book. Unfortunately (kind of), the book only lasted a week on my Kindle, because that's how riveting the novel was and how quickly it moves. The novel, about a transplanted Missouri wife who disappears one July 5th morning on her 5th wedding anniversary, is ingeniously structured, quickly paced, and well-written. It's a crime thriller, of course, and a good one: it is structured with alternating narratives from the husband's perspective and wife's perspective, is full of twists and turns, including a big one in the middle that kind of floored me. And the writing is good, from her characterization of two basically unlikable characters, so authentic and often hilarious. Here's a few::
This is Nick Dunne, describing working for a magazine before he was laid off: "I'd arrived in New York in the late '90s, the last gasp of the glory days, although no one knew it then. New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them. This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world -- throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won't kill us in the night."


This is Nick, describing the courtship of his future-wife Amy: "She hummed to herself because she was an unrivaled botched of lyrics. When we were first dating, a Genesis song came on the radio: 'She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah.' And Amy crooned instead, 'She takes my hat and puts it on the top shelf.' When I asked her why she'd ever think her lyrics were remotely, possibly, vaguely right, she told me she always thought the woman in the song truly loved the man because she put his hat on the top shelf. I knew I liked her then, really liked her, this girl with an explanation for everything."

This is a description of the character Rhonda Boney, a detective, and one of my favorite characters: "Rhonda looked more birdlike than usual -- favoring one leg, then another, her head moving all around the room as her gaze alighted on different objects, angles--a magpie looking to line her nest"

A description of a minor character late in the novel: "Dorothy has one of those '70s kitten-in-a-tree posters -- Hang in There! She posts her poster with all sincerity. I like to picture her running into some self-impressed Williamsburg bitch, all Bettie Page bangs and pointy glasses, who owns the same poster ironically. I'd like to listen to them try to negotiate each other. Ironic people always dissolve when confronted with earnestness, it's their kryptonite."


I thought the book was completely absorbing. A few of my friends have complained about the ending, which doesn't feature (minor spoiler alert) any character really getting any karmic revenge. But with the ending, it seems like Flynn is making even more of a commentary on modern marriage. It's a dark message, and I do wish Flynn set up Nick's desire to be a father a little bit more (I think... maybe I just didn't notice it), but, for me, the ending was strong. Should (more spoilers here) Amy have been given more attention by the FBI? Clearly, but it didn't strike me as a plot problem that she didn't. This is one cunning woman.

After reading the book, I was so excited to see what a good director would do with the material. And David Fincher's film version is one of the best adaptations of a novel I've ever seen, completely captivating me even though I knew the plot all along.

Ben Affleck was a perfect choice for Nick Dunne. The character is callow, and Affleck does callow well; just like in the book, we feel some sympathy for the character, but much like his twin sister Margot, we can't believe what this idiot does sometimes. I imagined Joan Cusack as Margot, but she's way too old now (11 years older than Affleck), probably a statement to the fact that I don't think I've seen her in a movie since she would have been the right age. A relatively unknown actress named Carrie Coon plays Margot in the film, and she did fine, though I sort of pictured the character more damaged in the book. Maybe it was her chain smoking (no smoking in the movie from her).

The cast, though, is really uniformly awesome. Rosamund Pike is someone I'd never heard of before, but she was terrific in the lead role - running through a gamut of identities and being believable in each. Kim Dickens could get an Oscar nomination as the detective running the investigation; she is just a joy to watch.

In terms of minor characters, I just don't think Tyler Perry is a good actor; he plays Nick Dunne's lawyer. It's amusing to see him in the role, but I can hear him reading the lines like they're dialogue, not like they're conversation. However, it was cool to see Casey Wilson (of Happy Endings) in a small role as a pregnant neighbor.

But Fincher, of course, is the real star here. This moodily crafted film was suspenseful and unsettling, and Trent Reznor's music is note-perfect.

A few differences of note between book the film:

1) I loved that they gave Nick a proposal scene in the movie; it's done very well and kind of summarizes some of the early courtship of the characters.

2) I thought the character of Desi Collings (played by Neil Patrick Harris, who is excellent) was given a little bit of a short shrift; in the novel, we meet his mother (who grieves for him after he dies and knows it was Amy) and he just seems a much more reasonable and less creepy character than he comes off in the film.

3) Amy's parents were delineated much more in the novel. In the film, they're flat characters; the mother is immediately acerbic, the father is a goofy peacenik. In the novel, we get a sense of who they are a lot more.

4) The book takes about 6-8 hours to read, so obviously a lot of the details of the crime and such are left out when translated to a 2.5-hour movie. There is more interesting procedural stuff in the novel, but that's to be expected.

All in all, I think both film and book were top-notch. I don't think either is high art, necessarily, but both are stylish thrillers in the hands of people who know what they're doing.

The controversial ending is pretty much the same in both book and film. I've heard from some that don't like it, but I found it ominous and disconcerting... exactly what I think Flynn and Fincher are going for. They're making a statement about the roleplaying and artificiality of the modern marriage, and I found the cynical closing to be spot-on with these characters.

Interesting fact: the character has to enter his birthdate into a security system to turn off the alarm, and he has the exact same birthdate as me: 8-15-77. And, in the film, the character has to do the same, but Ben Affleck enters a different number in... which is odd, considering that Ben Affleck's birthday is also 8/15. Weird.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Rare Books Petting Zoo at the Folger

I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library again this past weekend, doing some work around the instruction of Shakespeare. Every teacher of Shakespeare I know uses parts of the Shakespeare Set Free series, which are now 20 years old. The question that we're answering is: how is that updated for the 21st century? It's a compelling and mind-expanding question that can have a lot of impact of how teachers and students encounter Shakespeare and -- since a statistic we hear this weekend is that 88% of everyone has their first exposure to Shakespeare from their high school English teacher -- even how Shakespeare will continue to be a part of American society.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.
As part of our weekend, we were able to engage in a Rare Books Petting Zoo. This is really cool, and, in the next year, the Folger -- via an NEH grant -- will be sending 18 Folios around the nation on tours to different cities. The First Folio is the collection of Shakespeare's plays published a few years after he died by his friends, and is the most studied book in the world after the Bible. Around 230 First Folios still exist (750 were printed in 1623) and the Folger has about 80 of them.

Here are a few of the items in the Folger's collection we were allowed to touch:

Walt Whitman's copy of a Shakespeare poetry book.

This copy of Canterbury Tales dates back to 1467! That's Pre-Columbus! 

Paul Robeson was one of the first Black actors to play Othello and this is his scene book and notes for his scene.

The quarto version of 'Much Ado', my favorite Shakespeare comedy.

This atlas dates back to the 1560s. Not Great Lakes discovered yet.

Outside of the Folger.

Me and the First Folio.

The Rare Book Petting Zoo.

John Barrymore's playbook with notes for his production of Hamlet.

The Vault holding the rare books.

The Folger Library reading room.

7 Ages of Man.


Monday, October 6, 2014

The Raven: Text-Dependent Questions

As I do often, especially with the Common Core, I like to create text-dependent questions for challenging pieces of literature, to direct students to specific lines of evidence that they can analyze and evaluate. I think a few of these are a touch obvious, but as a first draft of this sort of questions for "The Raven", it isn't bad.

I didn't find any sort of resource online of this, so I'm posting it here:

“The Raven” Text-Dependent Questions
Find textual evidence that supports the following questions, which are in the order of the poem. Write the bolded portion in the margin next to the answer, as well as the number to the question.
1.      What details show the speaker is reading and thinking, alone, in the middle of the night?
2.      What details shows the speaker is trying to end his sorrow by reading?
3.      What details of the setting suggest it is a melancholy night?
4.      What lines show the speaker is trying to calm himself down after hearing a noise?
5.      What details shows that Lenore has died?
6.      What lines early on are building suspense?
7.      In Stanza 5, we get a sense that the speaker isn’t in great shape. He’s depressed and grief-stricken, and everything, even total darkness, reminds him of Lenore. What details support these facts?
8.      When the raven enters, he acts like a rude aristocrat and makes himself right at home. What details support this?
9.      Pallus is the goddess of wisdom. What detail about her is connecting her wisdom to the raven?
10.  What details show the speaker getting pulled out of his funk a little by the sight of something that strikes him as funny?
11.  “Plutonian” refers to the Greek god Pluto, who rules the Underworld. How does this allusion make us think of scary, hellish things?
12.  The speaker begins to feel there’s something mysterious and powerful in the word “nevermore”. What lines show he thinks the bird is pouring his whole soul into saying the word?
13.  What lines show a change in the speaker, from being amused by the raven to thinking the raven is just another of a long line of friends who have abandoned him?
14.  What lines show the speaker trying to convince himself that the bird was taught the word by a sad former master?
15.  What detail shows the speaker is still fascinated by the bird, even after convincing himself that the word was learned with no meaning?
16.  What string of adjectives emphasize the gloomy nature of the bird?
17.  What details about the room are rich, luxurious, and a little spooky?
18.  What lines show that the light and cushion push him back to his old obsession of missing Lenore?
Vocabulary: a “censer” is a globe that holds burning incense
“nepenthe” is a mythological drink meant to comfort grieving people
“quaff” means to drink
19.  What line shows that, in his grief, is imagining that the room is filling with perfume and that angels are the ones who are perfuming it?
20.  What lines show that the speaker thinks that God is the one who has sent the angels?
21.  What lines illustrate the speaker telling himself to drink the mythological drink meant to comfort grieving people?
Vocabulary: “Tempter” means Satan
22.  What details in this stanza (84-89) suggest there is another shift in the speaker’s attitude and he is now yelling at the bird?
23.  What details suggest just how lonely and unhappy the speaker is in his current surroundings?
24.  The “balm in Gilead” is a biblical allusion meaning, basically, is there hope in the future, a possibility of comfort, peace, etc. What line show the speaker desperately asking if there is ever going to be any hope in the future?
25.  “Aidenn” means heaven. What lines show the speaker asking the bird if his soul is ever going to be reunited with the soul of Lenore?
26.  What lines show the speaker order the bird out of the house and back into the night?
27.  What detail shows the speaker doesn’t even want the raven to leave a feather in his house?
28.  What about the verb tenses in the last stanza suggest the raven is still there?
29.  What details from the end of the poem suggest the man’s soul is trapped in the raven’s shadow?

30.  What details suggest the speaker has descended into his own personal hell

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tigers vs. Orioles, Round one of the playoffs. My heart's in two, but not really.

When I was 10 years old, my dad used to bring me to Tiger Stadium after his shifts as a police officer in Detroit. He knew the gatekeeper at the right field entrance, and this gatekeeper liked to have police officers in his section, so he often waved us in for free, after which we found our regular seats under that famous right field overhang. Together, we'd watch players like Walt Terrell (the pitcher at my first game), Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell (both should be in the Hall of Fame) as the Tigers' 1987 team had a thrilling comeback (they were down 3.5 games with a week to play) and roared its way to a thrilling 1-0 victory on the last game of the season over the Blue Jays. Junkballer Frank Tanana, who was in his late 30s and surviving at that point on deception and location, started that game, and I still have the clipping from the Detroit Free Press of him leaping into the sky, his arms up over his head and a huge grin on his face, after that last out. I was never more thrilled and that year, 1987, made me a lifetime fan. It made such an indelible mark on me that I still keep the yearbook of newspaper clippings I cut that year in my basement. 
Tiger Stadium's right field.



This lifetime fandom of the Detroit Tigers, however, has often been tortured. That exciting 1987 team was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, and, until 2006, there wasn't much else to cheer for except for which prospects might do well in a few years (answer: pretty much just Travis Fryman and Bobby Higginson and not much else) and which Rule 5 pick we might keep in spring training. From 1989 until 2005, the Tigers were terrible, losing 100+ games four times and reaching a nadir with an almost-record 119-loss season in 2003. Despite this, I was a religious follower of the team in those 16 years of futility, knowing every Mike Schwabe and Robert Fick and Andujar Cedeno the team acquired. I even got a Detroit "D" tattoo in the winter of 2005/2006 on my shoulder (yes, before the team was good), cementing my fandom forever.  

My Tigers Tattoo
Today, those days of horrible teams are over. A slew of smart moves by Dave Dombrowski, who has been GM since 2002, plus a supportive owner in Mike Ilitch, have made the team perennial contenders. The 2006 season, managed by the gruff-but-lovable Jim Leyland, was the start of Detroit baseball renaissance, and, since then, as of Sunday, the Tigers have won four consecutive division championships. Unfortunately, they've also lost twice in the World Series, and still haven't brought a world championship to Detroit in 30 years. Mike Ilitch, 85 years old and frail, will only have a few more shots, and the team on the field, which is destined to lose Max Scherzer and perhaps Victor Martinez to free agency and saw star players Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera show some signs of aging this season, may also not have much more of a window.

Therefore, despite my relatively nascent fandom of the Baltimore Orioles, I will be rooting full throttle for my Tigers in the upcoming series. The Orioles have had such a great year, and it hurts a little to root against them. Their history is not unlike the Tigers' history: the Orioles and their fans endured a long period of futility as well. The Tigers' drought was from 1989-2005 (2 winning seasons mixed into 14 losing seasons including 4 100-loss seasons in 16 years), while the Orioles' drought was from 1998-2011, with no winning seasons in those 14 years. Beyond that, the cities of Baltimore and Detroit share several similarities, which is one reason I ended up in Baltimore; Al Kaline, the great Detroit Tiger who was announcer while I was growing up, often talked about his hometown of Baltimore, about its working class roots and industrial backbone, and
Tanana celebrates in 1987.
his discussions of Baltimore definitely "put it on the map" for me in terms of what city I might move to after college. And I've always felt a connection between Baltimore and Detroit; not only do I teach at a school where five of us are from Michigan, all with roots in the Detroit area, but Baltimore always seemed to me to be like Detroit, only a decade or so ahead and in a better location. It has similar histories and struggle. Both cities would really appreciate a long run into the playoffs by their baseball team.

Sadly, I think Detroit would appreciate it more, though. Despite being good for four years now, Baltimore's attendance remains pretty lousy. Only 2.46 million fans showed up for games this year at Camden Yards, 6th out of 15 AL teams, the lowest out of any 1st place teams, and far below the annual 3.5 million who showed up in the mid-1990s, even when the team was mediocre. That's about 10,000 less per game than back then. Attendance has increased 40% in the last 4 years, from 1.9 million to 2.5 million. By comparison, Detroit's attendance increased 58% (from 2 million to 3 million) in the 4 years after their last losing season in 2005. Detroit's attendance has remained steady at around 3 million per year since then, and hopefully Baltimore's will rise in that time. But, for me, it's a little bit crappy, and I wince every time I'm at a bar where, say, the Orioles are playing an important game and a Ravens' pre-season game is drowning it out.

Still I realize that Baltimore, like Detroit, had an entire generation of fans turned off by the team's poor performance and poor leadership. And I realize that, as a baseball coach, Orioles' success could mean more and more interest in baseball in this city, which is a great thing. And I do love those scrappy Orioles and their great manager.

But my roots are in Detroit, where my grandparents immigrated in 1950 after somehow meeting -- she a 24-year old German war widow and single mother, he a 38-year old Polish prisoner of war just released from one of the Nazi camps -- after the war. It's where they are both buried, where my dad was raised, and where I spent a good chunk of my childhood. Following this team has been a major passion of mine for decades now. All I need is a World Championship to quench my craving.

I not only will root for them, but I also think they'll win. They have the edge in the majority of the positions and, of course, starting pitching. But anything can happen, of course, and I will root wholeheartedly for whichever team is left standing after this round of the playoffs.

Here's my position-by-position breakdown:

First Base: Steve Pearce vs. Miguel Cabrera
I couldn't be happier with the success of Steve Pearce this year, as I love when journeymen do well. It's unbelievable that Pearce was actually released by the Orioles this year, only to be re-signed after an injury to Chris Davis. He had an amazing season (.293/.373/.556) and will be playing first base now that Davis is out again, this time for a suspension. Meanwhile, Cabrera had arguably his worst year for the Tigers, but even that was a .313/.371/.524 season. All season, he's been battling injuries, and an ankle injury turned his August into a terrible .252/.354/.336, but he seems to have recovered, hitting .379/.409/.709 in September, I just read he won AL Player of the Month honors for September. Cabrera is a lifetime .279/.365/.505 hitter in the post-season, and the Tigers will need him to be even better than that this year. Edge: Detroit.

Second Base: Jonathan Schoop vs. Ian Kinsler
Kinsler was acquired in a steal of a deal with the Rangers this past off-season, and, in many ways, has been a frustrating player; as a leadoff hitter, he leaves much to be desired, as his .275/.307/.420 line suggests. But he still hit 17 home runs and clubbed 40 doubles as a middle infielder, and his defense (he earned 2.9 WAR on his defense) was superlative. As for Schoop, maybe eventually he'll be a good player, and he's solid defensively, but the dude can't hit and was rushed to the majors. He hit .209/.244/.354 this year, with a staggering 122 strikeouts against just 13 walks. I think the Orioles playing Schoop everyday while Jemile Weeks rotted away at AAA, where he hit .280/.392/.391 (then given away in a trade to Boston, where he hit. 308/.406/.423 in limited time) was an incredibly weak personnel decision. Edge: Detroit

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy vs. Andrew Romine
The Tigers were hit hard with an injury during spring training, when Jose Iglesias was diagnosed with double stress fractures and knocked out for the season. Dombrowski promptly stole Andrew Romine from Anaheim, and, while he's a terrible hitter (.227/.279/.275), his defense was strong. Rookie Eugenio Suarez, rushed to the majors but displaying some good patience and moderate power, hits better than Romine but is prone to errors, so we'll likely see more Romine this series. Both of these players pale in comparison to JJ Hardy, who has lost some power -- he hit just .268/.309/.372 this year with 9 home runs, after hitting 77 home runs the previous three seasons -- but is way better than Romine or Suarez. Hardy's defense (2.1 dWAR) is as good as ever. This one is as strong a matchup for Orioles as second base is for the Tigers. Edge: Baltimore

Third Base: Flaherty/Parades/Johnson vs. Nick Castellanos
I think every baseball fan is sad that Manny Machado can't play in this series, and even in my "sorry not sorry" tongue-in-cheekness as a Tigers fan, it really does suck. I love watching Macado play. And, honeslty, I don't even know who will be playing third base for the Orioles. Since Davis's suspension, Jimmy Parades, Ryan Flaherty, and Kelly Johnson have split time at third base. This article projects Thursday's starter to be Flaherty, but, for me, they're all pretty equal: mediocre hitters, mediocre defenders. Parades is a better hitter, but his defense has been more spotty than the others. Johnson isn't really a third baseman. Neither is Flaherty. Whoever will be there won't be as sure a thing as Nick Castellanos, the Tigers' rookie. He's had a mediocre year at the bat (.259/.306/.394) and is weak defensively (-29 Defensive Runs Saved), but he was leading the league in Line Drive percentage for a while so there's some bad luck with his mediocre (but not unexpected) line at the plate. He's consistent, can hit a home run or a double when needed, and has a solid debut season playing 150 games at third base. Edge: Detroit

Designated Hitter: Victor Martinez vs. Nelson Cruz
Both V-Mart and Cruz have had great seasons, but Victor's is unquestionably better. He hit .335/.409/.565, leading the league in OBP and OPS and coming just a couple hits shy of the batting title. V-Mart his 32 home runs and struck out just 40 times in 561 at-bats. There is no one, not even Miguel Cabrera, that I would rather have up with the game on the line. Nelson Cruz, of course, also had a great year, leading the league with 40 home runs and hitting .271/.333/.525. Cruz will strike out a lot (140 times) and struggled a bit in the 2nd half (.249/.306/.463), but he's a formidable challenger for the best DH in the league. But this is easily Victor. Edge: Detroit

Catcher: Alex Avila vs. Caleb Joseph
Caleb Joseph came out from nowhere this year to make the Matt Wieters injury sting a little less. He's got some pop, hitting .207/.264/.354 with 9 home runs in 246 at-bats. He caught 40% of would-be base thiefs. Alex Avila had what is becoming the typical Alex Avila year, with a frustratingly low average but a lot of walks and a bit of pop. He hit .218/.327/.359 this year with 11 home runs, and caught 34% of would-be base stealers. Avila is a whipping boy by Detroit fans, but he's a league average catcher with great defense who also has over 100 plate appearances in the post-season. This one is another one in Detroit's favor. Edge: Detroit

Left Field: JD Martinez vs. Alejandro de Aza
Alejandro de Aza was a shrewd little pickup by GM Dan Duquette, and he hit really well for the Orioles in around 80 at-bats: .293/.341/.537. For the year, he was just at .252/.314/.386, but he can certainly turn on a pitch and steal a few bases (17 this year). But in terms of shrewd pickups, he's no J.D. Martinez, who after being released by the Astros, came to Detroit and was the team's best hitter not named Victor. J.D. hit 315/.358/.553 with 23 home runs in 441 at-bats. You get the feeling he's going to turn into a pumpkin someday, or at least turn into merely a solid player, but J.D. followed up his 1.035 OPS in the first half with an .820 OPS in 2nd half and a 1.005 OPS in September. He seems like a player. According to their stats, he and de Aza are a wash defensively, neither all that good. Edge: Detroit

Center Field: Rajai Davis (or Kelly/Carrera) vs. Adam Jones
Rajai Davis, the regular center fielder after Austin Jackson was traded, pulled his groin muscle on the last day of the season, and he's a question mark for the series so far. And that would be a bummer; Davis is a 9-year veteran who has never played in the playoffs before, and he had a real solid year with Detroit, hitting .282/.320/.401 with 36 steals. He clobbers left-handed pitcher (.939 OPS) and is pretty futile against righties (.617 OPS), and is an adventure defensively. If he can't go, the Tigers will go with a combination of Don Kelly (solid defensively at several positions, but can't hit - .245/.332/.280 this year, having lost all his power) and Ezequiel Carrera (brought up from Toledo after the Jackson trade, he's fast but can't really hit and is an adventure defensively, even worst than Davis). Tyler Collins could get some time, too, and he's probably the best option, as he can hit a little. Whatever the scenario, they're not going to be better than the Orioles' Adam Jones, who had another solid season (.281/.311/.469 with 29 home runs and 96 RBI). Adam Jones is a 5 WAR player, a top-20 player in the major leagues. And he has an awesome Twitter feed and seems like a really great guy. Beating Baltimore will be most sad because it'll mean beating Adam Jones. Edge: Baltimore

Right Field: Torii Hunter vs. Nick Markakis
Two solid veterans and a very close matchup. Hunter had a good year at the plate, hitting .286/.319/.446 with 17 home runs. He hit .304/.349/.441 in the 2nd half. Unfortunately, he's turned into a terrible defensive player (-2.4 dWAR this year), giving perhaps a slight edge to Nick Markakis. But Markakis has seen his power be zapped (he hit just .276/.342/.386 with 14 HR, and only .256/.329/.372 in the 2nd half) and also is below replacement level on defense (-0.5 dWAR). Torii's hot hitting against Markakis's cold 2nd half makes their defense factor basically a wash. Both are good veteran players who have seen better days but can still contribute. Edge: None. This one's a tie.

Starting Pitching (Scherzer, Verlander, Price, Porcello vs. Tillman, Chen, Norris, Gonzalez)
On Thursday, the Orioles will face 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA this year. On Friday, they will face 2011 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, who went 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA but got better literally every month as he got stronger after recovering from off-season surgery. On Saturday, they will face 2012 Cy Young Award winner in David Price, who led the league in inning pitched and strikeouts while going 15-12 with a 3.26 ERA. On Sunday, if necessary, they will face Rick Porcello, who went 15-13 with a 3.43 ERA this year (but honestly seems really tired and has gotten clobbered a little bit lately, this is his first season over 200 innings). This is a formidable rotation. The Orioles will send Chris Tillman (13-6, 3.34 ERA over 206 innings) to the hill on Thursday, and, after that, some combination of Wei-Yin Chen (16-6, 3.54 ERA), Bud Norris (15-8, 3.52 ERA), and Miguel Gonzalez (10-9, 3.23 ERA). The Orioles' rotation has been getting it done all season, but, on paper, they're no match for Detroit's. Edge: Detroit

Bullpen (Britton, O'Day, Hunter, Matucz, Gausman vs. Nathan, Chamberlain, Soria, Sanchez, Alburquerque)
The Orioles have an incredible bullpen and will easily win this category. Zach Britton (1.65 ERA, 37 saves) and the great Darren O'Day (1.70 ERA, 68 games) lead the pack, but Tommy Hunter (2.97 ERA in 60 games), Brian Matucz (3.48 ERA in 63 games), and likely Kevin Gausman from the rotation will be giving support. The Tigers' bullpen shouldn't be as bad as it is, but manager Brad Ausmus has kept the struggling Joe Nathan in at closer all season despite both counting and non-counting stats showing he is pretty much done. He ended the year with a 4.81 ERA and 35 saves, but he has the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of his career; he allowed 12 BB and 35 hits in 27 innings in the 2nd half this year, a 1.56 WHIP. Nathan is torturous to watch on the mound, and it's even more torturous knowing that we have Joakim Soria, acquired for our top prospects from Texas in July. A side injury slowed him down with Detroit, but the man walked 6 and struck out 48 this year in 44 innings and has been dominant since returning from injury (6.2 innings, 1 run, 3 hits). Unfortunately, Ausmus has been giving him just garbage time in that span. For the season, Joba Chamberlain has been the 8th inning guy, and he's been mostly good this year (3.57 ERA in 69 games, but 4.97 ERA in the 2nd half). Al Alburqueque (2.51 ERA in 72 games) has had a terrific year as our most reliable reliever, which is scary if you've ever watched Al Al pitch much. Phil Coke and Blaine Hardy both offered some support from the left side, but both are prone to wildness and ineffectiveness. The wild card may be Anibal Sanchez, who went 8-5 with a 3.43 ERA in 126 innings, mostly as a starter, this year, and is returning from injury and will get work out of the bullpen in the playoffs. Both he and Al Al can get a good strikeout in those middle innings if needed. But the advantage here is still clearly with Baltimore. Edge: Baltimore

Bench (Suarez, Holaday, Kelly, Collins, Carrera vs. Young, Lough, Johnson, Hundley, Berry): 
The Tigers have the versatile and light-hitting Don Kelly, the solid-hitting but problematic defensively Eugenio Suarez, the light-hitting Bryan Holaday as backup catcher, and the light-hitting Carrera who can pinch run. Likely one more hitter, perhaps Tyler Collins, will make the playoff roster. Still, it's a weak bench, especially hitting-wise, compared to Baltimore's, which features Delmon Young (who had a great year at .302/.337/.442), David Lough (a whiz defensively), Kelly Johnson (late acquisition but a home run threat), and Nick Hundley as the backup catcher and whoever will get utility infield time (Parades?). Will Quintin Berry make the playoff roster as a pinch runner? That would be cool if so, that would be 3 straight years, as he was with the Tigers in 2012, the Red Sox in 2013, and now the Orioles. But, either way, Baltimore's bench is better -- better pinch-hitting options and just as good defensively. Edge: Baltimore

Manager: Buck Showalter vs. Brad Ausmus
Everyone likes Buck Showalter, and he deserves it. He has gotten so much out of this team, and Baltimore's 96-66 record in the face of all the prognosticators is a testament to his belief in his players and solid management of the the team. The team has overcome significant injuries to Machado, Wieters, and Davis, but has kept rolling with the punches, and Showalter's coaxing of brilliant performances from his pitching staff and Steve Pearce make him this year's Manager of the Year. Brad Ausmus, on the other hand, was expected to win, but led the team to a 90-72 season. It was a frustrating team to watch, with a bad bullpen made worse by bullpen management decisions; the handling of Nathan, Soria, and Chamberlain became unbearable towards the end of the season, in much the same way as the management of the bench (pinch-hitting Carrera? pinch-hitting Kelly?) was maddening. Also, there were definitely moments this year where it felt like Ausmus was being pushed around by his veteran starting pitchers. But the faith he showed in J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, and Torii Hunter paid off, and... um... it's hard to praise Brad Ausmus, actually. Edge: Baltimore

So, there you have it. It's going to be a great series, unless the Tigers' pitchers all dominate, which very well could happen.

It will be hard to root against the Orioles, but my heart still bleeds for Detroit.

Prediction: Detroit in 4.


More shots from my 1987 team yearbook of the Tigers.

Headline on day of the game.

"I'll turn up the heat... he looks like he's about done!"