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Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Updated: January 14, 8:30 AM ET
Toy soldiers unite!

By Alysse Minkoff
Special to Page 2

Act One
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Right around this time every year, the story of "The Nutcracker" usually begins this way: Not too long ago and in a land not far .... (OK, it was Oakland.) It was a wintry Christmas Eve ... . (Actually, it was Dec. 19, last Friday.)

So this isn't your usual Nutcracker.

All-Star Nutcracker
When the All-Star Nutcracker takes the stage, 'tis the season to check your pride at the door.
In this one, a hapless, helpless group of sports and media celebrities join the Oakland Ballet to perform in the "2003 All-Star Nutcracker."

Among our Dancing Sugar Plums, every one a Vision:

  • Barry Zito, Cy Young Award-winning pitcher for the Oakland Athletics

  • C.C. Sabathia, All-Star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians

  • Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals

  • Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, rookie defensive end from the Oakland Raiders
  • To round out the cast and add a dose of journalistic integrity to the performance: Vernon Glenn, Martin Wyatt and Mike Sugerman, who are Bay Area television anchors; Stan Bunger and Steve Bitker, who host a morning radio show on CBS; Scott Ostler, a writer with the San Francisco Chronicle. Fox Sports offers up former Fredericks of Hollywood lingerie model and centerfold Leeann Tweeden, who has now embraced the career of sportscasting.

    And in an odd bit of counter-programming, ESPN thinks it is a swell idea for twinkle-toes (Read: Me) to holds up our network's "end" of things. You should pardon the expression.

    I wondered if any Oakland Ballet decision-makers have seen the practice video from my stint last month as Josie Bruin at the UCLA-USC game, which clearly demonstrates that: A.) I am definitely not Fredericks of Hollywood material; and B.) I have absolutely no grasp of choreography whatsoever.

    Then I remember that this is for a good cause. It's a fund-raiser for the ballet.

    That, and Ralph Wiley and Bill Simmons absolutely refuse to wear a tutu. "What about Dan Shanoff?" I whine. "He has great legs, doesn't he?"

    No go.

    So ... Tweeden and Minkoff in "The Nutcracker Smackdown," it is.

    "She who laughs, lasts," one of my male friends counsels me.

    Well, that's easy for him to say. I'm a paltry 34C in comparison to all that skin Tweeden is flinging around. And the humiliation is only just beginning.

    While Zito, La Russa and the Media Boys are practicing the "Arabian Number," Tweeden (in a harem costume when workout togs would have sufficed nicely) is shimmying all over the guys. Elaine La Russa (who has played Mother Ginger since Tony started this fund-raising event 18 years ago) keeps a watchful eye on her husband to make sure he isn't having too much fun while he practices. Bitker and Bunger want my reassurance that the slithering is off the record. Nope. Sorry, boys.

    Ostler's cell phone rings constantly throughout rehearsal -- invariably, just as he is about to lift a ballerina. Hilarious.

    The costume-fitting comes next. The Toy Soldier outfit is a snap: snazzy red turtleneck. Red vest with bright gold buttons and black braid, red cheeks and a moustache, and voila!: I am instantly transformed from Intrepid Girl Reporter into Toy Soldier Extraordinaire!

    But what role to play in the rest of the ballet? I have already eschewed any notions of joining the Harem Girl/Arabian number. Fuggedaboutit!

    Barry Zito, Leeann Tweeden
    Barry Zito keeps a close eye on Leeann Tweeden's choreography.
    "Be a Bon-Bon!" Kathy Jacobson, the All-Star Night coordinator and publicist, chirps -- as only a publicist can about something that screams Big-Time Disaster. The Bon-Bon costumes are designed for a more ... dare I say, ballerina-like figure. Even my forearm won't fit through the sleeves. Horrors.

    Eventually, Vincent (the ace wardrobe supervisor) and I settle on a lovely Chinese red-silk brocade number with stunning purple pants. It's more Katherine Hepburn than Catherine Zeta-Jones. Clearly, Vincent knows how to play to my strengths. Bonus news from Ballet Master Mario Alonzo: The Chinese number contains absolutely no choreography -- just a lot of running and gesturing in gorgeous silk pajamas while being chased around the stage by Russian Licorice. This, I can do.

    My motivation: Think Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev during the Cold War. Yippee! Red was always Nancy's color.

    Maybe Edward Kleban had it right in "A Chorus Line" after all: "Everything is beautiful at the Ballet."

    I think not.

    Act Two
    On a drizzly Friday afternoon, the complete All-Star cast assembles to learn the Toy Soldier moves. A technical note: We started rehearsing at 2 o'clock for a 7 p.m. performance. How scary is that? Sabathia makes the grievous error of telling the media that, while he was going to be in the All-Star Nutcracker, he wasn't actually going to dance. C.C. is immediately and summarily put into place ... I mean, line by Ronn Guidi, founding artistic director of the Oakland Ballet.

    Bitker and Bunger, the radio guys, are veterans.

    "Just do whatever Tony does," they say, conspiratorially.

    Okey-dokey.

    Wyatt, one of the anchors and also a Nutcracker veteran, promises to push and/or shove me into place whenever I blow a piece of choreography. Which ought to be fairly often.

    For three hours, we march with swords blazing and gold muskets flying. We practice falling down and getting back up again and dueling with the Rat King and marching again and falling down again. And again. And again.

    No matter how many times Guidi puts us through our routine and patiently counts out the changes, we all manage to mangle at least some of the steps.

    All-Star Nutcracker
    It takes real men -- CC Sabathia, Barry Zito, Scott Ostler, Steve Bitker, Stan Bunger and Tony La Russa -- to measure up to Alysse Minkoff and Leeann Tweeden.
    "Just keep it moving, Soldiers!"

    Guidi rolls his eyes. La Russa tries his managerial best to keep Zito and Sabathia in a straight line, and fails miserably. The toughest part for all of us is the duel with the rats -- or, as the artistic director calls them, the "mice." Where to put the swords? And on which beat? After a particularly exasperating few minutes, during which Guidi changes his mind about what he wants us to do at least five different times, anchorman Sugerman sighs, "Vegas has heavy odds that the mice are going to win this time."

    Great. Real encouraging for the Rookie Dancer.

    The Nutcracker Ballet has been part of the holiday season since 1892. For the last 18 years, it has been performed on a La Russa-driven All-Star Night for charity in Oakland. And we're about to dismantle all that history in one performance.

    "Don't worry, it'll all be over in 90 seconds," Sugerman says.

    OK, Mike. I'm dancing as fast as I can.

    Act Three
    Sweats give way to Toy Soldier Costumes; and as soon as that happens, everyone starts to get into the spirit of things. Bitker, Bunger Sugerman and Ostler diagram the choreography on a reporter's notepad.

    La Russa gives helpful suggestions, when he isn't watching his daughter, Devon, dance her myriad roles from the wings. The proud Papa watches his daughter dance, and doles out managerial advice between scenes. It feels remarkably like a dugout -- tutus notwithstanding, natch. When Zito and Sabathia join us in the wings to go over the moves, I wonder: Could this be construed as tampering?

    I ask Sabathia, "Which is tougher, pitching a clinching game or dancing in the Nutcracker?"

    He rolls his eyes.

    "Oh, man," he says. "This is so much tougher -- you have no idea! But I'm having fun, so what more can you ask?"

    All-Star Nutcracker
    Devon, Elaine and Tony La Russa have made the All-Star Nutcracker a family affair.
    And with that, he proudly adjusts his rosy cheeks and moustache.

    Personally, I'd rather duck a 90-mph fastball than dance.

    No matter how many times we run through it, no one can agree on anything. You know that old adage about men never asking for directions? Well, how about nine guys -- three from baseball, three from television, two from radio and one from print -- all of whom are convinced that they know the right steps to take and exactly when to take them.

    I write for the Internet, so by statute, I am completely confused about everything and this isn't helping me at all.

    Because Sabathia is a rookie on the ballet stage, my eyes are definitely not going to be on him. While Zito, who is in his second year with the ballet, has a certain flair for the choreography, I don't exactly trust his wry grin. Martin Wyatt is the most reassuring with his mantra of, "I'm feeling it! I'm feeling it now!"

    I decide that if all else fails, I'm going to keep my eyes squarely on La Russa. Maybe it's the whole manager-thing, but whatever La Russa does out there is gonna be good enough for me. Plus, here's a juicy little tidbit the Cardinals have left off his Bio: La Russa has an absolutely wicked plié. Pass it on!

    In the meantime, Gbaji-Biamila, the rookie lineman, is being unceremoniously stuffed inside the Jack-In-The-Box in his Raiders uniform and is wheeled on-stage. The cover is lifted, and Akbar pops out with a grin too big to belong to a defensive end. He gives a few hilarious looks around the audience and bangs his cymbals a couple of times, and then disappears back in the box.

    "Great cymbal-ism," Sugerman stage-whispers.

    As the Toy Soldiers line, up everyone says, "Merde!" That's French for ... well, the polite way to say it is "excrement." It's ballet-speak for "Good Luck!" I thought it was commentary on my utter lack of finesse with the choreography. Silly me.

    We get into line. I am directly behind Leeann Tweeden, who has somehow managed to finagle her way into a slightly different costume than the rest of us Toy Soldiers. For reasons that are apparent to no one, she is the only Toy Soldier dressed in a form-fitting, midriff-baring red blazer. No snazzy red turtleneck on the Little Miss from Frederick's. No way. And it really looks odd. Ten of us are decked out in identical costumes, and Leeann is ready for a centerfold shot. I guess there is an "I" in "Team," after all.

    No time to think about that, though, Soldier: March out. Salute. March around. A couple of quick hops with the gun. Fire on the rats. March back into two lines. Change places. Bump tushies. Shoot each other. Fall down. It's a very good thing that Tweeden and I don't have to bump chests, or I would sail right into the Orchestra Pit!

    The rats hand us our swords while we're on the ground with our legs up in the air. No comment. We duel with the rats. March into line. Fall down. Again. And get up. Again. Big rat duel. The Rat King dies. We carry said dead Rat King off-stage, and it is over. Thankfully, in about 90 seconds.

    All-Star Nutcracker
    Who but Barry Zito and Tony La Russa could help Alysse Minkoff battle the dreaded army of mice?
    And the audience goes wild. High-fives and hugs from the real stars of the night, the incredibly gracious members of the Oakland Ballet, and we do our postgame/ballet wrap-up with La Russa.

    "We looked good out there," he beams. "Really good. Now let's get suited up for the Arabian number!"

    I thought we were going to have to run poles for an hour.

    "Just remember, guys: Don't drop the ballerinas!"

    We race downstairs. Melissa Gutierrez and Ai Rinco, two of the San Francisco 49ers Goldrush Girls, re-do my makeup as Tweeden changes into an even skimpier costume. The boys peel off their shirts, put on their tunics, pose for a photo and then sprint upstairs. The Arabian Number has the audience rolling in the aisles. La Russa, Zito, Bitker, Bunger and Ostler steal the show.

    Thankfully, Ostler learned how to turn his cellular phone to vibrate right before the performance.

    The Russian Licorice chases me around the stage and I chase him right back. Viva Nancy! The audience howls. And all too soon, the All-Star Nutcracker ends with a flurry of curtain calls and bows.

    Postgame -- er, post-performance -- I ask Sabathia, our most reluctant participant, if he will do it again next year.

    "Definitely!" the once-dubious All-Star bubbles. "I had a blast."

    Gbaja-Biamila is laughing, too.

    "You can't see the people out there, so it makes you feel more confident," he says. "It's kind of like the Black Hole, but we're not quite the ballerinas out there (on the field), you know?"

    Zito is backstage, surrounded by awestruck kids and explaining how important it is to support the Ballet and the Arts. As always, a class act.

    More hugs. Sad farewells. This is like the end of summer camp. When I pack my bag and walk out the stage door, six 10-year-old girls rush me.

    "Hey, Chinese Lady -- you rock! Do you know Barry Zito?"

    All-Star Nutcracker
    The crazy costumes, the botched choreography -- it's all for kids and no one knows that better than Barry Zito.
    "Well, girls, as a matter of fact ... "

    Much ear-splitting shrieking, squealing and giggling ensues. And I wave my magic wand over the cranky security guard and escort this pint-sized constituency downstairs to the dressing room. Darling Barry signs their programs, talks to every little girl in turn and asks me to take a photo with all of them.

    "You're my favorite Oakland A!" a velvet-clad sweetheart gushes.

    "Sorry about that clincher against Boston," one swoons.

    "He's sooooooo cute!" says another in patent-leather Mary Janes.

    Dimples blazing, curls bouncing, they can barely contain themselves. And Zito is, as usual, extraordinary with them.

    "When you see me at batting practice, be sure to tell me that we met at the ballet!" he tells the girls, who look at him with the kind of rapt attention usually only reserved for rock stars. "I'll have a special High-Five for you!"

    No bodyguard. No publicist. No handler. And the guy gives away two days of his precious offseason to make the kids of Oakland happy and support the Arts by dancing in the Nutcracker Ballet.

    As I escort the giggling throng back into their parents' arms, Zito hugs me goodbye.

    "That's what this is all about, Alysse," he says. "These kids. That's why it's so much fun to do this. I'll see you at spring training. And I'll see you here next year. And I want to see you dancing in that Harem Girl costume!"

    I'll have to work on my pliés. Maybe La Russa can give me some pointers.

    When not taking private ballet lessons with Tony and Elaine La Russa ... Alysse Minkoff has written for Ladies Home Journal, Cigar Aficionado Magazine, and MSNBC. She can be reached at AGirlReporter@aol.com.