Friday, February 10, 2017

Bill Belichick is a Jedi, Sith, Sorcerer, Magi, Wizard & Warlock

Imagine you had superpowers, but no interest in being a superhero.

You had the strength, speed and uncanny ability of Superman, or even 1/2 of Superman.  You could do things like this.  And this.

But you had no interest in putting on a cape and fighting crime.  Maybe there are no aliens or super-villains to fight.  Maybe you have no idea how to use your powers to lower the Chicago murder rate or stop ISIS or shut down Donald Trump's Twitter account.   Maybe you feel like using your powers for more selfish motives.  In other words, you're an ordinary person with extraordinary abilities.

What would you do?  Professional sports seems like a good call.  You can make a lot of money.  Be adored by millions.  Hang with celebrities.  That'd be a lot of fun (well, maybe not the celebrities part.  Ick).

But then, you'd need ease up on your powers, go half speed to not make it so obvious.  Like Dash in The Incredibles, you'd need to tap the brakes once in a while so as not to give up your secret, and keep it interesting for yourself.

I'm starting to think this is what's happening with Bill Belichick.  He's some sort of wizard, a magical power unseen since Merlin, his powers growing every year.  And he loves football so frickin much, he's decided to use his powers to be the greatest coach the world has ever seen, in any sport.  But as he grows in his power, he keeps putting obstacles in front of himself to keep it interesting, and to keep suspicious conspiracy theorists at bay.

Let's review his career:

  • As Defensive Coordinator of the Giants, he's just growing into his power.  He guides one of the greatest Ds of all time in 1986.  Four years later he holds the high-powered Bills' offense to 19 points (I couldn't find footage of him during Norwood kick, but I bet we'd see him waving his arms like an Enchanter, pushing the ball right).

  • As Patriots' head coach, he's given a very good quarterback in Drew Bledsoe.  6'5", college stud, #1 overall pick.  He's already a 3-time Pro Bowler before the Magi of Massachusetts arrives.  Too easy, says the Sorcerer.  Give me this guy instead.

  • This guy, Tom Brady, was a lightly regarded prospect coming out of college.  His senior year at Michigan, he played in a platoon with Drew Henson.  He was drafted 199th, behind such stalwarts as Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Todd Husak and Giovanni Carmazzi.  The Jedi of Gillette win 3 Super Bowls the first 4 years with the Wolverine platooner.

  • But...some of the seams of his wizardry began to show.  "It's like he has eyes at our practice!", say the opposing coaches.  Hence, Spygate.  (There were no cameras, just Bill in his tower like the Eye of Sauron.)

  • He decides to lay low for a couple years.  Then in 07, he destroys the league so thoroughly that once again people are getting suspicious, and decides to throw some games.  But he can't even figure out how to lose. Concerned the conspiracy theorists are getting too close for comfort, at the last minute of the Super Bowl, he weaves a Helmet Glue spell enabling a 3rd rate wide receiver to make the greatest catch in Super Bowl history.  Suspicion averted.

  • By 2011, he's decided the coast is clear, and it's okay to win again.  But due to an elaborate Quadrennial Spell he cast back in 1990, the Giants are prophesied to win a Super Bowl 4 years after winning a previous one.  Oops!

  • 2015, he reads Pete Carroll's mind, and positions Malcolm Butler perfectly for a game-sealing pick.  4th Super Bowl in the bag.

Plausible, huh?  

(And if you're wondering about the Cleveland Browns stint, well, c'mon, Cleveland needs a helluva lot more than a powerful wizard to solve their problems.)

Which brings us to this year.  

The Enchanter of the East (AFC) is getting bored.  His division is a mess.  His one truly worthy nemesis, Peyton Manning, is finally out of the league after showing the effects of the Neck-romancy Hex Bill put on him years before.  So he sets himself some challenges:

  1. Puts Deflation Charm on footballs.  Gets his QB suspended for 4 games, including one against what seems like a very good Cardinal team, and 2 against 2016 playoff opponents.  Wins them all with backup.  (Then takes out backup and loses to his other sometime nemesis, Buffalo Rex.
  2. Brady's back.  He's 39 now, but the Anti-Aging Abra Cadabra he put on him 5 years earlier is still working.  Winning is once again too easy.
  3. So he takes out Gronk for most of the season, and trades Jamie Collins, one of his best defensive players.  Still goes 11-1.
  4. In the playoffs, throws most of his passes to an undrafted lacrosse player.  Keeps winning. 
  5. In Super Bowl, spots the Falcons 25 points.  Chuckles as Gostkowki's PAT doinks the upright.

None of it matters.  He wins his 5th Super Bowl.  No obstacle, self-imposed, magical, or mortal, can stop him.  

That night John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, sends him a simple 5 word text.

"I know what you are."

Friday, November 18, 2016

In Defense of the Electoral College

In politics, most debates over procedure are dishonest.

For example, when Senate Democrats filibuster, Republicans everywhere decry this quaint parliamentary trick.  But when the GOP has a senate majority, they suddenly sing the praises of our Founders, and applaud the filibuster as a check against the tyranny of the majority.  And vice-versa*.

So too with the Electoral College.  Usually, we give as much thought to this somewhat funky voting edifice as we do to figuring out the duties of the Minority Whip.  But as you might have heard, this year for the 5th time in 228 years and the 2nd time in 16, the popular vote winner lost the Electoral College.

So: Barbara Boxer is proposing legislation to abolish the electoral college.  Democrats are taking to op-ed pages and Facebook feeds and tiny little blogs nobody reads (ahem) because they, quite suddenly, are appalled at the way the system works.

And obviously, if the reverse had happened - if President Clinton lost the popular vote and won the electoral college - well, does anyone think Trump or his supporters would take that well?  Anyone?

When You Assume...

Before I put myself in the dubious position of defending this archaic - and by American standards, ancient - voting body, let me make a point that has been widely ignored since Election Day.

Everybody assumes that if we chose our Presidents by popular vote, Hillary Clinton would be President.  Makes sense, right?  She got a million more votes, ergo, President Clinton the Second.  

But wait a second...presumably, if we changed our voting rules, the candidates would have been notified of those changes...and would have run dramatically different campaigns.  Hillary Clinton would have been flying back and forth from New York City to Los Angeles and San Francisco, trying to run up the score in these large Democratic strongholds.  Trump would have set up campaigns headquarters in Texas or the South.   The rest of America would have had to watch as many campaign commercials as our friends in the battleground states. 

Or maybe not.  Maybe entirely different tactics would have been deployed.  Maybe they would have gone all Ross Perot on us and bought hour-long blocks on major networks.  Campaigns would throw out the rule books, write new ones, and learn things on the fly.  

Voters would act differently too.  I live in a "disenfranchised" state.  Not only was Clinton predicted at a 99.7% chance to win New York, but my 79 year old Congressional Representative had as little chance of losing her seat as my dogs do of not barking the next time the doorbell rings.  Senator Chuck Schumer ran for reelection against...I have absolutely no idea. Nobody in New York does, with the possible exception of the candidate and his family.  (And my Dad.  I bet he knows).  How many voters in non-battleground states didn't vote because they didn't think their vote mattered?  How many voters in battleground states had an extra incentive to vote because they knew their votes mattered more?

Here's the most telling data point: Hillary Clinton won California alone by 2.5 million votes.  This accounts for more than double her popular vote margin of victory.  Donald Trump did not campaign, nor spend a single dollar, in California.  California has had a Republican governor for 24 of the past 34 years, so there were votes to be had - just not enough to have any shot at a single electoral vote. (by the way, this also means Trump won the other 49 states by over a million votes).

Point is - the candidates, the campaigns, and the voters would have all acted differently than we actually did if we went by popular vote.  I don't what the final score would have been, and who would have won (neither do you) - but I'd bet everything in my pocket against everything in yours that it would not have been 62,409,031 to 61,283,176.

An Argument in Favor of the Electoral College

We know the argument in favor of a Popular Vote:  all votes count the same.  It's pretty much the only argument - but it's a pretty damn powerful one.

And there are numerous practical arguments against.  The difficulty of a recount, for example - which is much easier in this system (imagine Florida 2000 - writ large across 50 states!)

But the biggest argument in favor of the Electoral College - or at least, against the Popular Vote - is it would make Elections even more (if you can possibly believe it!) divisive than they are now.

Under our current system, Candidate Trump and Candidate Clinton didn't have to spend time in the liberal and conservative states they already had in the bag.  They didn't even have to spend time with the extremists in the battleground states (though some, to be sure, to drive turnout).  They had to moderate their positions.

Moderate, you scoff!  That was their moderate positions?!  Well, yeah.  Let's look at Trump's position on Muslim immigration, to take arguably his most controversial policy:

December 2015
 “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  Trump press release

May 2016
 “It’s a temporary ban. It hasn’t been called for yet, nobody’s done it. This is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on.”  Trump on Fox Radio

June 2016
“We must suspend immigration from regions linked with terrorism until a proven vetting method is in place.”  Trump on Twitter

You may hate all 3 positions, but they move from an opening position that is indisputably unconstitutional to one that isn't entirely different from Jimmy Carter's ban on Iranians during the hostage crisis.

What happened in May that might have caused this to occur?  Oh yeah, he effectively clinched the nomination.


The most tried-and-true national campaign strategy in American politics is:  tack to the left and right to win the nomination, then back to the center to win the election.  If you want Presidential campaigns that are about non-stop red meat thrown to the radical wings of the parties, you should sign one of those futile online petitions.

If not, well, you should consider the possibility that the Framers of the Constitution had reasons for doing what they did, and stick with this imperfect but effective system. A better one might come along, but it is not a Popular Vote.

* Harry Reid is the shameless King of the Filibuster Flip-Flop.   

As Senate Minority Leader in 2005, he said (of a GOP attempt to abolish filibuster): 

"The Senate was set up to be different, that was the genius, the vision of our Founding Fathers. … That's why you have the ability to filibuster, and to terminate filibuster. They wanted to get rid of all of that...That is a black chapter in the history of the Senate. I hope we never ever get to that again because I really do believe it will ruin our country."

Well, we got to it again, thanks to...Harry Reid!  In 2013, as Senate Majority Leader, he literally proposed the very rule he was attacking:  

"The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change, as it has over the history of this great country. To the average American, adapting the rules to make the Senate work again is just common sense. This is not about Democrats versus Republicans. This is about making Washington work — regardless of who is in the White House or who controls the Senate.

You almost have to admire the chutzpah.

Update 12/5:
Not surprisingly, Democrats are reversing course again on the filibuster.  (Many predicted at the time that the Dems would regret this move the moment the Republicans had the White House and the Senate again).  Here is Senator Chris Coons of Delaware (D), on CNN on 11/19 with CNN anchor Kate Bolduan:

BOLDUAN: But Senator, also a rules change the Democrats put in place could also come back to bite you. I mean, I don't get into the weeds, but Democrats made it much easier than a simple majority can push through presidential nominees. Democrats did it for themselves and now Republicans can do it as well.

COONS: That's exactly right. The filibuster no longer acts as emergency brake on the nomination --

BOLDUAN: So do you regret that?

COONS: I do regret that. I frankly think many of us will regret that in this Congress because it would have been a terrific speed bump, potential emergency brake, to have in our system to slow down the confirmation of extreme nominees. We're instead going to have to depend on the American people, on thorough hearings and/or persuading a number of Republicans in those cases where President-elect Trump might nominate someone, who is just too extreme to the American people.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Last Optimist

Why I'm Not (as) Terrified as My Fellow Americans of President Trump or President Clinton

Okay, you, with the Make America Great Again sign on your lawn...step down from the ledge.  I know, I get it - the Electoral College map is breaking Hillary, and you're convinced President Clinton II represents the downfall of America as a great nation.

And you, with the Stronger Together bumper sticker - don't drive your car off that cliff.  Yeah, the polls are tightening, you thought this thing would be over months ago, and now you wake up in a cold sweat, imagining Wolf Blitzer on Election Night saying, "In a shocking development, Pennsylvania has gone for Trump..."

Let me start by saying I don't have a Trump bumper sticker on my car or Clinton sign on my lawn. If somebody put one up, I'd take it down.

I think Donald Trump is an uninformed bully whose policies I largely disagree with - not just many of the ones his liberal enemies loathe, but also his inherently progressive view that the government can, and should, try to solve all of our problems*.

I think Hillary Clinton is an insincere and corrupt power seeker who will say, do, or believe anything that will get her into office*, and whose money-for-access shenanigans with the Clinton Foundation continues to be obscured by her "damn emails."

* These traits come into sharp relief on free trade.  Trump sounds like a liberal union chief who quixotically believes he can use the power of government to keep manufacturing jobs in the Midwest; and Hillary has completely flip-flopped on trade, not because she's changed her mind but because Bernie Sanders' popularity forced her hand.

And I think that the office of President of the United States - an intense, demanding, stressful job that requires at least a 4 year commitment - and possibly 8 - is not best filled by people in their 70s.

That said:  I am extremely confident that the worst fears of the "Trump is Hitler" and the "Jail Hillary" gangs are both paranoid anti-fantasies - and everybody should just calm down.

Or to quote my favorite President (who was loathed by many in his time), "This too shall pass.*"

 *  "It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words `And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride. How consoling in the depths of affliction!" - Abraham Lincoln, 1858

A Word About Hypocrisy

But first, let's dispense with all the Trump Traits You Hate - that you don't really hate.  Because if your candidate had these traits you wouldn't give a hoot.

For example, the fact that his rich Dad got him off to a good start.  Was this a mark against JFK or FDR, two Gods of the Democratic Party?  When Chelsea Clinton runs for President in 2040, will you complain that her wealthy and supremely powerful parents got her off to a huge head start?

Or the fact that he's politically inexperienced?  Barack Obama came into office with staggeringly little experience - a half term in the Senate in which he accomplished nothing but, well, running for President.  Besides, political experience is not a good predictor of future success.

And obviously anybody who desperately wants a restoration of House Clinton needs to be a little careful mounting their high horse about how powerful men treat women as sexual playthings.

As for the Clinton Traits You Claim to Hate...

They all come under one umbrella:  she is the epitome of the modern politician.  Focus-tested, truth-averse, kind to her friends and vicious to her enemies, and aided by nepotism. (This Politico story is a fascinating read on her version of Nixon's Enemies List.)

But these strike me as problems of degree, not of kind.  Trump, the Alleged Anti-Politician, suddenly became Pro-Life - about the same time he realized one needed to be Pro-Life to win a Republican nomination (as one wag put it: Trump has probably paid for more abortion bills than he'll sign).  And does anyone truly believe The Donald is being honest about his tax returns?  Or that he won't reward his friends and punish his enemies?

I've long wanted to come up with a term for these fake political beliefs - rich/poor background; experienced/inexperienced; extra-marital activities; flexibility with the truth - that only matter to voters when their candidate has the edge, and which become non-issues the moment their candidate doesn't.  Oh right, one exists already...

It's not that these things shouldn't be a factor in our voting - or rather, in the voting choices of undecided moderates.  It's that, if you're a true liberal or conservative, you're voting for your candidate no matter his background, experience, or family life, and will shift all your other "beliefs" to suit the current reality.

But anyway, here are some reasons neither President Trump or Clinton pose as grave a threat to our democracy as many of my fellow citizens believe:

1) America Ain't So Bad

I travel around our country quite a bit.  In the past month I was in Chicago, Atlanta, and DC.  I leave for Phoenix tomorrow, and will be in Charlotte next Monday.  And it's not just cities - I go to Eastern Tennessee and Northwest Arkansas and Southern Minnesota.

America is not as weak or troubled or doomed as so many think.

I know a lot of people who have good jobs, good lives, and whose family for generations has been on an upward track - and are in complete despair about the future of America.   And it's not just Trump voters - the entire Sanders Phenomenon was built on affluent college kids worried about their future.

It makes no sense to me.  I can run through a whole bunch of statistics to show you why all this pessimism is misplaced, but instead:  read Warren Buffett's annual letter to his shareholders (worth reading every year).  Scroll down to page 7 and continue to bottom of page 8.

Life is good.  We're just getting really bad at appreciating it.

2)  We've Survived Worse

Your town probably has a library.  Or a bookstore.  These places are almost guaranteed to have history sections.  You should totally check them out.  And maybe you'll stop worrying we live in this uniquely dangerous and threatening time.

Take for example, 1860.  This guy Lincoln was elected - and half the nation was so furious it seceded, and started a war that killed 600,000 Americans.  Since there were only 30 million Americans alive in 1860, that's the equivalent of more than 6 million deaths today - or double a 9/11, every day for 4 years.  Red state, blue state?  Try grey state/blue state.

How about 1940?  So many Republicans have been compared to Hitler it's hard to remember there was once an actual Hitler who invaded a dozen countries, murdered 10 million people, and is almost single-handedly responsible for a war that killed 60 million.  Oh, and if he won, roughly half the world would have been ruled by a murderous despotic psychopath.  (I know, all you Trump-Haters are nodding your head saying, this can totally happen here!  If so, please, let's find a way to wager our life savings against each other.)

I'm not saying we don't have our problems and that either President won't exacerbate them - I just think everybody needs to get a little less hysterical about how bad things are, or can get.

3) Presidents aren't that Important

Presidents are like quarterbacks:  they get far too much credit when things go right, and far too much blame when things go wrong.

Presidents do not create economic booms, nor are they responsible for economic busts.

Presidents do not create the technological innovations that transform our lives, nor do they create the technological innovations that, uh, transform our lives.

Presidents don't make teen pregnancy rates drop, or crimes rates rise; they do not create private sector jobs.

The first President Bush did not make the Berlin Wall fall.  The second President Bush was not responsible for the housing crash.

President Clinton did not make the dot-com boom that drove the American economy in the 90s.  Nor did he make the dot-com crash which crippled the economy shortly after he left.

The ability of President Trump or President Clinton to radically transform your lives is smaller than you realize - and even if they tried, there are these little things called Checks and Balances.

4)  Checks & Balances

President Clinton will almost surely have a Republican House.

President Trump will almost surely have a narrow majority in the House - and a lot of Republicans who personally hate him and intellectually disagree with him.

The two most significant Presidential Acts of the past 16 years are the Iraq War and Affordable Care Act.  Neither happen without Congressional support.  The first, with bipartisan support and the support of the American people.  The second with unipartisan support and kinda sorta not really support of the American people.

Presidents don't act alone.  I think both Trump and Clinton will have a hard time doing the things they want to do.

5)  The Unknown Unknowns

When Barack Obama took office, nobody had ever heard of ISIS.

When George W. Bush took office, few people had ever heard of Osama Bin Laden.

When Bill Clinton took office, there was no such thing as the web.

When George H.W. Bush took office, few people could locate Kuwait on a map.

Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis.  Nixon and Watergate.  Johnson and Vietnam.  Shall I go on?

Everyone thinks they know what Trump or Clinton Presidencies are going to look like.  Wanna bet?


Look, I know I'm wasting my time here.  If you think Trump is the Orange Adolph or that Hillary Clinton belongs in an Orange Pantsuit, absolutely nothing anybody says is going to move you off that position a little bit.

All I'm saying is:  this country is a lot stronger, and a lot more about a single Oval Office occupant, than it seems on the second Tuesday of November every four years.

If your guy or gal loses tomorrow, take a deep breath, count to ten, and repeat this mantra to yourself:  And this too shall pass.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

As Human Gods Aim For Their Mark

Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

The most prestigious prizes in the world are entirely subjective - based on no criteria except the opinions of handful of people.  Take the Oscars.  Back in 1998, the voters decided  "Shakespeare in Love" was a better film than "Saving Private Ryan", a decision that seemed ridiculous then, and hasn't aged well.  

The Nobel Peace Prize is particularly mockable.  Not just because Yasser Arafat won, or because Barack Obama won before he had done anything but win an election (to the President's credit, he was embarrassed about the award, and quietly inquired about declining). No, the Peace Prize is ridiculous because it's an award that is determined by a quintet of Norwegian politicians nobody has ever heard of.   As I wrote back in 2009:

"A prize that is decided by less than half a dozen Norwegian legislators should not get everyone so excited. Norway has roughly the population of Alabama, and its legislators aren’t exactly major players in world affairs. We shouldn’t care who wins, or who gets passed over, or what it all means. It doesn’t - well, it shouldn’t – mean anything."

Then there's the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I've been poking fun at this overrated award for a while now.  Again, we have a group of Swedish, um, book-readers? - deciding the most prestigious award in literature.  Why should their opinions matter more than the editors at the London Review of Books, or the subscribers for that matter.  And those Swedish arbiters of taste have had more than a few missteps since they started handing these trinkets out in 1901.  Among the snubbed are James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, and Henry James.  In recent years they've gone out of their way to ignore American writers, and one Nobel prize judge said this was intentional. 

Look, we know that Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world.  But we don't know that Svetlana Alexievich and Tomas Tranströmer (to name 2 recent winners) are better writers than Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth (to name two Americans who haven't gotten the call).  Down with the Nobels I've been saying for years.

And then, they went and honored my man Bob Dylan.

Me & Bob

By the time I joined the world's population in 1966, Bob Dylan had released 7 studio albums.

He had already told us the answer was blowin' in the wind, that a hard rain was a gonna fall, the times were a changin', that it wasn't him babe, and that it's all over now (baby blue).

He had introduced us to Tom Thumb, Queen Jane, Napoleon in rags, Hattie Carroll, Maggie, Mr. Tambourine Man, Johanna, and several Rainy Day Women.

He had revived folk, gone electric, crashed his motorcycle, and introduced the Beatles to marijuana.

So I was a little late on the Dylan thing.  As a young teen discovering rock and roll in the mid to late 70's, he didn't speak to me at all.  His protest music was a 60's artifact, his contemporary music mediocre, and his voice - well, I am ashamed to say I said the same thing many others had said before and since - a great songwriter, but please, let the Byrds or anyone else cover your stuff.

Then I heard Blood on the Tracks.  As a music listener, I still haven't fully recovered from that moment.  This was a personal album, about love lost, and about accepting that loss with grace (though the rage of 'Idiot Wind' punctures that grace*).  Every song was a masterpiece, with complex rhyming schedule, bursts of wisdom, subtle vocals, and yes, poetry.

*  "I can't even touch the books you read" is arguably the greatest insult in music history; though this bit from Positively 4th Street is in contention too:  "Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes.  You'd know what a drag it is to see you."

I went back to Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and his old folk stuff.  I dug into the Basement Tapes.  I was surprised at how funny he was - and how deeply, truly American.  Along with Van Morrison, he became one of my Twin Gods of Songwriting.  And I never looked back.


Can song lyrics be literature?  Of course they can.  Most of the time they are not - in fact, most of the time Bob Dylan's lyrics are not.  But put the lyrics of Shelter from the Storm next to Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", and it stands proudly.

Is the Nobel Literature Prize still ridiculous?  There are many here among us who think it's a joke -     a bunch of anonymous Swedish people passing judgment.

But in the end, we, collectively, as readers and listeners, get to decide what matters.  For indefensible reasons we've decided that a Prize, endowed over a century ago by the inventor of dynamite, matters.

And if it's going to matter, I'm glad they gave it to Robert Alan Zimmerman.  

Bonus Material:  I once made the case for Dylan to Dylan-haters in, of all things, a post about golf.  Here it is if you're interested...



Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Ya Gotta Believe?

How the Heck Did This M*A*S*H Unit Make the Playoffs?

Here's the lineup the Mets fielded on Opening Night, way back in April, with a comment on their season:

The Lineup
Curtis Granderson, RF
Stayed healthy all year!  We're off to a good start!

David Wright, 3B
Played 37 games; missed rest of season to injury.

Yoenis Cespedes, LF
Missed 30 games due to DL stint and injury rest.

Lucas Duda, 1B
Missed over 100 games due to injury. 

Neil Walker, 2B
Missed last 5 weeks of season to injury.

Michael Conforto, DH
Sucked; sent to minors.

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
Played poorly on bad knee in July; hit 15-day DL in August.

Travis d'Arnaud, C
Missed half of season to injury; came back and sucked.

Juan Lagares, CF
Missed 80 games to thumb injury.

Holy crap, right?  Luckily the Mets' strength is their rotation.  Oh wait...

The Rotation
Matt Harvey, RHP
Missed last 3 months of season due to injury.  

Jacob DeGrom, RHP
Missed last month of season.

Noah Syndergaard, RHP
Healthy all season!  (Though when he missed a start in September to strep throat, I nearly snapped.)

Steven Matz
Missed multiple starts through July; finally out for season on August 14th.

Bartolo Colon/Zach Wheeler
Tricky one.  Colon was supposed to hold the 5th spot down until Zach Wheeler joined the mid-team season.  Wheeler never joined the team.   

The Mets got 94 starts out of their 4 young studs out of a potential 132.

So how the hell did they make the post-season?  Did they do another Cespedes-type deal, bringing in a slugger to save the season?

The Mid-Season Replacement


Jay Bruce had a terrific final week, but the first 45 games was a whole lot of the above. (He really mastered that whiff-toss-the-bat-walk-to-the-bench move.)  Okay, I'm really confused now.  Did the bench really step up?

The Bench
Besides Lagares, who started Opening Night in an American League park, here were the other 4 hitters on the Mets bench that night:

Kevin Plawecki, C
.197 batting average.

Wilmer Flores, IF
Wilmer had a nice season with a .788 OPS.  But he's a Met so he got hurt and missed the last 3 weeks of the season with an injury.

Eric Campbell, IF/OF
.173 batting average.

Alejandro De Aza, OF
.205 batting average.

Jeez, the Mets must have had some kind of genius managing this rag-tag bunch to October...

The Manager

Okay, that was a little unfair.  But Terry Collins had a bad case of over-managing in September, driving Mets fan crazy.

Was the bullpen good at least?  Yeah, the bullpen was pretty darned good.  Still, that doesn't explain how this team is playing baseball on October 5th.  I can think of only one plausible explanation:

Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen:  when Big Sexy is on  your team, the impossible is possible.

Let's Go Mets.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Donald & The Bern

The Extraordinary Similarities between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders

[Partial Disclosure:  This piece offers no value judgements on the policies or fitness for office of either Trump or Sanders.  It's merely a commentary on the similarities and historical importance of their campaigns.  The full disclosure, my actual opinion of these two candidates, is at the bottom.]

For most of human history it was widely believed that democracy could not possibly work as a form of government.

Sure, the Romans had some modest success with a Republic, but its republican form of government was violently wrenched into civil war and empire by Julius Caesar.  Before that, ancient Greece had some early forms of democracy, but it was only successful in small city-states - until the Peloponnesian War divided and weakened  Greece, leading to the rise of Macedon and Alexander the Great.

The problem with democracy was the demos - the common people - who couldn't possibly be expected to rule wisely.   Thus, the Caesars, the emperors of China, the czars of Russia, and the absolute monarchies of medieval and Renaissance Europe.

And then, along came the United States of America.

The birth of our nation was watched closely by the Kings and Queens of Europe.  Surely it would fail.  Surely, a nation's people* - especially a people as primitive, uneducated, and uncouth as the Americans - couldn't rule a nation as geographically large as the U.S.  

* or to be precise: men who owned property

Well, we all know what followed.  The fledgling nation defeated Britain in two wars, the heads of the French monarchs rolled, a great Civil War killed 600,000 people and ended slavery, Anastasia screamed in vain, and the world's democracies - and one desperate tyrant - joined forces to defeat the most evil dictator in world history.  Suffrage extended to non-property owners, former slaves, and women.  Today, roughly half the world's countries have a full or flawed democracy. 

But very few of these countries are truly democracies.  They are republics.  And in successful republics, candidates representing political parties run for office, are elected by the people, and lead the country.

Which brings me, finally, to Donald J. Trump and Bernard Sanders.


Trump and Sanders have a lot of obvious similarities.

They were born within a few years and a few miles of each other - Trump in Brooklyn in 1946, Sanders in Queens in 1941.  They can both be reasonably described as loudmouth New Yorkers. They both have hair we have never seen on Presidential candidates.

They have each run what might be called a campaign consultant's nightmare.  They say what they want, when they want, and to whom they want - focus groups be damned.  Party leaders be damned. Media elites be damned.   In-state ground campaigns be damned.  Endorsements be damned.

They have gone directly over the heads of the gatekeepers - over the media, over the party elites - to speak directly to the people, to the demos.

And the messages they are sending to the demos have remarkable similarities:

America is screwed up.

As a result, your life is screwed up.  

It's not your fault your life is screwed up.  

It's somebody else's fault.

I'm going to fix it.

There are dramatic differences in their message, of course.  Who the "somebody else" is, for one.  For Sanders, its millionaires and billionaires and the big banks.  For Trump, it's government, immigrants and political correctness.

And they have very different solutions.  Sanders is going to break up the banks and raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires.  And Trump is going to build a wall and, well, just be Donald Trump.

Problems solved.


But the most remarkable similarity between the two of them, one that has gone too often unremarked upon, one that may change the course of Presidential politics for decades - is that each of these men has been shockingly successful in their quest for the nomination of a party that neither is, in any meaningful way, a member.

Think about that:  Bernard Sanders is 74 years old, and joined the Democratic party for the first time last year! Yes, he has caucused with the Democrats in Congress but was not a member of the party whose ticket he wants to head.

Trump, meanwhile, has changed party affiliations 5 times since 1987.  He spent the entire George W. Bush years as a member of the Democratic party, and only re-registered as a Republican in 2012.  He has endorsed a whole host of opinions - from support for single-payer healthcare and abortion rights to opposition of the Iraq War - that are bedrock beliefs of the 21st century Democratic party.

Much has been written about the crackup of the Republican party, about Trump the Outsider's hijacking of the party.  But Sanders, by some measures, has been nearly as successful at hijacking his party.

Trump has won a string of primaries and is now the favorite for his party's nomination. Sanders has a lost a string, and Hillary Clinton seems the presumptive nominee.  The Democrats, in effect, have successfully beat off their challenger.

But that's not because the Democratic party has any more control of its voters than Republicans - it's because the huge Republican field vs. the tiny Democratic field - and the ridiculous, undemocratic bylaws of the Dem primaries - gave Hillary Clinton an easier path to nomination than the army of approved GOP candidates.

Sanders has won a majority of votes in 1/3 of the 15 states he's competed in.  Trump has yet to crack 50% in any.  Sanders has inspired bigger, more passionate crowds than Clinton.  He continues to raise millions of dollars from an engaged and inspired base.  


What does all this mean?  In the short term, maybe not much.  Bernie Sanders is a huge long shot to become President, and Trump is still an underdog.  One of the establishment candidates will likely occupy the White House in November.

But make no mistake:  this election year isn't about a billionaire reality show host or an elderly socialist.  And it's not just the Republican party that has lost control of its constituents.   (In fact, liberal America may in the end be more enraged at the Clinton Restoration, since they feel cheated during the primaries).

For the first time since the slavery crisis of antebellum America - which killed the Whig party, sectionalized the Democratic party, and created the Republican party - the 2-party system of the United States is at risk.  This might warm the hearts of an enraged electorate, but this system has provided stability to our nation for 150 years.

Hold on to your hats in 2020.  Or throw it in the ring - I can assure you, many non-politicians will be doing the same.


[Full Disclosure:  I think Donald Trump is a dangerous buffoon and Bernie Sanders' understanding of economics is that of a precocious but incorrigible kindergartener.]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Reverse-Jinxing the Mets

Back in January of 2012, I wrote a piece called "Reverse Jinxing the Giants".  My beloved G-Men were about to face the Niners in the NFC Championship game, and after a brief discussion of sports superstition, I laid out all the reasons the Niners would win.

I'm not sure what I was hoping to accomplish, exactly.  Did I think the Football Gods were a slow-witted bunch, easily duped?  Perhaps.  The ancient Greek Gods  were constantly being tricked - by mortals, by each other, by various and assorted supernatural beings.  But the Greek Gods were a vain and horny pantheon, and nobody is more easily punk'd than a randy narcissist.

Would the Football Gods be fooled by my obvious ploy?  Perhaps.  Football players aren't exactly the intellectual giants of our age.  I mean, we all went to high school, right?  So yeah, maybe their Gods are as dim-witted as the college linebacker who needs freshman nerds to do their remedial reading homework.

But more likely, I was emotionally preparing myself for defeat.  I wanted to get back to the Super Bowl so badly. Either the Ravens or Patriots would be the opponent, and I wanted the chance to avenge the 2000 loss to Ray Lewis, or shut up all the Patriots fans who thought 2007 was a helmet fluke.  Either way, it worked, and to this day all you have to do is whisper the name "Eli" into the ear of a Patriots fan, and he'll go into an apoplectic fit.  (Try it.  It's awesome.)

Anyway, now it's the New York Mets who - like those 2011 Giants - have defied all the pre-season prognosticators, and made it all the way to the Fall Classic.  And I want it badly.

But, I'm pretty darn sure Baseball Gods are not easily duped.  Baseball is the sport of the poet and the intellectual.  Baseball, by American standards, is our ancient sport - not some newcomer like basketball and football.  Baseball is not played by freakish physical mutants - again, I'm looking at you, Hoops and Pigskin.  It is a game to be taken in slowly, to be savored, to be appreciated, to be studied.  Baseball is eternal.

As Terrence Mann says in Field of Dreams:

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh...people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

Clearly, I am not fooling the Baseball Gods.

But - Gods demand sacrifice and tribute and humility.

So, as a public service, I present to you all the reasons the New York Mets have absolutely no chance to beat the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series.

Ah, screw it:  here, read Ben Lindbergh's piece...

Let's Go Mets!

Related Content:  The Winter Classic

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Gate Worthy of Its Name

Shady Brady Sacrifices the GOAT

For 40 years, lazy journalists have tacked the suffix -gate onto every scandal imaginable.

Travelgate.  Irangate.  Spygate.  The ever popular Nipplegate (or if you prefer, Wardrobe Malfunctiongate).  Gate scandals have gone global, in Argentina, Korea, and Germany.

My personal favorite is Gategate, a mini-contretemps in England involving an actual gate.

But very few of these Scandalgates resemble the original Watergate scandal in any meaningful way. Until now.  Deflategate is a delicious scandal*, not just because it rhymes but because in significant ways it follows the story line of the original Watergate scandal.

* full disclosure: it's also delicious because I enjoy watching Tom Brady and the Patriots suffer.  I'm a Giants fan, and the two Giants-Pats Super Bowls, well, I don't want to say those days were happier than my Wedding Day and the birth of my kids, but well...and also, in the great Manning vs. Brady debate, I'm a Manning partisan.  When the cameras showed a shades-inside Brady sauntering into the Mayweather-Pacquiao flight, fresh from his private jet from Kentucky Derby, I muttered at the TV, "Take off the sunglasses inside, you insufferable douc-"...Okay, it's possible I'm not totally objective on this story.

Here's how Deflategate is like Watergate:

The Cheating was Unnecessary
When the scandal first broke in January, Patriots fans rushed to Facebook and Twitter to say, "It's irrelevant - the Patriots beat the Colts 45-7!"  Wrong answer.  What's irrelevant is the score.  Cheating is cheating, and whether or not you needed to is irrelevant.

Take, for example, oh I don't know, the original Watergate scandal.  A group of low-level guys loosely affiliated with the Nixon campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in June 1972.  5 months later, Nixon won in a massive landslide reelection - 49 states to 1!  He put a bigger whooping on George McGovern than the Pats put on the Colts.

I don't recall any of the Nixon Administration figures, grilled before the Senate, saying "Hey, it doesn't matter what happened - we won 49 states to 1, baby!"

The Cover-up was Worse - and Clumsier - than the Crime
Richard Nixon may not have invented 'the cover-up was worse than the crime', but he elevated it to an art form.

Tom Brady is no Richard Nixon.  And unlike Tricky Dick, Shady Brady seems to have been in on this plan from the beginning.

But still, there are intriguing  Watergate parallels.  The missing texts are the missing tapes.  The cover up included easily proven falsehoods like Brady claiming not to even know the equipment guy's name.  And of course, there were the constant protestations of innocence even as investigators were finding more and more evidence.

It's All About the Legacy

Richard Nixon's reputation was pretty darn good before it all unraveled.  His trip to China earlier in 1972 was a huge foreign policy achievement. He was on the verge of ending the Vietnam war.   And was popular enough to win reelection on a scale no Bush, Clinton, or Obama could even imagine.

Then came Watergate, resignation, disgrace.  

Tom Brady won't - and shouldn't - be forced to end his career like Richard Nixon.  But in the end, what matters most about this scandal is that it tarnishes his legacy.

Tom Brady is in the GOAT* conversation.  GOAT conversations aren't decided by blue-ribbon panels or by the leagues .  They're not decided by sportswriters or broadcasters - though they play a role.  They are not decided by stats geeks or league historians.  There's no vote.

*  Greatest of All Time

They are decided, if at all, by consensus.  We, the Collective Sports Fan, talk.  And we argue and we compare stats and titles.  And we call sports radio.  And sometimes, sometimes, we reach a consensus.

Wayne Gretzky.  Michael Jordan.  Jack Nicklaus.  John Wooden.  There is consensus that these are the GOATS in their field (though Bird and Magic and Tiger have their supporters.  The Great One and The Wizard of Westwood stand alone).

When Tom Brady won his 4th Super Bowl, he took a long stride towards winning the NFL GOAT award.  No player in history had combined Rings and Stats like Brady.  It was going to be difficult for Peyton Manning fans to argue the guy with one ring (and all the passing records) was the GOAT. It was going to be hard for Joe Montana fans to argue the guy with 15,000 fewer yards and 150 fewer TDs (and the same amount of rings) was the GOAT.

Tom Brady had laid claim to arguably the greatest sports laurel available to the American athlete - the greatest football player ever.

And now?  Well, everybody from New England will still vote for him.  And there will be pockets of Brady supporters everywhere.

But the consensus is lost.  With every pound per square inch the Patriots' equipment managers released from those balls, they released a bit of Tom Brady's claim to be the Greatest of All Time.

Bonus Material

The break-in guys in Watergate were the plumbers; and the deflaters did their work in the bathroom.

Ryan Grigson is Deep Throat.*

*  this is one of the interesting story lines that hasn't gotten enough attention.  Colts GM Ryan Grigson sent an email to the NFL before the game, alerting them to the possibility of deflated footballs.  Presumably this means this wasn't the first time Tom Shady sent his equipment boys into the bathroom to sit on footballs.  

Will Roger Goodell play the role of Gerald Ford, and pardon Tom Brady?

Update:  Apparently Not!  4 games, a million bucks, and 2 draft picks is no Ford pardon.

And finally, is Bill Simmons departure from ESPN the week of the Wells report a coincidence? Surely not...

This is just too much fun.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get back to crank-calling my Patriots fans friends.  When they answer I just go "ppppppppppppsssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhtttttttttt."

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Volunteer Commissioner

Due to popular demand (okay, one guy asked), I'm compiling all the pieces in the Volunteer Commissioner Series into one helpful post.

In the VCS, I graciously offer my services to fix broken sports.  Or rather, to enhance sports who have not asked for my help.  Some of my suggestions have already been enacted (You're welcome Baseball!) and some I've changed my mind about (the USA-Portugal match in the 2014 World Cup showed me the entertainment value of a draw).

Anyway, enjoy:

Fixing Softball (Women's softball)

The Loser's Out Manifesto (Pick-up basketball)

The Beautiful Game's Flaw (soccer)

The Slowest Game (lacrosse). 

The Winter Classic  (Major League Baseball)

Swimming is Boring (Swimming...which is unfixable.)

I was going to help out Major League Baseball again - incredibly long low-scoring games are not good for the sport - but MLB is already testing out some of the suggestions I was going to make.

And eventually I'll get around to fixing Women's Lacrosse, which has the single stupidest - and easily fixable rule I've ever seen in any sport.  

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Second Term Blues, Part 2

As Barack Obama prepared to take his oath for a second term, I wrote a piece called "The Second Term Blues", in which I pointed out that Second Terms have been, well, awful, over the past 50 years or so.  One point I made is that the things which blow up Second Terms are usually unexpected:

"Many Republicans believe they already know what will make his term a failure.  Massive deficits, 8% unemployment, the pending economic impact of Obamacare, Iran's quest for nuclear power, etc. 

But second terms tend to have quite unexpected problems.  Most voters had never heard of Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, or housing bubbles when they signed up for a second term." 

We're more than halfway through the second term of the Obama Administration and many of the issues dogging it were not campaign issues back in 2012.  Russian aggression?  ISIS?  A border crisis?

None of these are the Presidents' fault, but his handling of - and misreading of them - have been hard to watch.  He famously mocked Mitt Romney in 2012 for mentioning Russia in a foreign policy debate (“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”), and as recently as early this year referred to ISIS as a jayvee squad ("The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant").

Well, today, in the Washington Post, former Obama official and Harvard President Lawrence Summers argues that, perhaps, we should limit Presidents to single, 6-year terms.

Link:  WashPo story on 6-year term

It's not a particularly persuasive argument.  Second terms, in and of themselves, are not the problem. Watergate and Vietnam and Iran-Contra were not the results or by-products of second terms.  It's hard to imagine a 2010 version of Barack Obama would have been more prescient, or acted more wisely, about ISIS than he is today.

*  it's a nearly impossible what-if analogy, since the 2010 Barack Obama would have had American troops in Iraq, which would have prevented ISIS from erupting.  Indeed, ISIS is far more a byproduct of First-Term Obama and First-Term Bush than Second-Term Obama.   

And it's not like Bill Clinton suddenly decided to start hitting on women he wasn't married to in his second term.

Dang, I don't know what's best for the country.  What I do know is, if I ever become President, and have a halfway decent First Term, I'm pulling a Costanza...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Chasing Honus Wagner

Is Derek Jeter an All-Time Great?

Ever heard of Sam Rice?

Rice played for the Washington Senators from 1915 to 1933, and in that time amassed 2,987 hits. He hit .322, stole 352 bases, and must have had a great arm: only 4 right fielders in history have thrown more guys out.

But those 2,987 hits...  Old Sam just missed 3,000, and the baseball world has entirely forgotten him. Didn't even make the Hall of Fame till the Veterans Committee voted him in thirty years after he retired.

13 hits.  One more hit a year.  In Crash Davis' words, "just one extra flare...just one - a gorp... you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes... you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail...", and Sam Rice would have 3,000 hits.

And you'd have heard of him.  Because in baseball, we care about milestones.  We care about them a lot.

I bring this up because our old friend Derek Jeter announced his retirement this Spring.  He has one more season to brush up the back of his baseball card, to submit his final report card to Baseball Posterity.

He's in no danger of being forgotten like poor old Sam.  He's got his 3,000 hits.  Plus 5 World Series rings, 13 All-Star games, $250 million in career earnings, and 5 dubiously earned Gold Glove awards.  He's a lock for the Hall of Fame.

But is he, as ESPN (and many others have) asked, an All-Time Great?*

*  If you're one of those people who believe this sort of argument/debate is pointless, well, you're wrong.  Every sports argument, every sports conversation ever had, is ultimately about one thing:  How good is X?  How good is that player, play, team, game, season, coach, GM, sport, rule, manager, call, skill, prospect, announcer, camera angle?  And the best sports conversations, the most enduring ones, are the All-Time Great discussions.  Jeter, because of his vast legions of worshipers and critics, is, along with Brady vs. Manning, the best sports debate of our time.  

In 2009, I argued that he'd need to get 3,516 hits to claim that status.  Jeter critics have long argued that Jeter has too few individual accomplishments to rank among the best of the best.  No MVPs, no batting titles, no home run titles.  And for most of his career, he wasn't even the best shortstop in the league, as guys like A-Rod, Nomar, Tejada, Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez - heck, even guys like Rafael Furcal and Erick Aybar - had better seasons.  

Derek Jeter does have one all-time great skill though:  getting hits.  Yes, he's had a TON of plate appearances*, but he hit for a very good average his whole career, and all those dying quails add up. (And man, even his biggest fans would acknowledge, he was the King of the Dying Quail.)

* he led the league 5 times in plate appearances, and had over 700 ten times!  If you want to be an all-time hit leader, I strongly encourage you to stay healthy, and hit at the top of an order that scores 900 runs a year.

I argued that if Jeter reached 3,516 hits he'd pass Tris Speaker, and crack the Top 5 all-time, earning him All Time Great status.  In fact, the math showed that if, like Pete Rose, he stayed healthy and played into his 40's, he had an outside shot at 4,000 hits.

The next two years he got 341 hits, including his 3000th.  And he had a fantastic 2012 campaign, leading the league with 216 hits.  But 2013 was lost to injury and he announced his retirement for the end of the 2014 season.

Tris Speaker is 198 hits away.  It's possible, given his 216 hits only 2 years ago, but he turns 40 in June and is coming off major injury.

But there's another interesting target in reach:  Honus Wagner.  The Flying Dutchman had 3,420 hits, and moderately healthy season from Jeter will give him the 104 hits he needs to catch him, making him the shortstop with the most hits all time.

You still couldn't put his accomplishments quite up there with Wagner.  Like other members of the GOAT Club (Greatest of All Time), old Honus' trophy cabinet is overflowing with individual titles.  He won 8 batting titles, had enough pop to lead the league in slugging 5 times (no homers but truckloads of doubles and triples), and took the stolen base crown 5 times.

But if Mr. November picks up his 3,421st hit sometime this summer, he can show up at the GOAT Club meeting, turn to all his critics and say....well, something bland and boring, because that's what he always says.

But he will belong.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Remembering History

Why Gettysburg Matters

Two years ago, on the 150th anniversary of Fort Sumpter, I wrote a piece called Forgetting History, in which I suggested that the remembrance of history isn't all it's cracked up to be. In places like Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and the Middle East, long memories can lead to intractable, centuries-long problems.

I wasn't entirely serious, of course. I read far too many history books to mean what I said. But last year I visited the Gettysburg Battlefield for the first time, and this week, on the 150th anniversary of the battle I'm now fully prepared to recant that earlier piece. Gettysburg is the kind of place that makes me wish the English language could reclaim the original meaning of the word awesome - to inspire awe - and reminds us why remembering history is so important.  

For those who are a little hazy on what happened at Gettysburg, it is the largest battle fought in North America, the inspiration for the Gettysburg Address, and the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War.* After a string of successes by Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, the Union scored a decisive victory in Southeastern Pennsylvania. It would take two more years and much more bloodshed, but the cause of the Confederacy was lost at Gettysburg.

* I've yet to read Allen Guelzo's new book, "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion", but it's been highly recommended by people I trust.  For a miniature account of Gettysburg, here's Guelzo writing in National Review this week.  

How bloody was the battle? Consider this: in three days, on a field measuring roughly 5 miles by 2 miles, nearly 8,000 men were killed. To put this in perspective, in the past decade, in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, approximately 6,600 American soldiers were killed in action.

Rising Angels
The reputations of historical figures are like stocks - over long periods of time they rise and fall, sometimes in a steady pattern and sometimes sharply. Joshua Chamberlain, one of the heroes of Gettysburg, has seen a particularly interesting pattern.

On Day 2 of Gettysburg, the 20th Maine under the command of Colonel Chamberlain held the far left of the Union line, on a hill called Little Round Top. They held off numerous attacks by the 15th Alabama regiment, until they ran out of ammunition. As the 15th came up the hill one more time, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets, and with empty guns they charged down the hill, scattering the Alabamans. (For Hollywood's excellent depiction of this moment, click here.)

Chamberlain had many laurels heaped upon him during his lifetime.  He won the Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round Top.  He was promoted to General.  He was given the great honor of commanding the Union troops during the surrender ceremony at Appomattox.  And he served four terms as the Governor of Maine.

But it's fair to say that a century after the guns fell silent, his name was little-known to most Americans, except for Civil War scholars and buffs.  Then, in 1974 Michael Shaara wrote The Killer Angels, and placed Chamberlain at the center of his best-selling Pulitzer-Prize winning novel.  In 1990, PBS broadcast Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War, and Burns followed Shaara's interpretation.  Finally, in 1993 Hollywood filmed The Killer Angels (calling it Gettysburg), and Joshua Chamberlain was a star again.

*  by 'star', I don't mean he was nearly as popular or famous as, say, the 3rd Kardashian sister or whoever the Bachelorette is dating these days.  But he's nerd-famous, anyway.  

Thanks to Shaara's book, Burns' documentary, and Jeff Daniels' performance, crowds flocked to Gettysburg, to walk the hallowed ground of Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, and Culp's Hill.  But mostly, they wanted to see Little Round Top, where Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine made their stand.

Which, over time, began to annoy the tour guides of Gettysburg.  They grew frustrated at visitors who were ignorant or uninterested in the rest of the battlefield.  They felt about Joshua Chamberlain the way I do about Derek Jeter - great, yes, but not worthy of all the damn attention he gets*.

*  We got one of those tour guides last year.  I made the mistake of mentioning Killer Angels, and he decided I was one of those Shaara worshippers who needed to be set straight.  In fact, in our tour he ostentatiously skipped over the section of Little Round Top held by the 20th Maine!

I understand where they're coming from.  These guides have studied the battle inside and out - they want you to know about the Railroad Cut and Cemetery Hill and the men who fought bravely and died.  

But this is where remembering history comes into play.  Gettyburg was a large, complex battle - 160,000 soldiers fought for 3 days over 10 square miles.  And the Civil War was an epic war - there were over a million casualties over 4 years in a nation with a population of 30 million.  That's the equivalent of 10 million casualties.

Michael Shaara helped us to remember Joshua Chamberlain - and focusing on a citizen soldier who fought for his country because he believed in what the United States was and could be - helps us understand who we are today, and what we could become tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Maybe Not Next Year

These are tough times for Yankee haters.

Coming into the 2013 season, there was abundant evidence that the Yankees glorious 18-year run was finally coming to a close. As all baseball fans know, from 1996 to 2012, the Bronx Bombers won 5 world championships, 7 AL titles, and made 17 playoff appearances.  How did they do this?

  1. The simultaneous appearance of 4 great farm product players: Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, and Posada.  That's two lock Hall of Famers and two perennial All-Stars, arguably the greatest crop of players ever produced by one team in one year.
  2. The greatest spending spree in American sports history.  From 1999 through 2009 the Yankees signed or traded for: Clemens, Mussina, Giambi, Brown, A-Rod, Randy Johnson, Texeira, and Sabathia.  They outspent everyone for the best international talent (Contreras, Matsui, El Duque).  They did this while keeping the 4 guys above (except for a brief Pettitte Houston trip). If there was an expensive available player, the Yankees got him, and their payroll was regularly $50 million or more higher than the 2nd highest paid team.
  3. The Wild Card era.  The Yankees run started in 95, the first year of the Wild Card era, so even when the Yankees weren't dominant, they still made the playoffs.   They had 7 playoff appearances during this period that would have been misses before 1994, and won the Series two of those times*.
* four Wild Cards, and three seasons in which the Indians, formerly of the AL East, had a better record.  In 1996 and 2000 the Yankees won the World Series with regular season records that would've missed the playoffs only a few years earlier.  

But that's all over right?  Even before the great injury avalanche of 2013, the Yankees had seemingly returned to the pack.  Posada had retired, Texeira was in decline, and three aging superstars - Jeter, A-Rod, and Mariano - were in various stages of return from 2012 injuries.

The Wild Card system isn't going anywhere, but in the 19 seasons since the Jeter/Mariano/Pettitte/Posada bounty (not to mention Bernie Williams a few years earlier), the Yankee farm system has produced one great player (Robinson Cano).  And the Steinbrenner boys have said they don't plan on quite outspending their competition as much as dear old Dad.  

Things were already looking bad when the Yankees got serious about putting together the Greatest Disabled List Ever. Texeira went down.  Jeter's backup and his backup's backup. Youkilis, Pettitte, Nova, Joba and Hughes.   Granderson got hurt in spring training, returned for a few days, and got hurt again.

And the uninjured guys were, you know, old.  Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Kuroda, Vernon Wells, and Mariano Rivera are between 35 and 43 years old.

Last night the Yankee starting lineup included David Adams, Reid Bringnac, and Chris Stewart.  If you knew who those people were before this year, you're a more devoted Fantasy baseball player than I am.

So naturally the Yankees have the 5th best record in major league baseball!

What does all this mean?  Part of me is tempted to make the regression to the mean argument.  I mean, you can't keep fielding a team of 39 year old pitchers, those three guys above, and Lyle Overbay and win 95 games, right?  A team that features Brett Gardner as its 2nd best hitter doesn't make the playoffs, right?  I mean, he's a good player, but this is the frickin' Yankees!

And Brian Cashman has quite a task ahead of him the next few years.  Over the next couple years he's going to need: a first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, catcher, right fielder, closer, and a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th starter.

Where he's going to find these people?  The Yankee farm system isn't producing the way it used to.  Other teams have caught up in international scouting.  And the free agent talent isn't there.  Many of the best players in baseball - Votto, Braun, Trout, Cabrera, Fielder, Wright, Tulowitzki, Harper, McCutcheon - are signed for years to come.

But I've been burned before.  The Yankees exist in an alternate universe where the normal laws of baseball don't apply.  I refuse to allow myself hope.

But then again, this happened last night...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On Spielberg's LINCOLN - Part 2

[Spoiler Alert: In this post I reveal key plot points of the movie Lincoln, such as the defeat of the Confederacy, the end of slavery, and the assassination of the title charac - oops, sorry!]

As I said in Part 1, I'm less interested in doing a film review of Lincoln than I am in sharing some of my thoughts about the many choices that director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had to make.  Here are some thoughts on those choices.

Why the 13th Amendment?
Ask any student of Lincoln to nominate a storyline for a Lincoln film, I think you'd get a list like this:

  • The period between the Battle of Chancellorsville (Lee's masterpiece and the high tide of the Confederacy) and the twin victories at Gettysburg and Vickburg three months later turning the tide.  The movie would end with the Gettysburg Address.
  • His handling of generals from First Bull Run through his eventual appointment of Ulysses Grant.  The movie would end with the surrender at Appomattox.
  • The summer of 1864, as carnage engulfed the Union army and Lincoln's cause seemed lost.  The climax would be the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln's reelection.  The movie would end with Lincoln's Second Inaugural.
  • April 1865 - using Jay Winik's excellent book as a template.  The surrender at Appomattox, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and the assassination of Lincoln would be the 3 key events.

But Spielberg and Kushner chose to put the 13th Amendment in the foreground.  It's an unexpected and brilliant choice.  Remember how, in grade school, you were taught that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War, even though at 12 years old it sort of seemed obvious that it was?  Well, historiography has very much moved slavery to the front and center of Civil War studies, and a film about Lincoln that aspires to greatness must have slavery front and center.

Just as important, the trend in Lincoln studies the past couple decades has been to focus on his consummate political skill.  Honest Abe didn't just tell funny stories and give eloquent speeches - he was a shrewd and wily backroom politician, who perfectly balanced the factions of his own party throughout the war.  

The movie Lincoln zeroes in perfectly on those two twin pillars of Lincoln and Civil War history.  But still...if you wanted to make a movie about the politics of ending slavery, you could have made this movie:

  • From the summer of 1862, when Lincoln first considers the Emancipation Proclamation through the Battle of Antietam in September, the victory that gives him the political cover to issue it.  The movie would end with the official release of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.*  

By making the film they did, they surprised this student of Lincoln, and illuminated a corner of history I didn't know particularly well.  More importantly, they found the perfect canvas to place the end of slavery as the only thing that mattered in the Civil War, and to emphasize the role Lincoln's political genius played in ending it. 

*  If you're interested in the politics of emancipation, try William Safire's underrated novel, Freedom

The Assassination Scene
As I recounted in a post a couple years ago, Ken Burns once said he'd never been to Ford's Theater, the site of Lincoln's assassination.  He couldn't bear to go there.  The only explanation I can give for this scene is that Spielberg couldn't bear to go there*.

*  I won't describe the scene if you haven't seen it, but let's just say Spielberg films around the moment without showing it.

Or perhaps, he was striking some sort of blow at John Wilkes Booth by not memorializing his infamous act.  Booth was America's first assassin (and first idiot actor activist), and believed he would be made world-famous by his dramatic act.  Spielberg kept him offscreen, the way baseball broadcasts refuse to show the imbeciles running onto the field to disrupt play.

But the damn scene!  Let us, the moviegoer, experience the shock and horror.  Insult Booth by emphasizing him tripping in his dramatic moment - make him more of a cowardly klutz than a dashing avenger.

What a lost opportunity.

The Surrender at Appomattox
The surrender of the Confederacy was central to the passage of the 13th Amendment*.  But clearly, Spielberg didn't have the time to show this famous moment in all of its solemn glory**.  Nor did he want to skip it altogether.

*  although, perhaps not as central as the movie presents it.  Spielberg and Kushner take some liberties here, though as this post at Disunion shows, the story they tell is plausible 

I'm not sure what they could have done differently here, and perhaps showing Lee mounting his horse outside the Appomattox Court House is the best they could have done.  Showing Lee as clearly defeated and not as some chivalrous knight laying down his sword, has value too.

But I didn't find the scene quite believable.  Perhaps the problem is that the actor chosen to play Grant looks more like Sherman!

**  The modest commercial success of Lincoln will perhaps inspire other historical recreations of the Civil War.  They could do much worse than a film based on Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox

Lincoln slaps his son, Robert
This is the moment that has historians most perplexed.  There is no historical record of it.  There is no evidence he slapped his son.  If he did slap his son, it doesn't have very much to do with the passage of the 13th Amendment.  Unnecessary.

Where's God?
We live in a secular age - and Hollywood is a devoutly secular place.  But it is simply impossible to deny the significance of Christianity in driving the abolitionist movement.  (And for that matter, the 20th century civil rights movement.  It's worth remembering that its leader was Reverend Martin Luther King, and he didn't give speeches, he preached sermons.)  The typical radical Republican, as personified by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie, was a devout, even fanatical Christian.

But this film does deny, or at least ignore, the significance.  And in the only mention of religion in the movie, it makes a startling change.  Late in the movie, Abraham and Mary are in a carriage, and Lincoln says that after his Presidency he'd like to visit Jerusalem, the "city of Solomon and David".  But in Mary Todd Lincoln's own account of the story, Lincoln said he wanted to "walk in the footsteps of the Savior".

Lincoln himself, as near as we can tell, was ambivalent about religion, and certainly a latecomer to a belief in abolition.  But true abolitionists in Lincoln's cabinet, like Salmon Chase and to a lesser extent William Seward, were devout Christians, and it drove their belief in the righteousness of abolition.

It seems Spielberg and Kushner intentionally excised Christianity from the film.  And, to paraphrase Seinfeld, this doesn't offend me as a Catholic, it offends me as an historian.


I really didn't intend to write such a nit-picking post.  I loved this movie, I really did.  Every moment Daniel Day-Lewis was on screen I was utterly captivated - I truly believed I was watching Abraham Lincoln.

Perhaps, my admiration for the film and gratitude to Steven Spielberg for making it mean my standards are impossibly high.  And I found myself wondering afterwards more about the lost opportunities than the great moments.

But still...the 13th Amendment was the right choice.  Appomattox couldn't have been done differently.  The slap only took a second.

I just wish they'd taken us to Ford's Theater.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

On Spielberg's LINCOLN - Part 1

A Sort of Review

I have a long history of being disappointed by history movies.

My biggest disappointment was The Patriot.  Hollywood has given us many wonderful WWII movies and a few Civil War classics.  We've had great movies about WWI and even one damn good flick about The French and Indian War (starring this guy named Daniel Day-Lewis).

But for reasons I can't fathom a century of film making hasn't given us a single great movie about the Revolutionary War.  Indeed, Hollywood hasn't even tried very hard - there have been fewer movies about the American Revolution since 1900 than there have been vampire movies since 2000.  (I'm not kidding; look it up.)

So years ago, when I heard the screenwriter of Saving Private Ryan was hooking up with Braveheart himself to do a flick based on Revolutionary hero Francis Merion, my hopes soared.  Alas, while the film has its moments (the Yorktown scene is worth ten minutes of your time) its absurd demonization of British troops and the overacting of its star ruined it.

For several years now, I've been engaged in a similar experience of cinema anticipation.  When I first heard Steven Spielberg was planning a film about Abraham Lincoln, an historical obsession of mine, Liam Neeson was rumored to play the 16th President.  I couldn't quite see the rugged Irishman in the role but figured, hey, this Spielberg fellow might be better at this sort of thing than I am.

I lost track of the project until that magical day when the first press photo for the movie was released.  And my first reaction upon seeing that picture was - Whoa.

Another inhabitant of the Emerald Isle had the part, and the likeness was staggering.  At this point, I went into history geek fanboy overdrive.  When Tony Kushner was announced as screenwriter I wrinkled my brow - not much in his oeuvre suggested him as an obvious choice.   But who cares - look at that picture!

I tracked the casting with the sort of attention one usually reserves for their financial portfolio.  David Straitharn as Secretary of State William Seward?  Hmm, I can see that.  Kelly Leak from the Bad News Bears as Alexander Stevens?  Inspired.  The Sheriff from My Cousin Vinny as Edwin Stanton?!*

*  watching the film, I was surprised at how many actors from my favorite television shows appeared: Arnold Rothstein from Boardwalk Empire, Boyd Crowder from Justified, Sol Star from Deadwood

And then finally, last night, joined by the Rock Star, I saw the film.  I'm no movie critic, and you don't need another amateur telling you Day-Lewis is brilliant (he is) or that the period details are perfect (they are) or that the movie's surprisingly funny (it is).

But I'm a bit of a Lincoln buff, and am particularly interested in the ways he's depicted in fictional settings - and yes, all history movies are essentially historical fiction.   I found myself keenly interested in the many choices the filmmakers had to make - what to show, what to skip, what to invent - and found myself alternately applauding, criticizing, and puzzling over them.

I'll save that for Part 2.  But a word before I go there:

When I'm disappointed by a history flick, it's not because I'm a stickler for the facts.  My favorite history film is Edward Zwick's Glory, which is riddled with errors, inventions, and omissions.  Historian James McPherson in a brilliant review in The New Republic points all of them out, but concludes that Glory "is the most powerful movie about that war ever made."  McPherson argues that a movie is historical fiction and has a power to present the Truth accurately, even if it must change some facts to get there.

The big invention is presenting the 54th Massachusetts as consisting of mostly former slaves while in fact it was mostly former freedman.  The filmmakers wanted to tell the larger story of black soldiers - who were mostly former slaves - fighting in the Civil War, and changed some facts about the 54th to do that.

So, Part 2 won't be a collection of gotchas, or a chance to show off my Lincoln knowledge (ok, it might be a little of that).  More of an honest wondering over the difficult choices involved in packing four of history's most momentous months into a 2 hour movie.  

Go to Part 2