"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A pessimistic screed about the New York Mets

The New York Mets are now just a game above .500 -- after starting the season at 13-3 and looking like they were ready to join elite teams in the National League. I was pretty optimistic at the time -- as was the entire Mets universe. That optimism was a little premature.

Since then, however, the team is 23-32 since, has suffered through two five-game losing streaks and two three-game losing streaks, while only managing to win as many as three in a row three times. The team can't hit -- it is among the bottom five in nearly all offensive categories and it has scored as many as five runs in a game just 23 times in 71 games, only 15 in the last 55. It has been shut out seven times, twice during the current five-game losing streak (which also featured two one-run games).

Many Mets fans seem surprised by this, but it's tough to understand why. The team started the season with exactly one new everyday player -- Michael Cuddyer. That leaves seven players in place from a team that had one of the more anemic offenses in 2014. The assumption was that David Wright would come back healthy, that Curtis Granderson would regain his stroke, that Cuddyer's professionalism would rub off and the team would ride Lucas Duda's continued growth into offensive success. This has not been the case.

One reason is injuries: Wright, Daniel Murphy and Travis d'Arnaud have missed significant time and have been replaced by players not quite ready for primetime.

But injuries are just an excuse. The Nationals, for instance, have been without four significant contributors -- Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span and Jayson Werth -- for significant periods. The Nats have been just as inconsistent as the Amazins, and yet they stand a game and a half ahead of the Mets in the standings with some of their key players making their way back, a lineup with a better track record and pitching that matches the Mets almost man for man.

The problem with the Mets comes down to management. This starts at the top, with an ownership that treats the ballclub as a small-market team, and extends to Sandy Alderson's mix of inaction and bad signings, down to Terry Collins. I've been calling for Collins to be jettisoned for some time, mostly because this is a team on which there is no accountability for mental mistakes in the field, on the bases or at the plate. The team lacks consistent fight -- consistent being the key word. There have been stretches during which the team has exhibited an extra gear, but they have been short in duration and often followed by stretches of apathy. Isn't this the players' fault? Yes, but teams reflect the personalities of their managers and of their management -- and it is why Collins needs to be replaced. (Don't ask me by whom -- I don't know. And, no, it does not have to be Wally Backman or some star skipper who is currently out of work.)

Blaming Collins alone, of course, makes little sense. He is working with a bad hand -- one dealt him by Sandy Alderson. Alderson has his defenders -- he made three good trades (acquiring Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran, the swap of Marlon Byrd for Vic Black and Dilson Herrera, and Noah Syngaard and Travis d'Arnaud for R.A. Dickey). And he's made some good draft picks, which he has kept in the system. On the other side, he swapped Angel Pagan -- who continues to contribute to a good Giants team -- for Andres Torres, who is no longer in the Major Leagues. The little bit of money he has spent has been spent badly. Curtis Granderson has long been a one-dimensional player, a guy who either hits a home run or strikes out. He was 32 when Alderson handed him a four-year deal totalling $60 million. He signed Cuddyer for $25 over two years and lost a draft pick in the deal, and then told Mets fans that Cuddyer was the final piece to the offensive puzzle. And he has telegraphed his punches when it comes to trades, essentially telling the league that guys like Ike Davis and Dillon Gee were expendable, but then asking for big returns for both. In the end, he got nothing much in return. Jonathan Niese is next up on the trade front with the Mets facing some of the same issues as they faced with Gee.

And then there was the Jose Reyes debacle. This appears to have been a joint effort, with the Wilpons and Alderson misreading the Reyes market, pretending they were going to go all in and try to sign him only to see him walk after they let the Marlins set the market price. Why do I bring this up? Because the Mets, if they were not going to be serious about signing Reyes, could have traded him during the season -- a la Beltran. Intead, they retained Reyes, promised Mets fans they would do what they could to keep him, and then did nothing.

This, I think, sums up the Wilpon-Alderson-Collins regime -- talk a good game, but move forward with half-measures, all the while hoping no one will call them on it.

I don't want to paint too gloomy a picture, but it is hard not to, given the realities of the franchise. Yes, the Mets are awash in young starting pitchers (even after Niese is traded and Bartolo Colon leaves in free agency, the team is loaded with arms) and have some outstanding young relievers. Pitching is not their issue, but too much pressure is being put on the young arms. The kid pitchers have no margin for error.

If the team is going to be a serious contender this year or next, it will require smarter spending and the prioritizing of more than just power. They don't get on base enough (they rank 12th in on-base percentage), lack speed (it is rare to see them take an extra base on a hit or steal a base) and extra-base pop (they are 13th in doubles and 14th in triples). Their fielding is awful. They turn few double plays (only two NL teams turn fewer) and commit too many errors (fifth in the league), while also making poor decisions that do not show up in the box scores. These extend innings and can sabotage otherwise strong pitching performances.

My fear is that the Mets have little room for real improvement. Too much money is tied up in corner outfielders who are not producing and who are not particularly good in the field. They are getting homeruns from the shortstop slot, but nothing else, and Murphy does offer enough at the plate (he is a singles hitter who does not walk and does not run well) to offset his fielding deficiencies. And the guys who they are willing to trade are unlikely to bring in what the Mets need offensively. In the short term, the best approach may be to improve the fielding and work on getting on base -- a la the Giants, who catch the ball and make contact.

The Mets probably have enough to fight for a wild card and, if the Nationals continue to sputter, maybe the division. If they can get into the playoffs, their pitching gives them a chance. But they have to get in and, given that the Giants, Pirates and Cubs are also fighting for the wild card, it is not going to be easy. I am hoping my current pessimism is overblown, but the specter of Curtis Granderson hitting lead-off for another 90 games doesn't bode well.

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My vote for most significant year in pop music history is 1965, or maybe 1966.

Consider the list of records that were released:
  • John Coltrane, A Love Supreme.
  • Bob Dylan, Bringin' It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited (to be followed in 1966 by Blonde on Blonde).
  • The Beatles, Help! and Rubber Soul (Revolver, the band's greatest contribution to music would arrive in 1966).
  • The Byrds debut, Mr. Tambourine Man.
  • Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage.
  • Them, The Angry Young Them, notable for the single "Gloria" and for it being Van Morrison's public debut.
  • The Who's debut, My Generation.
  • The Rolling Stones, December's Children (and Everybody's), which features one of the first great Jagger/Richards compositions (The Rolling Stones also issued The Rolling Stones No. 2 and Out of Their Heads, which were great, but not ground-breaking records). They also released "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction)."
  • Sam Cooke, "A Change is Gonna Come" as a B-Side to "Shake."
  • The Impressions' single "People Get Ready," penned by the legendary Curtis Mayfield.
  • The Zombies' singles "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No."
  • The Pretty Things' single, "Roadrunner,"
  • Martha and the Vandellas' single "Dancing in the Streets" (the most notable of too many Motown records to list).
  • Tom Jones "It's Not Unusual" (and his debut record).
  • Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs' single, "Wooly Bully."
  • Paul Simon's singles, "I Am a Rock" and a solo version of "The Sound of Silence."
  • Otis Redding's single "Respect," definitively recorded by Aretha Franklin a year later.
  • The Kinks' singles "Till the End of the Day" and "Where Have All the Good Times Gone."
Also worth noting were The Paul Butterfied Blues Band debut and several releases by the Beach Boys, though not the kind of earth-shattering releases that would come later.

As I said, 1966 is close (Blond on Blonde, Revolver, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations," The Stones' Aftermath, The Who's A Quick One, Butterfield's East-West, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Claption, debuts by the Jefferson Airplane, the Monkees, Buffalo Springfield and Cream -- great records all, but the depth of the list just doesn't compare).

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Advice to writers

I used to keep this quotation above my desk when I was at The Princeton Packet. It got tucked away in a box when I left, but I found it this weekend. It goes back above my computer today.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Counter columnists with argument, not cancelation

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Jennifer Graham is under fire for saying some nasty things about Caitlyn Jenner.

As the indespensible journalism blog, Romenesko, describes it:
“Strong reactions” came in quickly after the column was published last Thursday. “Defamatory,” one person tweeted; “shockingly anti-transgender,” tweeted another. The Human Rights Campaign told P-G executive editor David Shribman that “Ms. Graham has no business serving as a columnist at a publication with a reputation as sterling like yours.”
There apparently was a near revolt in the newsroom, as well -- "'a shitstorm,' according to one reporter."
“The rank and file in the PG newsroom were incensed. There were murmurings of a byline strike by the Newspaper Guild until Graham was fired.”
The Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild wanted no part of it -- rightly, I think. As Guild president Michael Fuoco says on Romenesko:
"Many in the staff were outraged, as you can imagine,” but “I informed people individually that the Guild would not take any action because we shouldn’t be in a position to feel we should vote up or down on every cartoon, editorial or comment.”
I don't agree with the argument or the language used by Graham, who used her perch at the paper to trot out all the old nonsense conservatives have been flinging at the transgender community for years. And I understand the reader response. But as a long-time columnist who has come under fire in the past -- for support of gay rights, criticism of police, and opposition to the Iraq war -- I disagree with calls to have her fired or have her column canceled.

The question we have to ask is this: Where do we draw the line on political columns? I think using profanity or specific pejorative terms -- the n-word, for instance -- is out of bounds. Strongly worded opinion that is critical of both Jenner and the new cultural acceptance, even when it relies on tired tropes and arguments, does not cross this line.

Was Graham's column mean? Yes. Was it disrespectful? Yes. Was it possibly cruel? Yes. Is it profane and does it cross the line? I don't think so. Should her column go without response? No, and that's the key. The PG ran letters in response, according to Romenesko, and critics of Graham took to Twitter and other social media outlets. Suppressing Graham's views will do nothing more than grant conservatives another example of intolerable lefties and political correctness (overblown as a phenomenon, to be sure), contributing to polarization on this issue.

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dear New York Times: Can we label opinion as opinion?

This kind of story makes me nuts. It is cast as unbiased reporting, but really is closer to opinion than a straight explanation of what is happening. As Jay Rosen, the press critic pointed out, it is so maddening that it deserves a response:
I thought annotation was worthwhile, too (see above), and it led me to the brief analysis that follows.

The key point I want to make is this: The unattributed statements in the first few paragraphs are meant to cast conventional wisdom as fact, which then recasts recent history in an alternative universe, painting the Clinton years as qualitatively different in terms of partisanship than what we have experienced during the Obama years. Of course, the story doesn't overtly make that claim, but the implication is pretty clear from the way it chooses to describe Bill Clinton's

Let's look at the first four paragaphs (see the photo above of my red-penned mark-up). It starts with a conditional claim, that Clinton "appears to be dispensing with" with Bill Clinton's approach -- a phrase designed to distance the story from its main thesis, that Hillary Clinton has decided that she can't win "white working-class voters and great stretches of what is now red-state America" and that, in doing so, she will be foregoing an opportunity to use her campaign to unite voters and politicians. This assumes, of course, that Bill Clinton was a unifying figure in American politics -- a rather absurd claim given that the Democrats lost the House for the first time in 40 or so years while he was in office, and that the '90s were marked by the same kind of partisan gamesmanship we have been witnessing during the Obama era.

The writers, however, double-down, claiming that her apparent decision to "retrace Barack Obama’s far narrower path to the presidency" may be "a less difficult task than trying to win over independents in more hostile territory." according to Democrats, "even though a broader strategy could help lift the party with her" (unattributed comment -- i.e., the writers' opinion).
This early in the campaign, however, forgoing a determined outreach effort to all 50 states, or even most of them, could mean missing out on the kind of spirited conversation that can be a unifying feature of a presidential election. And it could leave Mrs. Clinton, if she wins, with the same difficulties Mr. Obama has faced in governing with a Republican-controlled Congress.
Bill Clinton, of course, did not have the "same difficulties" with the Republican Congress, or so the writers' rather confused memory would have us believe. Clinton did manage to get some things through Congress -- mostly the kind of dismantling of the safety net usually associated with Republicans -- but the reality is that his eight years in office offered a permanent state of investigation of his administration, a government shut down and an impeachment.

Clinton's broadbased election strategy, the story says, resulted in Democrats winning back the white working class. Again, this is at odds with reality. Exit polling showed that Bob Dole, the Republican candidate, won the white male and Protestant votes by significant margins -- something that Republicans have continued to do in the intervening years.

In addition, it is important to remember that Clinton won both of his elections without crossing the 50 percent popular vote threshold, and it could be argued that his electoral college landslides occurred because Ross Perot siphoned off just enough conservative votes to keep several states out of the Republican column. (He won Kentucky and Nevada by about 1 percentage point each and Arizona and Tennessee by less than 3 percent each.)

This is pure speculation, of course -- who knows what may have happened had Perot not run. This is why I turn to so-called "weasel words" like "could be argued." I'm not saying he would have lost those states, but saying Bill Clinton was a unifying political force bears no relation to the decade of partisan warfare that I remember.

The story is, as Rosen pointed out on Twitter last night, a case bias without self awareness:
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that there is some reasonable middle and that anything that deviates from it, any politician who claims a political philosophy or boldly stands up for a constituency, contributes to paralysis.

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