Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Baseball 2019 Predictions

Though it is still cold here in the woods of Maine, it is time for baseball - Sox start up tomorrow, out on the west coast - there have already been two games! The Mariners are well on the way to an undefeated season! etc. Spring is coming - it might see 50 this weekend! Time for our annual baseball blowout post - let's get at it, shall we?

AL East:
1. Boston - I may be a homer. When they fall out of contention, I pick them until they win; when they are winning, I pick them until they lose. There's no reason to pick against them this year (except the Yankees) - they brought back most of a dominant team, and while their luck may fail, or they may regress, they have plenty of areas where they could get better. Sale could last the whole season, or E Rod; the catchers have both hit in the past, and could again (at least league average, for catchers), and are both prime defenders; Devers and even Benintendi could get a lot better. So why not?

2. NY Yankees - They were good last year, if not as good as the Sox; they tried to bolster the rotation and bullpen, but they are not having the best of luck. Gregorius is out for at least half the season; Severino is having trouble; Hicks is hurt again. But they still have plenty of pop - Judge and Stanton, Andukar and Torres, maybe Sanchez healthy - they will be in the 90s at least, and could be better than that.

3. Tampa - they hired another actual starting pitcher! I can’t guess what will happen to them. They look dead, but they contend; one of these years they’ll look great breaking camp and disappear. Who knows. However they divide up the innings, they have a lot of pitching talent, and some interesting position players - they should hang around, hoping to pick off the also rans in the West and Central. Sox and Yanks are probably out of their reach unless things go very bad in the northeast, but Tampa should be in reach of the playoffs.

4. Toronto - they looked like they could be Tampa north a couple years ago, with Stroman and Estrada and Sanchez and Happ - it didn’t happen, and I don’t see it happening again any time soon. But pitchers are volatile - someone like Stroman could suddenly be back at his best. Stranger things have happened. But that’s just hoping for a shot at the Rays’ wild card spot, no more. Mostly they're just waiting for Vlad 2.

5. Baltimore - they've been cruising for a fall the last couple years, but when it came, it all came at once. Did it ever. It's not getting better this year - Davis is still around, to cash checks and strike out - Trumpb is hurt, but might come back. Otherwise, it's - not much. I suppose you need to have a couple of these teams around to get 2 teams over 100 wins in a season in a division.

AL Central:
1. Cleveland - they are starting to cur it close. They still have an all world rotation, they still have Ramirez and Lindor, two of the best in the game - though it's not certain when they'll have them. (Lindor coming in hurt, and getting hurt again...) They still have Tito and they have the AL central to beat, so they should be all right when they get healthy.

2. Minnesota - I am hearing hype about them. They were terrible last year - but very good the year before; terrible the year before that, and very good the year before that. You tell me. They are young, though not as young as they have been - players have stalled out (Sano), or left (Escobar and Dozier), but they still seem to be all right. They have a new manager, Rocco Baldelli, another young, smart guy - who knows. This is a year for winning, so why not? If everything goes right, they might challenge the Indians; if enough goes right, they might still challenge the Indians, if they fade, and stay in there against Tampa and whatever west teams show up after the second wild card. Decent contention is probably about right.

3. Detroit - might be a stretch, but they are not terrible, necessarily. I admit, along about here I start to tune out. Trying to form an opinion of which of these teams is going to get to 78 wins this year is not an easy or pleasant task.

4 Chicago - the pale hose at least have some interesting young talent. There was talk in the off season about getting into the Machado or Harper sweepstakes, but they did not get any of them, so what do we have? Another year of finding out if Yoan Moncado will reach base as often as he strikes out. 217 strikeouts! More than Joey Gallo! With 23 fewer home runs! He actually looks like he will turn into something, eventually - he’s not exactly a liability now (any more than Gallo). They might be sort of interesting, as a team, to see how they go.

5. Kansas City - I’d rather get on to the west now, thanks. They aren’t the team to win 78 and tease their fans with hopes of a wild card for a few weeks in August. They are the ones trying to win more than Baltimore.

AL West:
1. Houston - Like Boston and NY, they were incredibly good last year, haven’t lost a lot (some of their nice spare parts, like Marwyn Gonzalez, a couple pitchers), but they have plenty more where they came from (signing Brantley, developing people like Josh James.) They aren’t going anywhere, and I don’t think anyone in this division is likely to catch them.

2. Oakland - this division is interesting, at least. The A’s won a ton last year, but they lost some pitching and I don’t know if they have anything to replace it with. The offense looks okay - Davis and Piscotty and Chapman and so on - but it might not be enough. The rest of the division looks intriguing without quite being convincing. I suppose it comes down to which surprising starting pitchers emerge - of course that’s usually true. They seem to have the strongest base line to build on, though.

3. Angels - lots of joy over Trout’s signing, and hope when Ohtani is able to hit again, and - that’s about it. Still missing the pitching to really contend, I think, but a bit of luck gets them into the race with Tampa and Minnesota for that second wild card. Hard to see them catching Houston though.

4. Seattle - 2-0 start! They unloaded their expensive talent, and some good talent - Paxton, Segura, Cruz and Cano all gone - what does it mean? Likely that they sink down into the 70s and stop teasing us, but they never seem to do what they are supposed to, so who knows.

5. Texas - they still have some pop - Gallo and Odor (who came back a bit last year) and the like, but there’s not much more to say about them. Beltre is gone, so there’s less sentimental reason to cheer for them. They have the rotation of which 100 loss seasons are made...

NL East:
1. Philadelphia - screw you, all the rest of you! This is less about Bryce Harper than the rest fo the team - Segura, Realmuto, even McCutcheon, Robertson - it's a nice team, solid everywhere, with Nola to anchor the rotation, Harper to be an offensive centerpiece. Why not? The biggest drawback is the difficulty of bringing a retooled team together immediately - and Gabe Kapler, for all his merits, didn't seem to handle the team quite right last year.

2. Washington - they underachieved woefully last year, as if they thought they made the playoffs on opening day, and started choking early. Now they don't have Harper anymore - but they are still pretty loaded. Turner and Rendon and Soto, maybe Victor Robles - the rotation, which is very strong. This is avery competitive division, and they are as likely to run the table as anyone.

3. Atlanta - maybe. Some issues with injuries, but they are also stacked with young talent, and old talent - it's a good team. Acuna should be a superstar; the rest are solid everywhere. Again - this division is going to come down to who executes, and who stays healthy.

4. NY Mets - there's even optimism in Queens! DeGrom and Syndegard and Wheeler and - the usual story, a great rotation, offensive questions, defense. They added Cano, but who long can he be expected to hit like he has? Will the Confortos and Nimmos of the world step forward? If they do - this could be a very strong club. They have not had the best luck through the years, though.

5. Miami - they, at least, are not going to win the division. (Watch them win 90 games!) No.

NL Central:
1. Chicago - I am not positive about this, but I am inclined, cautiously, to think that Bryant comes back, Rizzo picks his game up a bit, guys like Schwarber and Happ hit a bit more, Lester's decline remains gradual enough to not hurt them, Hamels, Hendricks and even Darvish do some good things - they should manage it, by default. They will get flogged in the playoffs, because they are old and slow and dull, but that's a ways away.

2. Milwaukee - I like the Brewers. They put together a strange team consisting entirely of third basemen, center fielders, first basemen and middle relievers - and Ryan Braun - but it worked last year. Not as easy this year, but they can still win. They might end up the season with Travis Shaw pitching to Braun behind the plate and Josh Hader at shortstop, but if it works, what the heck?

3. St. Louis - they have restocked - Goldschmidt, in particular - they have a strong roster, players everywhere. But it is a tough division, and a few injuries or young players regressing or not developing, and they could fade in a hurry. I'm inclined to think they will be in the middle of a free for all for both the division and the wild card spots, with most of the West and East. Every one of those teams is likely to win 87 games ands finish in a 8 way tie behind the Dodgers.

4. Pittsburg - they aren't exactly awful themselves, though they aren't likely to be in that pile up. I could see them falling apart before I see them contending - they don't have a lot of real pop, their pitching might fade - but they are more likely to be in a high 70s than 60s, I think.

5. Cincinatti - I see they have been getting some hype too - though I don't know. A cast off rotation, a bunch of half or unproven youngsters, Joey Votto's declining years - lots to go wrong there. Enough that could go right that they could be hanging around the edge of the playoff scrum, looking for a way in, but it's not likely.

NL West:
1. LA Dodgers - they didn't get any superstars off season, so they have the same deep, solid lineup that has been int he world series two years in a row - oh, they got Corey Seager back - a better addition than Manny Machado, I think. They are having trouble with their rotation - but they have a mob of good young arms hanging around waiting for a chance - they aren't going anywhere. I think they can still put daylight ahead of the rest fo the division.

2. Colorado - this is a fine team. Solid last year, still respectable. They'd developed pitching! they have to keep doing it, but it's been working the last couple years, so good luck to them! Arenado and Story are prime players, Blackmon is still very good, the rest fo the offense is likely. I don't think they are going to win enough to take down the Dodgers, but they will be in the thick of the playoff hunt. Might havd the advantage, playing in a division with a couple bad teams.

3. SD Padres - are they a good team or a bad team? They have been developing pitchers again. They have some neat looking hitters. They have Machado now. They should get around 80 wins, with the chance to do more - but it's no guarantee. Manny knows how to lose.

4. Arizona - Goldschmidt is gone, but they still have respectable pitchers around. Offense is not promising. They might hang around, high 70s, but they might serve mainly to give the Rockies enough in division wins to take the wild card honestly.

5. San Francisco - the dominant team of the decade has come a long way. They still have a lot fo the players they had on those world series teams - Bumgarner and Posey and Pablo Sandoval and - the red sox last year had 1 player active int he world series from their 2013 team. (They dropped a second - Brandon Workman - before the series.) Sometimes you have to move on.

And so - post season? predictions?
Boston
Cleveland
Houston
+NY
+Minnesota
- I will predict the Red Sox coming out and winning the world series, but Houston is dead even as far as I can see.

NL:
Philadelphia
Chicago
LA
+Colorado
+Washington
- That's a weak slate, so I am going completely off the grid and saying Washington. Who could be scary in the world series, if they could actually get that far.

AL MVP - Trout of course, or Mookie, with Judge, Ramirez, Bregman as wild cards.
NL MVP - let's take Bryant for a come back. With Seager, Harper and Acuna in the hunt.
AL ROokie - Vlad, why not?
NL MVP - Robles
AL Cy Young - there are lots of options here. I will say Kluber, partly because they might be forced to ride him harder than the Sox or Yankees or AStros have to ride their top guys.
NL Cy Young - it's Scherzer's to lose, though DeGrom and Syndegard and Nola could all win it.

Scott Walker

It's been a couple years since he died, but I wanted to put up something to commemorate Scott Walker. (That's Noel Scott Engel, by the way, the musician, not the goggle eyed homunculus former governor of Wisconsin, who dragged the good name through the mud.) Walker started as a fairly straightforward pop singer, with the Walker Brothers, then shifted to a more sophisticated, darker style as a solo artist, Jacques Brel style, rich ballads with detailed stories and scenes, that became more experimental and surrealist as he went along. He then faded for a while - doing half-hearted pop projects in the 70s, surfacing every decade or so afterwards to release another record of increasingly difficult and experimental material. And then, mid-2000s, he must have found something - because after releasing records in 1984 and 1995, he released three in fairly short order, in 2006, 2012 and 2014, the third with Sunn O))). These records are, to be sure, daunting experiences - but fascinating, lyrically intense and detailed, musically surprising, and anchored as always by Walker's voice.

That's his life. When did I hear of him? Somewhere in the early 2000s, I imagine, a time when I discovered a lot of prog and experimental rock. Japanese noise bands like the Boredoms and Acid Mother's Temple led me to Krautrock and the more adventurous strands of Prog (Van der Graf Generator or Soft Machine), and somewhere in there, that led me to Scott Walker, specifically the old Scott records. I fell for immediately - the complex, dense pop sounds - the stories and images, the sad powerful melodies, and that voice, deep, rich, expressive crooning - I loved it. And the later records worked as well - they might fit even better with my taste for experimental rock, jazz and the like - fragmentary, constructed pieces, anchored by the voice.

And there we are. He was one of those people who is massively influential, but had become almost completely unknown. But you hear him in those prog groups (Pete Hamill in particular), in Nick Cave, I can hear him in PJ Harvey, Radiohead and a lot of similar British groups, as well as in acts that picked up his style almost whole - David Sylvain, notably. (Another favorite). It is strange to think that he was in fact very popular in the 60s, given how obscure he could seem in the present - though never completely gone. Sneaking into soundtracks (Futurama! Life Aquatic!), things like that. (Though so many of his songs sound like complete soundtracks unto themselves.) He was one of the good ones.

Some video: starting with the Walker Brothers, The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any more:



Finding performance video of Walker is very hard. The Walker Brothers were on TV enough (and tapes are preserved), but those aren't live. Walker had his own TV show for a while, but I don't think the video survives - but audio does. This is a recording of It's Raining Today, from his show:



Jump ahead 26 years and what do we find? Jools Holland presenting Walker, live, in the studio, with Rosary, from the Tilt album - full on late career Scott Walker, and live to boot:



What the late albums had, though, are very interesting videos made for their songs. Experimental films to match the experimental music. This is Brando, from Soused, the album Walker made with Sunn O))) - one of the strangest combinations you could imagine, except it makes perfect sense. Walker's deep voice and the band's low end guitar drones - Walker always liked drones (those old songs - like It's Raining Today - are often built on drones) and he fits in almost seamlessly with them. It's an excellent record, that one, a fitting end to his career.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

It's A Cold World Outside

2019 is almost a month old without a post. So much for resolutions.

There is not a lot to write about, other than politics. Okay - the weather - cold! not so bad here on the coast, but bad in the mid-west. We keep getting promised snow, but keep getting little storms that end up leaving ice everywhere - that might be worse than getting a good 20 inches of powder, to be honest - it's certainly less entertaining.

I could say something about sports - being a New Englander, I know I am supposed to be all excited about the local brain damage and steroids club heading for the super bowl again, but I can't muster it. I can find the energy to wonder if the Sox can fill out their bullpen for the season, though; and Liverpool is winning the Premier League! I do like some football...

And there is politics. I'm not sure why I don't write more about politics: politics is engaging just now, and desperately important. I know I stopped writing about it all the time because it was just too depressing, back in the days of Bush the Less - I turned to movies and music and tried hard to avoid driving myself crazy. Now? It is easy to despair, but on one hand, there's not much room for the luxury of despair, and on the other - Trump and the Republicans hold power by the thinnest of margins, and any work to take that power away from them has the chance to do it. You can see that - the Democratic party has come back strong, and moved to the left doing it - we have responded well, over all. Fight the good fight and all that.

The other problem, though, is that there is so much to write about - and so much talk about it already. So far this month we have had the shut down, and all that entailed. Trump's baby and he got stuck with it and had to back off in the end. Labor! shut down the airports! and the Democrats not blinking: they were right, they always had the votes, etc...

Or the MAGA kids vs the Native American parade. Everyone has an opinion on that. The right wing loonies managed to twist the story enough that people began doubting their eyes and ears - they are a shameless and astonishing bunch. I don't know if it they would be better or worse if they just said what they meant from the beginning: "He's a white kid, the old guy is some kind of foreigner, and probably a liberal. People like that should be silenced." This week, Jussie Smollett, a black, gay actor, was attacked by (allegedly) racist homophobes - I imagine again, the right will find ways to attack the victim and defend the attackers, and never quite say what they mean: "He's black and gay - he should be lynched."

That's harsh. Sorry, MAGA hat wearing fascists; go fuck yourselves.

Or a series of mass shootings, by young white guys - including a man executing 5 women in a bank - yeah. We still don't address that as a country - the degree to which violence is still gendered, men against women. Racism is real and pervasive, but so is misogyny. There are signs, real signs, that the country as a whole is becoming less racism, less homophobic, less misogynist - but that very loss of white, male, power seems to be inspiring more aggressive open terrorism against blacks (and other ethic groups), women, gays. Encouraged by the fascists in the wWhite House. Fuck them all.

Sorry. That was harsh. Where was I? Venezuela seems to be getting worse (somehow), and now members of the Trump administration are floating the idea of getting involved, sending troops, that kind of thing. Good god. Though it is predictable enough - as Trump's hold on power gets more and more precarious, it is likely they will try more extreme ways of holding power. Flirting with a "national emergency" during the shut down was bad - starting a war somewhere is simpler, maybe, more traditional, among Americans. Their defenders saying openly a war with Venezuela will "unite" the country - not even trying to pretend, are they. Though of course they are also typically ignorant of history: wars do not unite much of anything, unless they are either widely popular before they start, or someone attacks you. Did war in Iraq unite the country? did war in Vietnam? invading Mexico in 1846 tore the country apart, was a major step toward the Civil War in this country. Even WWI created significant rifts. People look at WWII, and they say, war will bring us together - but wars don't do that. They are at least as likely to wreck the current administration as save it. (See Richard Nixon and Barack Obama. Hell - Ike got elected because of Truman and Korea.)

Thus current events. Future events? the 2020 presidential campaign is starting to get into gear. Acquaintances on the internet are starting to get stupid - someone said something about Democrats losing to Trump again - I'm not sure how that is going to happen. Trump won in 2016 because of James Comey, the Russians, the press pissing on itself, and the Electoral College - you can add in whatever degree of hatred you have for Hillary Clinton if you like - and even then, in the end, it was the Electoral college that did it. In 2020, we will still have the Electoral College, we will probably have Russians playing games, and the press (if there is any of it left), is as likely as ever to let itself get played by the right wing propagandists - but everything else is going the other direction. No one will be in Comey's position - who is going to trust anything coming from the Trump administration? The country will have had 4 years of Trump, and has been going as hard as they can in the other direction. What's better, as a Democrat, is that not only are people voting for Democrats, but the Democrats themselves are moving left - that has been true since the middle of the Bush administration at least, but it is getting more significant all the time.

And as far as the presidential campaign goes - I like the way the Democrats are shaping up. There were good choices in 2008 - but in 2016, no one had emerged to challenge Clinton, who, whatever her merits, was something of a relic from the days when the Democrats thought they had to move right to get more votes. Sanders came along, and he was all right, but he never had a chance to win the primary, and didn't always react to losing with the sense or grace one would like. But this time? Going on both the people who have declared for presidency and those flirting with it - I see four people I could be enthusiastic about: Gillibrand, Warren, Harris and Sharrod Brown. I see a number of others I either like with some reservations or don't know enough about - Klubuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker - maybe even Pete Buttigieg, though he seems like the longest of shots. Any of them would be fine, even now. And beyond that are a couple people who I am not voting for in any primaries, and don't really want clogging up the race - Sanders again, and the inexplicable idea of Joe Biden running - but would happily support in any general election. (Hell, Clinton would fit into this, though I don't think she's fool enough to get involved this time.) That pretty much leaves Tulsi Gabbard - right wing crank in the wrong party? - on the outside.

That's a great set of choices. I suppose you can find faults in all of them, but grownups weigh pros and cons and make their choices - and though a lot of Democrats and liberals (especially the ones who call themselves "progressives" and complain about Democrats) don't sound like grownups a lot of the time, they usually end up acting the part. (Though less whining about whoever we do put forward would be nice.) If the republic can survive these next two years, we should have a pretty good president in place to start the 2020s, and we might have even better options in 10 or 12 years. Though surviving those two years might not be assured.

And of course, we might all be under 10 feet of water 10 years from now. There's always that....

Monday, December 31, 2018

Another Year Older a New One Just Begun

Hello world, time to say good bye to another year. Not sure I'll miss it.

I have not been in here at all this year. Looks like 17 posts, from a new year's post to Armistice Day. That puts paid to resolution #1 - I did not get back to posting regularly! or at all! If not for the Red Sox (three world series posts!) and Wonders in the Dark (four television posts!), we'd be down to 10. I am not sure what I can say about all this: I have had time to write, and have, written plenty for other purposes. Nut nothing that makes for good blog posts. I suspect one reason is that I have also almost stopped watching movies - that is also very strange, since I have had plenty of time to watch films; I just haven't. Given how much of my blogging has been about films, that will knock things down some. I suppose if I wanted to I could note that my lack of blogging is the way of the world these days - blogs are an old, outdated, fading form of internet communication. I suppose I should move to Twitter, though that makes no sense to me at all. I still can't figure out the appeal of writing one liners all day. It's like communicating by telegram after email was invented. (Though that actually makes it seem rather cool.) I suppose some people treat it like a conversation - I shudder at the thought....

All right. I won't dwell on it. I will go on foolishly hoping that this year I will start posting again. I hope for a lot of things. Stranger things have happened - though I'm not counting on it. But hoping...

I could dwell on the continued disintegration of the Republic. The Donald Trump era is a train wreck at every level. His administration is a chaos of incompetence and criminality, though no one is willing or able to hold them to account. But even without anyone holding them to account, his administration has disintegrated - half the cabinet is currently "acting", as is the white house chief of staff; swaths of former officials are indicted or convicted, some of them singing to the rafters, some hoping for that pardon; the government is shut down, directly because of Trump (the rest of the party managed to come up with the votes to prevent it, but Donnie boy scotched it); he himself is close to the point where the only way he can stay out of prison is to stay in the white house. He'll lock himself in and barricade the doors, until the Russians find a way to sneak him out, probably. All that occurs alongside the signs of an economic collapse (caused by Trump's shenanigans, as well as the erosion of Obama's policies, which did well to shore up the economy, if not make it all that great), and escalating domestic tensions, and vicious policies that have killed two kids on the border already this winter...

On the other hand, in less than a week, the Democrats will resume control of the House; GOP still has the Senate, but who knows what they will do. When they see that their chances are better with Pence than Trump, he's done. That may or may not come soon. Two years from now there will be an election, and if Trump is not out of office, we will be in such a shambles, the Republicans will be lucky to carry South Carolina. Because it will be Trump's fault and he will be blamed. So - if we last that long - not that there will necessarily be much left to save by then.

And so. This is a strange time to be alive: we are in as much trouble as a country as we have been in a long time, and all of it is completely self-inflicted. We aren't being attacked from outside; we survived the economic crisis of the late 00s (by electing Democrats). Things are actually better in a lot of ways - though the things that are better are a big part of what is wrong with us. The rump of white racists and misogynists and homophobes can see that they have lost the country, and they are fighting very hard to keep it. The issues are not as obvious as slavery was, but it's the same fight. Almost literally - ginning up fights with Mexico... what is this, 1845? Who gets to be treated like an American? a human being? A reason things are the way they are right now is that we have expanded the idea of who is a human being far enough to frighten the people who want to limit it. They fight back (racists and misogynists and homophobes and authoritarians), and they find they have the constitution with them.

I worry for the republic: not just because the bad people are in charge, but because I am not sure the structure of the nation is on the side of good. In some ways, democracy and equality have spread far enough in law and practice that the constitution is explicitly against them. Civil rights, voting rights, attitudes have advanced to the point that the anti-democratic elements of the constitution hold the country back. The Senate, the electoral college, maybe even the courts as constituted - even states themselves - all work against freedom and democracy as they are practiced, or would be practiced, in the USA. The amendments work against this, sometimes - dear old 14th! - but much of the rest of the structure of government seems to work against the freedom and democracy we have achieved, on paper at least. We are more and more able to talk about what is wrong with the country, from its deep baked racism to its inequality, to its inability to institute the kinds of basic services most of the first world instituted decades ago - but we can't do enough, because our government is designed around ancient institutions designed to keep the mob from ruling. It is a cause for concern.

Well - plenty to worry about in the coming year! A year from now, the 2020 presidential campaigns will be in full swing. That should be edifying. Odds are good we'll be looking at some kind of proceedings against Donald Trump in the next year - at least, constant hearings in the House, dredging up all the filth around old short fingered vulgarian. Though the astonishing thing with Trump is that almost nothing that comes out about him is new: he has done most of his monstrous behavior in plain sight. He survives based on chutzpah and bribery (pass tax cuts, keep the orthodox republicans in line!) and those outdated institutions. He won't survive for long; he'll be voted out the first chance the country gets, if he lasts that long - even the ancient wobbly constitution we have won't keep him around more than a term... But that's enough time to ruin everything. He and the GOP is working hard to prevent Americans from voting - it could all break. And that is terrifying, because when it is clear there is no legal salvation from him, why does he think he will still be saved? He can bring it all down - certainly his own regime... though what replaces it might not be the answer that we're looking for.

So there you go. 2018 - a disaster in the world at large, though with signs of hope. The Democrats have the House; the wheels of justice grind on; Trump himself is a collapsing mess. And if the economy doesn't collapse, and we don't get into a war, and Trump doesn't try to impose martial law, the world will go on. Movies and music and books will come out, I'll hate myself if I don't watch them or listen to it or read any of it. Maybe I will write, maybe I will moan about not writing. They will stage sporting events - it was a good year for me there, as the Crimson Hose won it all, with one of the most dominant teams of all kinds. And being a soccer fan I can revel in Liverpool's success (owned by the Red Sox, which is enough for me to pick out an English football team to root for), which was revel worthy indeed in 2018. And - so it goes. I hope to be back here more often, but even if I'm not - I imagine I'll be in it intermittently... So Happy New Year, increasingly hypothetical reader! I wish you the best.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The End of the War to End All Wars

100 years ago today, 11/11/1918 at 11:11 AM (Paris time) an Armistice ending the Great War went into effect. The fighting stopped; the guns fell silent. (There's a Vonnegut quote going around today, about the moment the war ended: "I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God.")

The war did not end, officially - that took a couple more years, and when it happened, the resulting treaty went a long way to starting the next, even worse war. The fighting did not stop - there was still a war in Russia, involving most of the countries fighting WWI; that war only got worse in the next couple years. Even on the last day of the war, typically for WWI, the combatants were scrambling for position, and another 2,738 men were killed and 10,000 odd wounded. But the utter catastrophe that was the Great War ended.

The War to End All Wars did not, in fact, end wars; the war to Make the World Safe for Democracy, did not, in fact, make the world safe for democracy. People did try, though - not very effectively, probably because the unchecked power politics that started the mess continued without interruption. England and France made Germany pay; they worked to isolate the new Soviet Russia; they remade the maps of Europe and the Middle East without very effective consultation with the people they were redistributing, and usually to serve their own interests; they paid no mind to the interests of their colonies, and divided up German colonies (as "mandates" rather than outright possessions, but that's not the strongest distinction in history.)

But that doesn't diminish the importance of this day. (It might betray the importance of this day, though.) The war ended: soldiers went home, families were reunited, countries had the chance to recover, the places where the war raged could try to rebuild. And people did try to do something about this thing that had just happened. The Great War was a massive trauma - psychologically as well as physically. The war broke the world, which had seemed to reach a kind of comfortable stasis in 1914 - at least in western Europe and places like the USA - that was gone, any expectation of uninterrupted progress and improvement was gone - it felt like the end of the world. And (as I've harped on before) there was nothing here to take comfort from, except the fact that it ended.

And that leaves this day as the one good thing about that war. It made it a symbol of the desire for peace, the work of making peace. It is the symbol of remembering the horrible things men do to one another; the horrible things, as well, our machines to do us. The horrors were documented, film and photography, and famous poetry and art - there is a reason governments try to suppress those images: it does not pay to think too much about what a bullet can do to a body. Let alone gas....

I have let my First World War posts slip lately - there are lots of things in the war and around the war to write about, and I wish I were still as energetic about them as I had been. We live with the consequences of this war, maybe more than any other war; we live with the failure to actually build on the end fo this war. (We did far better after the next one, though I fear a lot of that was directly related to the fact that the winners were divided into two camps almost as hostile as the two sides had ever been. So we rebuilt Germany and Japan to thwart the Soviets - cynical reasons, maybe, but we did it, and it worked. At least for Germany and Japan.) I have been stunned, living in this country, the last two years - thinking about "making the world safe for democracy" is a bitter thing to swallow in a country where democracy has been so eroded in the last couple years. Maybe that will change, as we slowly bring things right in the USA - I don't know. WE can still vote, though; when we vote, we can still take power. Maybe we can fix it.

And maybe, we can look at the one good thing from World War I: the fact that after after 4 years of evil and destruction, we managed to stop.

Monday, October 29, 2018

World Champion Boston Red Sox!

Having posted twice on the World Series, might we well go for the trifecta. The Red Sox have won again, 4th since 2004, starting this century like they started the last one. This time, maybe they won't sell off Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers and company to finance a broadway show. It does look like this won't be the last time they hoist the silverware with this lot. It's interesting how much turnover there was between the previous squads - Papi was there for all three, and a bunch of of the 07 team - which had a good young core, like this one - were still around in 2013 (and might have been still around this year, if Pedroia were healthy or the team had resigned Jon Lester like everyone thought they should)... Otherwise, the only 2013 players active in both world series' were Xander Bogearts and Joe Kelly - though he was on the other side then. Workman was around for most of the post-season of both, but not the world series. Jackie Bradley was around the 2013 team, though not in the post-season. But this team - Betts and Benny and Xander and Raffy are all young; Vazquez as well (and he reminded people in the series why he's going to be a premier catcher in the league), Bradley isn't old; JD Martinez can DH for a few years yet. The pitching is all about 30. They can ride that core for a while. They'll have to pay them sooner or later, but they are rich - they ought to find some better young talent to replace the older guys, but that's a problem for the future. This team has a couple more runs it in without major changes - though so do the Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, maybe even the Cubs, never mind if the Indians decide to spend, or the Braves and Phillies and such can keep moving in the right direction. Anyway...

The last couple games were vintage 2018 Red Sox. Game 4 looked scary for a while - great pitching duel that blew up when Vazquez threw a double play ball away, and Puig lost one - but that's not the end of the story. The Sox looked drained by those 18 innings, but so were the Dodgers - and the Sox held all their bullpen guys to an inning each, while a lot of the Dodgers worked a couple. And so Baez and Urias, who'd been the best the Dodgers had had to that point, weren't around at the end of game 4, and it showed. Homers and then cue shot doubles and line drive singles and hustling to beat out a double play and squibs in the infield set up Steve Pearce to gap them, Bogie to get a big hit. The Sox meanwhile had Barnes and Kelly in the pen - and Kimbrel, who made a 5 run lead look all too inadequate - he might have hit his wall, since he'd been very good in the world series.

And game 5 was a perfect masterpiece: Pearce goes bridge in the first, and after Price started the game with a bad pitch, he didn't give them much else. Maybe next year, the Sox should use Price on 3 days rest all year, and let him close between starts - why not? He went 7+ and looked like he could have found a way to the end, and started game 6 as well. He dumped his reputation as a choke artist in the post season, but it's notable that he had always been effective out of the pen in the post-season - for Tampa, for Toronto, for Boston, last year. I always thought, why not accept it? move him to the pen outright, let him pitch 2 innings every day - he seems to thrive on it. Cora said something like that - he wants to be involved in every game - maybe he should be their closer. Though would be be better than Sale? who, in fact, did close it out, as dominatingly as you could ask. Struck out the side - Manny Machado (favored enemy of Sox fans everywhere), down on his knees waving helplessly at a slider. Yes.

And there it was. This post-season looked more tense than it was - it felt like the Dodgers, Astros, even the Yankees, were making the Sox work - but they ended up winning 3-1, 4-1, 4-1, dominating a bunch of those games, with even the nail biters being the work of uncertain relievers (Kimbrel), who still always got the last out. For all the appearance of angst, there was almost never any real drama. I suppose overcoming a 0-4 deficit in the last three innings of game 4 counts - but compared to the 04 or 07 championship comebacks, or the Big Papi grand slam against Detroit in 2013, it was just a nice comeback. That 18 inning game made this series epic - and game 4 was a good one too, though once the Sox started hitting they didn't stop, especially against the second rank of Dodgers relievers... but the 2013 series felt more competitive - you could imagine that team losing. This one - hard to picture, though it was easy to forget it. From day one - they had a nice lead over Tampa, and Joe Kelly gave it all away - then they didn't lose for a month. They could start to look ready to fade, and they'd run off 6 in a row. Mookie would go 0-14 or something, and you'd think - shit, he's choking! - And he'd hit a home run to break a game open. It was a thing to see.

And finally - how gratifying is it to see a game turn on a great starting pitcher? Price in game 5 - though this came after Hill in 4 (and E Rod until the defense and Cora messed up), Buehler, Price in game 2 - Eovaldi at the end of game 3... Granted we got the usual second guessing, including someone at the white house using Trump's account to weigh in on taking out Hill. Yes, the bullpen promptly failed - but if Roberts had left Hill in and he got tagged - what then? It's doubly ironic because Cora made exactly the opposite decision with E Rod in the 6th, with exactly the same results - 3 run bomb! Cora handled his pitchers brilliantly, I think; Roberts stayed closer to the script - though in a way they were both playing the rosters they had. The Dodgers had bullpen depth; the Sox had half a good bullpen, and a bunch of starts with rubber arms and the willingness to use them. The Sox guys did their jobs; the Dodgers did in a couple games, and didn't in the others. And the Sox starters kept them in every single game, better than LA's. So there you have it.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

World Series Madness

Ah, baseball. I stayed up last night to watch every minute of that stupid baseball game - it was - well, literally: the most epic world series game ever. Longest in time, longest in innings, most players - 18 innings, 7 plus hours, 46 of 50 players, 18 pitchers (plus Kershaw, pinch hitting - almost forgot that) - and bookended by two of the best pitching performances of the post-season - Buehler dominant to start; Eovaldi dominant out of the pen, his third straight game, going 6 plus, 97 pitches, and losing on a home run by Max Muncy who, shall we say, also had a game for the ages, in the form of a home run, a walk and a hustle extra base. The whole thing was a mind blower - but that 13th inning:

There are lots of extra inning games in baseball - the monsters, 16, 17, 18 innings don't come along often, but you get a couple every year, maybe one fo them really ridiculous. All that gets exaggerated in the post-season, where 10 or 11 innings can feel like you've been playing for a month - rather shocking to note that before this, 14 was the most innings anyone had played in the series (Sox and Dodgers, in their Robins guise, a complete game by the greatest baseball player of all time, completed in a bit over 2 hours.) This on was, in a lot of ways, just another long night where no one could hit and everyone swung for the fences on every pitch after the 12th or so - except for that 13th.

Sox up - Holt walks, goes to steal, the ball rattles around the batters box and the catcher upends Eduardo Nunez. Nunez writhes around - can he walk? it mattered, by then, because the Sox had emptied the bench - Vazquez was playing first; Pomeranz and Sale were all that remained on the bench. He shook it off - he took a swing - a dribbler toward the pitcher. He ran (so to speak) down the line and dove into first - ahead fo the throw, which went wide - Holt came in to score! 2-1 Sox - but Nunez was on the ground, more writhing... but he made it up - went to the dugout for celebration and managed to head butt poor Rick Porcello... Okay: back on the field. The sox got runners to second and third, two outs, Mookie up - walk, Xander up - failure! (A theme...) Bottom of the inning, Eovaldi (unhittable through the post season as a starter and reliever and for a couple innings already this night.) So: he walked Muncy to lead off the inning - rare, but just one baserunner, etc. Machado pops out. Then Bellinger up, did what most fo the hitters did in the second game they played last night - swung for the downs, late, popped it up, in this case on the third base side foul. Nunez was playing almost straight up the middle -0 ran all the way over, caught the ball and flipped into the stands, all Derek Jeter like.

And Muncy saw and scampered on to second.

What the sox did to score in the top of the inning felt like something out of an LA nightmare; but it wasn't just LA's nightmare. The baseball gods, or whatever malignant force rules these games, was not going to make it that easy. Puig hit a sharp grounder toward the middle, but easily gathered byu Ian Kinsler, multiple gold glove winner, who grabbed it went to turn, and the earth moved under his feet, he slipped - just a bit - and threw the ball past Vazquez, letting Muncy in to tie the game.

Games like this, with my team up 2-0, I can usually let go. it gets past midnight, past 1, and you say, all right, they're either going to lose it (which I was resigned to before JBJ went yard), or they win it, either way, there's a bunch more games to watch, and I can read about this one in the morning. And I was close, there in the 11th or 12th - but I hung around, mostly because of how good Eovaldi has been this year - and thought I was going to be rewarded. I was not. Instead - after that 13th, how can you not do them the service of watching them finish it? 5 more innings! or, really, 4 1/2 and a batter - but hell's bells. That inning changed it from being a tense, scary long post season nail biter into something surreal, something almost inconceivable. I didn't really know what I was watching after that, didn't know how it could end - because at that point, anything that happened was going to feel like Fate - but couldn't stop. Mind blowing.

So they do it again this evening. Drew Pomeranz might well get the start - pretty terrifying stuff. Maybe they push up Sale - maybe Eduardo Rodriguez gets a shot at Eovaldi/Price style heroism. Hell, maybe Price gets in there. Maybe they figure if the Babe can go 14, so can Eovaldi, and put him back out there for 7 more. I don't know. I have seen lots of second guessing of Cora for this game, much of it for the pitching - but he didn't really do anything strange with the pitching. He did what he has done all along - expect all his relievers to pitch every single day; NOT expect them to go more than an inning (other than Kimbrel, though only when he can save it) - which meant he was down to three pitchers by the 12th, including Eovaldi - who was, after all, supposed to start today. So he got in his start in the morning instead fo this evening. Even losing, Eovaldi's contribution was immense - he gave them every chance to win; he saved those last two pitchers for this evening. And the fact is - everyone else is still going to be around tonight. Eovaldi and Porcello are probably the only guys off limits tonight. In the end, both teams used up their pens - the Sox pen might be fresher, after all of that, thanks to Eovaldi. I have no problem with Cora's use of his pitchers, and Eovaldi - that's a guy making himself very very rich, this October, assuming he still has an arm attached when it's over.

I'm not so thrilled with Cora's lineup handling. He managed to maneuver himself into a spring training split squad lineup at the end, no one on the bench, two non-hitting catchers (who both got on base a couple times, so - that might not be the problem) in the lineup, Eduardo Nunez taking more abuse than a football player - tipped over int he batting box, diving into first, tumbling into the stands, tripping over the pitching mound - though through it all - getting the outs, getting the hit, just, somehow keeping the game going, and getting up and doing it again... Cora managed to leave Benentendi out of most of the game, then lose both him and JD Martinez, and both hitting first basemen, and - a lot of it, without really getting anything out of the change. Sure, the specifics matter, but as a manager, if you have the weapons he has, you have to have a decent team on the field in the end. You have to find a way to keep Benny or Martinez in that game - you have to. For all the talk about Mookie at second, they didn't do that - they put Vazquez at first, and Holt in left. That is not how you do it. Robert beat him up and down the field at this part of the game - the Dodgers had Turner, Machado, Muncy, Bellinger and Puig in there at the end - that's a lot of pop left in the lineup, and sooner or later one of them is going to connect.

It was a strange one. Down to this: the reason the Red Sox lost, in the end, is that none of those offensive powerhouses did a goddamned thing. Betts and Bogaerts did nothing. JD did nothing, Moreland did nothing, the pinch hitters did nothing. It was more telling because Leon, and Vazquez and Nunez and JBJ were on base - generated all the offense and gave them more chances besides. Strange game.

And tonight? the Sox may not have a starter, but the pen is relatively fresh; they got nothing out of their stars, but - how often do those guys disappear for two games in a row? It took 18 innings, the best start of the post-season, a magisterial bullpen performance, a couple fantastic defensive plays, their own best players taking the night off, a gold glover slipping on a relatively easy grounder, their OWN best defensive play of the night advancing the tying run to scoring position, to lose last night - so - I can take comfort. Sox is 6 still looks like a good bet.

Monday, October 22, 2018

World Series

A month and a half after my last post - does anyone know I am still alive? it doesn't matter.

The Red Sox are in the World Series! Could I say this was inevitable? Obviously not - but I am not going to pretend I am surprised. I predicted winning the east, and got it right: the Yankees got a lot better this year - the Red Sox, already a better team, got even more better. (There's some grammatical ugliness for you, but quite possibly correct. It reminds me that among Mookie Bette' accomplishments this year, he managed, during an interview in a raucous clubhouse after winning the ALCS, to to use a double negative correctly: "look at our regular season - we are not here for no reason" - more or less. Baseball, bowling, rubik's cubes, grammar - what can't he do?) I thought the Astros would get past them in the series, but only on paper - that's how it worked. The Indians didn't show up in the post season, the other three teams really did, even if the Sox smoked the Yankees a couple times. A hit here, a passed ball there, a couple fewer highlight real catches, and we could have last year's world series again. Or even a repeat of the late 70s! So - that was close. BUt the team that found a way to 108 wins in the regular season, found a way past the teams that could only muster 100 and 103.

And so it's Sox Dodgers, which apparently happened in 1916, back when the LA Dodgers were the Brooklyn Robins. The Red Sox won that one - odds are pretty good they'll win this one. They have questions - is Sale healthy? will Price revert to post-season form, or continue whatever changed last time out? Will Porcello be dominant or throw a home run derby? Eovaldi, of all people, is the only starter who seems completely trustworthy. But at the same time - all four of them could be brilliant. Healthy Sale is dominant; Price - whatever he did last time worked - Porcello can get people out, and gives them an extra bat in the NL park - so....

They are a fun team to watch. They catch the ball, better than any Red Sox team I remember. They have superstars and regular stars, and the whole lineup can rise up at any given moment and hurt you. They grind out everything, they run, they slap hit, slug, hit doubles - it's a good team.

The Dodgers? Well - led the NL in runs scored and ERA - I guess they are doing something right. They underperformed during the year, but got there (in 163 games) and outlasted the Brewers in the playoffs. They have a ton of power, they have premier starters, they have a decent bullpen - they will be dangerous. It should be a tense series - though the Red Sox have been able to put teams down like rabid dogs more than once this year.

Which adds up to what? Sox in 6? and some late nights over the next couple weeks for poor east coast me.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Funerals

I have let things slip here at the Listening Ear, posting every month and a half or so, at least when I don't have another project to work on. I hope I can get some energy back - the Great War was approaching it's end 100 years ago, and I should take some note of it. Maybe by the end of September, when we can honor the Meuse-Argonne Offensive , the largest operation by Americans in the war. I've also completely ignored the events of Reconsruction, which were heating up inthe 1867-68 period, up tp the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Another subject I regret letting go of.

But that's not what this post is about (and besides,with some luck, next year we can talk about impeachment in the present tense!) This weekend, Aretha Franklin and John McCain are being laid to rest, with great fanfare. It is a very clear sign of the decline of this blog that I managed to get up a post for John McCain's death, but not Franklin's. McCain mattered - he was a very famous, powerful, and fairly significant politician, he was a representative of a somewhat more palatable form of Republicanism, a vision of the United States government as a place where competing views are put to the vote, and the winners get to govern, and everyone accepts the outcome - good things. But in the end, he was still just a politician, and while very famous, not particularly consequential (for good or ill).

Aretha Franklin, on the other hand, is one of the central figures in American culture in the last 50 years - she matters in ways politicians can't dream of. Even if soul/R&B music is not what I listen to the most, you can't escape it, and it is one of the great, powerful musical styles in the world - why would you try to escape it? It is as absolutely American a thing as exists: what is American culture? Aretha Franklin answers that as well as anyone.

So: I will keep it simple - the songs I have heard the most, the ones that made her what she is, the ones I will stop what I am doing to try to listen to when I hear them.



Sunday, August 26, 2018

John McCain, RIP

I have been away a long long time, but I will drop by once more to mark the passing of John McCain. He was overrated,as a person and a politician, but that is as much a feature of the modern Republican party as it is of himself. He was a conservative, and a war monger, but straightforward about it, and he respected the system, respected his opponents (most of the time - he wasn't above a cheap shot now and then), they usually ended up respecting him. If he was what the Republican party was, in this benighted age, the party, and the country, would be far far better for it. I could live with John McCain as president, even if I didn't like it.

That makes him a bit like George HW Bush. If Bush had won his nomination in 1980, if McCain had won in 2000, they would very likely have been elected president - they would have headed off 2 of the worst presidencies of the modern era; they would have run their policies out and won or lost on what happened next. McCain in the white house in 2001 might have cared more about stopping Bin Laden before he struck inside the United States. Who can say. Then, of course, both Bush and McCain did win the nomination 8 years later - Bush had traded every ounce of integrity by then, and ran a disgusting, racist campaign; McCain - well, he was dead in the water day one, last man standing in his party with the world collapsing all around them - he wasn't going to win, but he picked Sarah Palin as VP and helped legitimize the know nothing Republicans, the racists, fascists and fools. So - whatever respect he might have deserved he gave away.

And so it goes. He served his country bravely, suffered immensely for it, seems to have learned some lessons from his own abuse, being one of the few Republicans to do anything to criticize our own slide into POW torture. (He didn't seem to learn anything from the way he was treated when he was shot down - he was always willing and eager to bomb foreigners indiscriminately.) He was always a prima donna - he knew here the cameras were pointing and made sure he was standing there - he was mildly corrupt (back when corruption mattered, at least a little), he was always a willing to sternly condemn terrible things he'd vote for a week later.... All that, though, just made him a politician. Just a politician, then, but the only Republican in the last 30 years to not act like he was wearing a sheet under his suit, just waiting for a chance to let his true colors (white) fly - and that's worth something. Got him on TV enough, but it also made him seem like a Road Not Taken - a much better road than we have been on.

(You can read Lawyers, Guns and Money for a good run down of his sins; you can read almost everything else for a good run down of his virtues - real as well as imaginary.)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Stanley Cavell

It has been a couple days, but I want to say something about the death of Stanley Cavell. He was, as I have said before, near and dear to my film loving heart. He was formative for me, along with Sarris and Ray Carney and Audie Bock, one of the critics who formed how I looked at and thought about films. But he was also probably definitive - one of the critics who became a constant touchstone for how I thought about film - Cavell and Bordwell, Burch, Kracauer, Pasolini.... Everything I saw, I filtered through Cavell - every comedy and melodrama at least, and those are, in the end, my favorite types of films. He was an inspiring critic, and he was a superb writer. A philosopher and a film writer, an academic - that can lead into some dark corners in the world of prose - but Cavell was very readable, without sacrificing any of his ideas. He makes sense of films he talked about in a way almost no other critics did.

Also part of one of those fun days you get in places like Cambridge. There was a night, a dozen years or so ago, when the Harvard Film Archive showed three Laura Mulvey shorts, with Mulvey speaking - and the Brattle was showing a Barbara Stanwyck double bill, Baby Face and Night Nurse, and Cavell was in the audience. Ah, the missed opportunities, I thought then.... I am lucky, too, that I did hear Cavell speaks couple times - an essay on O Brother Where Art Thou, for instance, a film he properly believed was a masterpiece. Well.

Cavell was one of the best. I will miss him, and continue to treasure his work.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Baseball (Ken Burns, or maybe all of it)

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.



By Stephen Mullen

(1)
When I was growing up, in the 1970s in Maine, baseball on television meant NBC's game of the week, ABC's Monday Night Baseball, and maybe a Red Sox game a week. That plus Mel Allen's This Week in Baseball, and whatever info turned up on the news. Baseball was a radio sport - that's where I followed it. The Sox were on every single night, Ned Martin's voice was part of the family. I followed the game on the radio and through magazines and box scores, and I followed it intensely. But all that completely changed by the end of the 1980s. Cable TV changed everything about baseball - changed all sports, probably, except football, which was always a television sport, with its weekly games and predictable schedule. In 1980, cable was a luxury - I don't remember anyone who had it,or very few; by 1990, everyone had cable TV. And by 1990, baseball had moved to cable. All the Red Sox games were on NESN by then, and cable brought all kinds of baseball to my TV - I could get the Braves and the Mets; other towns, other packages around New England could get you the Yankees and Cubs as well. And ESPN showed games every day, and covered baseball intensely - Sports Center; Baseball Tonight - we were soaked in baseball. Back in the 1970s, I could see about 3 games a week; in 1990, I could watch every single game from three different teams, plus a couple other games every single night. This has only grown since. You might have to pay more to get all the games - but you can get all the games, from all the teams,all of it at the same high production level. Even with basic cable, you get 2-3 games a day, and more on the weekends. We are soaked in baseball on TV.

(2)
One of the stranger aspects of Ken Burns' Baseball series, from 1994, is that it doesn't talk about this change. The 9th Inning episode covers 20 very eventful years of baseball - free agency and all that brought to the game, drugs (coke, particularly), Pete Rose, as well as all the on field events of the era. The great world series' - Brooks Robinson beating the Reds in1970, the Red Sox and Reds in 1975, Sox and Mets in 86, Twins and Braves in 1991; Clemente's last games; the 1989 earthquake; Kirk Gibson vs. the Eck. But there's very little about television, about cable TV's transformation of what baseball on TV was. (And its transformation of baseball itself.) It is a huge omission - take that 1991 world series, one of the best of all time, with its two last to first teams - how do you do justice to it without acknowledging that one of the teams was essentially a national team? TBS brought the Braves to everyone - they deliberately claimed that they were baseball's version of the Dallas Cowboys - America's team. I admit to being part of it - I picked up on the Braves when they were in last place, because even before they started winning, they were loaded with young players who were going to make something of themselves. I could watch slow, mediocre, white, Boston win 88 games a year and nip or be nipped by the sightly less bland (but Clemens-less) Blue Jays at the wire - or I could watch Ron Gant and Otis Nixon, watch Tom Glavine and John Smoltz develop into stars, watch Steve Avery and Derek Lilliquist come up and maybe become stars, wonder when Justice and Lopez and the rest were going to make it - they were fun to watch. And I could see them, every game if I wanted; I could follow them as closely as I could follow the Red Sox.

(3)
I have a confession: when I saw this assignment, I thought it was about baseball on television, not about the Burns series. I thought, this is very cool, really - why shouldn't "baseball" be a topic? or any sport, or even just, "sports" - that is a massive part of what television is. And you might as well take it whole - you can't make a really clean division, to pick one show - "The 1986 World Series" say - it doesn't work like that. But baseball on TV? or football, or sports - things like that should be considered in this countdown. Sports - the 7 o'clock news - even whole channels, like CNN - are integral to what TV is. TV is as much the medium as the content, and the content itself is often spread out like this - types of shows, that fill up the hours. And many of them, filling the hours with as much excitement and drama as any actual shows. The advertisers know it, NESN hypes the Red Sox by comparing them to Game of Thrones and the like - why not? We've had a few entries like this, game shows and the like, but why shouldn't baseball be one of them?

(4)
Personally, I love baseball on TV. It allows you to engage at whatever level you want. You can leave it in the background, dip into it when something happens, let it drift when nothing's going on; or you can hang on every pitch, on all the stuff between the pitches (the decisions about pitches, the psychological battles between pitcher/catcher and hitters, and so on). You can go back and forth between these approaches; you can supplement what's on TV - fire up baseball reference and look up just how good Mike Trout is this year. Compared to other sports, baseball suits me more - hockey has more consistent excitement and action; basketball has spurts of spectacular action, but a lot of standing around, that doesn't quite have the drama of a baseball game; I am no fan of football, though it is probably the quintessential television sport - with everyone in the country (who cares about it) watching the same thing at the same time every week), with well defined self-contained plays, everything happening in an orderly manner. (Violence and committee meetings, as George Will described it.) I understand its appeal, though I don't share it. I like the fact that baseball is diffuse - that all those games going on every day means that all the people around the country watching baseball are watching something different; I like that you can engage with it on so many different levels; I like that the pace of it leaves so much time for consideration - looking up stats; telling stories; speculating about strategy; comparing players to one another, to all the long history of the past - it's like that. It is intellectually stimulating because it lets you bring whatever you want to it - it stimulates your imagination, your curiosity, it leads you down a dozen pathways. I like that.

(5)
That, I suppose, is one of the things Ken Burns does best: he gets at the endless digressiveness of baseball. He likes to meander in his documentaries, takes his time, dwells on stories and images, sometimes on analysis, sometimes just on contemplation or reflection - all of his shows have some of the ordered digressiveness of baseball. And Baseball is a fine series: beautiful, informative, deep and broad, with well chosen and organized imagery, itself lovely and fascinating. His talking heads? well - I think the world could do without another chance for George Will and Bob Costas to bloviate on camera - but then you get someone like John Sayle, Curt Flood (who's magnificent, really), or the inimitable Bill Lee - well, I can forgive... Still - for all their good qualities, I sometimes find Burns' documentaries a bit frustrating - there sometimes seems to be less than meets the eye. Or I should say - the more I know about the subject of the show, the less satisfying they can be. Both The Civil War and Baseball have this quality. Those are subjects I know about - longstanding enthusiasms. I've been obsessed with the Civil War for most of my life; and I have always been absorbed in baseball. I spent many hours in my youth poring over old baseball magazines, reading and rereading baseball histories, talking about it to anyone who cared, all my life; I have spent many more hours in my dotage rooting through any piece of information I can find about the sport - online, books, and so on. And always living on stats, as baseball fans do, from the Baseball Digests and annual guides (what a surprise it was to learn that Bill Mazerowski was a ball player and not just a guy who put out a yearly baseball preview!) that came out in the 70s, to Baseball Weekly and USA Today's stat pages in the 90s, to Baseball Reference and ESPN and MLB online now. So I have heard the big stories he tells - I know most of the historical developments of baseball - I know some developments in the game better than he covers them. I sometimes feel as though his shows are a kind of preaching to the choir - he repeats the stories baseball fans know, Snodgrass' muff, and Babe's called shot; what a prick Ty Cobb was and what a gentleman Christy Mathewson was; Jackie Robinson's arrival, the Miracle Mets, the '75 series and Fisk's home run, and so on - repeating them as much to spark a kind of sentimental recognition as to teach you anything. They have a self-congratulation to them, which, admittedly, is what we baseball fans do all the time anyway! Sit around and remember the touchstones of watching baseball - but I don't need Ken Burns to do that. The truth is, my favorite Burns series is probably the Vietnam series from last year - that's a subject I know in the outline, but not in the particulars - I could follow along, but I didn't know more than he was telling me, and it felt like I was learning something. I learned plenty from Baseball, or the Civil War - but not the same. And not as much as I already knew.

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But saying that, it points to the best things about Baseball - when it talks about things I don't know. The Shadow Ball episode, mainly about the Negro Leagues, is the strongest example. It's a subject I know something about, but nowhere near enough. Burns covers it in some depth - and it is fascinating. I learned something - I didn't know most of it; I knew some names (Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and so on), some team information (I even have a Cuban X Giants hat), but nothing about the history of the leagues, their development, their progression. I do now. That is a great episode, for this reason, as well as just because of the fine collection of footage and photographs he has.

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Burns is very good on covering the social aspects of the game. The roots of its racism, the sociology of the players, the various shifts in the demographics of its fans. He's good on the labor issues, giving them attention, tracing their evolution (though it's a miserable story to tell, almost as miserable as the game's racism, given the corruption of the owners through the first half of the 20th century and beyond). These pieces are good, though often short - his treatment of the media's role in baseball is often very good as well, though even briefer, frustratingly so. There are bits about radio and Red Barber; lots of quotes from sportswriters, and allusions to them; some discussion of television - but shouldn't there be more? And that last episode missed the ball badly - cable television is a huge change, for all the reasons I've said. It's a change that was more noticeable in baseball than in other sports - daily games saturates you with games; and that saturation was on radio in the 70s; it is on TV now. He touches on this in earlier periods - on the ways technology spread the games in the old days - newspapers printing partial scores in multiple editions; the scoreboards at newspaper offices, updated from the telegraph wires - you could follow games in lose to real time in the 1920s, just like now - though you might have had to leave the house. That happened on television in the 80s - he ignored it.

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It's interesting to think about baseball as television. I've posted about this before, way back when, on the 20th anniversary of Roger Clemens' first 20 strikeout game. That's 12 years back now - how much has coverage changed since 2006? less than it had changed since 1986, I think. Most of the trends in 2006 are still going strong - lots of crowd shots, dugout shots, sideline reporters, closer shots of players. High definition has changed how baseball looks on TV as well. I think has reined in some of the more annoying features of the game on TV - the camera work is less frenetic and annoying now; the images are so good, with contemporary technology, that you don't need gimmicks to try to catch something interesting. You don't miss much with a plain shot of the field, so why keep moving the camera and zooming around? These days, of course, the screens are full of stuff - K-zones, stats and numbers and info everywhere on the screen, constant crawls under the picture, graphics to show movement of players (red and blue circles to show shifts, or a players' route to a fly ball, or what have you). Stats are ubiquitous, all kinds of stats. As are advertisements - no chance to sell something is neglected. The game on the field has changed a bit - there are some new rules, mostly about who you can tackle, that mostly just try to keep catchers and second basemen out of the hospital; the big on field difference is replay, which, of course, relies integrally on television. (It is also one of the best innovations in the game: replay has almost ended the classic argument with the umpire - and good riddance! Earl Weaver or Billy Martin made for great theater,buut you see one argument, and you don't need to see any more. If you can resolve questions honestly, why shouldn't you? I like replay!) But as Burns might say - for all the changes, the game is recognizably the same. There are even more stats in the game now than ever - different stats - both the measures of the players results (emphasis on on base and slugging over batting averages; emphasis on WHIP - walks and hits per inning pitched, for pitchers), and things like exit velocity, launch angles, barreling percentages. But for all that, all those new stats - you can still compare them to the old time stats and get a pretty good idea of what was happening then and now. Sure, it's good to know how often Mookie Betts gets the barrel of the bat on the ball - but you don't really have to see that stat to guess what that stat is going to be. For players I see a lot - the Red Sox, the Yankees - I don't need someone to tel me what their exit velocities are, r their barreling percentages are. You don't need to hear the exit velocity Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez get when you can see what happens when they get a good swing on a ball. And honestly, for players I don't see as much - Mike Trout say - I can guess what kind of bat speed and how often he gets the barrel on the ball just by looking at those 23 homers, .328 average, .688 slugging percentage. I can hazard a guess what kind of exit velocities Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron got, from the stats they put up - and definitely from watching them swing.

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In the end, though, that is what is best about living in today's TV environment - with all those games on TV, you can see anyone fairly regularly. Back in the 70s, when there were tow or three games a week on - you got to see lots of the Yankees and Dodger and Reds, Red Sox and Orioles, Phillies maybe - but good luck seeing Andre Dawson or young Jack Clark. The only way you could see them was if they turned up on This Week in Baseball.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

World Cup 2018

Soccer!

The world cup starts tomorrow, a tournament wrapped in a fair amount of controversy, though not as much as the next one will be. Russia may have bought the thing, and may be a pariah in the world, but they are - usually - a fairly legitimate soccer country (though the current team is awful.) The US, along with Canada and Mexico, got the 2026 tournament today, so some sanity might return, but that's 8 years away. But for all that - when the games start - the odds are good you will see something thrilling.

I don't know how much I am in a position to opine on this tourney - but that can't stop me. (Plain laziness has stopped me up to this point but maybe I can overcome it.) So? What the hell - let's predict the groups. Not that I feel all that confident about it - but I'm going to do it anyway.

Group A: it wouldn't be FIFA or Russia without the hint of cheating, and Russia getting Saudi Arabia in the first game, and Egypt as the third team makes you wonder if someone was pulling strings on that draw... It would take a fairly monumental upset for Uruguay not to win the group (let alone not advance) - after that? Truth is, if Mo Salah is on his game, they might be a better bet than the Russians - but I suspect that the combination of home fields and Putin's wrath will inspire the Russians into the second round.

Group B: Spain and Portugal start it off, and have only Morocco and Iran to challenge them - the prescription for 0-0 if I ever saw it. I would have picked Spain to win, Portugal second, but Spain's coach just got fired (for taking the Real Madrid job right before the tournament), so who know what is going to happen there. I think, though, of the two Iberian teams, Portugal is the more likely to go deep into the tournament - they have a good team and they have Ronaldo. But I would have said that 4 years ago, so what do I know?

Group C: France gets a very easy road in. I think Denmark can take second, though the Aussies are one of those teams that can surprise people. I know nothing about Peru, but wouldn't rule them out. It gives it the potential for an interesting battle for second place, though this if France continues its on/off pattern in the world cup, maybe they flame out again.

Group D: Argentina looks to have a very easy road to the second round; the rest of this group is very interesting. Croatia is usually a solid side; Nigeria has a reasonable good world cup track record; Iceland were the darlings of the last Euros, and why not? It could be a very hard fought group. I would have to pick Croatia if I had to pick, but neither of the other two would surprise me.

Group E: Brazil also has a fairly easy time of it. Behind them, Serbia and Switzerland have good players - they can get through. Costa Rica was the surprise of 2014, but I don't think they are likely to be better this time - but you can't just dismiss them. In the end - I pick Switzerland.

Group F: Germany marches on. Mexico is the likely second place team,but Sweden is certainly capable of n upset. I don't know about South Korea - they seem more marginal than they have been - but they sometimes surprise.

Group G: Belgium has been marching to glory, except in the finals of these tournaments - they've been all right, but have not been the dominating force they are in qualifying. But they have a ton of talent - De Bruyne and Hazard and Lukaku and Courtois - they should be one of the teams capable of winning it. Behind them, Panama snuck in thanks to a US choke; Tunisia I know nothing about, probably for good reasons. England? You could get anything, I suppose. They have turned over the roster from the last couple world cups - Kane and Deli Alli and company show promise - Raheem Sterling has come into his own - we shall see.I expect them to take second here.

Group H: Um - Poland has Lewandowski; I don't know much about the rest of th team, though it's usually supposed to do all right. Columbia was a joy to watch last time, but I don't know if they have progressed all that much. Japan seems to be an afterthought these days. Senegal? Sadio Mane is the kind of individual talent that might push a decent team into the second round - I don't know. I think, personally, they will advance - I think either Poland or Columbia will disappear, the other will win the group. But I have no idea which.

There - see? That was fun. Now? When push comes to shove, these teams hve a chance to win it all:

Germany
Argentina
Brazil
Portugal
Belgium
France
Spain

... more or less in that order, I think. I could imagine a scenario for Uruguay, and I might be underrating Columbia and a couple other teams. That's about it though. Of that bunch? I lean toward Argentina and Portugal, to be honest, even if they aren't necessarily the best teams in the tournament. And not just because of Messi and Ronaldo - maybe because Messi and Ronaldo have come to the point where they seem to inspire their teammates as much as carry the teams. Less chance fo the rest of the side standing around waiting for them to win it. Maybe.

As for rooting? No US and no Holland (my usual second pick), so what am I to do? Belgium, as the token low country? Argentina, since I actually like Leo Messi? Truth is, there aren't even teams to root against - no Italy! There is France, I can root against them in a pinch. I've almost stopped hating Christiano Ronaldo, and anyway, I lived long enough in Cambridge/Somerville that I can never not feel a soft spot for Portugal (and Brazil.) Lots of smaller sides, I suppose - Egypt, Senegal, Iceland and Nigeria (a bit of a problem there.) Mostly, though, this is one to just watch and enjoy on it merits.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Get Smart

And here is the first of my three essays posted at Wonders in the Dark - Get Smart! And a bit about The Sitcom, in the 60s at least...



I love 60s sitcoms. Even now, along with a few British shows, and cartoons (Simpsons or Futurama or Bevis and Butthead) they are the sit coms I am most likely to watch when they come on TV, even ahead of great shows like Seinfeld, or All in the Family or Taxi or MASH. Get Smart, Batman, Hogan’s Heroes - even the Beverly Hillbillies - I can always watch those shows.

It’s personal preference, shows I grew up on (though already in syndication; watching them at 4 in the afternoon, between Gunsmoke and Mr. Rogers), but it’s also the style. Sitcoms changed in the 60s - especially in the mid-60s. The culture changed; the technology changed (color TV!) - sitcoms shifted along with these things. The early classics - I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver - were all domestic shows, centered in the home; this was still the case in the early 60s, with shows like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, though the latter is as much about the town as his home. But around the middle of the 60s, shows started to appear that were more and more set outside the home - Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Batman, Gilligan’s Island. And shows still built around home and family started to get a bit stranger - Bewitched and its magic, The Munsters and Addams Family, with their monsters, even the Beverly Hillbillies, with it’s over the top farce (it’s Li’l Abner vibe.) The technology changed - most of these shows were in color; most of them used single camera setups rather than multi-camera live shooting. And the tone changed - they were parodic, satiric, they embraced absurdity, camp, surrealism. They stopped trying to be realistic, they stopped pretending to be about people like you and me in naturalistic (if comic and extreme) situations - they embraced genre stories, and made fun of them, usually by combining commonplace situations (going to work, hanging with your friends, or even the old domesticity of sitcoms) with absurd situations - spies, POWs, witches, superheroes. In many ways, they adopted the style and tone of cartoons, comic strips, comic books - directly, when it comes to the Addams Family or Batman, but a lot of these shows share the style.

It didn’t last. Sitcoms in the 70s developed in a different direction - even political and socially aware shows became naturalistic again, treated their characters and situations as real people. All in the Family and Normal Lear’s other shows; Happy Days; and all the (wonderful) workplace comedies of the 70s - The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MASH, Taxi, Barney Miller - did this. Showed real work places, not comic spy headquarters or German POW camps; dropped the genre parodies, the absurdity, the magic and science fiction. The 70s was a great era for sitcoms - but I miss the weirdness of the 60s.

And none of them did it better than Get Smart. It was developed and written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (with Henry staying on as story editor for two years), conceived as a combination of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. It starred Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Ed Platt, plus a mob of character actors, with single or recurring roles. It ran 5 seasons, 4 on NBC and one on CBS, fading a bit through the years, and engaging in more than a few cheap ratings boosts in latter years, though we don’t need to dwell on that. And it was exemplary of the kind of show I am talking about here. It was made right when shows switched to color - the pilot is black and white, but the rest of the show is color; it was a single camera show for it’s whole run; it was a genre parody, and one that let in a lot of genre nonsense - spies and adventure, and funny gadgets, and straight up science fiction; it was never shy about parodying other culture - movies, other TV shows, and so on; it was packed with in-jokes, puns, references outside the show (names and titles and such); and it was a work place comedy, combining the goofy spy stuff with the banalities of an office job, using both to send up the other.

And it was brilliant. The talent was top flight - Brooks and Henry are as good a pair of originators as you could ask, and the rest of the team measured up as well. Leonard Stern and Jay Sandrich, Irving Szathmary’s glorious theme song and scores, a host of fine writers to create the show. It featured a host of outstanding supporting players, but the cast - the three leads were perfect.

Don Adams carried it, of course - he’s ideal, a perfect buffoon, with his weird voice and beady little eyes, his physical flair, the way he walks, the way he could move, the way he wore a suit. It helps that he’s a little guy, looking up to everyone around him (including 99, when he didn’t pull her down to his eye level), vain and silly, his size making him a bit more ridiculous, but also a bit more sympathetic than he could have been. He is great at everything - the broad physical comedy, the little stuff (the way he can smoke or put out a cigarette), the voices, the serious detectiving, the oblivion, the prudishness and occasional bout of lust - he was always great. He had a mile long list of catch phrases, but always seemed to deliver them as though he were thinking of them for the first time ever - except when it was funnier to think he’d used the same line 4 times this month already. He was great.

His two main foils more than hold their own. Barbara Feldon was gorgeous, with a husky, sexy voice - and she was a fine actress, and marvelous comedian. The writers didn’t give her the gags they gave Max and the Chief, but she got all the reactions, and she played them with the precision and timing that Adams played the jokes. She had an infinite supply of eye rolls and head tilts, side eyes and body language, that convey a kind of infinite patience, as though she were managing this idiot until he needed to do something heroic. And Ed Platt embodies sober authority, but with a slow burn, driven to distraction by Max, but never quite breaking, and recovering when he did - he didn’t have 99’s infinite patience, or her understanding that idiot or not, Max was blessed by the gods (or the writers) and would always come out right, so he blew up now and then, but he always recovered - and could sell the idea that he was in control all along, no matter how bad things got, how ridiculous Max's solution was, Platt could make it seem as though that was what the Chief had in mind from the start. With that voice - he could sell anything.



They were a great trio. They could carry all the modes of the show - the spy stuff, but also the workplace stuff and the social stuff. The workplace comedy was obvious from the beginning: in the pilot, Max clocks in when he enters the chief’s office, mentions overtime later - the show always had that element. Office politics, boss/employee dynamics, money - wages, benefits - unions, perks, the competition, part time work, interdepartmental rivalries, regulations, paperwork, anything you could imagine in a workplace comedy. Some of it more than you’d see in actual workplace comedies later - unions and wages and benefits and hours and such, especially. The show plays the workplace jokes against the spy jokes, a pattern that extends across everything in the show. The adventure stuff is constantly deflated with banality: the Job, or things like dialing wrong numbers, the indifference the population seems to have to all their gunplay and brawling, or just the way everyone in Washington seems to know who Control is, where they are located, what their phone number is, sometimes before the spies do. And it goes the other way - the everyday concerns of an office job or apartment life travestied by throwing spies and science fiction machines and gunplay into it. Those marvelous machines - show phones, and all the other places they hid phones; the protective devices in Max's apartment; the Cone of Silence; all the inflato-coats and lipstick guns and radio controlled pool balls and giant arrows and everything else - which parody James Bond, but also mean that the spy stuff is buried deep into their everyday lives. Kind of like the way phones and computers and technology is buried into our lives, now....



There’s more of course. Get Smart was political - a cold war comedy that mocked the cold war from start to finish. A war time comedy that mocked the military, as well as spies, as well as cops - it was a product of its time, maybe, however much it also mocked the counterculture. It was a product of its time in less admirable ways too - ethnic jokes and sexism - but these things weren’t straightforward. It had plenty of ethnic jokes - but they were as often about the people who held stereotypes as they were stereotypes themselves. And sexist jokes - Max got the lines, the action, the story, at 99’s expense; this got really bad in the last year or so, when poor 99 married him, and was confined to the house for most of the last two seasons - but it also made fun of sexism. One of their running gags is 99 coming up with a good idea, an important question, a way out of their predicament, and Max either ignoring her or saying he’d rather do it his way. 99 always defers - and Max always does what she suggested. Shoot - I saw someone making fun of that on Twitter the other day! Max the mansplainer, in 1965. There is a lot of that - with 99 and Max, with the racial and ethnic jokes they make. They play the jokes both ways - it can be complicated.



Of course, a lot of it depends on the fact that nothing, in this show, is taken seriously. I mean - nothing is treated as though it were real. There is no sense that Max or 99 or the Chief, or any of the villains and supporting characters, are real, in the way Mary Richards or Hawkeye or Archie Bunker are treated as though they are real. There is always distance - always a sense of unreality. Characters don’t have to be consistent, in this world: Max can be an idiot for 20 minutes then turn into James Bond himself for the last act. Max can be a prude in one show and a skirt chaser in the next, without missing a beat. He respects 99, he ignores 99, he flirts with 99, he’s oblivious to 99. Situations are ridiculous - machines that vaporize buildings and people without a trace; magnets that can sink a whole fleet; masters of disguise who can turn into anyone (and do - they loved that plot device!); the chief and Larrabee - or even Siegfried, complete with a mustache - dressed up as old ladies, and no one noticing. And all of it completely pliable - half the world might be destroyed, but there they all are at the end back in the office arguing about time off and whether KAOS gets better benefits. It’s not inconsistent - it’s as though the whole world was being made up again in every scene. It’s a cartoon aesthetic - not as explicit as Bugs Bunny or Krazy Kat, but it’s got the same sense that it’s not subject to any of the rules of god or man, except that it should be funny. It’s an aesthetic shared with a lot of sitcoms in the 60s, that then passed out of sitcoms - except for the animated ones. The Simpsons and Futurama, Family Guy and South Park can feel a lot like that era of TV. Though probably not as much as some of those 60s shows felt like Bugs Bunny or Pogo.

In short - it was a good one. Always funny - usually with decent story lines (though they clearly struggled sometimes to find 30 little spy stories every year for the show - a lot of them feel very thin.) Max is an icon, and 99 and the Chief (and Siegfried, especially) are not far behind. They created a host of running gags, that worked almost all the way through the show - I can't list them all  can I? Missed it by that much! I asked you not to tell me that! The old X trick - second time I fell for it this month! I hope you don't mind that crack about the dummy. Sorry about that, Chief. Would you believe.... They created a host of cool and backing parts - Siegfried and Larrabee and a string of scientists to make up the gadgets, The Claw and Harry Hoo and Rupert of Rattskeller and a million lookalikes. (They leaned hard on doubles in this show - Alexi Sebastion, the Chameleon, the league of imposters, as well as Charles, King of Coronia, Connie and Floyd. They might have overdone it - but it's part of the style I think - nothing is real, nothing is permanent, no one is who they necessarily seem to be, and everything works out in the end.) I can watch this show all day and all night - it is as good as they come.