The Unwritten Rules

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[photo from Huffington Post]

Last night, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers got into one hell of a fracas during a game in Los Angeles. Like many bench-clearing fights, this one was provoked by a several hit batters (on both sides), and like many of these fights, we have had to endure a series of commentaries on the “unwritten rules” of baseball.

Look, I get it. These are men who want to prove that they’re the toughest, baddest, scariest around. “You hit one of our guys, we’re going to hit one of yours.” Or, Sean Connery from The Untouchables: “He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” But it’s not just a question of “men being men.” These are athletes whose trade is in their ability to perform physically, to ensure that their bodies are in top condition. When athletes push against each other, there will be conflict.

So Yasiel Puig, the Dodger’s hot young phenom, gets hit with a pitch that glances off his nose. (Puig’s meteoric ascent has been remarkable, but we should beware such hot starts. Comparison’s to Mike Jacobs don’t usually evoke confidence in a player’s long-term success.) Zack Greinke (remember him?) comes out the next inning and puts a pitch into the back of D-backs catcher Miguel Montero. Retribution. Everything’s cool now, right? Not for Ian Kennedy. Bottom of the seventh, Kennedy sends a pitch at Greinke’s head, hitting him in the shoulder. He’s immediately ejected, but the fight is on. Dugouts empty, bullpens empty. Punches are thrown and the fight almost spills into the stands.

There will be plenty of suspensions from MLB tomorrow. Managers Kirk Gibson and Don Mattingly both figure to miss a game or two, as do coaches Mark McGwire, Matt Williams, Alan Trammel, and others. (Incidentally, what a list of former hitters coaching in this game!) But what will be most interesting will be to see how the league handles the pitchers. It would not surprise me to see Greinke get a 5-game suspension (to miss one start), since he pretty clearly threw at Montero deliberately.

So what to do about Kennedy? More than anyone, he precipitated this fight, throwing at the opposing pitcher after there had been a “retribution” bean and warnings issued to both teams. Moreover, he didn’t target Greinke’s back or backside (as is customary with retribution plunks), but rather he threw at Greinke’s head. Kennedy violated a number of rules, written and unwritten.

It’s time for the league to start to crack down on this. After the incident between Greinke and Quentin, Greinke missed a month with a collarbone fracture; Quentin, who singlehandedly caused the incident, was suspended eight games. I understand that there are precedents, and the MLBPA will fight suspensions that exceed those precedents (as they should). But if the league is serious about preventing these incidents, and the injuries that accompany them, it is time for them to get serious about the penalties for provoking such incidents. Work with the Players’ Association to move towards stiffer penalties for instigating a brawl. Impose longer suspensions, even if they are reduced on appeal; it will set the tone for the league’s general policing of fights.

And, ultimately, let’s get rid of the “unwritten rules.” Pitchers who intentionally hit a batter should be suspended. A player who tries to cause injury to another outside any legitimate baseball action should be suspended for a long time. And the players should be on board with this. They want to purge the game of PEDs—an admirable goal—to make baseball a fair place for everyone. It’s also in their best interest to eliminate these stupid macho fights that serve no purpose other than to injure players and generate animosity between teams and fans. It’s time for the players and the league to step up and play by the written rules.

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Guns of Brixton

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Earlier today I was listening (again) to Jimmy Cliff’s brilliant album Rebirth, released last year. The record is a “comeback” of sorts, but it seems less a nostalgia show than an honest attempt by Cliff to demonstrate the continued importance of reggae music in the world today. Notable in this regard is his new song “Reggae Music,” which narrates the story if Cliff’s own development as a musician. The trick, though, is that Cliff’s autobiographical story is told as the story of reggae: his start in ska music, the move towards a more laid back rocksteady beat, and finally arriving at reggae proper. This is a rather interesting narrative technique, particularly for audiences whose experiences with reggae might be confined to (for example) Bob Marley’s Legend record.

There is some remarkable original material on Rebirth. In addition to “Reggae Music” (ironically, a song whose style is more readily identified as ska than reggae), there is the poignantly beautiful “Cry No More,” a wonderful encapsulation of Cliff’s vocal virtuosity; and there is the socially conscious protest song “Children’s Bread.” But the songs that continue to haunt my dreams are the album’s two covers: “Ruby Soho” (by Rebirth producer Tim Armstrong, of Rancid and Operation Ivy fame) and “Guns of Brixton” by the Clash.

The latter song seriously flexes my brain when I think about it. The song first appeared on the Clash’s 1979 album London Calling, and it was a complex statement about Britain’s postcolonial relationship with the West Indies and the social conflicts that resulted from the influx of Caribbean immigrants into the U.K. “Guns of Brixton” refers to the neighborhood of south London, traditionally home to a significant black population, and the site of gang and police violence. The song opens with part of its refrain, immediately referencing the violent conflicts between neighborhood residents and the police: “When they kick out your front door/how you gonna come?/With your hands above your head/or on the trigger of your gun?”

But the song hits its dramatic peak in the second verse: “You see he feels like Ivan/Born under the Brixton sun/His game is called surviving/At the end of The Harder They Come.” The song makes reference to the 1972 film about reggae star and gangster Ivanhoe Martin—a character based loosely on, and portrayed by, none other than Jimmy Cliff. The film is an iconic moment in Jamaican culture and reggae music, and it was largely responsible for spawning a global interest in reggae. This interest extended into Britain, of course, and provided the background for the racial clashes and conflicts over the “true” Britain in the 1970s. Ivanhoe is repositioned in the U.K. by the Clash, and Cliff’s noble gangster character was the centerpiece with which the British punk rockers declared their affinity for reggae and their stance against racism.

It is an amazing song, both in its original form and in the remake by Cliff. Still, the recursive loops here hurt my head a bit. Cliff singing a song by the Clash about a fictional reggae musician portrayed by Cliff? Cliff’s own social advocacy is well known, and this cover enhances his reputation as a musical activist. There is more truth in Ivanhoe Martin than we might have realized.

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Fire Hawk Harrelson

The other day I was watching the Chicago broadcast of a game between the White Sox and the Athletics. Early in the game, Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone (the Sox’ venerable announcing crew) were talking about A’s manager Bob Melvin, last year’s Manager of the Year. Predictably, this conversation led to a rant by Harrelson about how statistics and sabremetrics.

According to Hawk, we can’t possibly quantify the contribution a manager makes to his team because he gets them in the mindset to play every single day. Those analyses that demonstrate that a good strategic manager might be able to boost a team’s wins total by 6-8? Bull, says Hawk. Without a good manager, the team will not be in a good mindset, and won’t play well. Ever. So by this logic, we’d expect a team with a bad manager to lose 162 game a year, right?

What can a manager contribute to a team? Can he make a team more talented? Well, no. Do players play at a level below their talent because they have a bad manager, and are therefore not mentally ready to win? Not by any evidence I’ve ever seen. The biggest contributions a manager can make is to use available information about his own team and his opponents to craft a strategy that maximizes run production and minimizes runs allowed. (As a refresher for Hawk: the winning team in any given game is the one who scores more runs, not the one who has a better mindset.) The manager should know the platoon splits of his hitters and pitchers so that he can leverage them with well-timed pinch hitters and pitching changes. (Your LOOGY might have spectacular numbers against your opponent’s clean-up hitter, but that doesn’t mean you want to use him in the 2nd inning.) The manager should know the tipping point where the risk of a caught stealing outweighs the reward of a stolen base. The manager should never bunt in the first inning. (Unless you’re Dusty Baker and think that the ideal No. 2 hitter is a scrappy shortstop with a sub-.300 OBP.)

What the manager cannot do is change the talent level of his players. Players don’t become better because the manager is a good guy, or a “player’s manager.” Sure, your coaching staff can tweak a swing or a wind-up. But players don’t play better because they like the manager. These are professional athletes who are masters of their craft. They take pride in their performance, and they are handsomely rewarded for it. Why would a player play worse for a manager he doesn’t like? This would be cutting-off-the-nose to the tune of several millions in lost potential income. And it simply doesn’t happen. 

So let’s stop pretending that baseball is about “TWTW.” It’s stupid, it’s backwards, and it’s insulting to a fan base that deserves much better.

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The Sound of Boredom

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[photo source]

Earlier in the year, I assigned my classes to listen to Lana Del Rey’s 2012 record Born to Die. This was one of the first records we discussed in our class, and if I’m being totally honest, I assigned the album deliberately to wind them up a bit. This is a record that I like quite a bit, but I also (correctly) anticipated that my students would be quite resistant to my perspective.

Pedagogically, one might question this tactic. Making my classes listen carefully and repeatedly to a record that I thought they would hate? Well, yes. The reason being, I hoped to demonstrate early in this class that it was perfectly okay for my students to disagree with my opinions and interpretations—as long as they were willing to put together an argument based on real evidence.

As expected, the near- universal reaction of my students was initially: “WTF?” Or, more articulately, “Why are we wasting our time talking about this crap?” And, of course, it’s fine with me if they think the record is crap, as long as they have a reason why. And once we started digging into their reactions, things got interesting. A student raised his hand and explained that the songs are just so boring, and they make him really angry. Another contributed that they were so highly produced and polished, that it was hard to take them seriously. And anyway, asked a third, who is this “Lana Del Rey” anyway? Isn’t she just Lizzie Grant, remade with her daddy’s money into some superficial pop princess? What has she done to earn our respect?

Interesting reactions all. How, I mused, can you simultaneously be totally bored and very angry with a record? Why does it matter who Lana Del Rey “really” is? And what does it mean to “really” be someone, anyway?

In their gut reaction hatred of Born to Die, my students had cut to the core of the album far quicker than I had expected. (Even if their dislike of the album was precisely what I anticipated.) For me, this is precisely what makes Born to Die a fascinating album, and Lana Del Rey a fascinating singer. This is a record that is aware of its constructedness, and that uses that apparent superficiality as part of a grander commentary. In its lush arrangements, it is reminiscent of a great deal of 1960s torch songs, pop music, and so on. It’s not for nothing that Del Rey has been referred to as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra.”

But the real key to the album is Lana’s voice. A slightly breathy contralto, Del Rey sings in a way that is simultaneously alluring and repellant, sultry and disinterested. She never taxes her voice, never sings in a way that conveys any sort of strain or effort. She manages, remarkably, to communicate absolute ennui with the subjects of her songs—troubled relationships, the fast-paced modern life, celebrity itself. She plays with her listeners, flirting with them in “Off to the Races,” pleading with them in “Video Games.” But can we really take her seriously when she intones, on “National Anthem,” “Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows it, it’s a fact/Kiss, kiss?” The line is such kitsch as to be brilliant satire, at once highlighting the assumed raison d’être of the pop singer while revealing that grounding to be fraudulent.

Del Rey pokes at the glamorousness of celebrity in other ways, too. In her much-maligned appearance on Saturday Night Live, Del Rey appears thoroughly bored with her surroundings, avoiding engagement with the audience and her backing musicians, never smiling. She is put together in great detail—60s style bouffant, slinky dress—but none of this pleases her. She is not capable of being pleased; the achievements of money and celebrity are hollow.

What Del Rey achieves in the SNL performance is remarkable and unique for a pop musician. Pop music is about many things–sex, love, drugs, money, fame—but it is never about boredom. Del Rey conveys absolute boredom with all of the usual pop song subjects, and she suggests in a very real and performative way that the trappings of fame do not produce happiness or contentment. And moreover, happiness and contentment may not be possible in a society where people constantly chase the specter of celebrity, experiencing their lives in increasingly mediated ways, losing touch with “reality.”

I’m no luddite with regards to our modern media and technologies. But I do think Lana Del Rey does something incredible by not just stating her skepticism of fame, but actually performing it—making us feel simultaneously bored and deeply annoyed. How interesting.

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MLB and the War on Drugs

Here’s what’s not news anymore: We learned a couple days ago (via an Outside the Lines report) that Major League Baseball had struck a deal with Tony Bosch, founder of Biogenesis of America, the Miami clinic accused of providing banned substances to players such as Fernando Martinez and Jordan Norberto (oh, yeah—and also Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez).

Today, ESPN’s Lester Munson had finally bothered so ask whether we can actually believe Bosch’s accusations against Braun, Rodriguez, et al. Lest we forget, Bosch was the target of a lawsuit by MLB claiming that Bosch “interfered” with the league’s efforts to eliminate PEDs from their game. (The lawsuit was filed only after MLB failed in its attempt to procure Biogenesis’s records from the Miami newspaper that first reported this story.) Once Bosch agreed to provide the league the information it wanted, baseball agreed to drop its lawsuit against him, and (according to the initial OTL story) to “even put in a good word with any law enforcement agency that might bring charges against him.” So if MLB’s aim in their legal action against Bosch wasn’t plain from the start—and commentators almost universally agreed that this was little more than a thinly veiled effort to gain access to Biogenesis documents—their motives are now utterly obvious. “Help us bring down Braun and A-Rod,” they seem to say to Bosch, “and you can go back to doing whatever it is that you do.”

So now Bosch will swear that he distributed banned performance enhancers to at least 20 players, including Braun and A-Rod. And MLB seems poised to take him at his word, even though he agreed to help only under the extraordinary pressure of a crippling lawsuit from one of the world’s most powerful sports organizations, and even though he is essentially a self-acknowledged mastermind of pill-pushing and bottom-injecting “therapy” for athletes. (And that’s if we believe the league’s version of events.)

Never mind that his deal with the league came only after Alex Rodriguez refused Bosch’s plea for financial assistance. Never mind that this whole affair seems to be a transparent vendetta by Bud Selig to finally nail Braun and Rodriguez to the wall for making him look like a chump. (He already sacked Shyam Das, the longtime arbitrator who had the courage to acknowledge mistakes in baseball’s testing procedures.)

And perhaps most amazing is the report (again, see the OTL story) that MLB is looking to suspend Braun and Rodriguez for 100 games each—the penalty for a second violation of the drug policy. (Never mind that neither player has been penalized a first time.) According to their theory of the “crime,” these two players have committed two offenses: one by taking banned substances from Bosch (whom we whole-heartedly believe), and one by lying about it.

And, of course, no one wants to defend Cesar Puello, the Mets’ minor league catcher who is sure to be suspended almost immediately based on his name’s presence in Bosch’s records. The MLB Players Association and the league’s collective bargaining agreement—which outline not only penalties for drug violations, but also appeals procedures—do not apply to minor league players. Which means that Puello has essentially no recourse should the league decide to suspend him.

This entire affair shameful for all involved—the idiots who received “therapy” from Bosch and a Major League Baseball administration that continues to push ineffective drug policies and then overreact when those policies fail (as they are almost certain to do). Selig runs a real risk here of disgracing himself as much, if not more, than did NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, when the latter significantly overstepped his authority in attempting to punish the players in the Saints’ “Bounty-Gate” scandal. The proposed action against Braun, Rodriguez, et al. are sure to undermine the league’s labor relations.

And pragmatically, is it really worth attacking Braun and A-Rod? Are these the people who are bringing drugs into baseball, distributing them, and undermining the league? Yes, we want baseball to be free of performance enhancers, but an obvious vendetta against a small handful of players will not “clean up the game” any more than the baseball writers moralistically excluding alleged users from the Hall of Fame. It just denies the larger reality that there will be many more Tony Boschs out there who will find many more ways to beat baseball’s drug policies. Cutting Bosch loose in order to punish 20 players is the moral equivalent of letting Pablo Escobar testify against the guy selling ditch weed behind your local drugstore. Yeah, you don’t want the ditch weed dealer hanging out there, but how are you going to get rid of him?

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