Thursday, July 28, 2011

THE CRINGE FACTOR: How the debt crisis 'debate' sounds like Vietnam, how compromise has become a four letter word... again

Cringe! Cringe! Cringe!

That's what I'm doing this morning. These Tea Partiers sound so much like I did when I was nineteen it makes my teeth grind.

We, too, made liberal use of the Constitution. We took phrases from the Bible and turned them into slogans. We loved loud speakers -- and loudspeakers -- and cherished cries for revolution. And every invocation ended with the word 'now'.

We saw our movement in the frame of a 1950s cowboy movie. We were the good guys making a stand with honor and bravado, often at our personal Alamo. In fact, the Western movie in American culture exalted martyrdom the way we are told Islam exalts martyrdom.

But, most of all, we hated compromise.

To us, compromise was a four-letter word. OK, 10 letters, but who's counting when you're making a revolution.

I sat in meeting after meeting in dorm rooms and barrooms where those who dared suggest compromise were shouted down. I did some of the shouting. I won't deny that in some situations the impulse to shout down a compromise still crosses my mind... and lips. In those days, we judged the stakes too high and the art of compromise too slimy for what needed to be done. And those who suggested compromise somehow always seemed bound for a life in politics (an equally dirty word) or corporate public relations.

Does any of this sound cringingly familiar?

Now, the country is on the brink partly because the word compromise has become a four-letter word again.

This time it is the right wing who hate compromise, who promise never to compromise. Well, not entirely the right. I'm not sure where to place the libertarians. In a classic definition of conservative and liberal, they exhibit the tendencies of rather extreme liberals. No matter the political geography, compromise is no longer an art in politics; it's a sin.

As I studied politics in my 20s and 30s and began teaching about it in my 40s and 50s, I came to understand compromise better. Words matter, so let me cast this word in a more useful context. In politics, compromise is actually the art of consensus building. Consensus building is what artful politicians used to do. If they wanted to pass a law to pull in government spending, they built an overwhelming hunger for it among their constituents then found ways they could compromise with the other side to create legislation and policy. With consensus on their sides, legislation was easy to pass, generally accepted, and the political earth moved. The presidents who were good at building consensus, got stuff done. The presidents who dug in their heels, usually left office bitter and frustrated.

Take Lyndon Johnson as an example of both. He was a consensus builder of the highest order in the Senate. And in terms of domestic issues, he remained a consensus builder in the presidency. He could put his arms around your shoulders and bring you into the tent with all the skills of a new car salesman who survives late December.

If there is a fence around the junkyard in your neighborhood, you can thank Lyndon Johnson's consensus building skills. If you live in a rural community with a water treatment plant, thank Lyndon Johnson. If you think affirmative action helped tamp down the effects of racism, thank Lyndon Johnson. (Of course, you're free to disagree with the effects of affirmative action...) Lyndon Johnson presided over the last great outpouring of legislation from the American congress, though another compromise artist, Ronald Reagan got a bit done, himself.

But when it came to the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson, the great conciliator, dug in his heels like a pit bull. He said 'no' and 'hell no', made his mind up he wouldn't be the first American president to lose a war, paid way too much attention to the artful lies of his strategists, and left office with his proud head bowed. He refused to compromise and consensus went so strongly the other way, he was left alone on an island of power.

I'm not sure if consensus building is possible today unless you own a cable news outlet. What decision makers are left with is posing. Instead of striking a deal, they strike a pose. It works fine in overnight polls. And, it makes them feel like the cowboys they aren't but want to be. Their supporters -- dwindling it seems -- cheer them on. But the poll numbers are fleeting, especially when nothing happens and things get worse. By the time the next presidential election arrives the country will be so hungry for a conciliator, the current crop of candidates will look like antique gas guzzlers. And, ultimately, like Lyndon Johnson, they'll leave office bitter and bowed.

But, for now, the country suffers.

--Lofflin, just my twenty-cents worth

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Flash: Are Royals brass charging players to launder uniforms? Despite victory, keeping the whites white seemed the base running goal

Don't want to spoil the party.

After all, the Royals won in thrilling fashion last night. One of the new hot shots came through and looks so far like the real deal. The fireman put out the fire and the fireworks went off.

But watching the final two innings or so, I found one thing really disturbing. Did you see the same thing?

The Royals scored crucial runs twice on throws to the plate. And, in neither case did the runner slide. Escobar, whose body language just looked really tired to me, kept looking back at the outfield all the way home from third and went in standing up. Then to close the game Aviles did the same thing, except he -- at least -- wasn't slowing himself down by looking back.

Both plays, from the couch perspective, were too close for comfort.

Maybe the Royals are charging the players to launder their uniforms now. That wouldn't exactly be out of character.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I saw a couple of players earlier go into second base on close plays without sliding. Getz on a steal and Cabera, I think, running from first on a hit to right.

A team always looks good in the middle of a hot streak like this, but not sliding across the plate with the game on the line raises some questions. You'd think every player would remember Jeremy Giambi not sliding home and being ignominiously tagged out on Derek Jeter's relay throw in game three of the 2001 league championship series.

But I guess not.


Fine game photo by Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Orchid soul: Summer in the city; enjoy some new images of mine from Kauffman Gardens

Take a break and enjoy some of these recent images from Kauffman Gardens on a humid Kansas City day when even the drinking fountain let the lens see its soul...


Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Wearing the Uniform Thing..." Royals revisit a past blunder and Sam Mellinger calls them out for it. Maybe it's the Monarchs who should protest

Do you ever wonder why beat reporters tend to avoid the tough negative story? They do, by the way. Not every beat reporter and not every time. But beat reporters have two strong reasons to issue a street parole to a tough story.

1) They like the beat and they want to keep it. And it took them years to learn this beat. They have an investment. Here they get the "backing" of the news organization in which the editor tells the beat reporter, "Hey, if they freeze you out we'll put someone else on this beat and you can have another one." Gee, thanks for having my back.

2) They know if they write the tough story -- or if somebody else sneaks onto their turf and writes it -- they'll spend hours listening to the PR flacks "explain" why they're wrong. And, I do mean hours. It's kind of like buying a car. More like an old fashioned root canal.

So, when Sam Mellinger called out the Royals yesterday for the huge public relations blunder of not being willing to spend 20 grand on Negro League uniforms for Negro League day, I wanted to cheer and at the same time offer condolences. In fact, Mellinger wrote two tough columns about the Royals this week. Double trouble.

A Royals spokesman was interviewed this morning on one of the local talk shows. When I heard him say something like, "Last night we explained to Sam what we were doing ..." I knew he'd gotten the business. Then the spokesman tried to give the listeners the business by saying it wasn't about the money at all, it was -- company line -- about "doing something different."

No uniforms and no hats. That's different. Like the difference between grilled rainbow trout at the Bristol and Filet-O-Fish at McDonalds.

I wrote recently about the ocean of bullshit we're navigating in this life and Mellinger was the butt end of my tirade. Well, this week he's produced two no-bullshit columns and he deserves a pat on the back from his readers. The Royals, meanwhile, deserve a kick in the pants.

I've just started Phil Dixon's book on Bullet Joe Rogan. I can tell already it's going to be an excellent read. The point Dixon makes early on is how the local newspapers -- the white local newspapers -- managed to keep their readers ignorant about the existence of this Hall of Famer in their own back yard simply because he was black. The Kansas City Star, Mellinger's newspaper, was instrumental in this, all but ignoring black baseball in this city throughout the Negro Leagues' heyday.

This is not a small thing. Ignoring black baseball went hand-in-hand with ignoring the student scientists from black high schools who consistently won science competitions here. Ignoring the success of a people is an excellent way to force them to the margins, to keep them in their place, to break their spirit and to make white folks happily unaware in their cocoon of superiority.

Thank god for the Kansas City Call.

The Star played a role in racism in Kansas City. Mellinger, whether he knew it or not, wrote a fine column to undo just a little bit of the shame that entails. And it is the Royals who now wear the burden of shunning a community of Kansas Citians they should be desperately courting. They need to face facts: They are not -- by any stretch -- the best professional team to wear this city's colors.

But the PR machine will prattle on about "doing something different." And they may well have told Sam Mellinger last night something close to what they told Joe Posnanski nine years ago when they tried the same stunt. Posnanski recalled that conversation on his blog today. A PR guy told him he was unaware of the importance of the "wearing the uniform thing."

Doesn't that just grind your teeth.

Because, the "wearing the uniform thing" is exactly the point of recognizing the Negro Leagues at Kauffman Stadium. The Kansas City Star, Kansas City Kansan and Major and Minor League Baseball made the Negro Leagues as invisible as they possibly could just as those in power made black and Latino communities as invisible as they could by building freeways through the middle of those neighborhoods and suburb upon suburb fading away from those neighborhoods. Interstate 35 isn't just a road to somewhere. It's a road that cut up neighborhoods, hid poverty and racism from commuters and provided an escape route to whiter and whiter cul-de-sacs farther and farther away.

You did notice where they built Kauffman Stadium, didn't you?

Wearing the uniforms is nothing less than recognizing the grace and power of those big league teams. Modern players dressed in Monarch's uniforms give those in the stands and legions of viewers a brief glimpse of a great league of baseball their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers may well have missed. And they provide a critical connection for African Americans between the modern game and the game of their fathers and grandfathers, a connection which is otherwise invisible.

The "wearing the uniform thing", dammit, is the point.

If, nine years later they told another reporter they weren't aware of how important the uniforms are, good god they should have been aware. But, then again, they drafted Luke "Three-And-Two-Thirds" Hocheaver number one and they sent Kyle Davies out to the mound a few days ago on the way to his eighth loss against one victory. Maybe they shouldn't be held to such a high standard after all.

Heck, maybe it should be the Monarchs who protest if the Royals deign to wear their uniforms in public. I'm not sure, at this point, it does much for their storied image.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Thanks to Tony Botello for noticing, to Anon for arguing, but now's the time to call bullshit bullshit

Last night I snapped. After the second inning I could watch no more. I had had enough. I turned off the television and made more productive use of my life, vowing never to turn the Royals on again, never to read the paper about the Royals, never to listen to the paid talkers squawk about the Royals and never to write about the Royals.

You can see how that went.

Even if I can’t hold to it, I am duty bound to offer it as advice to others.

Actually, watching the game itself isn’t so bad if you appreciate it for what it is… a battle between David and Goliath… a penny pinching minor league team against a major league team. From that perspective, it can be kind of interesting.

What you have to eliminate, for your own sanity, is the commentary. You can only stomach so much bullshit at a time and in a world full of bullshit, every little bit you can avoid helps. As a political scientist of sorts, bullshit is my research interest. As a teacher, I encounter some form of bullshit every day.

One of my favorite little books is “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt. Professor Frankfurt begins his treatise with this:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it…. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves." From there he develops a sophisticated definition of bullshit, which, for a philosopher is something akin to establishing your fastball early in the count.

As Professor Frankfurt soon points out, bullshit is everywhere today. We’re awash on an ocean of bullshit and, as the late James David Barber foresaw, the ropes mooring our boats to the shore are coming loose at a frightening pace.

My impatience with bullshit about the home team is not because I'm a New Yorker marooned in Kansas City and spoiled by winning. I’m no newcomer to losing baseball. I was an A’s fan as a kid. I have a friend who says he became an atheist because he always prayed on Sundays for God to help the A’s win at least one game of the doubleheader. Like Nietzsche, his conclusion was that God is either dead, not a baseball fan, or not listening to boys marooned in Kansas City.

At least then we had Star sportswriter Ernie Mehl to call bullshit “bullshit.” The owner once saddled up a donkey and had him led around the warning track at Municipal Stadium wearing a banner that read: “Poison Pen Award to Ernie Mehl.”

A Henry Wiggen Blog reader took me to task yesterday for my “cheap shot” at Star sportswriter Sam Mellinger. I was reacting to the usually reliable Mellinger’s convoluted logic that somehow Zack Greinke’s 5-something earned run average – when compared to the ERAs of the rest of the starting staff – made the trade for Greinke look like a success for the Royal’s Brain Trust. My argument was that Mellinger failed to mention Greinke is 7 and 3 so far this season for the Brewers and only Bruce Chen, who hasn’t pitched much, has a winning record for the home nine.

Now, in the abstract, Anon was right in criticizing my use of the pitchers’ won / lost records to argue with Mellinger. Anon – who is, b y the way, a pretty darn good writer – reminded me most Sabermagicians have abandoned winning and losing as a measure of pitchers, that my old school approach is hopelessly dated. I agree, to a point.

Whatever the math reveals, it seems the point of the game is still to win. The argument reminds me of the current abhorrence for the ancient runs-batted-in statistic. I agree this yardstick is flawed. It depends in great measure on what the three or four hitters in front of the person in question are capable of doing. But, again, the point of playing baseball IS to drive in runs. Flawed as won / lost records and runs-batted-in may be, it is still better to drive in runs than to not, and winning is definitely better than losing.

My fear is that those who should hold the feet of the Royals Brain Trust to the fire will get lost in numbers describing bullshit like "quality starts" and "pitches seen per at bat".

Today, the Star’s Sabermagician blogger Martin Manley seemed to have had enough as well. His column, though not a direct repudiation of Mellinger’s, makes the case using much more sophisticated number. As I barely understand it, GMSC – game score – is meant to measure what a pitcher adds or subtracts to the game by his presence on the mound for however many innings he lasts. The calculus is more complex than that, adding points for completed innings and strikeouts and subtracting for hits, earned runs, unearned runs and walks. It was created by Lawrence, Kansas, wizard Bill James, of course.

So, if I’m reading this chart right, Royals starters have only added value to 36 of the 83 games they’ve worked. That’s roughly 43 % of their starts, which is reasonably close to what you get if you only look at their won/lost records. And only Bruce Chen has averaged adding anything to a game – and Chen just barely.

Now, as I said before, that is horrendous. As Manley said, it certainly wipes the lipstick off the pig.

Which is what got me going on this subject in the first place. What I’m sick to the point of shouting about is the ridiculous public relations effort (sorry John Landsberg… but you know what I mean) by the team’s talkers and others, to not only put lipstick on this pig but add eye-shadow and blush. I expect better out of the sportswriters and bloggers who cover the Royals. The announcers – well that’s easy to understand. Frank White and Denny Matthews have adopted their mothers’ admonition to not say anything if you can’t say something nice. The others come to the booth well armed with lipstick and eyebrow pencil.

And what’s more troubling is this same ocean of bullshit is everywhere today, from baseball to medicine, to politics, to education. About all you can do now is swim for your life.

--Lofflin… pushing that damned metaphor like an old Volkswagen with a bad starter…

Image courtesy

PS: Joe Posnanski used the dreaded "quality start" statistic to absolutely embarrass the Royals' pitching staff in a great post today.I remain unconvinced about quality starts but the numbers they produce do nail Kyle Davies work on the mound rather well.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Base running and pitching from two perspectives: Sam Mellinger misreads the numbers and Sean Forman says small ball makes only a small difference

I'd like to balance a stretched-to-the-point-of-breaking use of statistics from Sam Mellinger in the Kansas City Star today with a bright piece about the REAL value of small ball in the New York Times.

Mellinger wrote an unfortunately homer column today arguing the Zack Greinke trade will look better now because Greinke has an ERA over 5 for the Brewers and most of the Royals' pitchers have lower ERA's today. What he fails to mention is that Greinke's record is 7 wins against 3 loses after being bombed in New York Tuesday. What he also fails to mention is that only Bruce Chen among Royals' starters has a winning record at 4-2. The other four have 11 wins (at nearly the All Star break) against 28 loses.

That comes to a horrendous, unthinkable, .286 winning percentage for the rest of the Royal's starting staff.

Greinke has won 7 out of 10 decisions, a .700 winning percentage. Mellinger does allow that Greinke has 80 strikeouts against 12 walks in 2011. But, somehow, for the usually reliable Star sportswriter, this adds up to a winning trade for the Royals' Brain Trust. Oh, Homer, pay no heed to the siren song!

Enough said on pitching.

Now to the excellent piece in the New York Times by Sean Forman about the actual value of aggressive base running. This, the Sabermagicians conclude, is an overrated bit of baseball mythology. Simplified, their numbers suggest stolen bases, or extra bases taken, add 0.2 runs to the total a team with a more conservative approach to base running would score. So 200 stolen bases could be expected to produce just 40 extra runs a season.

Perhaps more importantly, runners caught stealing or caught taking an extra base, subtract 0.5 runs from a team's total. So the risk of stealing bases -- in the case of most runners -- is a significant gamble. Except for a runner like Mr. Dyson, the numbers suggest it is better to just stay put, let a single be a single and let a double be a double.

The numbers suggest a base runner like Mr. Dyson might add one win per season to a team's total. If you're tied for the league lead or the playoff spot at the end of the year, that's significant. Otherwise...

In other words, those who love to preach small ball to baseball fans in small markets are just shilling for tight-fisted management. Small ball is just... well... small ball. Would you trade a steak for a hamburger? A Danny Edwards Ole Smokie for a double Sonic burger?

However, a list of the players since 1950 by position who added the most to their teams by base running includes two Kansas City players from the same era -- George Brett and Willie Wilson. No other team has two players on the list. Here it is:

Thurmon Munson
Jeff Bagwell
Davey Lopes
George Brett
Luis Aparicio
Rickey Henderson
Tim Raines
Willie Wilson

Well, I guess you could add Blue Moon Odom to the list of Kansas City players. He was the highest rated pitcher as a base runner.

At any rate, that's pretty good company for Brett and Wilson. Of course, this is no surprise if you ever saw Willie Wilson go from first to third on a single to right, his feet barely touching the ground.

Billy Butler, by the way, contributes minus 9 runs to the Royals' total run production each year through base running, just behind Prince Fielder. You can look at those numbers and say, Ouch!, or you can say nine runs isn't that much across a season for a guy who reaches base once in every three opportunities. Or, you could take a look at Prince Fielder's contract when the free agent sweepstakes for him is over next spring and draw your own conclusion about how important base running really is.

Both Greinke and Fielder, by the way, toil for a team that is tied for first place in their division while the home team is, once again, mired at the bottom of the heap. So much for small ball and the Royal's starting pitchers.