Friday, November 16, 2007

A Hard Day's Night

Americans as Lobsters

It is a commonplace--though whether true or urban myth I don't know--that if you drop a lobster into a pot of boiling water it will thrash about wildly, whereas if you put it in a pot of cold water and gradually increase the heat, the lobster will boil to death with no visible objections at all. That commonplace is a widely used metaphor, which wideness is here further expanded.

Where did it all begin? Not a few point to 1828 and the election of Andrew Jackson; Wikipedia says of "Jacksonian democracy" that it promoted the strength of the executive branch and the Presidency at the expense of Congressional power . . . . But even if that was the first crack in the Constitutional concrete, I don't think our present sad state runs in a direct line back that far.

Indeed, I see no reason not to yield to the obvious temptation of assigning the start of the modern boil of the lobster pot to the administration of Richard Nixon. But this is neither a history essay nor a blame-game essay. It's easy for anyone with sense or sensibility to despise the roster of Republican presidents who have, in a steady stream from Nixon on, bankrupted the nation both literally and morally: but to do so avoids the real issue, the nasty not-so-little secret: this was not murder, it was suicide.

Who and what was, say, Richard Nixon? Someone special and unique, the one man who could begin the wholesale destruction of the Constitution that has since ensued? Nonsense. Kick over any log in the woods and dozens like him scramble out of the sunlight. There was nothing whatever special or unique about Nixon; odds and ends of historical accident put him where he was, but politicians of his sort were and are fungible, and a dime a dozen at that. No, no, my fellow Amurricans: we put him into the presidency. We put Ronald Reagan ("the great bankrupter") in office after his trashing of California made it plain what his talents and abilities were; we put King George I on the throne and, most wretchedly damning of all, we put King George II on the throne not once but twice (well, maybe only once, but it was the once after we had seen him in action).

Oh! you exclaim: not me! I didn't vote for him! Goody. Somebody did--over half the somebodies in the nation. But I said this wasn't to be a blame-game essay: the point is that the shift from a Constitutional system of tripartate power and a land that prided itself--rightly or wrongly isn't material, for we're discussing ideas and perceptions--as being open and free, the antipode of a dictatorship, to a land that is, well, pretty close to a dictatorship. Is that extreme? No. It just hasn't come to you yet. When people can be kidnapped from public places, carried off to other lands, held for months or even years without anyone outside the secret police (that's what they now effectively are) even knowing what happened to the person--no family, no lawyer, no anybody--and, of course, tortured continually, when, in the end, it turns out that the victim wasn't even a reasonably likely target for even ordinary security measures, well, what do you call it?

And the crux, the point of all this fulminating, is that none of that was accomplished in some overnight coup d'etat: no, all the changes took place pretty much out in the open. Day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, the most basic ideas of what America is about were relentlessly shredded before our very eyes. And what did we as a people say? I'm all right, Jack.

Sometimes even the hoariest chestnuts are worth trotting out again:

First they came for the Communists - but I was not a communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists - but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews - but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
Optimists think that electing a Democrat in 2008 will stop all this. Good luck. Perhaps some of the worst excesses and most obvious horrors will be shut down; but I do not think that the imperial presidency will ever be willingly transformed, by any president, to a less-powerful office. No one, no one, runs for the office of president with the goal of making it less powerful.

Is the water boiling yet?

Barry in Wonderland

Bear with me, please: this may take a while.

As, presumably, every literate soul in America, if not the world, knows by now, Barry Bonds has been indicted by a Federal grand jury for perjury and obstruction of justice. The claim is that when he testified to the grand jury that he never knowingly took any illegal performance-enhancing substances, he was lying.

It's hard to know where to begin with this ghastly morass of innuendo and flat-out lies about Bonds, and steroids in general, that has been pushed off on the American public by a vituperative and either massively and willfully ignorant or outright lying sports press.

Perhaps you remember the Monty Python sketch that mocked segment-targeted newscasts--one such, The News For Parrots, began: "No parrots were involved in a massive automobile accident on the M-1 motorway this afternoon." Well, then, let me start out with this: "No steroids were involved in the numbers of home runs hit over the past decade-plus of major league baseball." That's right: steroids are as irrelevant to home-run hitting as are corked bats. (Oh dear, you mean you didn't know that corked bats are something from ineffective to counter-productive? Gee, I wonder what press forgot to tell you that well-known and scientifically proven fact?)

The putative relation of steroids to home runs can be analyzed in two distinct ways: medically and statistically. Let's start with medicine. Steroidal substances can and do, in certain circumstances (which include great amounts of high-intensity weight training--nothing for free), increase musculature; but steroids work almost exclusively on upper-body muscle mass. Ted Kluszewski's famous bulging arms notwithstanding, far and away the major contributor to power hitting is lower-body strength: the rotational force comes from the legs and hips, the upper body being more or less carried along by them. Moreover, a great deal of hitting in general, including power hitting, is sheer skill--eye-hand coordination, trained judgement, quickness. As Joe Morgan, who hit a few himself, once remarked (this may not be verbatim, but it's close), If home-run hitting was about strength, Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the home-run king. A lot of people don't like Joe Morgan's announcing style, but when it comes to the actual physical play of the game, he knows whereof he speaks. Or there's Dr. Chris Yeager, whose resume you can check via the link: "Upper body strength doesn't increase bat speed, and bat speed is vital to hitting home runs. The upper body is used in a ballistic manner. It contributes very little in terms of power generation." Yeager likens a batter's arms to the bat itself: simply a means for transferring energy. And a batter's pectoral muscles "are even less useful."

Then there's the statistical approach: if steroids are causing more home runs, where are they? Will Carroll, a recognized expert on medical matters related to baseball, puts it this way: "As Jay Jaffe showed in The Juice and Nate Silver showed in Baseball Between The Numbers, there's no statistical evidence that performance-enhancing drugs of any type show up in the numbers. I'm not saying there's not an effect, just that people smarter than me can't find it statistically." Or consider the analytic study by students at Gustavus Adolphus College: "Do steroids actually help a baseball player to hit a ball farther? The quick answer is No." Or, if I may, I can point you to my own essay "The Silly Ball", in which the risibly obvious real reason why there was a sudden 15% jump in run-scoring in 1994 is massively documented.

So: primus, steroids don't affect home-run hitting. How, then, can so many members of the press, including the supposed experts of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers' Association of America), possibly be so wrong? My, my, my: how little you know them. When first I joined, in my humble way, the daily baseball press, perhaps the first thing that impressed itself on me, quite forcibly, was how profoundly most members of that press despised most ball players. That is a modern phenomenon, and like so much else in the world it is a weed grown from the root of all evil.

In the pre-television-money days, beat writers and ballplayers alike were blue-collar folk, making mediocre incomes for doing hard jobs well. They associated closely (often, on the road, perforce), shared interests, world-views--all the like things that like incomes engender. Today's journalists, even the highest-paid network biggies, are simply not in the same financial room as premium major-league ballplayers, arguably not even the same house or county. In 2007, the average major-league ballplayer salary is almost three million dollars; I don't known what reporters make, but twenty years ago, in my heyday, an established beat writer for A Major Metropolitan Daily was glad to have a sideline writing paragraphs for another publication for fifty bucks a week. Do such folk today make on average, say, $75,000 a year? I have no idea, but even doubling or halving the number is immaterial: the average ballplayer is only making about forty times what the writers covering him are--the ratio for star players is even more absurd.

In this day and age, you do not become a baseball writer for anything beyond the Podunk Weekly unless you are a college graduate, and have some experience. If you are instead a star ballplayer, you may or may not have a college degree, but in most cases even if you do, it's puffery. (There are notable exceptions, but they are few.) So what do you expect attitudes to be when a self-important writer deals with kids (most writers are nontrivially older than most players) making 40, or 400, times what the writer is making? Sure, not every soul falls into hell--but a many do.

But primus is only that steroids don't matter. Secundus is why this years-long all-out assault on one man, Barry Bonds? The answer is very, very ugly: to a lot of sports writers, Bonds is the quintessential uppity nigger.

There's an informal (occasionally formalized in writing by a team) protocol for how players and the baseball press interact. For example, post-game interviews must be game-related; background/columnist stuff is pre-game only. The cub reporter learns this sort of stuff slowly, and often painfully. But when the reporter has satisfied the requirements of protocol, the player is expected to co-operate, and talk, at whatever reasonable length the reporter requires for his or her purposes. Not all do.

Now it is not beyond the pale for a player to refuse now and again, on whatever ground. Nor is it required that he be polite or deferential to each and every reporter. But, as you might imagine, there are bounds. Barry Bonds is after my time (in the San Francisco Bay Area): I have never dealt with him in person. But apparently he can be something of an SOB to reporters. Mind, having seen the way so many of them, even the more experienced, go about their jobs, I, too, might be something of an SOB to them. But--a big but--that should, it almost but not quite goes without saying, have nothing whatever, zip, nada, to do with how the reporters, well, report on the player. I'd have loved to say some scathing things about, for example, Bert Blyleven, who could go to Halloween parties wearing a giant condom disguised as a big prick: but I didn't, and few others did, either. His relations with the press were not a part of his performance as a ballplayer.

But with Bonds it was a combination: arrogance (let's just concede it for argument, though I don't take it as proven) and race. Yup. Race. I want to make clear that this is purely one man's opinion: but it is a firmly held opinion.

One of the chief proofs of all this is that the vendetta between the press and Bonds long antedates any least hint of substance use, by him or by any ballplayer. At this point, seeing how much I have already written, I despair of conveying the rest within something less than a book-length work. But two names that ought to pop out here are Tom Verducci, a writer for Sports Illustrated (you know, the folks who demonstrate their journalistic credentials with an annual soft-porn issue), and Jeff Novitzky of the IRS, a pitiable (but nevertheless despicable) two-cent version of Inspector Javert, who for reasons lying between him and his creator decided to make "nailing" Barry Bonds his reason for living. It's deeply sad when most or all of a man's purpose in life is the destruction of another man, which is why I think labelling Novitsky "Inspector Javert" cuts to the heart of the issue.

To help keep this from running on yet farther, let me refer you on to a delightfully readable five-page essay at The United States of Baseball titled "The Most Popular Myths in Baseball: Barry Bonds & Steroids". And there's some more good reading at this 2006 page from Only Baseball Matters and at Tommy Craggs' Slate article Hammering on Hank.
(I try not to let my ego run away with me in these posts, but the casual reader might wonder what credentials I have to speak so firmly of baseball things. Have I ever spent a day in a major-league clubhouse or press box? Yes: hundreds, maybe thousands (I lose count). George Will, writing in The New York Times, referred to me as "the most important baseball thinker you have never heard of." Sorry for the horn; thank you for your patience.

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