Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 4)

The aliens are on a roll, and resistance is futile.  And they are truly feeling like they have been heard, and are grateful that so many earthlings have considered their perspective (I told them that that each page view on the stats page represents one million views.  Tee-hee!)

So far, they have asked:
"Why are divisions so numerically unbalanced?"
"Why do some teams have a payroll that is 4, 5, or even 6 times that of other teams?"
"Why do baseball players get to chew tobacco while they're playing?"

Today, they are wondering:
Why are Americans discriminated against in the MLB draft?

This is a little embarrassing--aliens don't know how strong the phrasing of that question comes across.  They also don't realize it's a little awkward to suggest that Americans are discriminated against in any sort of "worldwide context," especially since the people for whom the present MLB draft arrangement most benefits may or may not have things like baseball gloves made out of actual leather or even running water.

Also, they don't realize that it's also Canadians and Puerto Ricans who are being discriminated against, but that's just a detail.

Here's what they see (this is a shorthand summary sans a lot of details not crucial to their concern): Each year, MLB teams get to draft players from college or high school.  The teams draft according to their record the previous year, with the worst team drafting first.  Once a player is drafted by a team, that team has exclusive rights to try to sign that player to a contract.  Some players are just happy to get drafted and sign right away for whatever the team is offering.  Other players have more leverage and can use that leverage for driving up the price to sign with the team that drafted them.  For example, a player drafted out of high school can say, "If you don't pay me enough, I'll just go to college and play for a couple of years then get drafted again later."  One piece of leverage that a drafted player does NOT have is the threat of signing with another team--not until after next year's draft, and then the process starts all over again.

There are a few criteria that must be met for a player to be drafted, one of which is that the player must live in the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico.

But many players in the major leagues are not from any of those countries.  How ever did THEY get signed?

It went something like this: All the scouts and GM-types for all the teams sat in a nice room and took turns drafting, in an orderly, civil manner all of the draft-eligible players that they cared to.  Then, after the draft, the commissioner lined all of those folks up on the the border of the United States and said "On your mark!  Get set!  Go!"  Then it was something like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," with the prize being big league prospects instead of a treasure buried under a "big W".  Good luck, everyone!

The focus of this comparison isn't the synchronized start of it all (some teams have been out "Searching for [baseball's] Bobby Fisher" since before other teams were even born).  The similarity is the relative disorganization of it all and--more significantly--the fact that any ballplayer outside of the U.S. is automatically a free agent, no service time or draft eligibility required.

All for being born outside of the U.S.

Now I'm actually basically OK with kids who can play baseball well but have never had running water in their houses having millions of dollars dumped on them by Americans.  Good for them.  And the aliens aren't TOO concerned about the players who are "discovered" by diligent, hard-working, lead-following scouts hired by particular teams and who--based on that single connection with the team of that scout--sign a fair or even lucrative contract before other teams can swoop in and jack up the bidding, mooching off the hard work of others.  In that regard, the system rewards teams who employ the best scouts, and rewards players for being good with contracts that are probably comparable to those that would have been signed had the player been drafted instead of "found."

The problem arises when players are too good and too well known to feel any sort of need to negotiate solely with the team that discovered them.  These players may have impressed the world in international competitions or may be able to throw a baseball 100 mph (word gets around about that sort of thing).  These players are then able to market their free agent status and create bidding wars, just like regular-old American free agents, but without having to go through all that pesky draft business.

Thus, international free agent movement tends to look a lot like American free agent movement: the best players go to the teams with the most money.  Furthermore, deep-pocketed teams have an advantage in searching for unknown prospects as well, since scouting across borders takes both and eye-for-talent AND money.

So the end result is that last place teams drafting first MAY get to add the best amateur player to their team, if he happens to be American (and seems signable).  But for all intents and purposes, teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, et al, are given an extra top-ten pick in the draft EVERY YEAR, because probably 3-5 of the top 10 players signed each year don't happen to be American.  Incidentally, this also makes it less painful for teams like the Yankees to forfeit their first round picks for signing top free agents from other teams (as per CBA rules).  "Hey, that's cool.  You can have my 27th pick--we'll be signing a couple of top 20 prospects anyway because they happen to be international free agents."

As an added bonus, big market teams get to spin these guys as "home grown talent", proving that their scouts are as good as any one else's.

The draft is supposed to help bad teams get better, and it can.  But it was developed when it was the primary (by a large margin) way of acquiring amateur talent to improve your team's chance of on-the-field success.  Now, the draft is just one way of acquiring that talent.  Now, "the opportunity to acquire amateur talent" is--when taken as a whole, virtually unweighted towards teams with a bad records.  Benefits of drafting high are on par with benefits of having cash, and teams like the Pirates and Royals are no more likely than the Yankees or Mets to acquire the top amateur players each year.

And tilting the acquisition of amateur talent towards the teams most in need of it has become an alien way of thinking.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 3)

I wasn't 100% sure of the scheduling of the "Alien Perspective" posts when I wrote the first one a few days ago, but as I'm writing, the format is taking shape.  The first one was 2 Wednesdays ago, and introduced the "Alien Perspective" motif, as well as the aliens' first question: "Why are divisions so numerically uneven?"  Last Wednesday, the series continued with the aliens asking "Why do some teams have a payroll of 4, 5, or even 6 times that of other teams?"

Aliens, it turns out, are both more inquisitive and more verbose than one may have thought.  Thus, they will need more than WPFF's regular calender of posts to express their concerns properly, especially since I have promised them that after they have had their say, I will take the time to offer solutions.  (They, in turn, have promised not to abduct and probe me.)

Today--in my first-ever Tuesday post--I'm going to offer a couple of follow up thoughts to the last question about payrolls, then introduce and consider the aliens' 3rd concern.

First, the follow up thoughts concerning the salary disparity among teams: After the first version of "Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 2)" went to press, a timely little article on caught my eye.  Buck Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, said something a bit snippy about the general manager of the Red Sox, and how easy it is to have that job since you have more money with which to buy players than almost any other team.

No surprise that I agree with Buck, and it's also no surprise that Buck's comments did NOT initiate a ripple effect of enlightenment, with journalists and fans saying, "Hey, wait a minute--he's got a point there."  Most fans and journalists already know about this disparity and are either numb to it or have decided that it is only one small factor (not necessarily the most significant one) of many in determining the success or failure of a team and that it is not worth framing every comment on baseball with "But the money's in New York, Boston, Philly, and a few other places here and there, and that's really going to be the deciding factor for all World Series titles in the foreseeable future."  But that would be funny though if they DID say that!

But I'm not surprised at the lack of reaction.  Buck's comments were too brief and did little to really infuse an alien perspective on the situation.  Bloggers and journalists are the ones who get to have a go at really dissecting the situation for what it is in a way that MIGHT just reveal things for what they are; managers and owners are the ones who get quotes and soundbites.  The former have the time and means for layered analysis; the latter have the headlines and potential for influence.  For something to change, Buck either needs a blog, or the Hungry Preacher needs to become the manager of the Orioles.

What might have gotten more of a stir is if Buck had made it a point to call out everyone who ever said or will say that Crawford's signing was a "good signing."  What makes it good?  Because the Red Sox are a better team for it?  That's not enough.  No, seriously.  Because almost literally EVERY signing immediately makes the team "better".  Has a free agent signing--i.e., the adding of a player without the subtracting of another--EVER made a team immediately WORSE?  Most GM's can at LEAST competently add a player through free agency whose replacement of the 25th best player on the big league roster will improve the overall talent of the team.

So assuming that almost every signing is to some extent "good", what makes Crawford's ESPECIALLY good?

One may suggest Crawford is WAY better than the 25th player on any roster, even the Red Sox.  Doesn't that make the signing especially good?  Short answer: no.  I'm not saying that the player isn't good.  And I'm not saying that the team isn't significantly better for having Crawford--they are, by a lot.  But for the SIGNING per se to be considered "good," there needs to be something else that was overcome by the GM in order for it to have happened.

Here are some circumstances surrounding a free agent signing that would persuade me to categorize a signing as "good":
  • The GM scouted the targeted player and recognized talent--either measurable or subjective--that had been overlooked by other GMs and could more confidently and aggressively target said player based on the GM's particular insight into the talent or potential talent of the player.  Crawford was pretty universally regarded as the best free agent position player on the market, and would get some votes as the best left fielder in baseball.  If Theo has an "eye for talent" in any distinct sense, it was not evident in his pursuit of Crawford.
  • The GM paid less for the player's services than other teams had offered the player, or had correctly anticipated a buyer's market and in so doing was able to pay less than experts or the player himself would have expected.  It seems that Theo offered more money than any other team for Crawford's services.  Not only that, but he appears to have jacked up the entire "going rate" for top tier left fielders, especially given that Matt Holliday had signed for an average of $17 million just the year before.  Crawford, probably about an equally valuable player (though differently skilled than Holliday) will be making more than $20 million a year.
  • The GM had shrewdly maneuvered his finances in anticipation of accommodating the significant contract that he planned to offer.  Perhaps there was some maneuvering.  But since Boston doesn't seem to have either a history of doing that or any apparent need for doing that, that's a hard assumption to make.  When a team has a budget that is at least moderately comparable to that of the majority of other teams in the league, such maneuvering may be necessary and should be commended.  But when there is essentially no opportunity cost for a signing, giving credit for budgeting is silly.
  • The GM's team had a particular need that could be uniquely filled by the signed player.  It's a matter of perspective, I guess.  Before signing Crawford, the Sox had one of the 3 or 4 best starting line ups in baseball.  They had an outfield of Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew, which could probably be called "very good" as far as ML outfields go.  Now Crawford, being arguably the best LF in baseball, BY DEFINITION improves the outfield no matter who he is bumping (hint: it rhymes with "Tameron").  But was there a particular need among the Red Sox?  Was there a gaping hole?  I'm not seeing one, myself.
  • The GM had to persuade the player to overlook certain negative intangibles to join his team.  If a team lacked a winning track record, or a loyal fan base, or the resources to improve in upcoming years--those would all be factors that may cause one to tip their cap to the GM's power of persuasion.  None of those issues seemed to be in play with Theo's signing of Crawford.  Of course, maybe Crawford is a warm weather guy and really likes newer stadiums--I'm not privy to that sort of information--and maybe Theo had to really, REALLY get Crawford to overlook those things and focus instead on the most lucrative annual salary for a left fielder in baseball history.  Maybe THAT'S what people are saying when they say "Crawford was a good signing."
Methinks not.  So the question is this: "Is paying the highest annual salary that has ever been paid to a left fielder who is regarded as the best available free agent when you have virtually no budget constraints, no gaping need, and numerous appealing intangibles to sweeten the deal a 'good signing'?  Uh, kind of, I guess.

But "good signing"--to me, at least--carries some connotation of variables being addressed in a way that they may not have been had certain proactive savviness NOT been exercised in the right way and at the right time.  Since the Sox have virtually no external competition and no internal restraints when it comes to offering big money to the best players, the signing may as well be judged as though it took place in a vacuum, as though Crawford's agent called up and said, "Hey, do you want the best left fielder in baseball to play for your team?"  What's Theo going to say?  "Yes!" of course.  Any other GM would say, "Yes--what's the catch?"  Of course, the "catch" for almost any other team would end up being a deal breaker--$142 million has that effect on most teams.  For Theo, it's barely a "catch" at all.  It's a no brainer.

But I promised that the aliens would also break new ground today with their questions, and they've got a doozie.  It'll be a short one that won't need much elaboration, but the aliens are certainly confused by this issue.  Their next question, then, is:

"Why do baseball players get to chew tobacco while they're playing?"
I have an old friend whose grandpa was a chain smoker when her little sister was born prematurely with significant health problems.  My friend's parents told her grandpa that he could not see her in any situation where smoke from his habit may contaminate the air--even a little--that this fragile baby girl would be breathing.  My friend's grandpa quit on the spot.  Never smoked again.  He realized that the benefits he received from his habit were not worth what he would have to pay, namely unhindered opportunities to see his granddaughter.

There are a lot of differences between that story and what baseball players do.  But the comparison is this: Couldn't baseball players be told--or even (gasp!) take it upon themselves through their union--to similarly say, "Hey, we're doing something that some children see, imitate, and eventually die from.  That's not worth the benefits we get from doing it."  Aliens think it's that cut-and-dried.

But no one forces children who watch ballplayers chew become teenagers and adults who chew.  Yeah, yeah, aliens get that.  But they also think is bizarre to pretend that hero-influence can be so inconsistently recognized as a real force .  Any ballplayer who downplays the influence they exercise on their fans is probably referring to very fans who fork over $85 to wear MLB replica jerseys of them.  Yes, ballplayers, you influence people to the extent that they proudly wear your shirts, pretending to be just like you--or, if they're still young enough, actually HOPING to someday be just like you.  You think at least of a few of them are gonna try some chaw in large part because they saw you do it?  Or would you like to continue to milk the positive influence of your position while denying the existence of (or your ability to stem the tide of) the negative influence of what you do WHILE YOU ARE SIMULTANEOUSLY ENTERTAINING CHILDREN?  It's OK--your silence is your answer.

It's unhealthy.  It's unsanitary.  It's addictive.  It's influential.  Its closest comparable behavior is smoking a cigarette--anyone think THAT'S a good idea to do while playing baseball in front of children?  And it's done brazenly in front of thousands upon thousands of impressionable children who want to be just like them.

It would be one thing if ballplayers had no opportunity to solicit accountability for their addictions.  If ballplayers were told just to have more willpower because this is important--I can see how that would be tough.  But the players--addicts or friends-of-addicts--theoretically COULD ask their union to outlaw chewing while playing.  You know, for longer life-spans and that sort of thing.

Or, the union could decide that chewing is a right in the CBA, and one that would not be given up without some concession from the owners.  Giving up a right like that without some offsetting concession from the owners would be the beginning of a slippery slope to...  uh, I can't even think of something.  Where's the MLBPA president when you need him?  Owners, of course, would never pick tobacco as the hill to die on in any CBA negotiation, since the deaths of the players from tobacco will happen only AFTER the players are no longer in their employ.

So players continue to chew because it has always been that way.  "It has always been that way" is nonsense to aliens taking in the status quo of all things pertaining to MLB.  And players chewing tobacco while entertaining children is one of the most non-sensical things that they see.


Friday, March 25, 2011

And in Between Haircuts...

Aside from providing me with a source of unmeasurable joy, my older daughter has earned her keep in other ways, too.  In an earlier post, I showed how raising a skilled, direction-following daughter can save you big bucks on haircuts.  Today, I prove that such a child can also provide her sleepy-headed stay-at-home father with caffeine-saturated beverages to die for.

The best part?  No tip jar.  My little barista-ito works for food, shelter, and demonstrations of affection.

Have a great weekend, and may all of your beans be finely ground.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 2)

Read part 1 here for an intro to the concept of "alien perspectives".  Also, note that these posts are taking the shape of one alien question per post.  After the aliens have had the chance to ask their questions / point out their concerns, solutions to their concerns will be offered on this very blog.

In part 1 of this series of posts, aliens asked about uneven divisions in MLB.  Here in part 2, they are asking:

Why do some teams have a payroll 4, 5, or even 6 times that of other teams?

OK, elephant in the room: Yankees. There, I said it. And since they’re the most consistent perpetrator, I’ll say “Yankees” in this post as a label for a group of teams most regularly plays the role of “culprit du jour” (usually the Red Sox, and to some degree the Phillies and Cubs, and sometimes others). But regardless of the specific team, the situation is something like this: Some teams have more resources (like coal, natural gas, and—oh, and money) than others, so they get to pay more for their players. So whenever there is a free agent of any note or a player on the trade block, the Yankees are immediately considered a “potential suitor,” and the backlash of this (usually accurate) recognition of the Yankee’s desire to acquire said player is for commentators to tritely point out that “it’s another case of the ‘have’s’ versus the ‘have-not’s’.” Most people think that the Yankees behaving like Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors” is annoying and then shrug their shoulders and move on.

But to truly grasp the significance of the payroll difference between the Yankees and the bottom feeders, we need perspective of the intergalactic variety. What are some things that aliens think this discrepancy is comparable to?

It would be like two captains of kickball teams in grade school. The first captain gets 5 picks. Then the second captain gets 1 pick. Then the first captain gets 4 picks. And the second captain gets 2. Then the first captain rounds out his team with whoever he wants to from the players that are left. Then the second captain gets to do the same. Game on, right?

Or it would be like a fantasy football draft. I had my first auction draft this year. We each had $200 to spend. Imagine if one of us got $800 to draft our team. The draft would become a matter of “team 800” drafting and spending until he literally didn’t have any more roster spots to fill. Then the rest of the teams could draft and play. Actually, it would like if no “budget” was assigned at all, and people just showed up and got to bid on players with real cash that they would fork over out of their bank accounts.

This would be completely goofy way of going about things that none of us (except the ones who are wealthiest among their friends) would go for. But this is effectively what happens in the big leagues every year. I’m not complaining about the disparity, per se. I’m trying to point out how silly it is to downplay the impact this disparity has on the MLB and fans of MLB.

Here are a few arguments I’ve heard on the “It’s not that big of a deal” side of the coin regarding team payroll disparity:

“Small market teams with significant salary restraints still do win the World Series”
Yes, of course they sometimes do. In fact, it so happened that a team in the bottom half of total team payroll won the World Series back in 2003. That was the only time in the last 16 years that that happened.

But considering playoff appearances as opposed to actual world championships, the field opens up a little bit. Teams like the A’s, Mariners, Rays, and Marlins have made it to the post season in the past 16 years. These teams, however, have all had short shelf-lives as far as winning goes. There is a relatively short window in which they must win—then, whether they do or they don’t, their best players will migrate to the Yankees.

So in order to win, these teams must bank on a core of young players developing quickly and simultaneously and delivering winning seasons before the next batch comes up. Yes, these teams have had winning seasons. And then the window closes for years on end. Consider some of these names that have left those four teams via financially motivated trades or via free agency for greener pastures (money, you see, is green): Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, Kevin Brown, Dan Uggla. Of course, some of those players bombed after departing, and that might be where discernment rather than deep pockets is to be valued. But whether or not your team is actually winning, a fan can receive significant satisfaction in rooting for a team that he knows, has been rooting for a long time, and sincerely and legitimately believes has a chance at winning.

I am of the opinion that teams who are forced to put all of their eggs in a three year window, knowing that there will probably be at least 3 years after that of losing in obscurity, will naturally draw a fan base that is less-loyal, less-impassioned, and less willing to fork over cash for season tickets than a team that can regularly re-sign even a token number of its home grown stars—even if that “3 year window” team manages to win a World Series during that 3 year window. Fans may say that they want world champions. But even if your team just won a World Series, nobody wants to give away their passion and dollars for an extended “get to know you” period after their favorite players just let town with their shiny new World Series rings.

It is this regular exodus of players—players usually able to sign 5 year contracts for 2-3 more prime years of playing, plus another 2-3 years of good-but-not-prime years—that breeds skepticism among fans, regardless of post-season appearances or even World Series championships in the previous few years. Rays fans wanted to see Carl Crawford play out his days with the Rays. And now, because he’s gone, they are going to be less excited to pull for Evan Longoria in any sort of personally involved sort of way, ‘cause he’ll be gone in a few years, too.

In other words, the argument that small market teams can still win is not only barely true, it’s also somewhat missing the point. Having a contending or even championship team every 6 years in exchange for getting perpetually kicked in the gut for a few years AFTER those 6 years just stops being worth it after a while.

“The Yankees have still done a good job at developing their own players.”
I actually heard Peter Gammons say this on ESPN, and remember thinking, “That’s not the point.” EVERYONE has developed their own players. Yes, some teams have done better than others. But the point is that only a couple of teams can afford to overpay their own developed players (Jeter, Cano, Rivera, Posada) AND still supplement with overpaid free agents (Beckett, Sabathia, Texeira) while picking up a salary dump or two before the trade deadline (Berkman).

The other misleading thing about the Yankees home-grown talent is that the Yanks can afford to wait around on their players to see if they are actually worth overpaying. The Yankees have little incentive to sign young players to long-terms contracts with the purpose of “buying out” arbitration years plus a free agent year on those players. An example of a team making use of this “buying out” strategy can be found reported on’s archive, dated March 29, 2006:

“The Cleveland Indians locked up their center field position into the next decade, agreeing Wednesday to a $23.45 million, six-year contract with Grady Sizemore.

Sizemore's deal has the most guaranteed money for a player with less than two years of major-league service, $200,000 more than the Boston Red Sox guaranteed shortstop Nomar Garciaparra in a five-year deal agreed to in March 1998.

Sizemore gets a $1 million signing bonus and salaries of $500,000 this year, $750,000 in 2007, $3 million in 2008, $4.6 million in 2009, $5.6 million in 1010 and $7.5 million in 2011.

Sizemore has played only one full season in the majors, but the 23-year-old outfielder did enough to impress the Indians.”

The Indians—wisely, thought most people at the time—signed Sizemore to this contract in the hopes of having his services for a couple more years than they would have if they had taken the year-by-year approach that allows players to file for arbitration and eventually for free agency. Sizemore puts off free agency by a year or two but gets to bank enough money to retire on two years before he otherwise would have.

The Indians gambled. Had they not signed him to this contract, Sizemore would have been a free agent after the 2010 season, when he batted .211 with zero home runs in 33 games. The year before, he batted .248 in 106 games. These numbers would NOT likely have translated into the $7.5 million that Sizemore is making in 2011 had he not signed for that amount after the 2006 season.

The Yankees, knowing that they can overpay their own free agents when the time comes, don’t have to make these kinds of gambles. Take Joba Chamberlain, for example. After showing off for 19 games in 2007 and posting a 0.34 ERA, Joba looked like the real deal in 2008, pitching 100.1 innings without a well-defined role and still posting a 2.60 ERA, more strikeouts than innings pitched, and a WHIP of 1.26. The next two years saw big drop offs for Joba, with ERAs of 4.75 and 4.40.

How much do you think he’d be making this year had he come up with the Indians or the Rays, who likely would have tried to lock-up Joba to a Sizemore-structured deal after his second season? 2 million? 3? This year, he’ll be making $1.4 million from the Yankees. Of course, the verdict is still out on Joba. But that’s the point: the Yankees can afford to wait on the verdict. If he settles in as an average middle reliever, they’ll let him go. If he shapes himself into a number 2 or 3 starter, they can pay him like a number 1 starter and everyone will say how great it is that the Yankees develop their own talent despite their financial resources.

“A lot of Yankee free agent signings don’t work out—they still have to overcome that just like everyone else” or "They still have to sign the right players."
Some of their signings have been busts. Carl Pavano is notoriously the worst, at 4 years/$40 million. He won 9 games for the Yankees. They also bid for and won the rights to sign Kai Igawa from Japan, who cost the Yankees $46 million (bid plus contract) over 4 years. And this past year, A.J. Burnett probably put up the second worst season ever for a pitcher making $16.5 million (shout out to Barry Zito!). The Yankees off season solution to this flopping pitcher? Outbid everyone else for the latest, best free agent pitcher on the market, Cliff Lee. (Lee shocked the baseball world by taking a competitive offer from the team he most wanted to play with: the Phillies, themselves not exactly the Bad News Bears.)

So everyone makes bad free agent signings. Some teams can absorb a mulligan on a significant signing. Some can even absorb 2. The Yankees can just tear up the score card. Paying $16.5 million to a pitcher with a 10-15 record and an ERA over 5 would shut down a lot of teams for years. For the Yankees, it’s an annoyance.

“You still have to play the games.” or “You can’t buy a championship.”
In the 16 years of 3-division leagues, the Yankees have made the playoffs 15 times. The mini-Yankees up in Boston have made it 9 times. In 8 of the 16 years, the Yankees and Red Sox have both made it to the playoffs, taking up 2 of the 4 playoff spots in their league. Though the playoffs CAN be something of an equalizer when it comes to salaries, the Yankees or Red Sox have won 7 of the last 16 World Series.

Teams that have pulled off upsets to win the World Series haven’t exactly been strapped for cash. I mentioned that just one time in the past 16 years has a team with a payroll in the bottom half of MLB won the World Series. It was the Marlins in 2003, and they ranked 25th. For the other 15 years, the average payroll rank of the team that won the World Series was just above 6th.

So to someone who would say, “You can’t buy a championship,” I would respond, “You actually kind of can.” Or, at the very least, it is more accurate to say that you CAN buy a championship that to stubbornly apply some idealistic “any given Sunday” motif to an entire baseball season and insist that you can’t.

The only question is “What percentage of a championship can be bought?” That is to ask, “In the average year, how much can the World Series champion attribute their success to having more money?” I doubt this could actually be figured out statistically, but if it could, you gotta wonder. Things like injuries, scouting, trades, and “on the field play” (to use a quaint little expression) SEEM like important factors. But money looks strikingly like a trump card that can influence outcome of a season more than luck and scouting ever could.

Aliens think that the Yankees playing the Royals or the A’s is more like the Globetrotters traveling the country and offering to play the local talent that can be assembled from nearby playgrounds. They think it’s like the first Olympic “Dream Team” plowing through the competition, or Hulk Hogan in his prime going up against the latest heal, or heavyweight boxers fighting as featherweights. And the Yankees playing the Royals or the A’s IS more like these things than it is like a reasonable competition where anyone can win “any given season”.

The Yankees don’t want to admit this, because they like to win. The players don’t want to admit this because they want to be able to make money from the Yankees. The commissioner’s office doesn’t want to admit this, because if the players and the Yankees are fine with it, there’s nothing they can do. And the fans are across the spectrum: Some maybe can’t put their finger on it. Some just stop following their favorite team with the kind of zeal that MLB ostensibly would like them to have. Some are fans of the Yankees. Some are fine with the idea that maybe in a few years their team will experience a Marlin-esque run to the World Series.

But aliens? They think it’s kind of a ruse.

More concerns from the aliens are forthcoming, along with the eagerly anticipated post that promises to offer universally loved solutions to all alien problems seen with Major League Baseball.

Again, not this Friday, though. Not all readers of WPFF are sports fans and I try to please all of the people as much as possible. So more not-sport stuff this Friday. Until then…


Addendum: This article showed up today on  Yup.  $200 million can make you look pretty savvy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MacGyver, Trainer of Househusbands

I watched a lot of MacGyver growing up and, like a lot of 14 year-old-boys, learned a lot about the dangers of guns and the ease of making explosive devices out of household items.  I can safely say, though, that I did NOT see my MacGyver-based education as preparation for being a househusband.  (Come to think of it, I actually didn't even see my high school practical arts class as preparation for being a househusband.)

But who can predict these things?  A househusband I am, and one ability that has come in handier than I thought it would is using things for purposes other than what they were designed for.  Thank you, MacGyver.  And now, in an attempt to pay it forward, I will share 5 of those creative re-appropriations with you.

I can't promise any of these out-of-the-box solutions will address any problems that you have.  Or that there are not better solutions than the ones I came up with.  Neither can I take any responsibility for any physical injury that may occur to your person while attempting to imitate the solutions that I have discovered and now share with you.  If you accept these conditions, read on...

What We Lacked: A sufficient number of trash cans.
What We Had: Two extra collection bins from old paper shredders that kicked the bucket on us.
What We Did: Take a deep breath, 'cause this is gonna blow your mind.  You know how trash cans are kind of like big round cups that you can put plastic bags in to collect trash?  So, it turns out, are the removable bins for paper shredders.  The transition from one to another was a two step process: First, we lined the bin with a plastic bag.  Second, instead of putting paper shreds in the bin (this is the pivotal step), we put regular old trash in it.
How Effective Has This Been?  Extremely.
Have There Been Any Drawbacks to this Solution?  Nope.
The Visual Evidence:

"This is a shredder basket!  How could one ever transform this into a trash can?"

"Oh, I see.  Brilliant, truly brilliant."

How Impressed Would MacGyver Be on a Scale of 1 to 5 Feathered-Back Mullets?  One (he MIGHT let me use the fish scaler on his Swiss army knife under close supervision).

What We Lacked: A way for our arthritic dog to walk up the stairs.  His paws slipped on the hardwood stairs, and he would panic, frozen and sprawled out over three stairs, until someone came to rescue him.
What We Had: A $20 area rug from Kmart and a some rubber pads to keep rugs from sliding on floors.
What We Did: I measured the depth of each step and width of our dog's stride, and figured out how many rectangles I could cut from the carpet-rug that I had purchased so that each stair could be covered, effectively creating a "walking dog lane" in our stair case.
How Effective Has This Been?  Very.
Have There Been Any Drawbacks to This Solution?  A couple.  To begin with, apparently Cutco kitchen scissors are actually MORE effective at cutting pennies than they are carpet.  They wow you with that penny cutting demonstration during the sales pitch, and you think you could cut your way out of Alcatraz.  Maybe you could, unless the bars were made of carpet.  Fortunately, our friends at Cutco were not very probing in determining why we thought our scissors needed replacing as per their lifetime warranty (though "cutting rectangles for dog stair-traction" was not given as a reason why the warranty would be voided, so it may not have mattered).  So Cutco is to knife warranties as Jansport is to backpack warranties.  Also, while the rectangles don't slide, they do sometimes flip when children or other dogs are not being overly concerned with disturbing the carpet rectangle placement.  Also, the non-professionally cut-but-not-bound edges of the rectangles tend to fray.
The Visual Evidence:

Imagine how sad this dog would look if he wasn't laying at the bottom of the stairs by choice, but by necessity.

How Impressed Would MacGyver Be on a Scale of 1 to 5 Feathered-Back Mullets?  Two (would probably not be embarrassed to introduce me to Jack as "a friend")

What We Lacked: A way to hang plastic bags from our recycling bins.
What We Had: Plastic Hangers.
What We Did: I got to use my all time favorite tool to cut away most of the non-hook part of the hanger.  Then I drilled a hole into the bin and threaded the hook through the hole from the inside out.
How Effective Has This Been?  Very.
Have There Been Any Drawbacks to This Solution?  No.  And did I mention I got to use my all time favorite tool?
The Visual Evidence:

How Impressed Would MacGyver Be on a Scale of 1 to 5 Feathered-Back Mullets?  3 (would recommend me for internship position at the Phoenix foundation).

What We Lacked: A way to hold our shower curtain rod in front of our sliding shower doors.  It seems most people who have sliding glass shower doors don't feel the need to have a curtain hanging in front of those doors.  And the frame that holds the sliding doors does NOT lend itself to supporting or having-attached-to-itself-a-way-of-supporting a shower curtain rod.  So most people with sliding doors probably just get used to watching themselves shower in the large mirror on the other side of the bathroom.  Then there's us (foreshadowing!).
What We Had: A wire shelf with strong wires that would not compromise their shape under pressure, but that COULD be bent when subjected to the proper force.
What We Did: I got to use my all time favorite tool, and cut what was essentially a 3-inch wide wire shelf from the several-foot wide shelf that we had.  Then I did a lot of bending--probably more wire-shelf bending than most folks do in their whole lifetime.  But the end result was a shower curtain rod holder that was strong enough not to bend over time, but did not compromise the sliding door frame with screws that would likely rust and/or loosen over time.
How Effective Has This Been?  Very.
Have There Been Any Drawbacks to This Solution?  It could probably look a little nicer, and the ends of the wires that I cut have rusted since they were no longer protected by the plastic coating on the rest of the shelf.  But it's been about a year and the curtain has not demonstrated significant sagging.
The Visual Evidence:

This unsuspecting shelf used to be three inches longer before it met up with my all time favorite tool

How Impressed Would MacGyver Be on a Scale of 1 to 5 Feathered-Back Mullets? 4 (he would not hesitate to turn me loose on Murdoc).

What We Lacked: An easy way to wrap our many headphones and hands-free units for phones and ipods.
What We Had: Energy drink bottles.
What We Did: I drilled a couple of holes in the bottle, threaded the headphone cord through one of them, wrapped the cord around the bottle, and then tucked the end of the cord into the other hole.
How Effective Has This Been?  TBD, but I'm optimistic.
Have There Been Any Drawbacks to This Solution?  Also TBD.  I will say that the edges of the holes that I drilled were a little sharper and more frayed than I anticipated they would be, so I had to file and/or trim them down a little.
The Visual Evidence:

This is actually not staged.  I reached into our bin of headphones and this is what came out.

I'm sure you're wondering, "How does he find the energy to plan and execute such massive undertakings?"  My little secret...

A skeptical reader may think, "Oh, I didn't know that was a dictionary site.  'Cause this seems to be the definition of 'more trouble than it's worth'.  Boo-yah!"  I see where you're coming from, skeptical reader.  But through the years, I have slowly become aware of how rare it is to find a good, small, effective, and easy-to-use cord wrapper.  Some headphones even come with their own wrappers.  I have found these to be flimsy and hard-to-use.  And a plain old cylinder--like a pen or a cylinder that you would find a the cylinder store--are hard to tuck both ends of the headphones into in a such a way that they don't come unwound AND don't get tangled.  The long and the short of it is that in MY experience, a headphone wrapper is what the classic mouse trap would be if it was never invented.  So the energy bottle cord wrapper may just be that metaphorical mousetrap.  The transformation was pretty easy: Drill a couple of holes.  And the usage?  Since still pictures don't capture the ease of use, here is a video.  The background music really captures the essence of what background music should be.  And keep in mind that once you initially thread the pluggy part of the cord through the bottle, you probably won't have to do that again, and that threading step, you'll see, is clearly the most time consuming part of the process.  So, without further ado:

How Impressed Would MacGyver Be on a Scale of 1 to 5 Feathered-Back Mullets? 5 (he would look me straight in the eye and tell me, "From now on, I want you to call me 'Angus'.")

And remember: Don't thank me.  Thank MacGyver.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 1)

Hypothetical aliens have excellent perspective, because even once you explain to them basic human values, emotions, societal norms, and the like, they are still liable to ask, “What about…?”  It is those things about which  they ask—after they have understood and accepted all of the important stuff—that are usually the areas most in need of being addressed by the people who have gotten used to whatever it is that strikes the aliens as positively goofy.

Hypothetical aliens can ask questions about all sorts of things, from religion to government to organizational structures for businesses.  Today, right here on, they are asking about Major League Baseball.  And for three Wednesdays in a row, leading up to opening day on March 31, The Hungry Preacher will be engaging these aliens, understanding their concerns, and offering solutions that—if followed by the powers of Major League Baseball—will restore peace in the universe between baseball fans and aliens of all galaxies.  These three posts will essentially be one long post broken into 3 parts.

So aliens have read the rulebook.  And they understand the value that we humans place on physical fitness, the rush we get from competition, and the community identification we get from rooting for our favorite team.  They don’t care about insignificant stuff like stirrup socks, they understand supply and demand (or monopolies, as the case may be) as it pertains to the price of beer, and they think varying dimensions of fields add a quirkiness and charm that is enjoyed by the fans and players alike.  But here’s what they don’t get:

“What about uneven divisions?”
There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball.  How many leagues does that make?  Two: the National League and the American League (a “league” in baseball is like a “conference” in other sports).  It’s been two for a long time, and that’s fine.

So 30 needs to be divided into 2 leagues, but the catch is that there cannot be an odd number of teams in each league, because the leagues don’t usually play each other except for on special occasions (about 3 weeks out of the season, plus the World Series).  Having 15 teams in a league would be great for those 3 weeks, but not so good for the rest of the season, when there would always be 1 extra team per league twiddling their thumbs for 3 days while the other 14 teams played each other.  So you need an even number of teams in each league, which means 30 teams divided by 2 leagues does NOT equal 15; no, 30 divided by 2 equals 16 with a remainder of 14.

People who value symmetry find this annoying.  And it does create a slight competitive imbalance.  And it makes for some irritating moments when everyone else in the league is celebrating interleague play and you’re the National League team stuck playing, say, the Pirates (or, worse yet, BEING the Pirates, but I digress).  But it’s not THAT big of a deal, so say the aliens.  The competitive advantages and disadvantages on a league level necessitated by having uneven leagues are significant but able to be overcome.

But the disconcerting issue for the aliens is how those teams are divided up into divisions within each league.  Divisions, you see, are smaller groupings of teams within each league that used to allow scheduling, traveling, and “making the playoffs” to be more manageable.  These smaller groupings made it so that most teams could play teams geographically closer to them more frequently, enhancing rivalries and cutting down on travel time.  And if a team “won their division” they got to go to the playoffs to play the other division winner in their league.  This worked well when there were 12 teams per league and 6 teams per division. 

It worked less well when there were 14 teams in a league, and 7 teams in each of that league’s divisions.  Once both leagues had 14 teams, someone decided that two divisions was not enough, and each league birthed a third division for themselves.  The leagues maintained their three divisions once MLB expanded to 30 teams.

A positive product of this realignment of divisions was that teams that had relocated or come into existence since divisions were originally formed got to re-stake their geographical territory (e.g., Atlanta got to tell everyone that they are in the Eastern time zone).  And schedule makers got to emphasize divisional play more than they had in the previous few years—at least in the American League, where from 1979 until 1996 each team played each of the teams within their division 13 times as opposed to the teams in the other division, which they played a mere 12 times each.

But if those who value symmetry had a hard time with leagues of 16 and 14, they were driven to convulsing on the floor in the fetal position by the size of the new divisions which ranged from 4 to 6; specifically, the National League has divisions of 5, 5, and 6, while the American League has divisions of 5, 5, and 4.  Each division winner, plus one “wild card” team, make it to the playoffs.

All of this is background to the aliens who ask: “Don’t the teams in the division of 4 have a better chance of making it to the playoffs than the teams in the divisions of 5, and especially those in divisions of 6?”  Oh, aliens, your naiveté is just adorable.  And the answer to your question is, of course, “Uh, yeah.”

This was the case when the NL used to have divisions of 6 and the AL had divisions of 7.  The difference between 6 and 7 is not insignificant.  But 6 and 4?  No, seriously—that’s just wacky.  There’s a lot of attention paid to the discrepancy between large and small market teams in baseball, and rightfully so.  But if aliens were starting a team and were told they could EITHER have a payroll double that of the league average OR be in a division of 4 teams instead of 5 or 6, they would seriously consider the 4-team-division offer, and would probably try to quickly sneak out of the meeting before the offer was rescinded.

What if someone wanted to play a dice game with you, and said, “Let’s each put $100 in the middle, and we’ll take turns rolling dice.  If you roll a 7, you get to take a dollar.  If I roll either a 7 or a 4, I’ll take a dollar.  Wanna play?”

Aliens would say, “No thank you.  That’s goofy.”  26 owners of Major League Baseball teams said, “Sure, as long as I don’t have to play an extra set of games on the West Coast.”

Of course, making the post season is not ONLY about statistical probability.  Teams generally try to put contending teams on the field.  But (theoretically) ALL teams do that, so what will make one team more likely to get to the playoffs than another?  Payroll?  Sure.  International scouting?  Of course.  Performance enhancing drugs?  Back in the day, but certainly not anymore.  Is playing in a division with 33% fewer teams than another division as significant an advantage as any of those things?  Aliens know it.  And they’re asking about it.

Check back next Wednesday for more concerns from the aliens, as well as possible solutions.  And the less-sporty among WPFF readers, don’t despair: Friday’s post will be something non-sporty in nature.  See you then.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Introducing Loblaw

There is a new addition to the household of the Hungry Preacher.  Technically, he's still auditioning, but something very surprising would have to happen for him to get the boot.  His name is Loblaw, and here he is:

We have been realizing how old Poozle is getting, and figured it would be good to bring in a youngster while Poozle still has the intellectual capacity to pass on his wisdom and experience to the new blood.  But we weren't seriously shopping until I happened to have lunch with an old friend who told me that he had just returned a dog to the shelter because he was just too energetic to stay home by himself while both he and his wife worked full time.

It was a longshot, I thought, but my friend completely vouched for the dog's behavior and personality.  I started to move forward in the process, expecting it not to work out.  But things began to fall into place: Beth was more totally onboard than I thought she would be.  The dog was still available.  And he seems to like the girls.  So, it's fair to say that things are working out.  Barring a bite or some unforseen screw up with the paperwork, he seems to be a keeper.

He is definitely energetic, but we try to spend some time playing with him each day, and he especially likes running around in our basement.  And so far, he has been great with us and with the kids.  He's very playful--but still barks loudly and scarily when he hears something outside, which is a good thing as far as we're concerned.

The biggest problem we had with him was his name when we got him, which was "Bob," short for "Bob Newhart."  That didn't seem like a dog name to us, and we batted around a few ideas.  We seem to have landed on the name "Loblaw", which is the last name of a character on the TV show "Arrested Development", which Beth and I used to watch.  It still has the "ob" sound, so it's not a total shift for the dog, but it's more distinct and meaningful to Beth and me.

I mentioned that he likes the girls.  The girls are still warming up to him.  We made it a point to warn them about his energy level, and that he's about twice as big as either of them.  We also warned them about being respectful.  And we warned them about leaving stuff around for him to chew.  I think we succeeded in making them pretty uncomfortable around Loblaw pretty much all the time.  Oops.  They seem to be warming up, though, but they still saw fit to make nice little notes of instruction for our new friend:

"please do not chew on bunny"

"please do not come down"

Poozle has not taken on the role of mentor that we hoped he would, but he seems resigned to accept Loblaw as a fellow pack member, though probably Poozle's least favorite.  He's only gotten snippy with Loblaw a couple of times, and only when Loblaw doesn't exactly respect Poozle's boundaries--like when I was scratching Poozle's head and Loblaw came over and licked his face.  Here is a picture demonstrating the level of comfort that has already been established between the pups.

our younger daughter called this "a dog train"

Finally, I'm sure anyone who looked at that first picture of Loblaw is wondering the same things but is afraid to ask: "Is his head really that big?"  Truth be told, yes.  It's freaking huge.  You can't really tell how big it is from any of the above pictures, but here is one that should offer some perspective.

note the size of Loblaw's head compared to the size of the planet Earth

So that's the latest news on the latest addition to the fam.  I'm sure there will be additional mentions of Loblaw in future posts.  Until then...


Searching for My Elton John: "Heaven"

This is my third post of lyrics, but the first one that is actually making its world premiere on WPFF. That is, these words have not been made available for human eyes other than my own until this moment. If you need me to drive over to your house and fan you like people sometimes do to themselves when they feel like they're going to faint from excitement, please let me know ASAP.

I decided last minute to add some extended pre-thoughts to this post, but it's looking like they are going to be posted as post-thoughts tomorrow. However, I will edit this post and insert them tomorrow in this spot right below this paragraph, so that they will seem to have been pre-thoughts all along, which they kind of were, since they are in my head already. So check back tomorrow.

added 3/11:
Back when I preached sermons, someone once said to me, "Never apologize before a sermon.  You undermine everything you're trying to say."  And disclaimers, this person said, were a form of apologizing.  I thought it was good advice.

Fortunately, today's post is not a sermon, 'cause I'm in a disclaiming mood.  Though I don't have enough readers on WPFF that very many people could ACTUALLY be asking these questions, I still kinda feel like addressing them prior to my post.

"What's with all the poems and lyrics?"
It's just what I've been doing lately.  Well, for a while, really.  I probably have about 2 dozen poems and lyric "starts" and even more fragments.  I'd like to finish a few before I start some more.  Part of the reason for WPFF was to give myself a kick in the butt to finish some of these.  If I could finish (and, as would naturally follow, post) say, 1 a month, I'd be pretty happy.  Add the "vault factor," i.e., me posting an oldie-but-goodie, about 1 time a month, that's about 2 a month (for an aspiring poet, I've always been very good at math).  Two posts a month out of nine--yeah, I can see how that's disproportionately slanted topic-wise.  But it's just what I've been working on.

"For a non-musical person, you sure do write a lot of so-called 'song lyrics'--what's with that?"
First off, I like you--you've got spunk.  Secondly, good point.  For a while, I've felt like a musical person trapped inside the body of a non-musical person.  As a result, I write songs, but the least musical part of them: the words.  Some of them have melodies attached to them, and I can peck out some of those melodies on the keyboard.  And the end result is half--or MAYBE two-thirds--of a song.  With "end results" like that, who needs middles, right?  But if any readers of WPFF have always thought of yourself as an Elton John looking for your Bernie Taupin--well, let me know.  And if you want to write music to any of these lyrics and run the finished product by me, I'd love to hear it.  If I like it, and you can secure a vocalist and a recording contract, I will be willing to split the royalties with you.

"In the meantime, why don't you just write more poems and fewer lyrics?  And is there a difference, even?"
Sometimes there is a difference, sometimes not so much.  If the lines and verses of a lyric that I'm writing get long, then--POOF!--it often magically becomes a poem.  And if  poem seems extra rhythmical, and if I find myself returning to an image or line repeatedly in a chorus-esque sort of way?  Maybe you see where this is going.  So, in a way, I kind of feel like the classification of what I write is discovered by me only as I go.

I read once in a "how to write songs" book that the words to a song are NOT just "poems set to music."  To some extent, I see what they are saying, but the author seemed a little absolute about it for my taste.  Dylan, Jim Morrison, some Springsteen--folks like that strike me as poets who are also gifted musicians, and in another life they could have been unknown poets rather than well-known musicians.

Which brings me to the other reason I've been leaning toward lyrics more than poems: I, and most other people, like songs more than poems.  There is poetry that I like, but I don't play readings of poetry on my stereo while I'm driving down a winding country road with the windows down.  Poems sung to complimentary music impact me in a greater way than just poems.  Not everyone is like me, of course, and I'm not trying to offend fans of poetry-sans-musical-accompaniment.  The feeling (to use a woefully generic yet effectively shorthand word) I get from a lyrically and musically profound song is likely the feeling that ANY artist in ANY medium aspires to inspire in their audience.  Other folks I'm sure experience and strive to impart that same sort of inspiration through paintings, stories, and what-have-you.  I suppose the method of expression that artists prefer usually corresponds to the method that they themselves are most inspired by AND are most gifted at (e.g., gifted painters are inspired by paintings and prefer painting as their artistic means of inspiring others).  Not always, of course.  And not so much in my case.  Hence, in my notebook is a strange stockpiling of shivering little lyrics, cold without a blanket of music to wrap them up in. 

"OK, so that addresses form--what about theme?  Your lyrics or poems or whatever (including 'Heaven' in this post) often seem kind of gloomy.  Can you do something about that?"
Probably I can.  This thematic bent is something I'm aware of.  I struggle with being not-joyful-enough more than I struggle with being too joyful, and that's obviously reflected in what I write.  This both a personality and a theological leaning.  Theologically, we live in a time when Jesus has come already and introduced his transforming power into the world; but in a time where he has obviously NOT finally, once-and-for-all done away with evil and suffering.  The phrase professional theologians have coined for our current condition is "already, not yet", short for something like, "We have already experienced the power of Christ, but not yet in its final fullness."  I tend to focus on the "not yet" half of that equation--yes, to a fault.  I need to remember to rejoice in the "already" without getting obsessing with the "not yet."  I think "leanings" one direction or the other are good, God-designed, and important, and this is part of the reason followers of God need community, so that the "already's" and the "not yet's" can challenge and encourage each other.  But my leanings sometimes turn into fallings.
I have intentionally started (and occasionally even finished!) poems and lyrics that intentionally lean the other direction in the "already".  Maybe I will re-strive to do that more deliberately.

As an aside: I do not believe Springsteen professes to be a follower of Jesus, so his concept of "already/not yet" is obviously framed differently than, say, mine is.  But it's curious to me that my first in-depth with familiarity with Springsteen was through his "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" albums, which seemed to be his first self-conscious attempt to overcome his obsession with "not yet" and dive into the "already".  You can hear this in songs like "Real World," "Living Proof," "Leap Of Faith" ("heartache and despair got nothin' but boring"), and "Better Days" (the whole song, the lyrics to which you can read here).

The lyric in this post in particular is about as "not yet" as you can get.  The lines just came to me.  So I wrote them down over the course of weeks.  I considered inserting a bridge that acknowledges the "already" aspect of our existence.  I still may.

Why'd you go all e.e. cummings with the lower case letters in 'Heaven'?
It was an afterthought.  I typed it in that way, and just liked the way it looked.  I capitalized the "H" in the title.  Perhaps it was a subconscious, backdoor reference to the joy that we can "already" know.  Because even "when" (quotes to reference the exact word beginning each verse) things appear as they do, they are ultimately struggles of the lower-case variety compared to the capital-letter joy and hope of Heaven--the same joy and hope that can, indeed, trickle into our present existence.

That's all for today.



when joys fade like a rainbow,
shoved away by daily pains no
one can take away and no drug can heal or dull.
when by me friends’ lives orbit
too slow to just ignore but
too fast to grab and pour into and nourish both our souls

I know I will go be with you
I’ll be with you
yeah, I know I’ll be with you in heaven
and the things of this world
will grow dim, strangely dim
when I’m standing before you in heaven

when dreamers wake up early,
dreams aborted prematurely
gone, but drifting in the shadows like some undiscovered cure
when prophets dot the landscape
weeping, doubting that they can make
in this crowded, lonely world a speech to challenge or assure

I know I will go be with you
I’ll be with you
yeah, I know I’ll be with you in heaven
and the things of this world
will grow dim, strangely dim
when I’m standing before you in heaven

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kenny and Me

I have my first sports post that I’m working on and thought would be posted today, but one of my reasons for having a blog about anything and everything is so that I can write about what I feel like writing about. The discipline I’m trying to get a handle on is “writing, just writing” and not (yet, anyway) “writing under the constraints of a particular topic”. Today, so sayeth the mysterious whims of my feelings, “sports” is not the topic. Kenny Rogers is.

Kenny was my first rock star idol, my first man-crush, and my first musical and lyrical inspiration. My mom had about a dozen cassette tapes that lived in our red station wagon: Glen Campbell, the Carpenters, Bobby Goldsboro, Engelbert Humperdink, John Denver, and Kenny Rogers. There was one tape each for the others, but Kenny had 4 or 5.

Kids always think what their parents think or do is cool, or at least the root of all other cultural evolution. So even though I knew other people didn’t listen to Kenny as much as my mom did, I figured the whole world knew his music well, seeing as almost half of my mom’s cassette tapes were of his music.

So it wasn’t unusual for me to reference Kenny Rogers’ songs to friends and teachers, fully expecting them to “get the reference.” One of these references took place during 5th grade Catholic public school of religion. We met Monday nights, and my class was notoriously the smallest in the school. On a good night, there were 4 of us, none of whom wanted to be there. This made for some painful, painful conversations. Our teacher was awkward but obviously earnest, but even the not-so-cool of us (uh, that might have been just me, now that I think about it) knew that she wasn’t “cool,” so none of us felt real inclined to help out when she would ask the class a question and pause for seconds, then minutes, waiting for someone to show the faintest sign of even faux-interest.

Sometimes I would talk, though. And one time, I don’t remember the question, but the answer I gave was, “It’s like the Kenny Rogers song. It goes ‘If you can lie a little bit / you can lie a little bit more / once you get away with it / it becomes a little easier than it did before.’” Looking straight at me, she cocked her head slightly, like when a dog thinks it hears a noise. Then she nodded, also slightly. Then she said, “When you share I am always struck by how deeply you think about things.” Aside from the then-excruciating awkwardness of the moment, I remember thinking, “It’s partly me, but partly Kenny.”

My friends also got infusions of pure Kenny-ness throughout my grade school years. I remember shooting pool in our living room, asking David, “Hey, have you heard the new Kenny Rogers album?” “New” meant “My mom just got it”. But his answer of “No” was all I needed. “No” meant “No, but I would like to, of course, because, gosh, it’s Kenny Rogers!” I popped it in the cassette player, introducing it with, “It’s got ‘Islands in the Stream,” but that’s not the only good song.”

Strangely, even though my mom is the one who introduced me to Kenny Rogers, I often felt like I needed to convince her of his greatness. Once in a bookstore, I stumbled upon a book of Billboard hits. Afterwards, on the way home, I told my mom, “Kenny Rogers has a lot of hits. And they’re on the top 40, which is like the list of popular songs. ‘Islands in the Stream’ went all the way to number 1. ‘This Woman,” which isn’t even my favorite song, made it to number 23. And he has a singing part on ‘We Are the World.’” My mom said something like, “Well, he’s pretty popular.” Even though I am still not sure what I was looking for, that seemed a little unsatisfying. I’m not sure why.

I remember walking out of the movie “Six Pack” that my mom had taken us to see in the theaters. In the parking lot, I said to my mom, “Did you cry?” She said, “No.” I was floored. “How could you not?” I thought. And after seeing the made-for-TV-movie adaptation of “Coward of the County,” I remember giving my mom the briefing the next day: “The part in the song where he says, ‘You could have heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door’. Well, you totally could have. They really captured that in the movie.” If part of a mom’s job is to keep her kid from thinking that he’s as cuckoo as he probably is, then my mom did great, even if she didn’t always seem to want to talk about the awesomeness of Kenny Rogers as much as I did.

Kenny was a profound lyricist. The stories he told were so succinct yet so vivid. I could picture “Lucille” in the bar being confronted by her husband. I hurt for the poor old (creepy!) man who fell in love with the stripper in “Scarlet Fever.” “The Gambler”? Need I say more than just the title?

And his insight into life and love was spot on. As a 12-year-old, even I knew that, indeed, it IS “your mind that tricks you into leaving every time” and it IS “your heart that talks you into staying where you are.” See, “love WILL turn you around.” Every time.

Even the lyrics I misheard were profound and evocative. When I heard “take my hand, let’s walk through the store” instead of “take my hand, let’s walk through love’s door,” I pictured Kenny and some girl half-skipping, half-floating through a store, hand-in-hand, not caring if the setting was not typically considered a romantic one because, dog gone it, they were in love. Elsewhere, Kenny proclaimed: “I know this may sound funny / But mommy don’t mean nothin’ to me / I won’t make my music for mommy / No I’m gonna make my music for me.” I realize now that he’s saying “money” and not “mommy,” but at the time, this song was challenging. Back and forth I went in my head: “Why diss your mommy like that?” “Well, it’s not that he doesn’t like his mommy, it’s just that he wants to make it clear that his musical motives come from within.” It was an odd way of saying that, to be sure, but very provocative.

If Kenny’s words inspired my soul, his music inspired my voice. Public or private, it made no difference to me. If Kenny was playing, I was singing. During one of our family’s winter treks to Colorado to visit to family, I was buried in the back of the station wagon as I liked to be. The back, backwards facing seat was folded down, and I was just laid flat, sideways, behind the luggage, inside my sleeping bag, legos and professional wrestling magazines within reach, and Kenny Rogers Christmas music coming through the back speakers. Was there a happier moment in my childhood? Hard to say. It was night, but not late, late night, so whether or not my brother and sister were asleep in the middle seat was hard to say. But when the chorus of “Kentucky Homemade Christmas” kicked in, it didn’t matter. I had to sing, and sing I did. The mile markers said “Kansas” but my heart and voice were in Kentucky with Kenny. When the song ended, it dawned on me that perhaps I was singing pretty loud. Like REALLY loud. I decided to test it by trying to recreate the precise volume with which I was singing, but instead of singing, calling “Mom” to my mom, who was driving. If she could hear me, well, then I was singing pretty loud. I wasn’t sure what I would do with this information, but I wanted to know. “Mom,” I called. “Yes,” she replied. “Crap,” I thought. “Uh, are were almost there?” I didn’t actually care, because I liked the car time, but “Oh, nothing” would have seemed a bit conspicuous. “No,” she replied. “OK.”

Then there was the time I tried to record my own singing ONTO and INTO Kenny’s track on one of his albums, with the goal of creating a “Kenny and Robbie” duet. My ambition outweighed my music recording expertise as I carefully paused the cassette right before “Buried Treasure.” I then placed the cassette in the seldom-used “RECORD” deck of the dual-deck player. Then I pressed “RECORD”. What I hoped would happen is that the song would play so that I could hear it and sing to it, but that the system would simultaneously record MY vocals into the track. There were a LOT of things wrong with this plan, but the only fear I had was that my mom would later listen to the tape and hear too much of my vocals and not enough of Kenny’s. “If that happens,” I thought, “I’ll just have to ‘fess up and accept my punishment, whatever it may be.” I pressed RECORD and, as though pre-ordained to provide Webster with an example beside the entry for “anti-climactic,” nothing happened. No music played. Nothing recorded (apparently you need a microphone for that). My disappointment that nothing good and beautiful happened was offset with my relief that nothing bad happened, and I kept this secret little recording effort to myself.

For as traumatic as it was for me when I discovered that Kenny didn’t actually write nearly all of his songs, my memory of uncovering this information is a bit fuzzy. I may have blocked it out. I THINK it was from a simple and innocent question I asked to my mom: “Mom, what are the names in parenthesis after each song that’s listed on the Kenny Rogers record?” “Those are the names of the people who write the songs.”

Those words shook my world, for this possibility had never even entered my consciousness. It would have been like telling a caveman that the world was round. I was crushed. I felt stupid and deceived. I cried. This profound, insightful man with a voice so full of feeling and depth… He doesn’t write his songs! What in the world is the big deal about him then?!

I searched the liner notes of his albums, hoping that the genuineness of at least a couple of my favorites could be salvaged. One by one, they crumbled to dust before my eyes. “The Gambler.” “Coward of the County.” “We’ve Got Tonight.” Not a single significant-to-me song was saved. Kenny wrote or co-wrote only a couple of songs per album, and they all happened to be the ones I had previously categorized as “not his best stuff.” Of course, it WAS his best stuff. That was the problem.

Without revealing how wounded I was, I tried to glean from my mom some additional insight into this fraud. Apparently, a lot of singers didn’t write their own songs. This was normal behavior, accepted by most. The world was round—I was the only one who didn’t know it.

As I moved from grade school, to junior high, to high school, I moved beyond Kenny Rogers. I could listen to Kenny fine without reliving my painful experience all over again, but I didn’t go out of my way to listen to him. I was a top 40 radio guy for the mid-80’s until I started making money mowing lawns and reffing soccer, and had enough money to buy cassettes of my own by bands and artists that wrote their own songs, like Rick Springfield, Journey, and—of course—Bruce Springsteen.

Into late high school, I got real excited about Bruce releasing “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” at the same time, and I loved them both. (As an aside: a lot of critics would single out “Human Touch” as Bruce’s single WORST album; it just happened to be the first one of his that I knew inside and out.) From there, I worked my way backwards through the Springsteen discography, discovering that, in fact, it WAS possible for one person to create hundreds of different images and worlds and characters, conveying emotions both extreme and nuanced, joyous and tortured, complete with a gravely, weathered voice and layered instrumentation.

Kenny became an afterthought, and the whole singer/NON-songwriter thing became something I rarely gave much thought to. Until the second semester of my sophomore year of college. I was taking an English class. That’s as specific as I can remember what the class even was. Nor do I remember the teacher’s name. She was probably an old hippy, and was still passionate about the things that hippies stood for, and she let that passion show up in the way she led discussions. Aside from caring—deeply, even—about writing, we didn’t seem to have much in common. Then one day, as class was winding down, she was trying to make some important point about writing as quickly as she could. I don’t remember the point—I was only kind of listening—until she said, “…it’s like when you find out that someone doesn’t write their own songs, and you feel this sense of betrayal…”

Whoa. I had tried to share whatever it was I felt about Kenny Rogers with others, and my story had always been greeted by looks of “I want to understand because I kind of like you.” But here someone got it. She said it, without me asking about it. It’s a little sad that I never got my legs under me enough in high school or even college to be confident in something as simple as “what I got out of a song,” but this did affirm something very important to me.

I had spent many a night in high school and college driving around, listening to songs on the radio. Those songs were recorded hundreds of miles away in places I had never been with equipment I didn’t even know existed. But they were written with something in mind: a feeling, a point, a dream… And—to me, at that time—the fact that they were sung with that “something” in mind was important. The penning and the expression were two sides of the same coin, or two moving points on the same symbol for “infinity,” or complimentary charges of a set of jumper cables clamped onto my soul. Connecting with both the words and the expression of those words—even when I was by myself, in a car, at night—connected me to something real if unexplainable. Someone else, another human with feelings and longings, could see something true—be it beautiful or terrifying—and write and sing about it as if to say directly to me, “I see something that you see or feel, and this is how I express it...”

The expression of this common truth may be better than I could have expressed it myself, or at least different in a wonderful way.

It may give details to something I had only sensed in fleeting moments, like a rainbow I could only see in my peripheral vision and that faded every time I turned to look straight on. Was it even there? Yes, it was.

I met a guy once in college who told me, “The first time I listened to ‘Bobbie Jean’ [Springsteen song on ‘Born in the U.S.A.] I cried.” “So did I,” I told him. But I honestly cannot tell you why I needed to know that the singer of the song also wrote the song in order for me to have that reaction. For me, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts in a mystical way. My English teacher’s passing illustration of something I don’t even remember… well, it was meaningful to me. There was something OK about the way I ingested music and words, creation and expression. Maybe desiring an inseparable connection between the creation and expression was a legitimate way to be wired. Not better or worse than other ways, but equally OK.

I had an epilogue of sorts lined up for this post, but I ended up going in a direction I hadn’t planned. And this is already more of an essay than a post. Endings have never been my strong suit. Can I ask you to pretend this post has a long fade out, like a song you’re listening to in the car, at night, on a lonely road?


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Geography + Food = Blog Post

One of the nice things about having a blog is that it offers me a platform on which I can post pictures of the food items that my older daughter gnaws into the shapes of various countries of the world.  It's not like you can do that on Facebook, right?  Oh.  You can?  I see.

Well anyway, a few weeks back my older daughter was eating a hamburger patty that chef daddy had made, when all of the sudden I hear: "Look, daddy, I made the United States."  I looked.  Sure enough.  This is what I saw:

Not a bad rendering using google maps and tracing paper, let alone a hamburger patty and teeth.  I can hear the skeptics now: "But can she do a country in which she doesn't live?"  Glad you asked, 'cause a few days ago, after handing out tortillas to the girls, I hear, "Look, dad, China!"  And this is what I saw.

Now if you're anything like me, you're thinking, "Nice try, sweetie.  But you may have bitten off more than you can chew [high hat!].  See, China isn't so long and skinny.  It looks more like this chicken nugget than what you made."

Fortunately, I checked a map before I made such a claim.  This is what China looks like:

Turns out, it IS a little more stretched out and curved than a chicken nugget.  Who knew?

At this point, I figured these pictures would make it onto WPFF, but I also figured I would have to wait until she created a third likeness, since Bloggers' Code says you've got to have 3 things for a list.  I decided I couldn't wait that long.  So tonight, after racking my brain for "shapable" food items, I asked her if she liked American cheese.  She did not.  So I had to sacrifice variety of food groups for this little photo montage.  I gave her a piece of bread, and told her to make it look like a country.  She could pick any country she wanted, except China and the United States.  A few minutes later:

Voila!  Madagascar! 

Good job, sweetie.

Everyone else: See you Friday.