Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lord Of The Rings: The Sorry State Of TV News And The American Criminal

Regular readers of this blog, both of you, may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything here for more than two months now. That’s what happens when your home gets burglarized and the little shit stain who broke in steals, among other things, your computer.

For a little more than two weeks, the only computer I had was my iPhone, which I had with me at the time of the break-in. My laptop, iPad and iPod Touch all were stolen, along with several peripherals, including an external disc drive for the laptop and a nice pair of headphones for the iPod. He also swiped seven very well-publicized championship rings that I earned during my 18 years in the NC State University Department of Athletics.

I’ve always heard that the vast majority of burglaries go unsolved and had no illusions that the police would ever solve this one, either. It turns out, however, that my burglar is an 18-year-old punk with an extensive and violent criminal record, and absolute shit for brains. Hence, he got caught.

A good burglar takes your stuff, discreetly sells it for whatever he can get for it, and never says a word to anyone. Then there’s the doofus who broke into our house. Seems he thought those rings were so cool that he had to show them off to his friends. When two of those friends got nailed for breaking into another house, however, they rolled over on our guy. Both of his so-called buddies, in separate interrogations, told the police that our burglar had shown them the rings. Look what I stole! Ain’t I the shit?


Police issued a warrant for my burglar’s arrest, but he was long since on the run by that point and it took a few weeks for the police to track him down. In fact, he came to them. He got caught in a stakeout while robbing a student at knifepoint on the NC State campus. Caught in the act, he took off and was caught after a brief pursuit.

Once our burglar was in custody, the police ran his name through their computer database and the warrant for our burglary came up. And was put into the public record of his arrest. And picked up by the local media, mainly because of the seven championship rings.

I got a call the next day from a reporter from The News & Observer who wanted to know about the rings. I explained that as part of the support staff for those seven teams, I also got a ring when they won their respective conference or regional championships. He understood completely, no problem.

The reporter from WRAL, the top TV station in the market, wasn’t quite as sharp. First of all, he couldn’t come up with my phone number, which is unlisted but not that hard to find, proof being that The N&O found it right away. So he called my former supervisor in the media relations office at NC State instead and asked her several times why I would have championship rings. She said it sounded like he thought I must have stolen them. The notion that support staff also get rings when their teams win a championship just didn’t seem to penetrate his cognitive mechanism.

For those of you who don’t know, the coaches and athletes aren’t the only ones who get rings when a college team wins a championship. At the discretion of the coach and/or administrator, rings also are given to support staff. At the professional level, every employee in the organization gets a ring when a team with the World Series, the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. It’s not just the players and coaches.

The difference in the competence of the two reporters was evident in their respective stories. The N&O story mentioned the rings and said they belonged to a retired NC State athletics official who lived in North Raleigh on such and such a street. The WRAL story said I was still employed at NC State, which is incorrect, and used my full name and street address, which was utterly unnecessary. That pisses me off and will for a long time to come.

Why were my name and address used in this story? For the record, WRAL, I was the victim of this crime, not the perpetrator. Yes, the rings are stolen, but they weren’t stolen when they were issued to me by the coaches of those seven teams. I noticed that WRAL didn’t use the name or address of the victim of the knifepoint robbery on the NC State campus. So why use mine? Why did The N&O get that right and why did WRAL fuck it up from here to Sunday and back?

I think I can answer that one pretty easily. The fact is that most local TV news reporters wouldn’t know a news story if they tripped and fell over one. They wouldn’t understand the notion of protecting the victim of a crime even if it was tattooed on their forehead. You want to put a local TV newsroom in a panic? Simple. Disable the police scanner and have the local newspaper go on strike. End of TV news. Most of them couldn’t find a news story on their own if their life depended on it.

WRAL’s botched handling of this is just one more piece of evidence that journalism in the 21st century is dying a not-so-slow death. Newspapers, always the standard of journalistic quality and integrity, have been on life support for more than a decade and can’t have much time left. Television news, at least at the local level, is so pathetic that they print the names and addresses of crime victims on their websites. When Comedy Central becomes the best source of news on cable TV, the profession is in serious trouble.

There still are plenty of legitimate news sources out there, especially on the internet, but good luck finding them amid the avalanche of disinformation the digital age has unleashed. Any fool with a computer can start a blog (let me raise my hand here and now) and say whatever the hell he or she wants. That, unfortunately, may well be the future of news in the 21st century. In that environment, printing the names and addresses of crime victims makes perfect sense.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Chipper’s Fine Whine And The Outfield Fly Rule

When is an infield fly really an outfield fly? And when should we know? We certainly didn’t find out Friday night when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs.

By now, we’ve all seen or heard about Andrelton Simmons’ eighth-inning fly ball to left field, a ball that fell to the ground untouched a good 175 feet from home plate, a mere split second before left-field umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Simmons out on the infield-fly rule. With runners on first and second when Simmons batted, the Braves should have had the bases loaded with one out. Instead, they had runners on second and third with two away and failed to score, squandering their last scoring opportunity of 2012.

Braves fans immediately showered the field with debris, prompting a 19-minute delay and threatening to put this game into the history books along with Cleveland’s 10-cent beer night and Chicago’s disco demolition night. Those two crowd debacles were different, poorly conceived promotions that predictably went bad and cost the home team a forfeit. The fans went to those games looking to get drunk and cause a melee. The crowd eruption at the Cardinals-Braves game was spontaneous combustion, natural ugliness turned loose, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny understandably pulled his players from the field for fear of their safety. The game finally resumed, but even watching on television you could feel an ugly edge to the crowd. When the Cardinals recorded the final out to eliminate the Braves, they ran off the field to the safety of the clubhouse for their postgame celebration.

Bad umpiring is part of the game, but calls that bad shouldn’t be. We’ll never know whether or not the Braves would have cashed in that rally to tie the game. They were down 6-3 at the time and Simmons represented the potential tying run. Based on how lamely they played the rest of the game, the odds are they still would have failed to score, but we’ll never know. We have Sam Holbrook to thank for that. Truly an awful call, one of the worst in postseason history.

This was the first one-game wild-card play-in under MLB’s new playoff format, meaning the Braves now have been put out of their misery for 2012. And now that the deed is done, we’ll probably be subjected to endless carping by Braves fans about how unfair the one-game play-in is for the wild-card teams. This is an echo of tired complaints made far too loudly and far too frequently by now-retired Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. I have tremendous respect for Jones as a player, not so much for him as a person. His constant whining on this matter hasn’t helped.

Chipper, if you want fair, then win your damned division championship. If you finish second, don’t expect to be treated as though you really finished first, because you didn’t.

Bud Selig’s record on innovations to the game has been very mixed. He’s responsible for interleague play, the wild card and expanded playoff format, and the return of fan voting for the All-Star Game, all of which are very popular (although interleague play largely sucks). On the other hand, Selig gave home-field advantage in the World Series to the winner of the All-Star Game, has pushed back postseason start times to the point that only vampires see the end of most World Series games, and cancelled the 1994 World Series altogether. Oops on all of those.

This time, though, Selig hit it out of the ballpark, absolutely nailed it. For much of the past decade, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both knew they were going to the playoffs and subsequently went through the motions the entire month of September. That was how the previous playoff system worked. The difference between being a division champion and being a wild card  was negligible at best, so neither the Yankees or the Red Sox gave damn those years whether they finished first or second. They also knew they wouldn’t have to face one another in the Division Series because they’re in the same division. When contending teams don’t even try to win their division championship the sport has a serious problem, but that’s what happens when you reward second-place teams the same way you reward division champions.

The new playoff format has eliminated that issue, giving contenders a powerful incentive to try and win every game until the races are over. Win your division and you’re in. Win a wild card and you’re truly a wild card, one and done.

Don’t go bitching about how unfair that is. It’s long past time that we started being fair to the six division winners instead. They finished in first place and won their divisions. The wild-card teams finished second (or second and third), and there’s no reason they should be rewarded the same way as a first-place team. And now they’re not.

Yes, the wild card teams were denied the home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs under the old format (until the World Series), but that’s pretty meaningless. Wild cards made up 25 percent of the playoff participants under the old format, but won 29 percent of the league championships (10 of 34) and 29 percent of the World Series (5 of 17) in that time. Clearly, playing a couple of extra games on the road was not much of a hardship.

There was a time not so long ago, prior to 1995, when there were no wild cards and no League Division Series. Second-place teams didn’t even get a one-game play-in. They went home and watched as Major League Baseball’s (then) four division winners played in the two League Championship Series. So it’s not even old school to whine about how we’re suddenly mistreating the wild-card teams. We never mistreated wild cards in the past, and we’re not mistreating them now. If anything, we used to spoil them. Now we’re giving them what they deserve.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Francona Seeking Indians Job? Really? Seriously?

The Cleveland Indians fired manager Manny Acta last Thursday, which was hardly a surprise. The surprise was the news that former Red Sox manager Terry Francona is very interested in the job.

Acta was hardly blame for the current sad state of Tribe baseball, his 20-52 record after the All-Star break notwithstanding. Firing the manager is easier than addressing the real reasons for the disaster that has unfolded at Jacobs/Progressive/Whatchamacallit Field since the team’s stunning collapse in the 2007 ALCS.

First, you have a financially overmatched owner in Larry Dolan, who overpaid for the team when he bought it from Dick Jacobs in 2000, and has been badly underfunded ever since. Impact free agents aren’t even considered in Cleveland, and when the team’s own players approach free agency, or even arbitration, they immediately become the subject of trade rumors. Add to that the club’s horrific record in the MLB draft — a track record so bad you couldn’t possibly make it up — and you have a franchise that is now light years removed from the glory days of the late 1990s, with little hope for the immediate future.

The Indians are hardly the only small-market team that can’t or won’t compete for top-name big league talent, and trading established stars for prospects is a serious gamble that can backfire badly (C.C. Sabathia for a sack of groceries in 2008; Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez for a matching set of tire tools in 2009). That makes drafting and developing players absolutely essential, yet after drafting Sabathia in 1998, Cleveland went on a nine-year draft skid (1999-2007) that produced virtually nothing for the major league club, a dry run in player development that is going to haunt the franchise for years to come. The Tribe’s first-round and supplemental first-round draft choices in that time were:

1999: none; pick awarded to Baltimore for signing Roberto Alomar
2000: Corey Smith, inf
2001: Dan Denham, rhp; J.D. Martin, rhp; Michael Conroy, of
2002: Jeremy Guthrie, rhp; Mark Whitney, inf
2003: Michael Aubrey, 1b; Brad Snyder, of; Adam Miller, rhp
2004: Jeremy Sowers, lhp
2005: Trevor Crowe, of; John Drennen, of
2006: David Huff, lhp
2007: Beau Mills, 1b

Sowers spent parts of four seasons in Cleveland but had marginal stuff and retired with an 18-30 record. Crowe was a fourth outfielder for parts of three seasons before the Indians released him in July. Huff finished 2012 in Cleveland after spending most of the year at Triple-A Columbus. His four-year big league record is a stellar 18-25. Guthrie scuffled for several years without winning a single game before the Indians shipped him to Baltimore, where he had some success. He’s now scuffling again, with the Kansas City Royals.

And that’s it. For nine years of first-round draft picks, the Indians got 36 wins, 55 losses, three home runs, 76 runs scored, 55 RBIs, 29 stolen bases and a .245 batting average.

Of course, the draft is more than the first round. What did the rest of those drafts bring to Cleveland? Well, other than a few who did not sign, the names don’t exactly jump off the page:

Jeff Baker, inf, 4th round, 1999 (did not sign)
Ben Francisco, of, 32nd round, 1999 (did not sign)
Brian Tallet, lhp, 2nd round, 2000
Ryan Church, of, 14th round, 2000
Luke Scott, of, 9th round, 2001
Ben Francisco, 5th round, 2002 (finally signed him)
Ryan Garko, c, 3rd round, 2003
Aaron Laffey, lhp, 16th round, 2003
Scott Lewis, lhp, 3rd round, 2004
Tony Sipp, lhp, 45th round, 2004
Jensen Lewis, rhp, 3rd round, 2005
Jordan Brown, 1b, 4th round, 2005
Desmond Jennings, of, 18th round, 2005 (did not sign)
Tim Lincecum, rhp, 42nd round, 2005 (did not sign)
Chris Archer, rhp, 5th round, 2006 (traded for Mark DeRosa)
Vinnie Pestano, rhp, 20th round, 2006

One all-star on the list, Lincecum, and he didn’t sign. Garko was a useful player but hardly an impact guy, and Sipp and Pestano have been servicable relievers. The rest of that list is a mess of pottage.

It appears that Cleveland has drafted somewhat better the last five years, with the likes of Jason Kipnis, Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Joe Gardner, Franciso Lindor and Tyler Naqiun all drafted and signed. Kipnis, in particular, is a budding star in the big leagues, but the Indians squandered some of that draft success by shipping Pomeranz, White and Gardner to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jiminez fiasco. Chisenhall looks like the lone ranger from the 2008 draft, while Lindor, Naquin and the others taken the last two or three years are still a long way from ever playing in the big leagues.

Which means there is nothing currently in Cleveland’s farm system that is going to help the major league team any time soon, and there’s no way the Dolans are going to whip out the checkbook to acquire any established star players. They could try to make a trade or two — closer Chris Perez, outfielder Chin Soo Choo and righthander Justin Masterson all have trade value — but getting equal value is unlikely, and recent history says such a deal is likely to blow up in their faces. Hard to improve a team from a such a position of weakness.

The nucleus of next year’s team will be anchored by the four position players up the middle of the diamond. Kipnis and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera form one of baseball’s best double-play combinations. That’s a nice start. Carlos Santana is a terrific-hitting catcher who doesn’t catch especially well. Center fielder Michael Brantley, pretty much all the Indians have to show for the C.C. Sabathia trade with the Brewers, has overachieved his way to being a pretty decent player. Brantley is probably better suited defensively to left field, and his best spot in the lineup should be second or ninth. The fact that he played center field most of this season and batted fourth for a lengthy stretch tells you all you need to know about the state of the franchise.

Around those four we have the makings of another 90-loss team. Chisenhall, a promising young third baseman, can’t stay on the field because of injuries. Choo, a good hitter with a strong arm in right field, is an impending free agent in 2013 and likely to be traded. Casey Kotchman, an outstanding defensive first baseman who can’t hit a lick, will almost certainly be gone. Left field is the null set. Travis Hafner’s albatross of a contract finally expires at the end of the season, leaving the Tribe without a designated hitter, not that they’ll notice the difference given Hafner’s meager production. The bullpen is good and deep, but it has to be because the rotation is a toxic waste site.

And so the Indians, awful in 2012, figure to be awful for the foreseeable future. Which brings us back to the manager’s job. Sandy Alomar, Acta’s bench coach and the catcher and de facto team captain during the glory years of the 1990s, was named interim manager upon Acta’s dismissal. Alomar’s interest in the job should be obvious. But Terry Francona?

The former Red Sox manager and current ESPN analyst is arguably the most successful manager in Boston history — he won more World Series than the previous 31 Red Sox managers combined — yet he wants to manage the Cleveland Indians. Doesn’t make a bit of sense. Francona spent a year working in the Cleveland front office before taking the job in Boston. He reportedly has very close ties with team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti, both of whom have reputations as exceptional people. That’s a great story. So what.

As an Indians fan, I’d be delighted to see Francona take the job. He’s proven he can win big if given the resources, although no one should be foolish enough to think he’ll have any resources in Cleveland. He may not lose as much as Acta did, but unless he pulls a rabbit out of his hat he’s going to lose all the same.

Francona managed four years in Philadelphia, before their recent playoff run, and his record there was poor, 285-363. He lost 94 and 97 games in two of the four years. He’d almost assuredly do worse in Cleveland. But if he’s sincerely interested, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t at this point, then it’s a no-brainer. And a head-scratcher.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

What Goes Around …

The News & Observer continues to dredge up ugly stories from Chapel Hill, everything from football players receiving improper benefits to a former agent on the football coaching staff to academic fraud to administrative malfeasance. People keep asking me what the folks at NC State think about all this. I left NC State seven months ago, wasn’t paid to speak for anyone at NC State when I was there, and don’t profess to speak for anyone but myself now. I do believe, however, that my thoughts are pretty commonplace in West Raleigh.

People who work in college athletics are usually pretty reluctant to wish these kinds of scandals on other schools. This kind of stuff can happen anywhere, and what goes around comes around. It’s been a few years, but NC State has had its share of ugly headlines in the local newspapers. With that said, however, it’s hard not to take some small measure of satisfaction in seeing the N&O’s investigative bulldogs pawing through the dirty laundry in Chapel Hill and airing it for public consumption. At some time or another, we’ve all had to deal with some condescending, sanctimonious North Carolina fan telling us how they do everything the right way in Chapel Hill and how Carolina is such a superior academic university, like an Ivy League school. The unspoken implication in that first assertion is that your school doesn’t do things the right way. The message in the second is that your school's student bookstore specializes in coloring books and crayons.

The News & Observer has now blown huge holes in both of these canards. Apparently they do a good number of things wrong in Chapel Hill and probably have for some time. No one does everything right. When players go to parties paid for by agents and then brag about it on their Facebook page, that’s wrong (and unbelievably stupid). When student-athletes are steered into classes, all in the same curriculum, in which they don’t have to do any academic work to get a passing grade, that’s wrong. When a university-paid tutor writes terms papers for multiple football players, that’s wrong. When a vice chancellor hires a basketball player’s mom to a fundraising job and then travels around the country with her, carrying on a romantic relationship on the public dime, that is so not right.

As for UNC’s academic purity, a close friend of mine, a retired professor at NC State, has the perfect rejoinder for overzealous North Carolina grads who brag too hard about the school’s academic reputation. “It’s another fine state institution,” my friend says. The point is simple and direct. Stop pretending you’re something you’re not. Be happy for what you are. You’re not private. You’re a state university, a damned good one, but a state university nonetheless. You’re not Harvard. You’re not Duke. And you can make a pretty good argument that, as public universities go, you’re not Virginia, California or Michigan, either. North Carolina is a great school and a great bargain for in-state residents. You’ll get no arguments from me about that. But a state university by any other name is still a state university. Embrace what you are and stop being so damned pretentious.

Americans are generally a pretty forgiving lot, or used to be, anyway. We’re all human and imperfect, and we forgive those traits in others. We believe in second chances. When the imperfect human claims perfection, however, especially when he likes to lord it over the rest of us, that we won’t forgive. And when that person, or institution in this case, is brought down by its own arrogance and hubris, we tend to find that more than a little satisfying.

And that, I believe, is how a lot of people at NC State (and lots of other schools in the area) feel about what’s happening to the folks in Chapel Hill. At North Carolina, they’re finding out the hard way that what goes around really does come around.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Who Will Follow Doc And Earl?

Among its other distinctions, 2012 was the year that North Carolina lost its two most iconic living musicians. Earl Scruggs died on March 28 in Nashville, Tenn., and Doc Watson followed him two months later, on May 29 to be exact, in Winston-Salem.

North Carolina has produced and/or been home to its share of great musicians, including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Clyde McPhatter, Don Reno and Nina Simone, to name just a few. Like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, those all-time greats are gone now. Who takes their place as North Carolina’s greatest living musician(s)?

First of all, what exactly makes a person a North Carolinian? A Google search yields several exhaustive lists of North Carolina musicians, but some have very dubious ties to the state. One lists Emmylou Harris, most likely because she went to UNC Greensboro for a semester. That’s not good enough. Scruggs’ and Watson’s roots were never in dispute. Both were born here. Aside from his time at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, Watson lived his entire life in Deep Gap. Scruggs moved to Nashville after achieving fame, first with Bill Monroe and later with Lester Flatt in Flatt & Scruggs, but he was always a proud North Carolinian.

Second, just how do we define greatness? Wherever you set that bar, Scruggs and Watson cleared it with ease. Both were innovative and creative pioneers, and both were profoundly influential.

Scruggs didn’t invent the three-finger rolling style of banjo picking, but he was the first to popularize it, and he clearly is the one who made it famous. Without Scruggs and his magical playing, Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys never would have been the same, and bluegrass music as we know it may never have happened.

Watson was a master of both finger-picked and flat-picked lead acoustic guitar, and as much as anyone, he popularized acoustic guitar as a lead instrument in almost all forms of traditional folk music. He also had a warm and comforting vocal style. Merlefest, the music festival he started in 1987 as a memorial to his late son and musical partner Merle, ranks among the most popular events of its kind. With Doc’s death, Merlefest now will be as much a tribute to Doc as to Merle. It’s a deserving part of a great legacy.

The list of living musicians from North Carolina is impressive, but there is no Doc Watson, no Earl Scruggs. The most prominent names on the list, for me anyway, are:

Shirley Caesar
Roberta Flack
Warren Haynes
Ben E. King
Victoria Livengood
Jim Mills
Ronnie Milsap
Tony Rice
Curly Seckler
George Shuffler
James Taylor

As for greatness, Tony Rice, Warren Haynes, Victoria Livengood and Shirley Caesar stand out for me. Each is or was at the pinnacle of his or her craft at some point, and each has been immensely influential within their respective musical sphere.

Rice could well well be the world’s greatest acoustic guitarist. In a career that spans more than 40 years, he has played a unique style of music heavily influenced by jazz, folk and bluegrass. Prior to losing his singing voice in the mid-1990s, he may have been the greatest bluegrass vocalist ever. During its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his band, the Tony Rice Unit, stunned audiences with their incendiary live performances. Now largely an instrumental group, their shows are still astonishing, even without Tony’s vocals. There may not be a single living bluegrass guitarist who doesn’t list Tony Rice as his or her No. 1 musical influence. While arthritis in his hands has slowed his playing, his fluidity, musicality and expressiveness are still peerless. Rice was born in Danville, Va., and grew up in the Los Angeles area. His family lived in North Carolina for a time in the 1960s, and he and his wife have lived in the Reidsville area since their Florida home flooded during a storm in 1993.

A native of Asheville, Warren Haynes began playing with the Allman Brothers Band in 1989, and joined the group for good in 2000. He and Derek Trucks give the Allmans their best guitar tandem since Duane Allman’s death in 1971, and the current Allmans lineup is the best since Duane was alive. They are stellar. Haynes also has played with members of the Grateful Dead since Jerry Garcia died in 1995, and he has played with his own jam band, Gov’t Mule, since 1994. The man has great chops. Rolling Stone magazine ranks the top 100 all-time best guitarists every few years, and Haynes is always on that list.

A native of Thomasville, Victoria Livengood is an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano and Metropolitan Opera star. I’m not an opera fan and can’t comment on her music personally, but a little web surfing unearths all you need to know. She’s earned her status as a megastar on merit. Livengood’s credentials are glittering, both for her acting and her singing. She has played numerous roles in major performances at the Met, including the lead in Carmen. She has won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions award, and the Rosa Ponselle, Luciano Pavarotti and George London competitions. She has earned rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times, the Boston Classical Review, Backstage, The Hub Review of Boston Arts, Opera News, Opera Lively, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. Livengood left North Carolina after college to pursue her career and has lived elsewhere ever since. She currently resides in Jacksonville, Fla.

Shirley Caesar is the First Lady of Gospel. Born in Durham and educated at Shaw University, she began her musical career in the 1960s with the gospel supergroup the Caravans. She left in 1966 to embark on a solo career and has never looked back. She has won six Grammy Awards, and won seven Dove Awards from 1981-95 for Black Gospel Album of the Year. A kick-ass singer, she has recorded more than 40 solo albums, several of them critically acclaimed. She is minister of the Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries, located in Raleigh.

Those are the four that jump out to me, all great musicians, but Doc and Earl left some big shoes to fill. And maybe there are others I’ve overlooked. You could make a good argument for several, and my personal choice would be Tony Rice. That said, while it was easy to name North Carolina’s greatest living musician or musicians before the spring of 2012, it’s not so easy since then. In fact, it’s damned hard.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Closing The Gap?

With the Cleveland Indians in a horrific death spiral (a 5-24 record in August), I’ve started watching other games at night (thank you, MLB cable package). In particular, I’ve been watching a lot of National League games, which I’ve haven’t done much in recent years. I’m especially struck at how bad the NL is.

National League fans can point to recent success in the All-Star Game and World Series, but that’s eight games a year, at most, and one of those is an exhibition. If you want a true indicator of the relative strength of the two leagues, look at the results of interleague play, which has been a beat-down by the American League for nearly a decade.

The AL has had a winning record in interleague play every year since 2004. The AL has won 55 percent of all interleague games during that time. For some perspective, a .550 winning percentage would be an 89-win season for an individual team, which is a pretty good year. For one league to own the other at that rate for nine years is a pistol-whipping.

The American’s League’s superiority is not a fluke. This is a sample size of 2,268 games. The margin of error is pretty close to zero. The American League is just better. Why? The biggest reason is money. The economics of the sport took off in the 1990s and early 2000s, driven by huge local TV deals for the Yankees and Red Sox. The game’s mid- and small-market contenders no longer could count on stadium revenues alone to keep pace, and the Yankees and Red Sox opened a huge gap between themselves and the rest of MLB.

This didn’t affect the National League so much. Both leagues still were guaranteed a berth in the World Series, and the last two years have shown that the best team doesn’t always win in October. No, when the Yankees and Red Sox threw down the gauntlet, they did so in the face of their American League brethren. Those who wanted to keep pace had to do so with their wallets. Spend or be left behind. The AL, at least most of it, responded, resulting in a nine-year winning percentage of .550 in interleague play.

This trend could be about to change. Why? Because the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs both are under new ownership for enormous purchase prices, and both figure to spend huge money to put championship teams on the field.

The Dodgers already have begun to flex their financial muscle, adding about $300 million worth of long-term contract obligations the past six weeks in Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. Those expressing the belief that the Dodgers will regret those contracts by 2016 and 2017 — the national baseball media seems in near-total agreement on this — simply aren’t paying attention.

First of all, these were the Frank McCourt Dodgers until a few months ago, a small-market banana republic operating in the nation’s second-largest market. The payroll had nowhere to go but up, and despite the recent flurry of high-priced acquisitions the Dodgers still have plenty of wiggle room between their current payroll and the luxury-tax threshold.

Second, and this is more to the point, the new owners in Los Angeles just don’t seem to give a shit about the money. The Dodgers’ local TV contract expires in 2013, and they’re already negotiating what no doubt will be the mother of all regional baseball TV networks. Reports in the LA media have bandied about figures in the range of $4 billion for the Dodgers’ next TV deal. What they’ve spent so far is a raindrop in the ocean.

The Dodgers also are polishing their brand name. In Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, they now have three of the most attractive, likable and marketable players in the game: a Mexican-American, an African-American and a Texan-American. ( Don’t think for a second that the ethnic diversity of that trio doesn’t matter, especially in a city like Los Angeles.) Between the new TV deal and the marketing possibilities with those three star players, the Dodgers will have no trouble drawing fans to Dodger Stadium and then sucking the money right out of their pockets.

While the Dodgers already are spending like there’s no tomorrow, the Cubs will join them soon enough. When former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein took over as team president last year, he inherited a club much farther from contention than the Dodgers. The Cubs had a bunch of aging players with bad contracts, plus a farm system lacking impact players. What they do have is a national landmark of a ballpark and a huge national fan base.

Once Epstein turns over Chicago’s major league roster and builds up the farm system, the Ricketts family will spend whatever it takes to put a perennial winner in Wrigley Field. They wouldn’t have brought in a superstar GM like Epstein if they planned on operating the Cubs the way the McCourts ran the Dodgers. The Cubs, who haven’t been a perennial winner since before World War I, are hardly a sleeping giant. Wide awake underachievers is more like it. That figures to change in a big way in the next three to five years. With Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo already in the big leagues, the Cubs are already laying the groundwork.

And so we have the seeds of a National League comeback. It’s good for baseball — essential, really ­— that the NL try to close the gap with the AL. It’s even better that it’s the Cubs and the Dodgers, arguably the NL’s two most iconic franchises, who are driving things.

On the other hand, a rising tide does not lift all boats. If, like me, you’re a fan of a struggling small-market team in an economically challenged market, seeing anyone raise the ante even higher, that’s not encouraging. That’s not likely to help. More on that at some future date.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Passed Tense

A friend called a few weeks ago to tell me, in solemn, reverent tones, “Bruce, I thought you should know that [Close Mutual Acquaintance] passed yesterday.”

Okay, look, before we go any further, I get it. Given my friend’s artificially grief-stricken tone of voice, I understood exactly what he was trying to tell me. There are, however, times when I just can’t help yanking someone’s chain, and this was one of those times.

“Passed?” I said. “You mean he passed gas? Did he pass a stone? I hear that’s painful. Did he pass go? I hope he remembered to collect his $200. What the [contraction for firetruck] are you talking about?”

“You know,” my friend said, even more solemnly, “he, <pregnant pause> passed away.”

“Oh, you mean he DIED (emphasis mine)?”

“Yes. That’s what I mean.”

And he still couldn’t say the word. Could not bring himself to say it, I presume, for fear of being struck dead himself. In the immortal words of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, it’s enough to make a body ashamed of the whole damned human race.

I understand the fear of death. It’s the great unknown and pretty much all of us are scared of it. And I get it that when you’re speaking with a widow or a close family member of the dearly departed, it’s more sensitive to use a word or words with less punch. The word “died” hits pretty hard and sounds so final, whereas saying someone “passed away” almost holds out hope that they’ve just lost their way and will be home for dinner.

My friend wasn’t talking about a member of his family. The dearly departed in this case was nothing more than an acquaintance, neither close nor distant, whom we both liked but didn’t have all that much contact with. His feigned grief was just that, feigned. And he still could not make himself say that this person died. Or even that he passed away.

He simply passed.

Well, no, he didn’t.

I don’t mean to pound on my friend. He’s hardly alone. This is a culture-wide phenomenon. Newspaper obituaries, which used to be written by interns on the news desk, now are largely written by family members of the deceased, who pay a hefty fee for the privilege. Consequently, obituaries are often badly written and couched in soft, politically correct language unfit for most daily newspapers. Take a look at the obituary page in your local paper (assuming it hasn’t gone out of business). Ironically, that may be the only place in the entire paper where you’ll never see the word “died.”

The aforementioned Mr. Clemens once said, “The difference between the exact word and the almost exact word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” The same could be said for “died” and “passed.” That wouldn’t be as effective a quote or draw the same chuckles, but it would be perfectly applicable.

If you’re so damned squeamish that you can’t even bring yourself to say that someone died, at least use the whole phrase when you say they’ve passed away. That’s perfectly acceptable (and usually unnecessary). To simply say that so-and-so passed is not just wrong; it’s stupid. Especially if they forgot to collect their $200.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Welcome To The Unofficial Scorer

The name of this blog is taken from a weekly column/blog I wrote for a college baseball website in the spring of 2012. When I got laid off from that gig, I took the name with me. It was the least I could do. I thought it up, so I’m keeping it. I don’t think SEBaseball will care. Baseball will be a frequent topic of this blog, especially college baseball. Baseball will not be the only subject, however. I also will discuss, among others, sports in general, plus rock and roll and American roots music, bad behavior, and the use of language.

You might imply from this blog’s subtitle (Antisocial Media for the Damned 21st Century) that I have a problem with social media or modern times. You’d only be partially correct in thinking that. Social media gives me gas, and I sincerely believe that using Twitter should be made a capital felony. On the other hand, I’ve actually found Facebook to be as useful as it is useless. Facebook is especially useful for tracking down old friends, but is, generally speaking, a useless resting point for narcissistic dingbats: “I’m at the Shitburger Drive-In. Think I’ll order the chili fries.” Really? Try a pie in the face instead.

As for the 21st Century, I have my quarrels with much of it and find most of it horribly overrated, but I’m not one of those Luddite geezers who’s constantly at war with modern times. I like my modern toys, especially my iPad and iPhone, and most of my music collection is digitalized, but I also like books, records, CDs and newspapers, most of which are on a fast track to becoming museum pieces.

In case you’re wondering, I retired in February 2012 from the North Carolina State University Department of Athletics, where I was an assistant director of media relations. I was that office’s baseball contact for 18 years, and have worked with or covered NC State baseball for 32 years and counting, dating back to 1981. I have extensive experience working in baseball, especially the college game. I’ve been a minor league P.A. announcer, done play-by-play on radio and TV for both college and minor league games, written numerous feature stories for game programs, fan magazines and the occasional newspaper, and contrary to the name of this blog, I’ve been official scorer for about 1,000 games at the college and professional level.

In addition to baseball, I’ve worked with football, men’s and women’s basketball, cross country, women’s soccer, volleyball and wrestling. I’ve written about just about every sport NC State has. I know what goes on behind the scenes, and am fluent at “coachspeak,” that mysterious language coaches lapse into when they want to say absolutely nothing but sound eloquent like Winston Churchill at the same time. Many of the quotes you see attributed to coaches in newspapers and on TV have little if anything to do with what they really mean. I hope I can serve as your translator from time to time.

I also will use this space to write about music, and I have some qualifications there. I’m not a musician, although I can make musical sounds on certain woodwind instruments. Since my wife and I have two dogs who both howl, playing woodwind instruments is problematic in our house. Rest assured, though, I can blow into a flute, clarinet or saxophone without sounding like some tortured barnyard animal.

I spent nine years working in record stores back in the day, and I have an extensive and growing music collection. I’ve also done a bit of writing about music. I worked as a columnist and reviewer for a small music magazine, and I wrote liner notes for a handful of CDs a few years back. I’m pretty knowledgeable about those genres of music that I like, and ignore those I don’t. I would say, without boasting, that I know more about music than 99 percent of the population.

You’ll find that I’m one opinioned, curmudgeonly SOB, and I don’t make any apologies for that. At my age, I’ve earned it. If I offend you, well, oops. Don’t take it personally, and if you just can’t overlook something I’ve written, there are a gazillion other websites and blogs you can surf. I welcome you here any time, but no one’s holding a gun to your head forcing you to stay.

So come back any time. I hope to post here regularly, but I’m not making any promises.