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.