Cup of Coffee: December 23, 2020

The Phillies have a new GM, a New Deal program could be resurrected, and Dippin' Dots are about to have a moment.

Good morning! Since Thursday is Christmas Eve — and because my addled brain thinks it’s perpetually 1960 and there is no pandemic — I presume most of you will be having booze-fueled office parties, complete with people chasing each other around desks and crap. As such, we’re doing Free Thursday today which, for legal reasons, we have to call Free Wednesday. Happy Christmas Eve Eve!

If you’re a once-a-week flyer around here, what better time to pull the trigger on a subscription now?

Or, if you’re already a subscriber, to give the gift of Cup of Coffee before you check out for the long Christmas weekend?

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Short of that, if you can spread the word, why, that’d be swell!

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“Swell.” See, it’s perpetually mid-century here. Ain’t it great? Well, apart from the always-present fear of nuclear apocalypse, that is.

In today’s Cup of Coffee the Phillies have a new GM, the dumb league may not be considering expansion but the smart league is, Noah Syndergaard has a salary for 2021, and I have some writing at Baseball Prospectus to plug. One item is ridiculous. One, not as ridiculous.

In Other Stuff we jump past mid-century America and land all the way back at the New Deal. We also take the piss out of a pompous tech dude, learn that “Rescue Rangers Money” is not really a brag, and, since we spent some time in ghost malls yesterday, we partake in a classic mall treat: Dippin’ Dots.

Is there less here today than some days? Maybe. But we’re sure getting a hell of a lot more done than I ever did ay my old jobs on the last day before a holiday. Hoo-boy.


The Daily Briefing

Phillies hire Sam Fuld as their GM

Last week' the Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski as their president of baseball operations. Like most teams these days, the guy with that title has someone with the title of “general manager” reporting to him. Now the Phillies have that guy too: Sam Fuld.

Fuld, who was previously the team's director of integrative baseball performance, has been considered a potential manager or a GM for some time. This despite the fact that he was playing as recently as the 2015 season. He’s a Stanford dude and was well known during his playing career for being well-versed in baseball analytics in ways that most players really aren’t. He’s also famous — at least among baseball geeks like me who hung out on Twitter all day circa 2012 or so — for having an unusually lengthy and detailed Wikipedia page, though it’s a bit shorter now than it used to be.

Before now he mostly served as something of a conduit between the analytics department and the players. He has also worked a lot with team training and medical staff. Now he’s moving up. The buck will stop with Dombrowski, but Fuld will be the number two guy.

If I’m Dombrowski I put him in charge of the bullpen. Not that I have any reason to believe that Fuld has some special insight into how to build a bullpen. I’m just saying that if I were Dombrowski, I wouldn’t really want to have to deal with that mess.

Take a gander at this goose*

Last week we learned from Jayson Stark that MLB has no plans to expand any time soon. Because of that, people in Major League Baseball advised Dave Dombrowski to take the Phillies job rather than waste his time with Nashville’s apparently doomed expansion gambit.

This struck me as odd because sports leagues tend to expand when they suffer financial setbacks, with the massive buy-ins from the new ownership groups getting distributed to the existing owners as, basically, free money.

I’m not sure why MLB’s owners don’t want free money, but the NBA is at least looking at it more seriously:

In a change from his past statements on the topic of expansion, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Monday afternoon that the league has looked at its analysis of the ramifications of expanding beyond 30 teams.

"I think I've always said that it's sort of the manifest destiny of the league that you expand at some point," Silver said during his annual preseason availability with reporters. "I'd say it's caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion. We've been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic.

Points off for Silver for using the term “manifest destiny” — yikes — but points back on for what seems like a sensible approach to managing the league through hard times while looking to build for the future.

I still don’t know what MLB is up to with this. Part of me wants to mock them for being unwilling to embark on an overdue, in my view, expansion effort. Part of me cannot comprehend Rob Manfred leaving any money on the table whatsoever, thereby making me assume that there’s some angle here I’m just not seeing yet that demands he work in secret.

Or, and this is nuts, I know: maybe MLB hasn’t lost anywhere near the sort of money it claims to have lost in the last year and there’s no pressing financial reason for them to want to expand.

*This headline for this item was shamelessly stolen from subscriber Colby, who gave me the heads up on this story yesterday morning. Well, maybe not technically “stolen,” as he told me I could use it after I laughed at it, but it sure as hell wasn’t mine, even if I wish I had come up with it.

Mets, Noah Syndergaard avoid arbitration

The New York Mets have avoided salary arbitration with Noah Syndergaard, agreeing to a one-year deal worth $9.7 million.

Syndergaard missed the entire 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow last March. In 2019 he tossed 197.2 innings but posted a career-worst 4.28 ERA. Based on the surgery timeline he should be able to contribute during the first half of the 2021 season, assuming it has a traditional first half. Based on his performance from when he was last healthy, it’s hard to say what he’ll do next season.

Syndergaard is set to become a free agent a little less than a year from now, so whatever he does in 2021 is not just going to be important for the Mets, but important for his professional future.

Baseball movie review: “Rhubarb”

I was recently asked by my friends at Baseball Prospectus to review a movie. The movie was the 1951, um, classic, “Rhubarb,” based on a 1946 novel by H. Allen Smith. You can read my review here.

“Rhubarb” is about the eccentric owner of the National League’s Brooklyn Loons bequeathing his team to his pet cat. Yes, you read that correctly. The cat, Rhubarb, becomes the Loons’ good luck charm and, eventually, the team’s namesake. But Rhubarb’s wealth and fame puts him in peril with challengers to the will’s bequest and, eventually, puts him in deep with gamblers too!

Fun facts: “Rhubarb” had three Oscar winners attached to it: stars Ray Milland and Jan Sterling and costume designer Edith Head. The titular cat would later go on to be Audrey Hepburn’s cat “Cat” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” A very young Leonard Nimoy has a bit part. So too does William Frawley, who would soon go on to play Fred Mertz in “I Love Lucy.”

I would like to say that all that talent resulted in a fantastic movie but, alas, I cannot. As many people know, however, writing a review of a good movie is kinda boring. Writing a review of a bad movie is loads of fun and, boy howdy, did I have more fun with this than I had any right to.

More “Baseball Prospectus” stuff

In addition to that movie review, I’m contributing to the 26th edition of the Baseball Prospectus Annual. You can preorder it now. It ships at the end of January.

I’ll be writing the essay for the Detroit Tigers chapter, focusing on the team’s hiring of A.J. Hinch and what we talk about when we talk about “redemption.” Will Hinch get it if he wins in Detroit? If he loses in Detroit will he not get it? Does winning have anything to do with redemption anyway?

A great part of the BP Annual is that I’m probably the least significant of any of the essay writers. Check out this thread to hear about the murderer’s row of baseball and non-baseball minds talking about the other teams. And of course, the BP Annual has all of the usual team breakdown and player comments, giving you absolutely everything you need to get ready for the 2021 season, however it looks.

As noted: preorder now. It’s money outrageously well spent.


Other Stuff

A New Federal Writers Project?

The Federal Writers Project was a New Deal program, administered under the Works Progress Administration, aimed at creating jobs for out-of-work writers during the Great Depression. And it was, to use a technical term, pretty damn spiffy.

More than simply providing relief for unemployed writers, the FWP gave itself the mission of creating a series of “guidebooks” to the various parts of the country. Not mere travel books, though. The guidebooks were a geographical-social-historical portrait of the states, cities, and localities of the entire United States. Back then it was unusual for most people to travel very far from where they were born and raised, let alone learn about most other parts of the country, and the guidebooks greatly expanded the country’s understanding of itself.

The FWP also conducted a massive project aimed at interviewing and documenting the stories of individual Americans to get their personal and cultural histories and to document American folkways. The most significant part of this was the undertaking of African Americans who were former slaves, most of whom had been children when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. These narratives recount the experiences of more than 2,300 former slaves, with nearly two dozen of them conducted in audio form, with the recordings being held by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. Obviously these interviews provided a wealth of critical knowledge of the country’s history.

Oh, and a huge subsequent benefit of the FWP: the launching of the careers of a number of important and influential writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel.

I bring all of this up because now, at the suggestion of a UCLA professor named David Kipen, Congressman Ted Lieu says he plans to introduce a bill for a new FWP in January. From the Columbia Journalism Review:

The timing and exact details of the bill have yet to be finalized, but Lieu’s office says that a new project could be anchored within the Department of Labor or a cultural agency, and run as a grant program administered through existing community institutions, including news outlets. As with the original, the goal of a new project would be both economic and cultural, putting the next generation of talent to work capturing the stories of the pandemic—those of the elderly, for example—and this broader moment, while also serving as a national archive for the existing work of local newsrooms and nonprofits.

Charlie Pierce, writing about all of this at Esquire yesterday, said “[w]ith massive layoffs in local news, and with the new paradigms for writers still in many ways embryonic, a new FWP could be an effective corrective to the rising power of ignorance in our politics and our culture.”

Anyone who has been reading my stuff for a while knows that, at heart, I’m an old-style New Deal socialist, so this is some serious preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned. Indeed, I wrote a great deal about the WPA and Public Works Administration a couple of years ago back when we thought Trump might’ve actually cared about infrastructure. I own a damn WPA baseball cap for Pete’s sake:

But I also know that you can’t go back in time again. At least not very easily.

As it was, the WPA’s arts projects — both the FWP and the companion Federal Theater Project — were met with massive opposition by conservatives and business interests who claimed that the programs were breeding grounds and training camps for communists.

Which, um, hey, they kinda were. Awkward!

Not that their critics ever really proved anything truly bad was going on. It was just writing. Be that as it may, eventually the programs had their already very modest funding slashed and then they were eliminated all together. Despite their short run and despite the fact that, communists notwithstanding, most of the work the writing programs did was pretty damn cool and mostly useful, the FWP and FTP were held up as examples of how the Red Menace could infect our Grand Republic for decades after they ceased operations.

The powers that be in this country are no less hysterical about reds being around every corner now than they were in the 1930s. Now, of course, those powers have much more over-the-top propaganda outlets at their disposal which, I suspect, are already outlining multiple lines of attack on whatever “socialized media” or “state news ministry” Congressman Lieu ends up proposing. To conservatives, the media and publishing industries should not serve the government unless that government is run by Republicans.

Not that conservatives would be the only ones to attack such a program. I suspect there are a lot of media and publishing types who would view any governmental involvement in writing and publishing to be some sort of horrible ethical problem that would strike at the heart of journalistic or publishing independence.

On some level I get that concern, but I’d ask, who is more compromised: a young journalist or author given a no-strings government grant to go chronicle the lives of Americans or a middle aged journalist who works for a newspaper being bled dry by private equity and is ordered to never criticize corporate interests without sign-off from the publisher’s moron son? Those in media who might be concerned about a new FWP tend to be quick to claim those latter types of jobs must be preserved to ensure “independent journalism.”

Anyway: neat idea. I, personally, would love to see all manner of public investment in both the physical and intellectual infrastructure in this country, not unlike we saw during the New Deal. But I also doubt that any sort of FWP v.2.0 that could make its way through Congress in this day and age would resemble anything approaching useful and I doubt that anything approaching useful would ever make its way through Congress.

“If you never wore the uniform . . .”

One of my least favorite sports things is when athletes or coaches take the position that criticism or even coverage of them is somehow illegitimate unless the person doing it once “wore the uniform” or whatever. It’s a basic appeal to authority thing, and no one has time for bullshit fallacies like that.

I tend to forget that that the “you never wore the uniform” take is not limited to athletes. Indeed, it’s probably more common in the tech sector, which is at times hilariously hostile and contemptuous of media coverage and criticism of any kind.

An example I saw yesterday:

Has this guy ever heard John Smoltz or Harold Reynolds engage in baseball commentary? Does he actually think a tech version of that would be better?

Here’s an idea: get over yourselves, tech folks, appreciate that you work in an industry which affects literally every segment of society in major, major ways, that because of that there will always be media interest in what you do — and, yes, criticism of what you do — suck it up, grow a thicker skin, and deal with it.

And if you honestly and genuinely feel like your and your industry’s work is being misrepresented in the press: explain it to someone. People will listen if you do. At least if you don’t do it with contempt and the implicit assumption that everyone is dumber than you are.

I mean, it's one private plane, Daniel. What could it cost, ten dollars?

I’m rolling at Larry King interviewing Danny Pudi, and not quite understanding that there are various tiers of celebrity:

The future arrives for Dippin’ Dots

Yesterday’s talk of malls in the 80s and 90s may have made some of you think of Dippin’ Dots — the self-proclaimed “ice cream of the future!” — which have kiosks in malls all over the country. I would’ve guessed that, like Rax, they were either out of business or hanging on by a strand of overcooked roast beef. But nah, they apparently still exist.

Maybe more than just exist. Maybe now they’re about to have a real moment.

Why? Because Dippin’ Dots require ultra-low temperature freezers, just like the Pfizer COVID vaccine. Which means that a lot of places — pharmacies, hospitals, nursing homes, health clinics — are going to need access to ultra-low freezers when they start distributing the vaccine on a mass scale. Which means they’re starting to call Dippin’ Dots about it.

Somewhere the CEOs of Cinnabon and Orange Julius is trying to figure out a COVID angle to keep their companies afloat too. I just know it.

Merry Christmas, folks!

The key me making this newsletter everything that it is and everything that I want it to be has been me making it my full-time job. Which is amazingly cool, obviously. But people need some time off even from amazingly cool full-time jobs.

In light of that I won’t be putting out a regular newsletter on Christmas Eve or Christmas. If some big news happens or there’s a big signing or something I’ll probably shoot out a one-off on that particular topic at a time that is not 6:42AM or whatever, but otherwise I’m gonna spend my Christmas Eve and Christmas drinking adult beverages and eating mincemeat things, and that’s basically that.

Have a great Christmas if you’re into that sort of thing. A great few days even if you’re not. In the meantime, the missus, the kids, the cats and I will be keeping warm by the hearth.

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