Cup of Coffee: December 7, 2020
The still-unfinished -- and never to be finished -- Cup of Coffee newsletter! Cost?! 20% off this week in honor of the canceled Winter Meetings!
In normal years today would be the day the Winter Meetings began. It was going to be in Dallas this time. It’s the first time I’ve not spent this week in December at a Winter Meetings since 2008. Not having them is rather disorienting but what isn’t disorienting in 2020?
To deal with that disorientation, I’m going to pour one out for the Winter Meetings that aren’t happening by running a sale. Yup, starting now — when everyone at the Winter Meetings would be waking up hungover from the Sunday arrival drinks — and lasting until 2AM Thursday morning — when everyone would drunkenly look at their phones and say “crap, I’m supposed to be covering the Rule 5 draft in a few hours” — I’m cutting both monthly and annual subscriptions by 20%:
Or, perhaps, give a subscription as an early Christmas gift to someone:
Sorry for all this commerce but the kids gotta eat. Now let’s get on with it.
The Daily Briefing
Hot Stove Notes
Buster Olney reported yesterday that the Phillies “are open to offers” for Zack Wheeler. He said that they’re telling other teams that they are “facing a financial crunch” and are looking to move payroll. Then, a few hours later, Phillies owner John Middleton said that there's “zero truth” to that rumor. I may not be Buster Olney’s biggest fan in the world, but he's not known for whiffing like that. I mean, he’s not Bob Nightengale or anything. Makes me wonder if, as Middleton says, it’s total bunk or if, alternatively, there was something there and it played so badly that Middleton felt obligated to walk it back out of self-defense;
The Seattle Mariners agreed to a one-year, $3.01 million deal with outfielder Mitch Haniger. He was eligible for arbitration and was tendered a contract last week but this deal avoids the arbitration process. Last season Haniger hit .220/.314/.463 with 15 home runs and 32 RBI in 63 games for the Mariners.
Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela had surgery Friday to remove a bone chip from his right elbow. He’s expected to take three months to recover, which means that, if the pandemic doesn’t alter the schedule, he’ll miss about half of spring training. The Yankees season opener is scheduled for April 1. Hitters can get in shape in half a spring, but usually teams prefer to send guys coming back from injury to extended spring for a couple of weeks rather than play in low-leverage games in cold weather.
The Twins have reportedly expressed interest in free agent utilityman Kiké Hernández. Hernández has spent the past six seasons with the Dodgers. He’s challenged against right-handed pitching but he mashes lefties and plays everywhere, so he’ll likely not have any trouble finding work as a super-utility guy. Also worth noting that the Twins are letting Marwin González walk, so there’s certainly an opening for Kiké;
Infielder Ryon Healy signed with the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization. It’s a one-year deal that guarantees him $800K with $200K in incentives. Healy, known mostly for his time with the A’s, played a small bit for Milwaukee last year and played in Seattle in 2018 and 2019. He was likely looking at a minor league deal at best in 2021, and even if he made a team and stuck all year — not necessarily likely — he’d likely top out at a million bucks. Which, if the season is shortened again because of COVID, would be even less than that. Smart move on his part taking the $800K-$1M bird in the hand from a league likely to play a full slate than risk spending big chunks of 2020 in America playing a partial schedule in the bush leagues;
Yankees pitchers Zack Britton and Gerrit Cole, free-agent catcher Jason Castro, Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor, and free-agent shortstop Marcus Semien were elected to the executive subcommittee of the Major League Baseball Players Association. They join Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller, free-agent pitcher James Paxton and Washington pitcher Max Scherzer on the union's highest-ranking member body. If you’re old enough to remember 1994-95, you’ll remember how guys like Tom Glavine — then a member of the players executive subcommittee — were often the public faces of the strike. If labor negotiations get rough between now and next December when the Collective Bargaining Agreement runs out, expect to see these gentlemen on the news quite a bit too.
Major League Baseball sues its insurance providers, seeks billions for pandemic losses
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how a bunch of minor league teams sued insurance companies aiming to secure coverage for the cancellation of the season, only to lose because the insurance policies excluded losses from viruses.
Major League Baseball and all 30 of its teams are suing their insurance providers, citing billions of dollars in losses during the 2020 season played almost entirely without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The suit, filed in October in California Superior Court in Alameda County, was obtained Friday by The Associated Press. It says providers AIG, Factory Mutual and Interstate Fire and Casualty Company have refused to pay claims made by MLB despite the league's “all-risk” policy purchases.
I have not seen the complaint but I’m going to guess that the characterization of the policies as “all risk” is one that comes from MLB’s lawyers, not the terms of the policies themselves. I say this not just because the policies for MLB likely look a lot like the policies for the minor league teams, complete with virus exclusions, but because, per the article, the complaint has some creative characterization of what actually caused the games to be canceled and the fans excluded from the stadiums.
See if you can’t tell what MLB’s attorneys are trying to do here:
“The presence of the coronavirus and COVID-19, including but not limited to coronavirus droplets or nuclei on solid surfaces and in the air at insured property, has caused and will continue to cause direct physical damage to physical property and ambient air at the premises . . . Coronavirus, a physical substance, has attached and adhered to Plaintiffs' property and by doing so, altered that property. Such presence has also directly resulted in loss of use of those facilities.”
That’s right: they’re trying to argue that virus-carrying droplets are like hail or tornado damage — physical damage leading to loss — which would always trigger coverage as opposed to all of this being a function of a disease affecting humans which led to both government-imposed and self-imposed shutdowns.
I don’t have a LEXIS account anymore — and no one is paying me by the hour to do legal research — so I can’t say if anyone has ever successfully gotten around a policy exclusion in this fashion, but let’s just say that I’m skeptical. Of course, like Michael Scott said Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
If this theory does get MLB and its clubs past a motion to dismiss, however, there are two other problems I see for them.
First, if MLB contends that this is all about “physical damage to physical property and ambient air at the premises” of the stadiums, they’re going to have to explain why they constantly allowed their players, coaches, and team personnel into those stadiums, both before and after the season began in July. Can a player, under MLB’s theory, successfully file a grievance against their club for making them work in unsafe conditions in damaged property? I’m guessing MLB would say no.
Second: if this suit were to proceed, MLB would have to provide evidence of its damages. It would have to provide actual documentation of their losses and allow opposing counsel — sharp, high-priced lawyers hired by insurance companies — to pick their claimed losses apart. That’s not a thing Major League Baseball is generally too keen on doing. Mostly because they lie pretty constantly about their financial status for strategic reasons.
On balance, no, I don’t think MLB has a case here. But I do sort of want them to have enough of a case to where Rob Manfred is hauled into a deposition, placed under oath, and is forced to justify and document his public claims of $8.3 billion in losses and billions more in debt. If that were to happen he’d likely moonwalk away from those figures like Michael Friggin’ Jackson.
Chris Young named Rangers General Manager
The Texas Rangers hired Chris Young as executive vice president and general manager on Friday. He’ll work under president of baseball operations Jon Daniels, who has been the club's top baseball operations executive since 2005.
Young was the senior vice president in charge of on-field operations and the umpires with MLB. When Young assumed that role a couple of years ago many thought that might be a sign that, one day, he could be commissioner. That Young first interviewed for the Mets GM job and now has jumped to Texas puts that kind of speculation to rest. It’s possible that Young was simply itching to be a GM. It’s also possible that Young found that the quicker track for advancement in MLB’s executive office is through the business side of things as opposed to the jobs that deal with matters that are less important to Rob Manfred. Such as actual baseball.
Young pitched 13 seasons in the majors, the first two with the Rangers. He’s a Princeton graduate as well, which raises another question: is Young joining a front office a move back toward baseball guys running teams or is it a case of yet another Ivy League guy being named to run a baseball team? I have a “Death by Snu-Snu” joke competing with a “Schrödinger's General Manager” joke in my head right now, but both are still in workshopping mode.
Whatever we make of that, Young has his work cut out for him. The Rangers are not good, their rebuilds and half-assed go-for-it moves have not panned out very well over the past several years, and they probably stand farther away from actually competing than any team in the American League.
By the time the Rangers are back in the playoffs he may be Chris Old.
Cable companies are rebating customers as much as $1 billion for canceled sporting events
While it didn’t make the top 20 list of things that sucked in 2020, a thing that did in fact suck was when pay TV companies like AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, Verizon and Charter Communications kept collecting sports programming fees even though a huge part of the sporting calendar was either canceled, curtailed, or rescheduled. Customers who were charged for that which they did not receive are now finally going to get some of their money back.
This past week Verizon and Charter announced that they will credit back a couple hundred million dollars to customers in the forms of rebates on bills. Dish Network said it will be giving free replacement sports coverage to affected subscribers, whatever that means. AT&T customers who paid for RSN coverage from April to July will be given “courtesy adjustments” based on the full amount the company gets back from the sports networks. It’s hard to say how much any of these rebates or “courtesy adjustments” will amount to, but at least one source I saw said it’d be like $14 off your cable bill.
Some of this money is no doubt going to be paid by insurance companies. Some of it is going to come out of the pockets of the networks and cable companies. Some people — specifically, people who are not sports fans — are going to be surprised when they get their rebate and it’ll dawn on them just how much of their cable bill is devoted to underwriting the massive rights fees their cable company pays MLB, the NBA, the NFL and other leagues for sports rights. At which point they may ask themselves why they’re subsidizing Rob Manfred and his buddies when all they watch are classic movies on TCM and old “Columbo” episodes on COZI TV. To use a random example.
That, in and of itself, won’t cause the model to crash, but it won’t help the cord-cutting problem the cable companies and, eventually, the sports leagues will suffer from. As it is, some experts expect that, by 2024, an additional 15-17 million more households will cut the cord than already have. That will result in an estimated one-third of all households not being a part of the pay TV game. So far that has not caused cable networks and companies to stop shelling out billions for the rights to broadcast sports, but at some point you have to figure it will. If and when that happens, professional sports are going to be dropped directly on their ass.
David Lander: 1947-2020
David Lander, who most people know from his role as Squiggy on the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” died of complications related to multiple sclerosis Friday night in Los Angeles. He was 73. Lander was diagnosed with MS in the mid-80s and, after initially keeping his diagnosis private, he went public in the 1990s and became an activist and fundraiser for MS charities and causes.
I’m writing about Lander in the Daily Briefing section rather than Other Stuff because there was a baseball connection. A strong one, in fact.
For one thing, lander was a huge fan. A huge Pirates fans from his days as a student at Carnegie Mellon, yes, but he was not just a root-root-root for the home team, type. He was into advanced baseball analysis back before many of you were born. Bill James tweeted on Saturday that Lander was one of the first 100 readers of his Abstracts back when James self-published. Lander used to send James letters talking about baseball stuff going back to 1977.
But he was more than a fan and enthusiast. He became a minority owner of the Portland Beavers in 1980 when they were the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate. He would later serve as a scout for the Angels and Mariners. And, as I wrote last summer for NBC, Lander is the reason why the world knows about Dock Ellis’ LSD no-hitter:
Ellis first talked publicly about his LSD-fueled no-no to Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who wrote the story about it in 1984. The story got Smizik nominated for an award from the Associated Press. Smizik had gotten a tip about it from his friend, the Pirates fan and, later, Angels and Mariners scout David Lander, who some of you may know as the actor who played Squiggy on the show “Laverne and Shirley.” Lander was chatting with Smizik and said that Ellis had told him and some of their friends back in Los Angeles — where by then Ellis was working as anti-drug counselor — the tale of his trippin’ no-no. Smizik called up Ellis and got the story. He has stood by the story for the past 36 years.
Lander largely moved into animation voice work in the later part of his career, but he played a broadcaster in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own,” which was directed by his “Laverne & Shirley” co-star Penny Marshall.
And that wasn’t the first time baseball and entertainment crossed over in Lander’s life. Check out this sketch with Lander and Harry Shearer, both of whom were then part of the comedy troupe The Credibility Gap. It’s an update of “Who’s on First” for the rock and roll era:
Rest in peace, David.
New Cup of Coffee Merch Shop
Many of you have bought Cup of Coffee coffee mugs. I really appreciate that! I have, however, made the decision to move the mug store from Cafe Press to Redbubble which, frankly, gives me a bigger cut of mug sales. I’m still not getting rich off of these things, but it’s kinda fun. Here’s the new link for Cup of Coffee merch if you’re interested.
What I should really do is just have a bunch printed and mail them out myself which would (a) make them cheaper for customers; and (b) give me an even bigger cut of the sales, but I’m trying to imagine myself spending all that time boxing up and mailing out coffee mugs and I’m failing to see it happening.
“Everything is Broken” Episode 12: “Slow Train Coming”
Episode 12 of Everything is Broken, the Bob Dylan Podcast hosted by Mike Ferrin, Steve Goldman and me, dropped over the weekend. This episode deals with Dylan’s 1979 album “Slow Train Coming.”
For those who don’t know, “Slow Train Coming” is the first of three albums Dylan recorded after becoming a reborn Christian in the late 70s. As we explain in the podcast, though, these songs are not “What a Friend we Have in Jesus” love-fests. This is fire-and-brimstone stuff, with lines like “sons becoming husbands to their mothers and old men turning young daughters into whores” and a whole mess of Revelations-inspired lyrics about blood, men begging for death, and bone-filled graves.
Which, no, is not everyone’s cup of tea. But there’s a complicating factor: it SOUNDS amazing! Dylan got the legendary Jerry Wexler to produce it and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler to lead a bunch of crack Muscle Shoals session players in the studio. So, musically speaking, it’s a fantastic bit of 1970s R&B-influenced rock. It’s tighter than hell and, though the words “groove” and “Dylan” don’t exactly appear together very often, this is the closest we ever get to that.
Is that spoonful of sugar enough to help the medicine go down? To each their own, but if you listen to the latest episode of “Everything is Broken” you’ll have a good idea about whether you want to risk it.
Is everyone depressed?
This Atlantic article is from May, but it just crossed my line of vision over the weekend. It’s about how, since the onset of the pandemic, the amount of people experiencing symptoms of depression have skyrocketed. Which, given that the pandemic has involved considerable death, sickness, economic and existential displacement, and anger at the unnecessary breakdown of society caused by feckless, cynical and even malevolent leaders, makes a lot of sense.
The interesting stuff here is about how mental health professionals are being pressed in a major way to make the sorts of distinctions that they have always had to with respect to depression, but which is far more difficult now due to the sheer mass of people involved. The main distinction: whether someone is experiencing circumstantial ennui or is suffering from a medical condition. Whether someone just needs to find structure, exercise more, and rein in self-destructive habits that are more easily engaged in given everything going on in 2020 or whether someone needs direct medical intervention.
Just an overall interesting piece when gets at the central issue everyone who begins to feel symptoms of depression has to consider: whether they are merely in some maladaptive state that can be relatively easily corrected or whether they are suffering from something that requires outside help.
I watched the new David Fincher movie, “Mank” on Saturday night on Netflix. It’s about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz as he penned the script for arguably the greatest movie of all time, “Citizen Kane.” And about his interactions with William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies and various Hollywood studio titans in the 1930s which served as his inspiration for writing it in the first place.
It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch. It drags in places. It you don’t care about mid-1930s politics you’ll be bored by certain stretches of it. If you don’t know a lot going in about the big figures of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood — Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and the like — you may very well be downright lost in places. It’s also missing some parts of the development of “Citizen Kane” that seem impossible to NOT put in this movie. It’s also far too credulous of the “Orson Welles unfairly took credit for ‘Citizen Kane’ when it was all Mankiewicz’s creation” critique that developed in later years, primarily because of Pauline Kael’s less-than-accurate writings on the matter. There are better books about this stuff if you want to know the facts.
But personally I loved it. I’m a sucker for any and all Golden Age of Hollywood stuff and have read tons of books about all the figures of the time (this is a particular favoite). The politics I mentioned deal with Upton Sinclair and people freaking about socialism, so that’s my bag too. “Citizen Kane,” likewise, is one of my favorite movies of all time.
My biases aside, Gary Oldman does a fantastic, scenery-chewing job of portraying the witty, erudite, and drunk — all to a fault — Mankiewicz. I’d be happy to spend two hours just listening to him talk and insult people in character. Fincher, likewise, did a fantastic job in making this 2020 movie look and feel like something from 1940. The black and white is obvious, but the sound design is of the era too. He included fun little things like cracks and pops to make it sound like old celluloid and even put in those little cue marks in the upper righthand corner of the frame every few minutes even though they’re unnecessary. It was all great fun if you’re an old movie freak. If that’s you, by all means, gamble two hours and change on “Mank.”
Is “Citizen Kane” the greatest movie of all time?
I just said that “Citizen Kane” is arguably the greatest movie of all time. I don’t know how anyone can definitively say that one movie is greater than all the others given how damn subjective such a claim is and how many damn movies there have been, but “Kane” has long been either at or near the top of that list for critics, film historians, and movie buffs. And, for reasons I don’t have the space to go into now, it’s fair for it to be at least near the top of the list, even if I may choose something different as number one depending on my mood.
As is so often mentioned about “Kane,” however, it wasn’t considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made until at least 20 years after it came out. It was nominated for a ton of Oscars upon release, yes, but then it mostly disappeared. Partially because William Randolph Hearst worked hard to make it disappear. But even when it was available again it took some time for it to gain the towering stature it would go on to develop.
The other day Vulture ran a fascinating story about how that all happened. How “Kane” went from respected but overlooked film to The Greatest Movie Ever. That journey, I think, says just as much if not more about movie audiences and critics as it says about the merits of films themselves.
The best and worst of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Mike Campbell, the guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has a new solo album coming out. In the runup to it he gave an interview to Vulture in which he ran down the best and worst of the band. His favorite song they did, least favorite, etc., interspersed with memories of writing with and working with Petty. I love Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but it’s a fun read even if you’re not super into them.
My two favorite bits of it, not surprisingly, both deal with the writing process.
The first is Campbell’s favorite memory of Petty. It deals the writing of the song “You Wreck Me,” from “Wildflowers.” The upshot: Petty didn’t really like or appreciate the song until they played it live and the crowd went nuts. I think every writer has memorable examples of stuff they didn’t think much of until someone told them “you know, that’s actually good,” so that resonated a bit.
The other one was Campbell’s answer about his favorite Petty lyric:
Gosh, there were so many. I have to say “All or Nothin’” again. I think of these lyrics often: “Your daddy was a sergeant major, you didn’t wanna but he made you / Wipe his brass from time to time, it left a picture in your mind.” Tom was such a master of simplicity. I’d ask him all the time when we were recording the studio, “Where did that come from? Where did you get that?” He’d always respond, “I’m a writer!”
My favorite Petty albums, two of which are technically solo albums, but he played with and wrote with Campbell on all of them, so it really doesn’t matter: “Wildflowers,” “Damn the Torpedos,” and “Highway Companion.” I suppose the first two are pretty common answers. I meet fewer people who really liked “Highway Companion,” but it has a melancholy undercurrent to it that hit me just right at just the right time in my life.
Boba Fett Sucks
Don’t read this if you don’t want spoilers for the latest episode of “The Mandalorian.”
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been watching “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ and I like it a lot. I’m also a 40-something guy in America, so I obviously have “Star Wars” coursing through my veins. In light of that you might think that, like so many other people who fit that profile, I love the character of Boba Fett and consider him synonymous with “badass.”
Nah. Screw Boba Fett. Boba Fett sucks.
He was barely a character in “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” I’ll give him credit for tracking the “Millennium Falcon,” but it was one of the most recognizable ships in the galaxy by that point so someone would’ve found it. Beyond that, though, he didn’t do anything.
Vader told him to take what he was offering or leave it just like everyone else. In “Jedi” he just stood around and then, when the fighting started, he tied up Luke for half a second before he untied himself, got bumped into by a blind Han Solo, and down the Sarlacc’s gullet he went. That’s it. That — aside from his debut appearance in the silly “Star Wars Holliday Special” — was the alpha and omega of Boba Fett’s appearances in the movies.
Boba Fett had no character. He had no backstory. Had no really notable moments. But since he looked like a badass and because he was only vaguely written, it allowed tons of fanboys — and later authors and creators of expanded-universe products — to do what George Lucas never bothered to do and create a character. A character who was actually a badass who did all kinds of cool things, not the least of which was escape from the Sarlacc and resume being a badass on Tatooine, as we’ve seen in Season 2 of “The Mandalorian.”
That badassery, which was on full display in the latest episode, kind of pisses me off. I don’t mean to throw any shade on people who are into expanded universes of beloved pop culture, but I don’t think the people making the movies and the TV shows should lazily rely on that EU work — a great deal of which Lucasfilm/Disney rendered non-canon several years ago — to do the heavy lifting for them. Its existence does not make up for the failure of creators of the movies and TV shows to actually do the work of character-building. There is nothing — apart from what others did in EU products, with that work being driven in large part by fanboys thinking Fett’s armor looked cool — to lay the groundwork for Fett being some unstoppable fighting machine. Especially after a blind Han Solo dumped his Wilhelm-screaming ass into the Sarlacc pit where, for at least some period of time, he was busy being digested and couldn’t really hone his kung-fu skills. The guy who kicked so much ass in that last “Mandalorian” episode would NEVER have been as owned as thoroughly as he was in “Jedi.”
Oh, and as a ship, Slave I sucks. I am beyond pissed that they blew up the Razor Crest and now the Mandalorian has to fly around in Fett’s sideways-ass jalopy. Jesus.
Thank you. I will be taking no questions.
Just one more thing
Caught a “Columbo” on Saturday night after “Mank.” It was the season four opener, “Exercise in Fatality.” The murderer of the week was Robert Conrad, who played a fitness mogul who offs the owner of one of his health club franchisees who realizes he’s being bilked.
It’s a fantastic episode, with the only thing harming it being the common problem of NBC demanding that it be stretched to 90 minutes (two hours with commercials) which leads to a lot of the dead time and filler that hamper a lot of the other longer episodes. This episode makes up for it, however, with some great moments.
Conrad, as the fitness mogul, Milo Janus, is particularly odious. A lot of the murderers on “Columbo” have at least a narrow sympathetic streak. They’re pushed too far or are having emotional reactions or something. Not Janus. He’s pushed, sure, but he deserves to be pushed because he’s crooked. And his killing, unlike so many “Columbo” killings which are almost genteel — poisonings, electrocutions, single gunshots — is rather brutal. It makes it all the more appropriate later when, in a turn you NEVER see in a “Columbo” episode, the good Lieutenant is legitimately angry at his suspect and lashes out at him with something approaching rage. If anything Columbo usually comes to empathize with the killer on at least some level. Doing his duty and arresting them, yes, but usually understanding why they did what they did. Not here. When he tells Janus that he’s gonna hang, you can tell that he hopes Janus will, actually, hang.
There are also two “The Rockford Files” connections here that take this episode up a notch. First there’s a scene early in the episode where Columbo finds Janus swimming in the ocean. The beach were the scene was filmed was the same Malibu beach — right in front of the restaurant — where Rockford’s trailer is parked. “The Rockford Files” debuted as a series two days before this episode of “Columbo” aired. Makes me wonder if they didn’t just keep the same crew out there for both.
Helllllloooo, Gretchen Corbett. Best known as Beth Davenport, Jim Rockford’s attorney and occasional love interest on “The Rockford Files.” Here she played Janus’ secretary/girlfriend, whose appearance at Janus’ front door when Columbo came knocking threw both the Lieutenant and viewers off balance. At least this viewer.
Why yes, I will have that drink.
Have a great day, everyone. And remember, we got a great sale going on: