Cup of Coffee: January 13, 2022
Smoke along with the common people. Smoke along and it might just get you through.
Good morning! And welcome to Free Thursday!
As mentioned yesterday, Major League Baseball and the Players’ Union will sit back down to negotiate today. Late today you will, almost certainly, see some tweets from the national baseball press about how all of that’s going. As is almost always the case, those tweets will mostly cast the MLB proposal as reasonable and the players as unreasonable. This is because, with very few exceptions, the national baseball press is in the bag for Rob Manfred and the owners, who leak to them and spin them constantly.
How to know if what you’re being told is accurate? Just remember this little ditty:
Hope that helps!
In today’s newsletter Jon Lester hangs it up, we have another number retirement, a team made an announcement of bobblehead nights for [insert players here], we discuss the conflicts of interest which face sports media in the age of gambling, and we talk about how the leagues are trying — but flailing and, I suspect, failing — to make sports fans out of Gen-Z.
In Other Stuff I have not one but two entries in our ongoing Dystopia Watch series, a major news organization thinks objective truth is for the birds, some of you have a chance to see the best movie ever on the big screen and I suggest you take it, we say goodbye to a legend, and some of you 20-somethings are smoking along with the common people even though they’re laughing at you.
The Daily Briefing
Jon Lester is retiring
Jon Lester, a three-time World Series champion and a five-time All-Star, has announced his retirement after a stellar 16-year career.
Lester, who just turned 38, said that his body just isn't up for the rigors of a major league season anymore:
“It's kind of run its course. It's getting harder for me physically. The little things that come up throughout the year turned into bigger things that hinder your performance. I'd like to think I'm a halfway decent self-evaluator. I don't want someone else telling me I can't do this anymore. I want to be able to hand my jersey over and say, 'Thank you, it's been fun.' That's probably the biggest deciding factor.”
It’s certainly not bad going out on one’s own terms.
Lester won World Series rings with the Red Sox in 2007 and 2013 and picked up a third as the ace of the Chicago Cubs’ rotation in 2016. Always a big game pitcher, Lester posted a 2.51 ERA in 26 postseason games and was the co-MVP of the 2016 NLCS.
For his career the lefty won an even 200 games against 117 losses, posted an ERA of 3.66 (ERA+ 117) and struck out 2,488 batters in 2,740 innings, relying heavily on a wicked cutter. Always durable, Lester started 30 or more games in 12 of his 16 seasons (it would’ve likely been 13 of 16 but for the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign). He led the National league in wins in 2018 and led the league in winning percentage in 2016.
Oh yeah, and he beat cancer.
What a damn career. Happy trails, Jon Lester.
Twins to retire Jim Kaat’s number
Yesterday it was Keith Hernandez and the Mets. Today it’s Jim Kaat and the Twins: the club is going to retire Kaat’s number 36.
Kaat, who was recently elected to the Hall of Fame and will be inducted this summer, joins Harmon Killebrew (3), Rod Carew (29), Tony Oliva (6), Kent Hrbek (14), Kirby Puckett (34), Bert Blyleven (28), Tom Kelly (10) and Joe Mauer (7) on the list of retired Twinkies numbers. Which means that, unlike some teams, the Twins don’t have an “only retire Hall of Famers’ numbers” policy. Which, in turn, means that they didn’t consider retiring Kaat’s until he was inducted for whatever reason. Guess you’ll have to ask them about it. Personally, I’m for liberal number retirement policies and think the “Hall of Famers only” rules are stupid, so I’m not gonna get too worked up about it either way.
Kaat’s number will be retired during a pregame ceremony at Target Field on July 16. Be there or be square. Or, I suppose, watch it on TV or read about it the next day. By then I’ll have forgotten this was happening and will report it again like it’s news.
The continued self-owns of the lockout
The Milwaukee Brewers sent out a press release yesterday with a list of 2022 promotional events. Check out all of the exiting bobbleheads they’re giving away!
As I said when MLB scrubbed all of the player names from the team websites, there is absolutely no reason pursuant to labor law why the league cannot mention the names of active baseball players. The guys whose bobbleheads they are giving away are all under contract. They will be playing for the club again once the season resumes. Those bobbleheads have almost certainly been ordered and are either manufactured already or are in the process of being manufactured. So why not say who the players are? Strikes me as something of a dick move for fans to promote and sell tickets to games based on this without telling fans whose bobbleheads they’ll get.
The only thing this accomplishes — apart from being petty — is to underscore just how essential and central to the game of baseball the players are, which serves to undercut the owners’ position with respect to the lockout by, you know, reminding fans of what they’re being deprived of by dint of the owners’ actions.
Anyway, I’d love to meet the brain genius who wrote the memo telling teams that, for the league’s labor strategy to work, they have to pretend that they’re not in the business of employing baseball players to play baseball games. That guy must be truly special.
Sports Media in the Age of Gambling
Brian Mortiz, a journalism professor at St. Bonaventure University, committed some actual journalism of his own earlier this week, writing a feature about where sports media is going in the age of ubiquitous sports gambling. Specifically, where the ethical landmines are for sports reporters and the companies which employ them and what it means for sports coverage as a whole. Which, if you’ve been reading this newsletter for any amount of time, you know is extremely my jam.
The part Moritz leads with — there are specific, reporter-level conflicts of interest everywhere — is one I haven’t talked about all that much in this space. The example he gives is a beat writer covering a practice for a very small conference college basketball team witnessing a key injury. Whereas there would be 50 people who noticed that and tweeted it out at, say, a Duke or Villanova practice, maybe no one else sees it at this small school practice. Can the reporter bet on that game, knowing that he and no one else yet knows a key player will be missing? Is it wrong? The short answer is, yeah, it’s wrong. But as a couple of the people quoted in the article mention, it’s probably not a huge problem and is a fairly unlikely scenario for a lot of reasons.
I’m more interested in the other big piece of it Moritz covers: how gambling is changing the nature of sports coverage. Part of that is about what gets covered and what doesn’t (gambling doesn’t care about human interest stories, they only want the lines, the injuries, and the trends). But a big part of that is also about what readers can actually expect from sports media as far as objectivity and criticism:
As sports media outlets continue to form business relationships with gambling companies – all while gambling companies begin to create and sponsor their own journalism – the same question increasingly will apply to the industry as a whole. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, journalism’s core professional values include acting independently and seeking and reporting the truth.
The author James Michener wrote in 1976 that “one of the happiest relationships in American society is between sports and the media.” In a world where sports reporters are being paid by media outlets that are being paid by gambling companies that are paying the teams and leagues that those reporters cover, this is even more true. And in a sports media landscape where gambling coverage is increasingly incentivized, will fans be able to count on the reporters they trust to deliver the truth?
I guess I’m just old fashioned. I believe that there should be some part of sports reporting that is not beholden to the leagues and teams, either directly or via business relationships, the sort of which are increasing exponentially via gambling sponsorships and partnerships. I want reporters out there willing to tell stories and offer commentary that the leagues and teams may not like. If, however, you work for the league or if your employer has a business relationship with the league, that’s all but out the window these days. If, as will increasingly be the case, you’re working for a gambling company or gambling publication you’re going to be compromised in the same way, and in some different ways on top of it.
As several of the people Mortiz talks to for his article notes, there has always been an element of gambling in sports coverage. But never have the interests of sports leagues, teams, sports gambling, and sports media been so thoroughly aligned. It’s bad for journalism. It’s bad for fans.
Making sports fans out of Gen-Z
There’s a story in the New York Times about the challenges the leagues face in making sports fans out of Gen-Z. The problems: young people today are less likely to play sports than their predecessors, they don’t watch much TV, and their preferred modes of entertaining themselves — on phones and laptops, in non-communal spaces — does not lend itself to the normal modes of sports fan indoctrination.
The solution: eh, no one really knows.
To be sure, the article is chock full of things the leagues are doing, be it paying social media influencers, upping their own online and social media games, and trying to tie in with video games and esports and stuff like that. But there is certainly no one quoted in the story who seems to have a confident response to the dilemma they face. Rather, it all sounds like a brainstorming session people have at a meeting aimed at solving the problem before which everyone is told “there are no bad ideas here, people!”
For baseball’s part, they mention the recruitment of influencers and the growth of its YouTube channel. Of course, there’s also no getting around the fact that baseball is, you know, kinda slow and lame, and to MLB’s credit, they had someone comment on that:
M.L.B. officials acknowledge that they may have to modify how baseball is played if the actual sport is going to appeal to a younger audience used to faster moving entertainment. It continues to experiment in its minor leagues with pitch clocks and limits on defensive shifts to make games shorter and more exciting.
“There’s no denying that there is more competition for entertainment, connectivity and mindshare,” [Chris] Marinak, [MLB’s] strategy officer, said. “We need to tighten and make our product crisper.”
I could go my whole life not hearing someone in baseball, or anywhere else for that matter, talk about “mindshare” again, but yeah, baseball needs to tighten it up.
But again, nothing in the article, apart from maybe the talk about the appeal of esports, which is a pretty big damn deal, seems to suggest that the folks who run sports leagues really have an idea about what to do about kids not liking sports as much as their parents and grandparents did. Indeed, it reads a lot like advertisers back in the 1960s fretting about how they need to reach the “the teenage generation” but not really knowing how to do it.
The good news: the “teenage generation” did not stay unreachable. They eventually grew up and fell into a bunch of monetizable establishment habits like the previous generations did and most of the fretting was for nothing. The bad news: that didn’t happen for every industry. I mean, when was the last time you saw a five-and-dime store or a help wanted ad for a milliner? Every new generation kills some business or product or another because they aren’t really into it anymore.
Maybe some things aren’t meant to last forever. At least on the scale on which they once existed. Maybe professional sports is one of those things.
The cheapest Rolls-Royce on the road starts at around $300K. And sales, my wealthy friends, are up! But it’s not just because we live in a new gilded age in which you lot are now even richer than you were before (though, yeah, that’s a thing). It’s apparently because the ultra wealthy have seen so many people die of COVID that it’s, like, really making ‘em think, man:
Rolls-Royce is experiencing its biggest year of sales ever thanks to the enormous number of deaths the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, according to the company’s own CEO.
Torsten Müller-Otvös told the Financial Times, “Quite a lot of people witnessed people in their community dying from COVID. That makes them think life can be short, and you’d better live now than postpone it to a later date. That also has helped [sales] quite massively.”
See, it’s not all bad news out there people.
I want to make a bunch more jokes here but the fact of the matter is that this is, actually, the sort of pitch that sellers of ultra-luxury goods have always made. It’s basically a one-two punch of “you EARNED everything you have and you DESERVE to treat yourself” and “life is short, man.” Like me you’ll likely be turned away if you linger too long looking at listings for eight-figure houses at the Sotheby’s real estate office or waste too much of the time of a the representative from Blohm+Voss mega yachts, but if you trick them into taking you seriously for a few moments, that will 100% be their pitch.
It’s not the worst pitch I don’t suppose. I mean, do you really want to go to your grave without having purchased a car with a bespoke paint job, a self-righting wheel center that ensures the “RR” logo is never rotated, and a headliner with a fiber-optics hand-woven through a thousand pinholes so as to create the appearance of the nighttime sky? Of course not.
You EARNED that money, old sport. You DESERVE the finer things in life.
Dystopia Watch II
If you ask most people what America is all about, they’re likely to offer platitudes about freedom and shit. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, don’t you know. The actual priorities of America are on display every damn day, however. All you need to do is look.
For example, at a time when millions of Americans are scrambling for COVID tests — especially people who have no choice but to work out of the home interacting with the public — big corporations have bought tons of them up and are giving them to their white collar employees. Many of whom don’t even need ‘em. They’re just perks provided for “peace of mind”:
Google will send full-time employees in the United States free at-home tests that deliver results within minutes and retail for more than $70 each. BlackRock, an investment firm that manages nearly $10 trillion in assets, offers tele-health supervision as employees self-administer rapid tests for international travel. At JPMorgan Chase, bankers, including those at its retail sites, can order at-home rapid tests from an internal company site.
Some companies are using the tests to call their staff back to the office. For others, at-home Covid testing has become the newest wellness benefit, a perk to keep employees healthy and working — even from their couches — while providing peace of mind.
I don’t offer this to slam the companies, really. I mean, they’re rational actors who are subject to incentives and disincentives just like everyone else. There’s a big inefficiency in a couple of markets and, because no one is stopping them, they are simply acting to fill a perceived need. What would actually change this is if the government had authorized and made more rapid tests available to the public rather than letting private industry and its mortal fear of oversupplying or overstocking items handle it all while trying to surf supply and demand waves. Waves which have crashed against the rocks of an ever-unpredictable pandemic.
If the country’s priority was public health in the middle of a pandemic, this would not be an issue. There would be a massive number of tests out there — more than we need — in order to ensure that best health practices were followed as infections spiked. But that’s not our priority. Our priorities are a mélange of the elevation of corporate profits and a culture-driven fetish which requires us to treat the government as the enemy and to be skeptical of its efficacy to solve problems. It’s a fetish which started with and has been mostly driven by conservatives but which has, for nearly three decades now, been wholly embraced by most Democrats in power too, either out of fear or self-interest.
But no matter how into that fetish anyone gets, the fact remains that governments exist for a reason. And a very, very basic reason is to deal with national-scope problems for which the profit motive does not lend itself to anything approaching a solution. You can’t negotiate with a hurricane or a wildfire. You can’t business your way out of the path of an invading army. You can’t arbitrage a deadly pandemic.
When you try, what you get are tech and finance executives who haven’t seen the inside of an office or a grocery store for nearly two years being given COVID tests by the case while millions of teachers, restaurant workers, delivery drivers, retail workers, warehouse workers, public servants and everyone else without employers who care that they get “the newest wellness benefit” suffer.
And yeah, I know that train left the station nearly two years ago, but it’s still worth saying because maybe — doubtfully, but maybe — someone will learn this lesson for the next time it’s needed.
Smoke along with the common people
There was a trend piece in the New York Times yesterday that, if you can get past the urge to throttle everyone quoted in it, is at least moderately interesting. The trend it’s trying to sell: cigarette smoking is back, baby!
The story notes that, for the first time in two decades, cigarette sales increased in 2020. Now, to be sure, increased sales could mean that smoking is, as the story suggests, hot and trendy again, particularly among young people. But it doesn’t have to mean that. Indeed, there are reasons to be super skeptical of that given that the drop in smoking rates over the past couple of decades is primarily a function of young people not taking up smoking, which would make them leading a return to popularity of smoking super unlikely. The increase in cigarette sales could just mean that existing smokers were smoking more. Or maybe prices were jacked way up (I have no idea). Or that, actually, a bunch of stressed out middle age people are smoking more.
But the story doesn’t seem to care so much about those details. It’s far more interested in silly anecdotal stuff like this:
Kat Frey, a 25-year-old copywriter who lives in Brooklyn, picked up the habit last year. “We’re having a very sexy and ethereal 1980s revival, and smoking is part of that,” she said. “A lot of people I know are posting pictures doing it. I’m doing it. It’s having its moment for sure.”
Kat, I don’t mean to be rude or to appeal to authority or anything, but I was alive in the 1980s and I can tell you that there was nothing sexy about that decade and it was perhaps as un-ethereal as anything could possibly be. It was not a decade that was subtle, delicate or particularly hard to capture or define. To the contrary: the 1980s swaggered up to you as crassly as it could and shouted at you about how much its jeans cost. Then it did a line of coke and asked you if you wanted some. If you said no, it said “whatever, loser.” Anyway, I’m glad you found a pack of Parliaments and you now fancy yourself artsy and shit — who amongst us didn’t go through that phase? — but you really need to take a refresher course on what the 1980s were all about.
That’s not even the best damn passage in the piece, though:
A third, darker pandemic effect was a kind of fatalism, an après moi le déluge attitude festered in months of loneliness, as well as constant news of death and disease.
“We all have this flamboyant death wish, if you will,” said Ryan Matera, a 25-year-old agent’s assistant in Los Angeles. “We just look to the north and see fires, and the ground shakes beneath us, and they tell us the waters are rising. So we ask, ‘What the hell is the difference?’”
There’s more to mock there than you can shake a cancer stick at, but the best part has to be the reference to a “death wish.” I’m not saying it’s good point — indeed, the pilot episode of “Mad Men” gleefully mocked a pitch aimed at selling cigarette smoking as death wish-fulfillment, giving that mock-worthy angle to the character it wanted to paint, from the get-go, as an insufferable douche — but it’s definitely great copy.
There’s way more in there. Stuff that had me rolling. Like the bit about how smoking is “cheeky” bad boy behavior and marijuana is passé because “[i]t’s not only legal in many states, but also that thing your nerdy uncle uses to help him sleep.” This, like the anecdotal “evidence” of more young people smoking, doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny even on its own terms, but forget it, they’re rolling.
And by “they” I mean the writer and the handful of people he got to go on-record and reveal themselves to be the sorts of people Jarvis Cocker was singing about in the best dang song ever. Because I’m pretty sure that’s what’s really going on here. The next piece he writes will be about how everyone is renting flats above shops, cutting their hair and getting jobs, playing pool, and pretending they never went to school.
Oh well, maybe one day he’ll get it right.
Truth apparently doesn’t matter
The BBC’s director of editorial policy believes in equal time for misinformation. Via The Guardian:
The BBC opposes so-called “cancel culture” and will actively provide a platform for individuals with contrary viewpoints, according to the man who enforces its editorial standards.
David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy, said the broadcaster should “represent all points of view” and wanted to see a belief in impartiality triumph over identity . . . Jordan said everyone should expect their views to be appropriately represented by the national broadcaster – even if they believe the Earth is flat. “It’s critical to the BBC that we represent all points of view and give them due weight,” he said.
“Flat-earthers are not going to get as much space as people who believe the Earth is round, but very occasionally it might be appropriate to interview a flat-earther. And if a lot of people believed in flat Earth we’d need to address it more.”
Personally, I believe that one of the most important and prestigious news organizations on the planet should not be prioritizing “equal time” for bullshit in the face of objective truth, but maybe I’m just funny that way.
“The Conversation” on the big screen
Given how nuts the infection numbers are right now you should probably think hard about going out anywhere. But if you are looking for a night out, if you are in New York, and if you want to see the best damn movie in the history of movies — my personal opinion anyway — you should head to the Film Forum this weekend where you can see Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” on a big screen in a glorious new 35mm print.
Man, I wish I could be there for that. Someone put on an N95 and give me a report, will ya?
Ronnie Spector: 1943-2022
The legendary Ronnie Spector died yesterday. She was 78.
The group she led, the Ronettes, were the pinnacle of the girl group sound (sorry, Supremes, but they were). They embodied everything that the public expected of girl groups, going back to The Andrews Sisters, but took things several steps farther with their grit and their sex appeal, complete with beehive hair, tight dresses and heavy makeup. But that was all superficial. What really mattered was the sound. And oh my God, was it glorious.
That sound was, it must be noted, in part a product of producer Phil Spector, who made the Ronettes the crown jewel of his record label and the foremost example of his “wall of sound” production. But what Phil Spector contributed to the Ronettes’ stardom was more than overshadowed by the years of physical and psychological torment and career sabotage to which he subjected Ronnie following their 1968 marriage. Her survival of those years is a testament to her strength and her emergence on the other side of them, intact, was nothing short of inspirational. That story is best told in Spector’s 2004 memoir Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness. Definitely give it a read.
Ronnie and her fellow Ronettes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. That induction came over the objections of Phil Spector, which, damn straight they were, because who gives a shit about that sonofabitch anymore?
Rest in peace, Ronnie Spector. And have a great day, everyone.