Cup of Coffee: November 24, 2021

Wander Franco is now a rich man. The alt-right suffers a courtroom loss but the mission lives on. Also: Dylan, Will Smith, cancel culture, and even MORE Vonnegut

Good morning! And welcome to Free Wednesday!

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I’m doing Free Wednesday instead of Thursday because there won’t be full newsletters tomorrow or Friday. I will send out a little how-do-you-do missive each morning so there’s a place for folks to gab and commiserate and stuff. And, hey, if some news happens that I’m not covering, you’ll have a place to chat about all of that as well.

But there is a newsletter today, so let’s get to it, shall we?

Today: Wander Franco inked a long-term deal, the Cardinals made a less-than-flashy but important overnight signing, the White Sox made a signing that has made Craig Kimbrel even more redundant than he already was, the MLB and the MLBPA made a change to the offseason calendar which could prove to be significant over the next six days, and a former Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year has made his way to Baseball Valhalla.

In Other Stuff, some proponents of political violence were slapped with a big jury verdict yesterday but their mission lives on, a retailer’s decision may have an outsized impact on the 2022 midterm elections, Bob Dylan and Will Smith stay on-brand, Cancel Culture continues to not, actually, be a thing, and for the second day in a row I review something new about Kurt Vonnegut. Yesterday it was a book. Today it’s a documentary. And so it goes.

The Daily Briefing

Rays lock up Wander Franco for 12 years and as much as $223 million

The Tampa Bay Rays and shortstop Wander Franco have agreed to a 12-year contract extension that guarantees him around $185 million and could be worth a maximum of $223 million. Holy moly.

Franco, 20, has played 70 games at the big league level. The previous record contract for a player with less than one full year of service time was for Ronald Acuña Jr. who signed an eight-year, $100 million deal with Atlanta in 2019 at the age of 21.

Franco wasn't set to become arbitration eligible until 2024 and couldn't become a free agent until 2027. That, however, is the case under the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires next week. Major League Baseball has made a proposal for the next CBA which would allowed all players to become free agents at the age of 29 and a half. That would benefit a lot of guys but would be super harmful to young superstars like Franco. Such a proposal is not likely to be accepted by the players, but there is nonetheless a lot of uncertainty about how things will work, and that sort of uncertainty was likely part of Franco’s calculus here. Not that one needs a super high-level of calculus to say yes to a nearly quarter of a billion dollar contract. This is life-changing money for a very, very young man who did not grow up wealthy.

I know what a lot of you are thinking. You’re thinking that it would not be hard to imagine a player of Franco’s caliber, age, and promise eschewing this deal and making significantly more money than that via some huge arbitration awards once eligible followed by a long-term deal half again or maybe even twice again as big as this. And you’re not wrong. The uncertain CBA landscape notwithstanding, there is a distinct possibility that Franco could beat this package and beat it by a lot by the time things are all said and done. But it’s also the case that there are also no guarantees in life and waiting three years for any significant payday at all — the Rays could’ve just renew him for peanuts until then if they wanted to — and six years for his big, big one is a very long time to wait.

Intellectually one can say that Franco left money on the table. Intellectually one can say that the Rays have used their leverage — which is now greater that it will ever be — to underpay him. But it’s also the case that Franco could break a hamate bone next spring, lose his tremendous bat speed, and watch his production and earning capacity diminish precipitously. It’s also the case that the CBA currently being negotiated and the one after that, each of which would have a say over any contract he might’ve one day gotten, could do damage to his earning potential as well. Which is to say that those intellectual considerations I mentioned above are valid to a degree, but they also do not account for everything at play here. Or, for that matter, how human beings work and how they process risk and the prospect of getting or losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

If there’s anything disappointing here it’s, again, a very intellectual sort of disappointment which can be directed at a system that favors teams to the degree they are favored early on in a players’ career. That’s an interesting conversation to have, of course, and we have it around here fairly often. But I’m not gonna wring my hands too much over how that’s working in Wander Franco’s case, because the guy just obtained a guarantee of generational wealth at 20 damn years old and now all he has to do for the next couple of decades is think about all of the ways he can do damage to baseballs.

That’s not a bad thing. That’s a very good thing.

Cardinals sign Steven Matz

The St. Louis Cardinals have signed free agent starter Steven Matz to a four-year, $44 million deal. Incentives could push that figure up another $4 million.

Matz has never been spectacular, but he is reliable and durable, and if the past postseason has shown us anything it’s that there’s a lot of value in reliable and durable starting pitching. He’s also pretty well-suited to this Cardinals team as he’s around the strike zone a lot and, though his peripherals are not dominating, he employs a sinker that induces a lot of contact which is tailor-made for the Cardinals elite infield defense.

My early morning social media scrolling presented me with a lot of Cardinals fans who are pissed that this is not the big splash signing of local boy Max Scherzer or what have you. But Matz is nice addition, the sort of which may not turn heads now, but which may very well cause people to look back next summer and say “that was an important move.”

White Sox close to signing Kendall Graveman

The Chicago White Sox have signed reliever Kendall Graveman. The deal is believed to be worth $24 million over three years.

Graveman, 30, is coming off a fantastic season during which he split time between the Mariners and Astros. He posted a 1.77 ERA in 2021, with a 61/20 K/BB ratio over 56 innings.

The White Sox currently have Liam Hendriks as their closer and Craig Kimbrel is hanging around. There was already talk of trading Kimbrel, but the signing of Graveman is likely to kick that up a few notches.

The non-tender deadline moved up a few days

Ken Rosenthal reported yesterday that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA have agreed to move the non-tender deadline — the date on which players eligible for arbitration find out if they will be going through the arbitration process with their current teams or if, alternatively, they will be non-tendered and made free agents — from December 2 to November 30.

The reason for the move is the impending expiration of the CBA at midnight on December 1, which is expected to lead to a lockout on December 2. If the date stayed where it was, the scores of arbitration-eligible players would be in limbo for weeks or possibly months until the labor talks result in a new CBA. Now non-tendered players will know that they’re free agents and will have a couple of days to sign elsewhere before the lockout. At the very least they’ll be able to begin to plan for their next move.

It’s not a lot, I don’t suppose, but it’s something of a suggestion that the league and the union are communicating somewhat productively at the moment.

Speaking of before-the-lockout signings

There have been a number of multi-year free agent deals signed so far. Particularly with pitchers. Most of them appear to be at premiums over and above what the people who project such deals ahead of time predicted. What’s more, given how strongly Rob Manfred has telegraphed a lockout and the moving of that non-tender deadline, there will probably be a number of signings between now and December 2 as teams look to get the jump on 2022 planning for fear of having little or no time to do it come spring when there may not be much time. Players, for their part, are incentivized to look for some security over the winter.

I can’t help but wonder if all of this early activity is gonna be bad for MLB and the owners’ positions in CBA negotiations.

For one thing, if you’re on a spending binge, your claims of being financially strapped are even more ridiculous than they usually are. Far more significantly, though: if more players are signed and thus aren’t as worried about an abbreviated hot stove season and a mad scramble for deals next spring, doesn’t that reduce the leverage of a lockout?

The old ballgame

My Left of Baseball podcast partner Tova Wang spotted this on the Metro in Washington D.C.:

I’m taken with how big an emphasis all the casinos place on the “first bet’s free!” angle in the promotions I’ve seen. It puts me in mind of how other industries which are premised on an addicted clientele have historically operated. Tobacco companies handing out cigarettes at state fairs and NASCAR races back in the day. Drug dealers giving out that first taste for free. The strategy works.

And yes, I am aware of the irony of me writing about this on a day when I’m giving a free taste of the newsletter to unpaid subscribers. In my defense, unlike with gambling and hard drugs, reading this newsletter does not put you at the risk of addiction, bankruptcy, and death.

Or does it?

Bill Virdon: 1931-2021

Bill Virdon, who won the 1955 National League Rookie of the Year Award and who would later be named Manager of the Year twice, has died at the age of 90, the Pittsburgh Pirates announced yesterday.

Virdon was an outfielder who came up in the St. Louis Cardinals system. In his rookie season in 1955 he hit .281/.322/.433 with 17 homers and 68 RBI. He was traded to the Pirates following the 1956 season and would play for the rest of his career in Pittsburgh. He’d win a World Series ring with the Buccos in 1960 and won a Gold Glove Award in their outfield in 1962. He played 12 seasons in all, retiring following the 1965 season to become a minor league manager and then a big league coach. Fun fact: while he was on the Pirates’ coaching staff in 1968 he was activated as a player and inserted into a handful of games due to several players being absent due to military service.

Virdon remained on the Pirates’ staff through the 1971 season when their manager and Virdon’s mentor, Danny Murtaugh, retired due to health problems, at which point Virdon was elevated to the top job. In that role he led the Pirates to the 1972 NL East division title but the team stumbled in 1973 following the death of Roberto Clemente and a number of other injuries and misfortunes. In 1974 he moved on to the Yankees, where he won the Sporting News AL Manager of the Year Award. He was fired by George Steinbrenner midway through the 1975 season, however, when Billy Martin became available, beginning a decade and a half's worth of managerial drama in New York. Virdon was not unemployed for long, however, as Yankees executive Tal Smith was hired by the Houston Astros in early August of that season and hired Virdon to take over that clubhouse as soon as he was cut loose.

Virdon managed the Astros longer than he managed any other team — and managed the Astros longer than any other man has — winning the NL Manager of the Year Award in 1980 while leading Houston to the NL West title. He remains the winningest manager in franchise history with 544 wins. He’d end his managerial career in 1984 after two campaigns with the Montreal Expos. Overall, he finished had a record of 995-921 in 13 seasons. He’d return to the Pirates, Cardinals, and Astros to coach on various occasions and would hold minor league positions in the Pirates organization as well. He retired for good in 2002.

Rest in Peace Bill Virdon.

Other Stuff

Organizers of Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally liable for millions

Yesterday jurors found the main organizers of the 2017 right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — branded the “Unite the Right” rally — liable for injuries to counter-protesters, awarding the plaintiffs more than $25 million in damages.

The theory of the case was conspiracy, with the organizers being held responsible, primarily, for the car attack by an Ohio man named James Fields that killed 32 year-old Heather Heyer and injured many others. The defendants, which included Richard Spencer and multiple other former leading lights of the alt-right movement, claimed that they had nothing to do with the car attack, but under civil conspiracy laws defendants are on the hook if they all shared an objective, if they put the events which led to the harm into motion, and if the harm which resulted was foreseeable.

This paragraph from the New York Times’ story about the case pleased me:

The four-week trial, long delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, underscored how much the rally organizers and their groups were already sidelined, squabbling among themselves and financially strapped in the wake of the violent debacle in Charlottesville. Richard Spencer, the most high-profile leader of the alt-right at that time, who defended himself during the trial, described the case in 2020 as “financially crippling.” Seven defendants ignored the proceedings and will be dealt with separately by the court.

But it only pleased me briefly. Because while the defendants here — Spencer and the alt-right types who burst onto the scene in the wake of the election of Donald Trump in 2016 — have been sidelined and, presumably, will soon be bankrupt, their movement has been taken up by many others.

Indeed, whatever one wants to label that movement, and whichever people are specifically involved, it’s a movement that is best-defined as the advancement of right-wing extremism via the use and promotion of political violence. That project is still ascendent. Only now, instead of some randos from once-obscure message boards at the vanguard, the movement is being led by political candidates, supported by sitting members of Congress, and with a former, and potentially future, President of the United States presiding over it approvingly.

I’m glad the organizers of the Charlottesville rally are being held accountable for what they did, but given what currently passes for acceptable political discourse and behavior in the Republican Party as of 2021, it’s a symbolic victory at best. Indeed, if anything, American fascism has gained greater purchase since 2017, not less.

A Dollar Twenty-Five Tree

Here’s a thing that has nothing to do with fascism but which I predict will end up enabling it by getting a lot of Republicans elected:

For 35 years, the discount chain Dollar Tree committed to selling almost everything for $1. Time has come to pass the buck: Prices for most items will increase to $1.25 . . . Dollar Tree's rivals have been veering away from strict $1 prices — or even $5, in the case of Five Below. Now, the final stickler is conceding. Dollar Tree plans to roll out higher prices to all stores by early 2022.

I guarantee you that Dollar Tree raising prices will become a huge part of the 2022 midterm election, with Republicans beating it into the ground as a symbol of everything that’s wrong in an America currently run by a Democratic president and a Democratically-controlled Congress.

That message will understandably resonate with a certain number of people for whom a quarter here and there adds up to a lot, but it’ll be picked up in a far more major way by the media because it’s a simple one which will cause it to be a major talking point and motivating factor even for a huge number of people whom it does not, actually, affect all that much.

Indeed, this was the sort of thing upon which the final push of the conservative revolution was based. Making intellectual or macro-level policy arguments in the 1960s and much of the 1970s only got conservatives so far. What truly put them over was the inflation and general economic malaise of the Carter years which convinced the masses to adopt the same me-first stance that motivated the elites of the movement.

To be sure, as was the case in 1980, there are currently very real economic problems in the system which are putting a great deal of economic pressure on a great many people. Dollar Tree raising its prices amidst widespread inflation — a complicated process without a lot of easy answers — is not anywhere near the top of the list of those problems, however. It’s certainly way farther down the list than the corporate and political dynamics which allow the compensation of Dollar Tree’s CEO to be around $11.3 million a year and the company’s median worker is a part-timer who earned $15,816 in 2020 with no benefits and a social and economic safety net that is tattered at best.

But, as was the case in 1980, most of the problems which will be cited by politicians running against sitting Democrats will be the superficial ones, not those substantive ones. And as was the case after 1980, the Republicans who get elected beating the drum over the superficial things will not do anything to address the substantive ones but will, instead, pursue the regressive, violent, and anti-democratic priorities which demonstrably matter to them most.

The Most Bob Dylan thing ever

This 100% tracks. He is such a weird dude.

The Most Will Smith thing ever

Will Smith has a memoir coming out and in it he, as he has done a lot over the years, shares a bit more than any of us really wanna know. Like this bit about how he behaved after his first-ever girlfriend cheated on him:

“Up until this point in my life, I had only had sex with one woman other than Melanie. But over the next few months, I went full ghetto hyena. I had sex with so many women, and it was so constitutionally disagreeable to the core of my being, that I developed a psychosomatic reaction to having an orgasm. It would literally make me gag and sometimes even vomit”

This is the guy who had the nerve to claim that the girls of the world ain't nothin’ but trouble? Please.

Great Moments in Cancel Culture

Both Louis CK and Dave Chappelle were nominated for Grammys yesterday. In addition to be recognized as standouts in their field by the elite institutions which preside over it, they also continue to rake in money at sold-out shows.

But seriously, tell me about how “cancelled” they are.

“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time”

Since I reviewed the latest book about Kurt Vonnegut yesterday morning I figured I’d watch the just-released documentary about Vonnegut last night. It’s called “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.” It’s truly enjoyable and at times moving viewing which anyone who considers themselves a fan of Vonnegut’s should see.1

The movie is by director Robert Weide, best known as one of the original creative forces behind “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Weide was, like a lot of high schoolers, a huge fan of Vonnegut’s. When he was 23, and had just one minor film under his belt, he wrote Vonnegut and audaciously proposed to do a documentary about the writer. Vonnegut, quite surprisingly, said yes and over the course of the next 25 years the two worked on the project but, more significantly, developed a close friendship. Over time work — including their collaboration on the film adaptation of “Mother Night,” and schedules and living on different coasts caused the documentary project to lull. But, if anything, the friendship grew stronger. The documentary has just been finished now, nearly 40 years after that first query letter and 14 years after Vonnegut’s death.

It was probably best for it to have waited this long actually, because without that distance I doubt Weide would’ve gotten as weird with it as he did. And weird does it some good.

Not that it’s that weird. A good chunk of it — the stuff filmed while Vonnegut was still alive — is straightforward, traditional documentary filmmaking, like something you might see on PBS. Through this, archive footage of Vonnegut speeches and talk show appearances, and interviews with his kids and some others, you get the basic facts of his life. The newer aspects — some creative visual effects, walks through earlier drafts of Slaughterhouse-Five and his other books, and some basic reflection by Weide and his editors allowed by the virtue of the passing of time — take things in some different, mildly postmodern directions that are pretty pleasing. Particularly pleasing is how Weide, in every photo of Vonnegut in which he is holding a cigarette, inserted some subtle animated smoke coming of the lit end. There are a lot of ways to bring the dead back to life in a documentary, but I found that one to be rather satisfying and appropriate for its subject.

The film is also, at times, very sad. But it’s an appropriate sadness which reflects Vonnegut’s personal sadness and, at times, a despair which permeated so much of his work.

When you talk with people about Vonnegut they mention his humor, which was plain to see, of course. They also mention his style, be it his postmodernism or his directness or his irreverence, usually with citation to his doodles in Breakfast of Champions and his funny speeches and, hoo-boy, wasn’t that Vonnegut a pip! So much of his humor, however, was wielded in self-defense at the horrors of the world. So much of his irreverence was born of his loss of faith in the sorts of institutions we are taught to revere. In reading Vonnegut’s work I’ve always thought far more about that sadness than the laughter which Vonnegut inspired in its face. Because of this there can’t help but be sadness in such a project if it’s to be handled properly, and I think Weide captures that pretty well here.

It’s by no means a masterpiece of a documentary. For a lot of understandable and, I’d say, well-earned reasons, Weide inserts his own story into the proceedings many times, with some not-so-subtle nods to the manner in which Vonnegut would insert himself as a character into his books like Breakfast of Champions and Timequake. But even if it’s understandable and earned, it took me out of the story on a few occasions. I can’t help but think this two-hour plus documentary might’ve been a better one at an hour and a half and that it might not have been too hard to find the right bits to cut.

That’s really just a quibble, though. Overall I thought “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” was time well spent.

Have a great Thanksgiving weekend, everyone.

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It’s available for rental on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and a number of other services. It may be in some select theaters still as well. I ended up paying $6.99 for it. Which, hey, fair.