Cup of Coffee: October 22, 2020

The Rays tie it up at one after the Dodgers' bullpen game strategy fizzles. That, skepticism, empathy, and a couple of super-rich jackass families playing to form.

Good morning! It’s free Thursday! Welcome, window shoppers. What’s it gonna take for me to get you into a brand new Cup of Coffee?

Don’t answer that! Take it for a test drive first and see how this baby handles on the road.

We have a 1-1 Series. Which is good if you’re into competitive Fall Classics. Maybe less-good if you tweet things like this after just one game, though:

I’ll never understand the “I’m clairvoyant” model of sports columnists. The one in which the grizzled sportswriter says bold, unsupported things in the hopes of being able, later, to say “see, I told you!” Are the occasional times one nails such takes worth it for all the times one totally whiffs?

Maybe they were back when each day’s newspaper was immediately repurposed for birdcage lining and no one could immediately pull up all the bad takes with a simple web search, but now it’s just dumb. All the dumber because guys like Plaschke will not, if the Rays win it in six, write a “here is why I was wrong last week” column and own up. Not under any circumstances. He’ll just go on offering wild takes about the Rams or something.

Or maybe he’ll turn on a dime sooner:

What a scam. I’d say that I wish I had his job, but I don’t think I could stay up that late on the regular. It’s much better to have a 7AM-ish deadline than a 1AM-ish deadline.

And That Happened

Rays 6, Dodgers 4: On Tuesday night Kevin Cash stuck with his starter way too long. Last night Dave Roberts had too quick a hook. Each of them should sue the other one for stealing his bit.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification — starter Tony Gonsolin didn’t look sharp — but Roberts cycled through Dylan Floro and Victor González so fast that you didn’t have a chance to update your scorecard, then brought in Dustin May in the middle of an inning. May’s a starter by trade and will be one again next year, but this postseason he’s being used like a Swiss Army knife and it doesn’t seem to be working all that great. Here he gave up a single and a two-run double to the first two batters he faced. In the next inning he gave up a two-run home run. His stuff was flat and he needed to be anywhere but on that mound, but while Floro and González weren’t allowed to break a sweat, Roberts decided that May was good to go long. Go figure.

Maybe it wasn’t nuts. Maybe Roberts was just sort of punting this game so that he didn’t have to use Julio Urías. As it is, now he can now go Urías-Walker Buehler-Clayton Kershaw in the next three games, pretty confident that he’ll have the pitching advantage in each one. Maybe one of those clairvoyant newspaper columnist types will claim that this was by genius design and Roberts playing the long game. Maybe, though, it’s just a matter of damage control and Roberts threw in the towel in the fifth inning as a form for strategic retreat. I suppose there are worst places to be than tied 1-1 with three horses ready to canter into the arena.

As for the Rays, it sure as hell was nice to see Brandon Lowe break out. He hit two homers here, both opposite field shots, and he and Joey Wendle each drove in three. Blake Snell, meanwhile, struck out nine in less than five innings of work and didn’t allow a hit until he gave up a two-run homer to Chris Taylor. The Dodgers threatened to come back with one in the sixth and one more in the eighth, but the Rays relievers, while bending, did not break. It was a pretty good night of getting up off the mat following Tuesday night’s knockout, that’s for sure.

Up next: an off day today, followed by Game 3 on Friday night featuring two starters on an extra day’s rest: Buehler and Charlie Morton.

Morton last faced the Dodgers when he pitched the final four innings for the Astros in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. He came into that game with a five-run cushion thanks to his teammates knowing what pitches Yu Darvish was going to throw. He won’t have the same advantage here.

The Daily Briefing

“The Cubs are a decimated organization”

Over at The Athletic, Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma write about the state of the Chicago Cubs. And the state is not good.

The Cubs have laid off over 100 employees — 47 of them in baseball operations — touching on all departments of the organization. According to Mooney and Sharma, “[t]he Cubs are losing valuable manpower, experience and institutional knowledge, according to multiple sources who detailed the team’s downsizing.” The personnel changes are characterized as “demoralizing.”

There is, of course, much in the story about how the pandemic has been disastrous for the game but, to their credit, Mooney and Sharma push back on the notion that these sorts of cuts were inevitable or that the team’s losses were unendurable without them. They cite the Cubs’ vast array of ancillary businesses and investments, the vast wealth of the team’s owners, and the massive appreciation in franchise value they have realized over the years. The Ricketts family is worth billions. If George Bailey could save the Building and Loan with Mama Dollar and Papa Dollar in the depths of the Great Depression without even putting Uncle Billy on Furlough, the Ricketts clan could ride this out without laying off the world.

The Ricketts family has also bought up every inch of available real estate around Wrigley Field and have turned it into, basically, a Cubs theme park and gave money to campaigns to oust local alderman who wouldn’t readily bend over to give the Cubs whatever approvals they needed for all that development. How much did that real estate and political spending spree cut into current cash flow? How much of that spending is, likewise, going to bring the Cubs owners far, far more in future revenues than the current pandemic losses amount to?

Even if it’d be a bit before that sweet real estate money started to flow in earnest, the Cubs could’ve kept some relatively low-paid but apparently essential employees on the payroll. They’ve simply chosen not to. The Ricketts family got their World Series and got the fans off their back. They got their ballpark renovations and their mini-real estate empire. Why would they make even the smallest sacrifice to save the jobs of some people making five-figures? What’s in it for them?

Well, we have a pretty good idea of what’s not in it for them. A profile of co-owner Todd Ricketts appeared in The New Yorker this week, focusing on his political interests. Among the “highlights”:

A friend of Ricketts’s told me that he has praised Augusto Pinochet, who in 1973 overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende, in Chile. The friend told me that Ricketts was dismissive of Pinochet’s ruthlessness. “People die every day,” Ricketts had told the friend.

What’s in it for them? It sure as hell ain’t empathy.

Be mindful of where you get your baseball news

Most fans don’t pay super close attention to baseball media. The stuff about which reporters break which stories and why and who their sources seem to be and all of that. It’s a topic I’ve been fascinated with for years, however. I pay attention to it because if you know who’s talking to whom you understand a hell of a lot more about what goes on in baseball than if you take it all at face value.

For example, when Reporter X has a story about a free agent fielding multiple offers, and you know that Reporter X is close to the player’s agent, you have reason to be skeptical of the report as something planted by the agent in order to make his client seem more in demand. Likewise, when a big negative story about Major League Baseball comes out and, that night, a notable national reporter with close ties to Rob Manfred and the league office has pushback on it, you can reasonably surmise that the league is engaging in damage control, thereby giving you reason for skepticism.

The point: by looking at more than just what you’re being told, you can learn more about what you’re being told.

We got a strong example of this yesterday, thanks to Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News, who reported on the sale of the Mets to billionaire Steve Cohen. The basics of the story are straightforward: MLB’s ownership committee voted 7-1 to approve Cohen’s purchase of the Mets. Now it will go on to the full ownership group for a vote. The owners are expected to approve Cohen easily.

That one no-vote? White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Which, as Thosar walks us through, explains a hell of a lot of odd reporting about Cohen’s bid for the Mets of late.

The short version: Reinsdorf was on record opposing Cohen back when he wanted to buy the Dodgers in 2013. Also, Reinsdorf and Alex Rodriguez are close, going back to around that same time and before. Meanwhile, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale is basically the only reporter out there running stories suggesting that Cohen’s bid has problems this time around. One of those stories was about a specious report about “A-Rod being the clear front-runner for the Mets.” Another even more specious Nightengale story came out yesterday alleging that Cohen’s bid could, possibly, be upended by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The math ain’t hard: Jerry Reinsdorf is feeding Nightengale anti-Cohen talking points, some with his buddy A-Rod playing a part, which adds a sheen of credibility, and Nightengale is, too credulously, running with them. Which, hey, good for Nightengale. A man’s gotta eat, and if his editors don’t mind his sourcing being so transparent and agenda-driven, why should we care? But it certainly tells a lot more about the power dynamics in Major League Baseball.

Particularly about how Reinsdorf continues to oppose major moves that are favored by Rob Manfred, such as approving owners he wants to see in place. When you recall that Reinsdorf was part of a small and ultimately unsuccessful block of owners opposing Manfred’s ascension to the Commissioner’s office six years ago, well, you can see where the cracks exist in the foundation of MLB power.

We see stuff like that all the time — once you start paying attention to the patterns they’re hard to ignore — but rarely do you see other reporters pointing them out so clearly in published pieces. Normally people in the industry roll their eyes at such things and, at most, talk about who’s sourcing whom behind their backs.

In related news, Nightengale was the guy last week putting the most heat behind the “Tony La Russa could be the next White Sox manager” rebop. Wonder if he’s heard something from someone important.

Game 1 ratings were the lowest of all time

I offer this little news item because a lot of people care about such things, but before I give you the details, know this: you do not have to care about baseball’s TV ratings.

I know we are conditioned to care about them. I know that talk radio hosts and newspaper columnists who generally do not understand baseball or the business of baseball very well like to use TV ratings in order to pit baseball up against football in an effort to argue that baseball is in its death throes. I also know that a lot of people who actually do know baseball and the business of baseball make the argument that healthy TV ratings are “good for the sport” because it drives revenue, strong revenue is good for the game, and thus we should all care about TV ratings too.

The former argument can be dismissed as an apples/oranges comparison. Baseball is a local game in ways that football is not, with 30 separate local TV rights deals and hundreds and hundreds of games. Unlike football, national broadcasts are not the alpha and omega as far as fan interest proxies go. Indeed, they’re actually pretty poor proxies. By the time the World Series comes around 28 of the 30 fan bases have little interest in what’s going on. Baseball fans view things through a prism of local interest, not national interest, they’ve had their fill of their own local team and now that the local nine is out of it, they’re getting on with their winter. The upshot: World Series ratings do not tell you a lot about overall enthusiasm for baseball.

As for the latter argument, did you ever notice that, even as baseball ratings go down, generally, over time, TV revenues go up? That the networks which carry Major League Baseball on a national level — Fox, TBS, and ESPN — keep falling all over themselves to top their last broadcast rights payout? Sure, I’d love it if everyone was watching the World Series — just like I’d like everyone to listen to James — but MLB is not experiencing much if any bad things due to lower World Series ratings, least of all a financial hit that business-of-baseball types worry about.

With that out of the way, let us note that the Dodgers’ victory over the Rays in Game 1 drew a record-low 5.1 rating and 11 share, making it the lowest-rated World Series game ever. The previous low had been set the only other time the Rays were in the World Series, in 2008, when they lost 5-4 to the Phillies in Game 3. The start of that game, by the way, was delayed by rain for 91 minutes and didn’t get going until after 10PM Eastern and it lasted until almost 2AM so, yeah, Tuesday night’s ratings were not so hot.

But, for reasons stated, I really don’t give a flying fart about it, and neither should you.

The Rise and Fall of Ken Caminiti

Yesterday I learned of the existence of a new documentary podcast from minor league play-by-play guy Joe Vasile. It’s called “Secondary Lead” and it’s about the rise and tragic fall of former Astros and Padres great, Ken Caminiti. Which, apparently, I had a tiny part in inspiring. From Joe:

A few years ago you tweeted something about Ken Caminiti which sent me down a rabbit hole of reading articles about him online. I wanted to learn more and looked for a book to read or a 30 for 30 but there was nothing. In my crazy arrogance I thought I would be the one to produce something.

I don’t have the foggiest notion of what I tweeted that sent Joe on down that rabbit hole, but down it he went, and the first episode of “Secondary Lead” dropped on Tuesday. That’s the Apple link, by the way. Other platforms can be found here, and you can follow the podcast on Twitter, Facebook, or at its own website.

What to expect from “Secondary Lead’s” first season?

The Rise and Fall of Ken Caminiti is a detailed look at the tragic narrative of Ken Caminiti that has never been done before. His story is more than a baseball story, but a tale of drug addiction, expectations of masculinity and how we deal with these topics as a society. Through it all we tell an important story that has been somewhat forgotten, and remember an extraordinary life.

There’s no doubt going to be a lot in this podcast which Major League Baseball would prefer people not remember or, in some cases, even find out about in the first place. About drugs, yes. But also about the baseball culture which, in Caminiti’s time, most definitely turned a blind eye toward it all and, in many instances, actively encouraged bad and destructive behavior. Until, in fact, Caminiti himself went public with it back in 2002.

Definitely some must-listen material.

Other Stuff

The Amazing Randi: 1928-2020

The magician and skeptic James Randi — also known as “The Amazing Randi” — has died at the age 92. I’m talking about him this morning because, as I’ll get to toward the end, Randi was pretty important to me.

Randi began his career as a professional magician and escape artist in the 1940s. His thing, going back even before that, when he wrote tongue-in-cheek horoscopes for a Canadian newspaper as a very young man, was that he freely admitted that what he was doing were tricks. They were not supernatural or magical in any way. He might not tell you how he did them, but he never claimed that his tricks were “magic” as most people understand that term. This approach, which is common among magicians now, was not so common then. It would also lead to his greater fame later.

Randi was a professional magician on and off for most of his life, but his more important and longest lasting work was the investigation and exposing of fraudsters and bullshit artists. Phony faith healers. People who made claims of — and thus made money off of — the paranormal, the occult, and the supernatural, all of which he called "woo-woo.” Randi devoted his life to proving that they were bogus and proving that the only thing exceptional about them was their ability to separate a mark from their money. Unlike them, Randi had sympathy for the marks and sought to stick it to the scammers.

He gained his greatest fame when, in 1972, he publicly challenged the claims of the self-proclaimed psychic and master of psychokinesis, Uri Geller, who Randi claimed to be a charlatan and a fraud. Randi’s campaign against Geller and other frauds led to him being the defendant in a lot of lawsuits. It also led to the creation of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which sponsored the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. That challenge offered a prize of that amount to anyone who could demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event under objective test conditions. Over 1,000 people tried it. They all failed, and he never paid a dime. He also never paid a dime to Uri Geller or anyone else who sued him. The truth is a hell of a defense and charlatans and frauds make for bad plaintiffs.

Randi was on TV — Carson, Oprah, you name it — a zillion times. He won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1986. He would write for and sit on the board of “Skeptic” magazine, which still exists today. At age 81 Randi publicly announced he was gay. In 2013 he married his long time partner, the Venezuelan-born artist, Deyvi Peña, after Peña served a brief sentence under house arrest for immigration charges arising out of his efforts to avoid persecution back in Venezuela for being gay. Peña survives Randi.

I first saw Randi on an episode of “Happy Days” when I was a little kid. He played his magician self, basically, in an episode in which Fonzie had to escape from a milk can (long story). But, as a teenager, I was drawn strongly to him and his work as a skeptic. Not a “debunker,” mind you, which was a term Randi disfavored, as it implied pre-judgment, but a skeptic. Or, as he referred to himself, an investigator. Randi’s skepticism matched my similar anti-woo-woo world-view and helped me understand the difference between skepticism — which is a positive trait, I believe — and cynicism, which is not. He provided an example of someone fighting against people who would prey on others in the interest of financial gain and, when you were growing up in Reagan’s America of the 1980s, such examples of that were as necessary as they were rare.

Randi’s example also helped me understand myself and what I believed. I was not brought up in a religious household. My mom is Catholic and gave my brother and I a basic informal religious education, but never made a point to bring us up that way. My dad, while Jewish by birth, is not a religious person himself and, to the extent he ever has been, it has skewed toward an informal Christianity that he has never discussed or formally explored as far as I know. During my childhood I was exposed to many religions by both family and friends — it’s hard not to be when you grow up among a lot of evangelical types — but what I did and did not believe was left sort of up to me.

I wrestled with that while growing up, trying to figure out what the world and the universe were really about, but I constantly came back to the idea that, really, they were about nothing. Given the appeal that religion had to my friends and other people I observed in my life, and given the strong role it played in society — and given how off-putting and alienated strident atheists were in my experience — that was at times unsettling to me. I didn’t know how such a belief, or lack thereof, was supposed to fit in my life, even if it felt like it fit best of all.

Here’s how Randi described his atheism once. I’m not sure when this quote was from, but I read something very similar from him in a magazine when I was 15 or 16, and the broad idea has stuck with me ever since:

“There are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity, the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity; I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot. Religious persons have by far the easier position; they say they believe in a deity because that's their preference, and they've read it in a book. That's their right.”

I may not have any faith in a higher power myself, but like I said, I don’t care for those performative atheists out there who spend all their time writing books and articles shitting on religion and religious people. How Randi put it is basically how I feel and how, basically, I have always felt.

I had a hard time finding role models outside of my own family growing up. My parents made sure that I knew that athletes, politicians, singers, actors and other famous people generally weren’t suitable as wholesale role models because we can never really know them and, like everyone else, they usually had feet of clay. As such, I learned to pick and choose the traits of others to admire. A little of Kurt Vonnegut’s sensibility here, a little bit of Fred Rogers’ empathy there, a little bit of James Randi’s skepticism over here. Spend enough time watching “Mr. Rogers” and, later, reading “Cat’s Cradle” and “Skeptic Magazine” and you start to form a world view, ya know?

Thank you, James Randi, for the important work you did. Thank you for helping form an important part of my world view. Thank you for everything.

The Sackler Family pays . . . almost nothing

Yesterday the Justice Department announced an $8.3 billion settlement with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma arising out of its role in creating America’s deadly epidemic of addiction to opioid painkillers. That sounds good, but it’s almost nothing, really.

$8.3 billion is a big number, but since Purdue is in bankruptcy, almost none of that money will ever be paid. And sure, as part of the deal Purdue Pharma agreed to plead guilty to three felonies, but since it’s a corporation, no people will actually serve any time or be hit with any personal criminal sanctions. Corporations are considered “people” when making political donations to officials who will work to subsidize them with taxpayer dollars or protect them from regulation or legal consequences, but they are decidedly not people when crimes are committed.

Members of the Sackler family — the billionaires which own and used to operate Purdue Pharma — agreed to pay a $225 million penalty. Which is about 1.7% of their net worth. It’s less than a slap on the wrist. It’s rounding error at best for them. It’ll be a loss that is completely erased after a good day or two in the market.

This despite the fact that the Sacklers, as directors of the company, launched a concerted marketing plan pursuant to which sales representatives were ordered to intensify their marketing of OxyContin to “extreme, high-volume prescribers” (i.e. pill mills). The initiative also created a kickback scheme in which the company paid two doctors to make false statements about OxyContin in an influential public speaking program to drive up unnecessary and, ultimately, fatal and addiction-spurring prescriptions.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died due to an epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse that was directly encouraged and enabled by the Sacklers. Millions of lives have been destroyed because of what they did in the name of profit. As this was happening they were fretting about possible financial losses and moving money around.

It’s absolutely obscene. It’s further evidence that, if you’re wealthy, you can get away with almost anything in this country.

The “Harry Smith B-Sides”

You may not have heard of “The Anthology of American Folk Music,” but odds are that you would not be listening to much of the music you love now if it hadn’t existed.

The Anthology consisted of eighty-four American folk, blues, and country music recordings that were originally issued from 1926 to 1933. In the normal course those recordings may have vanished, as recorded music, especially by Black and country artists, was seen as practically disposable then. But an eccentric filmmaker named Harry Smith collected thousands upon thousands of those recordings and, in 1952, curated a collection of them and put them out in a six-record set. Which itself was kind of a bootleg, actually, seeing as though neither Smith nor the label which released the set had the rights to most of the songs.

The legality of it notwithstanding, the importance of that 1952 release cannot be overstated. It exposed those songs — entire genres of music, even — to young musicians who were wholly unfamiliar with them, which in turn launched the folk music boom of the 50s and 1960s, a new strain of tougher, rawer country music, and fueled a blues music revival well. Those movements gave us Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and a bunch of bands and singers who drew from the blues tradition to revitalize rock and roll and, eventually, create hard rock and heavy metal. At all goes back to those old songs. What, you think the hippies invented this song?

Now there’s something new from that same well: The Harry Smith B-sides. The actual flip-sides of the singles Smith used to create the original Anthology, put together in their own Anthology. And, as the Washington Post noted yesterday, there’s a lot of messy, revelatory stuff in there:

From venerated artists of country, folk, blues and bluegrass like the Carter Family, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton and Dock Boggs to crackling jug bands and Cajun fiddlers, the flipsides revealed tropes ranging from salvation to anxiety; earthly sorrow to ribald dental work; the boredom of hell and a telephone line that stretches to heaven; celebratory moonshine and sentient pork chops. The songs might be less iconic than those selected for the “Anthology”, but they are more idiosyncratic.

Every historical account requires a choice. In creating his original Anthology, Smith chose songs which represented a certain aspect of the tradition he loved, but left out the messy, weird, and occasionally ugly parts of that tradition (particularly the virulent sexism and racism of so much music of of the period). Now they’re seeing the light of day again, giving us a fuller sense of what American musicians were up to as the seeds were planted for modern music.

Tom Lehrer puts his lyrics into the public domain

Tom Lehrer, a musician, satirist, mathematician, and all-around role model for yours truly and other people who like well-intentioned wise-asses (with an emphasis on the “wise”), has released all his lyrics into the public domain:

"I, Tom Lehrer, and the Tom Lehrer Trust 2000, hereby grant the following permission:

All the lyrics on this website, whether published or unpublished, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, may be downloaded and used in any manner whatsoever, without requiring any further permission from me or any payment to me or to anyone else."

He’ll be releasing the music from his songs — at least the music he wrote; his most famous song was set to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune — into the public domain over time as well.

Will it change the world to be able to take some Tom Lehrer lyrics and set them to your own music or write them someplace without legal restraint? Nah. But it’s an example of someone walking the walk, and we sure could use a lot more of that these days.

I see you’re back from your test drive.

As you can see *slaps roof* this newsletter can fit so many pieces of baseball commentary, cultural observations, and my personal obsessions in it. Why not drive it for another month — or even a year — and see if it’s not something you like:


Have a great day, everyone.