Monday, September 29, 2008

Baseball Playoffs: Fearless Predictions

In yesterday's Boston Globe Bob Ryan had a wonderful column remembering John Updike's New Yorker essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," one of the finest pieces of writing about baseball or anything else. The playoffs start this week with lots of compelling storylines: Is the the year the Cubs finally break through, rewarding their fans like the Red Sox and White Sox have rewarded theirs in recent years? Will the Tampa Rays' carriage turn into a pumpkin, or are they for real? Can the Red Sox repeat, establishing a legitimate claim to the first dynasty of the twenty-first century? And a Cubs-Red Sox World Series: great matchup or the greatest matchup?

I'm thrilled with how the Red Sox are heading into the postseason. They did not have a dominant year, but they still emerged with one of the four best records in baseball and are poised for another deep postseason run. They have the pitching, especially to master the short five-game series, when they will only need to rely on a three-man rotation, with Beckett, Dice-K, and Lester to take the hill. The Sox struggled against the Angels and Rays this year more than I would like to see but that will not matter one bit in the postseason. The lineup is reasonably balanced, and is led less by Big Papi than by MVP candidates Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. Terry Francona is as well equipped for this stage of the season as anay manager in baseball, and to my mind handled the last two weeks of the season just about perfectly, as he did last year. The Angels are talented. They have a deep lineup and they play small ball, but they do not work deep into counts, which may favor the Red Sox starters. They will rely on their starting pitching to bridge the way to their excellent relievers, so the key for the Red Sox will be to get to the starters early to disrupt Mike Scoscia's preferred pitching usage and to get whacks at the middle relievers. The Angels want to shorten the game by getting to K-Rod. The Sox have to avoid K-Rod getting into that situation. They thus need to work pitch counts, be patient, score early, and avoid a traditional Red Sox bugaboo even for good teams: leaving men on base. The Angels may have been the best team in the regular season, but the Red Sox have been their nightmare in the playoffs. I expect that to continue. Sox in four.

As for the other matchups:

Tampa has a huge advantage inasmuch as the AL Central has yet to be decided, with the White Sox having to make up a missed game against Detroit today and if they win, then facing a one-game playoff against the Twins. That has to favor the Rays who will continue their run for another week. No matter who they play, Rays in five.

The Cubs have been the best team in the National league by a long way. The Dodgers won the worst division in baseball only in the last week. This should be a mismatch. It won't be. The post-Manny Dodgers have been very good. Joe Torre knows how to manage in the postseason. On paper this should not be close. In reality, it will take the Cubs five games to pull this one out (and part of me wants to predict the Dodgers).

The fight for the final spot in the postseason represented a war of attrition. The Mets did their now-traditional vanishing act (New York Baseball Fever: Catch It!) thus allowing the Brewers to slink into the playoffs like a drunk trying not to wake his spouse as he stumbles into things on the way to the bedroom. The Phillies did not exactly seize the east until late. Nonetheless the Phils will take this largely because the Brewers won't know how. Phillies in five.

The Cubs will beat the Phillies in 6 for the NLCS, the Sox will beat the Rays in five for the ALCS, and the Red Sox, playing the role of hissable bullies and enemies to karma, will break the hearts of Cub fans yet again in six games split between Fenway Park and Wrigley that will cause an outbreak of purple prose across the land. Go Sox!!!

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Countries: Self-Indulgence Alert

The Foreign Policy Association has published my latest piece, "A Tale of Two Countries: Change and Crisis in Zimbabwe and South Africa." Writing commentary on volatile events taking place in real time is always fraught with peril, and in this case I wish I had continued my consistently more pessimistic outlook on Zimbabwe, but on the whole I hope it says something about this historic moment in both countries.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Notes

Two Washington Post Book World essays caught my eye recently: Jonathan Karp's spot on look at the "disposable book" and Jonathan Yardley's reconsideration of a book that is the opposite of disposable, Hunter S. Thompson's epochal Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I read fear and Loathing when I was in college, when I'd bet most people first discover it, and I return to it every so often simply because it is so alive and vibrant and hilarious and genre-defining.

Pesky's Immortality

I've always liked the exclusive approach the Red Sox have taken to retiring numbers. A guy had to spend ten years with the Sox, had to finish his career in a Red Sox capacity (though coaching and similar capacities count), and most rigorously, he had to earn election to the Hall of Fame. I have seen some pretty marginal names among retired numbers at baseball stadiums across the country and always felt happy to know that the Sox had exacting standards.

But I am also happy to know that they will yield on those standards as appropriate. they did so with carlton Fisk, and they are doing so now with Johnny Pesky, who embodies the Red Sox as much as anyone who has ever been a part of the team. Pesky was a teammate of Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams, whose numbers already hang along the right field facade, and now, after almost six decades of service, Pesky will see his #6 go up before Friday's game against the Yankees.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Yeay Tom!!!

Here is the cover for a new University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books volume that should appear next year. Tom wrote the introduction and gave Nebraska the lead for this important project.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

49er Football

If you walk into the office of UTPB's president one of the first things you will see is a UTPB football helmet and a toy bubblegum machine with a sign affixed to it reading "UTPB Football Fund." At our university bookstore you can find those t-shirts that seemingly every university has when they don't have a football team: "UTPB Football: Still Undefeated!" Of course UTPB does not have a football team, and while there are many who wish deeply that we did -- this is West Texas after all, and I'm convinced that some in the community honestly believe that absent a football team we are not even a real university -- without the generosity of a long-term benefactor, I have a hard time seeing such a dream come to pass. And maybe it shouldn't. Few love sports as much as I do, and yet I am not convinced that at this time in our development we need to be pursuing football, however much fun it might be to go to games on saturdays (and inevitably get crushed for several years).

These thoughts come to mind because one of my alma maters, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, appears to be on the verge of developing a football program. UNCC (or simply "Charlotte" as it prefers to be known for athletic branding purposes) is in a much different place than is UTPB. For years it was one of the fastest growing campuses in the country, it has a legitimate Division I athletic program, it is located in a city that would likely be able to support the program, and the university could likely successfully weather the added cost and other growing pains. And now I'll have a legitimate interest in who wins the DI-AA title every year. Go 49ers!

Voting Rights in Mississippi

Given its history can we just say that Mississippi never deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to voting rights? From the Jim Crow era forward Mississippi officials have always been too likely to restrict access to the franchise, to engage in chicanery to make voting more difficult, and generally to try to game the system.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Academic Bullying

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had a feature and a related article on the issue of "academic bullying," a phrase I hate but that probably works as description. It came as no surprise to me that the university featured most centrally in the main article is Minnesota State University-Mankato, where I had my first job before an utter nightmare of a situation drove me out. MSU has had to confront the issue of widespread senior faculty assholery in the years since I left because indications were that such bullying was widespread. It is nice to see that President Richard Davenport's testes have finally dropped, albeit far too late for me.

That MSU features so prominently about poisonous academic environments should tell you something about just how awful MSU has been. And suffice it to say that I could tell you the identity of one or two of those bullies, since they were well known to populate the history department, which at the senior ranks was populated largely by third-rate historians and fourth-rate people who were talented at playing second-rate Machiavellian politics, their toadying junior allies, a gutless and blindingly mediocre chair, and a number of folks too cowed or feckless to stand up to them. There were some good people there as well, but they had long since been marginalized.

The reason I shy away from the term "bullying" is because of its roots in physical intimidation. There is one member of the MSU department in particular who had better hope his and my paths never cross again. It could be at the Presidential lecture at the American Historical Association's annual meeting and I would be inclined to jump across tables to tear this fucker's lungs out through his nasal passages. And there are not a whole hell of a lot of people in this profession who'd be able to stop me, and I'd surmise even fewer who, if they know this guy, would feel compelled to do so.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Writers and Rejection

Brian Doyle has a fantastic essay on rejection letters from an editor's vantage point at The Kenyon Review. Essays about editing are essays about writing, but this one provides insight into the head of that person who has sent you all those rejection letters. And every writer worth his salt has received more rejections than acceptance letters. (Hat tip to Ralph at Cliopatria.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Two And a Half Men

[Two Dodgers Fans and a sane person congregate at Dodger Stadium before Manny Ramirez's first game in an LA uniform. August 1, 2008.]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III, RIP

Ambrose Hofstader Bierce III, who brought us the occasionally amusing historical rumor-mongering at The Broad-Gauge Gossip has bid us adieu. Those wagons have been circling for several days now as Bierce's anonymity had become an issue. And when a blogger's anonymity becomes an issue, a blogger's anonymity tends not to remain a reality.

In his brief moment in the spotlight, Bierce drew a large following among historians who, let's face it, love to read about ourselves and better yet, about our betters. Bierce wrote well and amusingly about a pretty small sample of the profession, the elite swaths ensconced in the Ivies, the research I's, and an occasional elite liberal arts college or an aspirant to one of those categories.

I enjoyed Bierce's ruminations. I really did -- I blogrolled him largely because it provided me with an easy way to check up on him a couple of times a week. He tended not to drop a lot of revelations -- most of his information was not new, but it consolidated the inside skinny on his chosen prey in an easily digestible form. He provided one-stop-shopping for shop talk.

And his (choose a male pseudonym and I'm referring to you with a male pronoun) anonymity always seemed to me to be problematic for at least two reasons. For one, I fail to see its necessity. Yes, he was dishing on historians, but my understanding is that he has tenure. And if grad student and untenured professors overstate the jeopardy they put themselves in when they speak out (blogging, writing op-eds, what have you) tenured professors have almost no leg to stand on other than cowardice when they claim that they need the protections of anonymity. Unless of course they desperately want to ascend into the rarefied air of the very places their work criticizes. Bierce's pithy skewerings always gave a hint of aspiration: He had a notable tendency to shed light on those elite departments in supposed decline. And of course what better way for them to rise again than to hire someone insightful and engaging and in tune with the profession and able to write for both scholarly and educated brtoader audiences? In short, I wonder if he got the sense that he was biting a hand that he sort of hoped would feed him.

But the second problematic aspect of his anonymity comes down to the root of my problems with anonymity to begin with: If you are saying things that need protection, should you be saying them? And if you should be, what right have you to say them without the targets being able to face their accuser? Which brings us right back to the issue of cowardice. (For those of you relatively new to dcat, you might think that I am anonymous. But given that I link to books, op-eds and other publications on the side, that I have never hidden my identity, and that my name is Derek Catsam and I am a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, you would be mistaken.)

Perhaps we'll see an unmasked Mr. Bierce someday in a glorious but accountable return. But for now this seems like the best course of action.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, and the GOP

Now that the convention is over and McCain has his bounce, he can return to the deeply, profoundly, nakedly dishonest campaign that has become a GOP hallmark since 2000 or so. We expect spin, fudging, and a certain level of manipulation from our candidates. But McCain's campaign is presenting outright lies without the slightest bit of pause.

Bad Ideas: Equal Time Edition

Foreign Policy has a rundown of Obama's ten worst ideas and McCain's ten worst ideas. I'm not certain that FP makes the case in every instance -- the devil is, after all in the details. Depending on those details, I could support versions of several of these supposedly bad ideas. Even two of the "bad" McCain ideas make sense to me, the League of Democracies and a willingness more aggressively to pursue nuclear power. And depending on those devilish details, I could get on board with even more of Obama's.


It was seven years ago today, nearly to the moment that I am writing this. I was living in Washington, DC, every bit as much a terrorist target as the Twin Towers were that day, and probably more likely to experience future attacks than any city or region in the United States. I spent most of the day at an ex-girlfriend's house, as her sister was in downtown Manhattan not far from the towers and naturally between that and the myriad rumors of what might be yet to come she was a bit overwhelmed.

Every so often you'll hear someone indignantly proclaim that we have all forgotten about 9/11 and what it meant. When someone blurts that empty declaration I simply wait for the other shoe to drop: What is about to follow is an ideological assertion about what must or must not be done, and those who refuse to follow the prescription thus become implicitly attached to coddlers and appeasers.

In the weeks after 9/11 a false harmony prevailed as the result of the attacks and gaudy flag stickers and t-shirt slogans took the place of both dialogue and debate. And before long some politicians were using 9/11 as a cudgel, dishonoring the memories of those who perished on that day, of those who lost loved ones, and questioning the patriotism of all who ventured to question policies stemming from what had become an earnest but poorly conceived "War on Terror." The inane color-coded terrorism warning spectrum miraculously ratcheted up a notch in 2004 whenever it was electorally convenient, Fargo suddenly in as dire danger as Washington, Texarkana as likely to face imminent destruction as New York. Soon they took our water bottles on the way into sweltering stadia, though they'd happily sell us terror-proof Ozarka for just $4 once we got inside.

I'm sure we'll hear a fresh round of hand-wringing "why have we forgotten 9/11?" assertions as we commemorate what went down on that horrible day seven years ago. But we have not forgotten. Our lives have gone on, just as lives go on after any catastrophe. 9/11 may be frozen in amber in the mind's eye, but it is not frozen in the way that the commemoration fetishists would like for us to believe so that we follow their agendas. Moving on is part of the process of healing, and, paradoxically, of remembering. We are allowed to do that and we must be able to do so without fear of recrimination from the self-righteous.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Gone, Brady Gone

I've been asked what I feel about the knee injury that has ended Tom Brady's season and sent Patriots fans into a tailspin. It probably does not take a psychiatrist to guess the answer: Disconsolate, frustrated, pissed, saddened, concerned. Brady is the face of the franchise. He is, in many important ways the face of the league. He is the best player on the best team, and that is going to be nearly impossible to replace. (And I'm insulted after his injury, as Brady also was the starting quarterback on my fantasy team, "Generic Team Name.")

That said, the Patriots' season is not done. And I don't think this is merely rationalization. Matt Cassel is no Tom Brady, to be sure, but then Tom Brady just finished the greatest year in the history of the sport. No one is Tom Brady. But is Cassell can take on the role of "game manager," the buzzword that has emerged in recent years to describe mid-level quarterbacks who are not talented enough to win games on their own, there is no reason why new England will not compete for the AFC East title. And if they win the AFC East, well, they are in the NFL's big tournament, and if they make it that far, anything is possible. It is not as if the rest of the Patriots got any worse with Brady's injury. Kansas City may be a somewhat lifeless bunch, but the Pats' D did a fine job hogtying them all day Sunday. Cassel has some weapons in Randy Moss and Wes Welker and Laurence Maroney and a whole lot of guys from last year's team. And he still has the best coaching staff in the business prowling the sidelines. We will now learn just what kind of insurance policy the untested Cassel is.

The season is not over. The Jets will not be feeling pity or mercy this Sunday, nor will the rest of the league. And the Pats are not asking for mercy or pity or even sympathy. Let's let this all shake out. The Patriots have earned more than a little bit of trust over the course of this decade. Once before in the Belichick years the Pats lost a star quarterback to injury and replaced him with an unheralded and untested rookie who was drafted late. That worked out pretty well. Let us see how this plays out before Pats fans stick our heads in the oven or the rest of the league discounts New England's NFL entry. For this weekend, at least, I'm confident that Brett Favre has another 3-interception game in him. Then let's just take it game-by-game.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Political Self Reflection

I've been politicked out lately. Recently I was asked to contribute a regular feature at Ephblog called "Ephpundit," whereby I will provide commentary on the presidential campaign (at least for the next two months - we'll see if it goes on from there). My first post is here. And that post sums up some of my feelings: I am not tired of policy or issues, or even the horse race. But I am tired of the rationalization and justification on both sides. I'm tired about my thin skin about Obama, the candidate I have supported with more personal fervor than any in my lifetime. I am tired of Republican and conservative friends defending Sarah Palin, defending her as the GOP nominee as they must but in ways that make them unfamiliar to me politically and ideologically. I am tired of the way this makes me respond to them and them to me. I'm not proud of some of my behavior as a result but I am also not proud of theirs.

So I wanted to think more about John McCain's speech the other night before posting. Because my utter (and I believe justified) disdain for his selection of Palin, and my disdain for what he has become in terms of policy has frankly blinded me to the man, who is pretty fucking amazing. Yes, I wish that Republicans had granted John Kerry, whose record of service is every bit as honorable as McCain's, the same sort of respect, but that sort of tit-for-tat is what got many of us into this mess to begin with.

So I went to Daniel Drezner, who is not only a Williams alum, but is a center-right guy whose views I respect a great deal even if I do not always agree with them. And I especially took note of this post in which he assessed McCain's speech. because while I thought it was pretty bad as far as speeches went, I also recognize that one of the critiques of Obama is that he is all speeches (I disagree profoundly, but politics ain't always about reality) and to be fair, my critique of Palin's speech is that it was a great speech-qua-speeches, but that it sucked in content.

And the thing is, I sort of came to like McCain again. I think he is wrong on just about everything (though Drezner's assertion that McCain is worlds better on global economic policy is one I take seriously, mostly because I'm not intellectually equipped to disagree, by which I mean, I don't know enough) but that is to be expected. And I think that is what I too often forget about when it comes to my conservative friends. I think they are wrong about everything. And maybe even more pliable than I am when it comes to rationalizing faults in their party. But like John McCain, they come by their politics, right or wrong, honestly. And even when the arguments become dishonest, on my part and theirs, it is informed by an honest belief in ideas, ideology, and politics. And that is something. In the end, it might be everything.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Ballpark Bound

I'm off to Arlington for the next two Sox-Rangers games. The Sox are down 2.5 on the Rays right now, a gap that the Sox will have ample room to close in six games against Tampa starting this week.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Reissue Game

I'd like to put forward a brief commentary on one of the newest trends in the music industry that has suckered me in entirely.

First off, let me be straightforward. I love capitalism. I love a variety of goods, I love free options, I love the fact that I can buy books and music and beer and tacos. Capitalism is good. It is not a perfect good, and much bad, indeed evil, has been done in the name of capitalism. And I have no stomach for people who talk about a revolution or who maintain that Marxism or communism are the solution, because they are not. I've lived and spent enough time in enough places where there is serious poverty, where capitalism has failed or fallen short, and what people always want is not less capitalism, but better capitalism. But I'll echo the old line about democracy, which I'm sure is Churchill's because Churchill said all the cool shit, and maintain that capitalism is flawed and imperfect and problematic and better than every other option.

That preface is by way of saying, the trend I'm about to bitch about is one I could completely avoid by not buying into it. Free will and all that.

I still buy cd's, which makes me an anachronism. And the latest attempt to sucker serious music fans is the reissuing of great old albums with supposed remastering and a few new songs. This seems especially common among a particular genre, notably post-punk, proto-indie music. Pavement did it a few years back with the reissue of Slanted and Enchanted, one of the ten greatest albums in the history of albums. In addition to the original, with all of the supposed aural enhancements, came a whole slew of rarities, B-sides, demos, live songs and the like. A formula was born. If the album was essential to its devotees, a version costing twice as much with extra stuff -- even if the fans have some or all of that same extra stuff in different configurations -- becomes doubly essential. Especially if the generation of diehard fans now has a lot more disposable income than it did some fifteen years ago.

Now my favorite band of all time, the Replacements, is in the reissue business, having released the first four or five albums with the expected extras and audio enhancements that may or may not be a step up. And of course like Pavlov, I salivated as soon as they rang that bell and immediately bought two of the reissues, Let It Be (the greatest album of all time) and The Replacements Stink, their second album, which pretty much captures the transition from punk to postpunk in one fifteen or so minute burst. And they are great. And I'll buy the others. And I'll fall in love with the Replacements all over again, and with Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville all over again.

But this still seems like a pretty cynical manipulation of the truest fans of a band. The only out I'm giving both the labels (Rhino has taken over the 'Mats catalog, for example) and the bands is that a lot of these bands never became rich. I have no problem with the Replacements making a little more money off of their music given the incalculable amount of joy I have gotten from them. Still, I wish there were some sort of code on each album so that I get a free download of the inevitable re-rerelease of Let It Be in 2018. Sucker me once, shame on me, after all, but . . .

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Fearless NFL Predictions

Unless you are either a real night owl or an early bird (I have created an automatic cliche generator here at dcat) by the time you read this you are likely to be within 12 hours of the kickoff the the 2008 NFL season.

If Tom Brady is healthy, I am pretty content with where the Patriots are heading in to this season. The secondary is a concern and the linebacking corps is a not-necessarily-reassuring mix of young and old, but otherwise it is hard to see where a team that was one play away from finishing off a 19-0 season is flawed to the point where they will not be serious contenders through January.

My sure to be laughable postseason predictions:

Divisional Winners:

East: Cowboys
North: Vikings
South: Saints
West: Seahawks
Wild Card: Eagles, Giants
Wild-Card Round: Saints over Eagles; Giants over Seahawks
Divisional Round: Cowboys over Saints; Vikings over Giants
NFC Championship: Cowboys over Vikings

Divisional Winners:
North: Steelers
South: Colts
West: Chargers
Wild Card: Jaguars, Browns
Wild-Card Round:
Jaguars over Steelers; Chargers over Browns
Divisional Round: Patriots over Jaguars; Chargers over Colts
AFC Championship: Patriots over Chargers

Super Bowl XLIII (Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida, February 1, 2009): Patriots over Cowboys

Sometimes heart and head converge. Enjoy the games.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Gustav Effect

So, what impact will Hurricane Gustav have on the presidential race? The answer is that I hope it has no impact whatsoever.

I honestly believe that John McCain and the GOP leadership has been put in a very difficult position in which no matter what they do they run the risk of facing accusations of politicizing the storm.

Now do not get me wrong -- I believe that national Republicans deserve to pay the price for their negligence on Katrina. But my sincere hope is that Gustav has little effect one way or the other on the race. Obama and Biden have dropped out of their expected campaign appearances today and the Republicans have truncated their convention, which was probably the smart choice, but will rightfully be a disappointment for many Republicans who see this as their quadrennial party celebration, and rightfully so.

What I worry about is that both parties will try to position themselves to take advantage of the situation in the Gulf, and worse, to point fingers at the other party whatever they do. Ideally the two candidates would talk and work out a way to put forward a bipartisan face on what we all hope is not a repeat of the Katrina fiasco.