Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Opening Day Approacheth

Opening Day, which should be a National Holiday, and will be when I am benevolent dictator of the world, fast approaches. It appears that the Red Sox are pretty close to settling on their Opening Day roster, an ultimately meaningless decision that injuries and performance will make moot within weeks if not days. Nonetheless, meaningless or not, I'll freight it with meaning. There are few surprises. I'll run down the roster position-by-position as The Boston Globe's Tony Massarotti sees it shaping up:

(L) Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
(R) Dustin Pedroia, 2B
(L) David Ortiz, DH
(R) Kevin Youkilis, 1B
(L) J.D. Drew, RF
(R) Jason Bay, LF
(R) Mike Lowell, 3B
(S) Jed Lowrie, SS
(S) Jason Varitek, C

The biggest factors in the success or failure of this lineup will be health, which separates the Red Sox from the rest of the league in almost no meaningful way except inasmuch as the Sox had relatively more vital players suffer fairly serious injuries last year. Another issue will be whether Tek can add anything to the batting order. The Red Sox will hit, and Tek's value comes almost wholly from leadership and running the pitching staff. That said, no American league team can afford a pitcher-size void in the 9-hole in the lineup. The Red Sox will hit and they will score runs. But if they stay healthy and guys play to their best-hope projections, this is a team easily capable of leading the league in runs scored, which is not something most teams can say even if they do not lose a game to injury and everyone has a career year.

(R) Rocco Baldelli, OF
(R) Nick Green, IF-OF
(L) George Kottaras, C
(L) Chris Carter, IF-OF

The Sox chose Carter over Jeff Bailey but Bailey is a guy management and fans foresee a great future for and so he will get time in Boston this year. Kottaras would have been a surprise in February, but once the Sox got rid of Josh Bard, Kottaras had the inside track. If he performs well as Tim Wakefield's de facto personal catcher and can even come close to hitting Big League pitching there may be less need to overpay the Rangers, say, for Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden.

(R) Josh Beckett
(L) Jon Lester
(R) Daisuke Matsuzaka
(R) Tim Wakefield
(R) Brad Penny

Penny is the classic case of paying short money on long odds and hoping the bet comes in. If it does, this might be the best pitching staff, one-to-five, in the Majors. Beckett needs to come back and have something of a redemption year. And until Dice-K gets through a full season and can up his innings and lower his pitch count there will be concerns. But he was lights out in the World Baseball Classic, which is both a great sign for obvious reasons, but is also worrisome because of how Matsuzaka has shown a tendency to break down at the end of a long season even without something like the WBC lengthening his year all the more. His economical start yesterday is a nice portent, I hope. In any case, bank on one thing: Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson are almost certain to get their share of starts, and they probably will not be alone. Repeat after me: There is no such thing as too much starting pitching.

(R) Jonathan Papelbon (closer)
(R) Takashi Saito
(L) Hideki Okajima
(R) Justin Masterson
(R) Manny Delcarmen
(R) Ramon Ramirez
(L) Javier Lopez

The bullpen, at least the middle-relief component of it, was problematic in 2008. On paper this looks like a solid group, and if Okajima returns to his 2007 form, there is reason to believe that the Sox will have a sick Pythagorean rating this year (which is a formula of runs scored to runs given up that is a remarkably good predictor of wins and losses). But expect volatility. The Sox have young arms that will likely not remain in Pawtucket for long, and if guys falter management will have no qualms replacing them. No one sets out, after all, to be a long reliever.

(R) Julio Lugo, SS
(R) John Smoltz, P
(L) Mark Kotsay, OF

Lugo's injuries forestalled a decision on the shortstop fight, but that may well have been Lowrie's slot to lose to begin with. Smoltz represents another gamble, but if he can return in May and is healthy, he will solidify the staff. We'll worry about where he fits in later -- there is lots of time between now and when he will return. Kotsay's return will require a roster move, but we're swapping parts at that point, and in any case, health issues usually mean that when a guy comes up there is someone to hide, and some of the bench guys have options available, so sending them to Pawtucket won't be a problem. And if the Sox have too many Major League bodies, well, that's a good problem to have.

Consider this the first solid Sox talk of the year. Do not expect it to be the last. Opening Day against the Rays in Fenway is six days away and counting.

Cricket Chirping in the US

Over the years I've really come to like cricket. I don't claim to understand the game anywhere near as well as I do, say, rugby, a game I played in South Africa and that I feel I have a pretty good grasp on both in terms of the play on the pitch and also understanding teams and the international game (especially from the the professional and international vantage point of South Africa). Cricket is extraordinarily complex, the scoring system is far from straightforward, and any game that can take five days to play (in its most traditional, purist version) inevitably has its share of nuances.

I am nonetheless skeptical of (though also pleased with) the attempts to bring the game to the United States. Ours is a country of sporting xenophobia. Americans don't understand cricket or rugby, and so tend to mock it, even though they are among the most played team sports in the world -- cricket is probably the second-most popular team sport across the globe behind soccer and rugby cannot be too far behind, though baseball and basketball also have a substantial global footprint. When these international sports -- and I include what most of the rest of the world calls football -- garners any attention on Sports Center, for example, the odds are good that the mention will be both fleeting and mocking. Cricket and rugby almost certainly will never make enormous strides in part because of this sporting xenophobia, and in part because rugby is too much like American football, cricket too akin to baseball.

Still, there are some signs that cricket may well at least enter the fringe in the United States. There is an active and growing cricket community at American colleges that hopes to grow the sport here. USA Cricket is active and is growing. Manny Ramirez even took a few swings from a bowler in an effort to promote DirecTV's new cricket coverage. And a new version of the game, 20-20, represents at least in part an effort to bring a faster-paced version of the game to American audiences (despite the unfortunate Mark Saranford connections).

I'll be happy if someday I can catch international test cricket on my cable. Cricket is a very difficult game to follow in the United States, and I'd be happier if I could just watch the occasional mach (and if I could catch rugby even more regularly).

Friday, March 27, 2009

Happy Hour Approacheth

Esquire has a list of the best bars in America, conveniently listed by state. I will give the caveat that Esquire should have provided that in its estimation all of the best bars in America are located in each state's largest cities with very few exceptions. New York, for example, has a large number of listings, not surprisingly, but apparently every great bar in New York State is located within three of the city's boroughs. Similarly, it seems that every great bar in Texas is located in Dallas or Austin, with one in San Antonio. This all seems improbable. Nonetheless, flawed though it may be, let the list be your guide and drink up! Many of you live very near some of these places -- a report would be more than welcome.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

John Hope Franklin, 1915-2009, Rest in Peace

I only met John Hope Franklin twice. The first time was at the Citadel Conference on the Civil Rights Movement in 2003. He was gracious and spoke with me for a few minutes and I naturally felt blessed just to have gotten him to acknowledge me. The second time was at one of the recent meetings of the Southern Historical Association. I just wanted to say hello, mentioned the Citadel conference, and because he was that kind of man, he fibbed and said he remembered.

Because of these two brief meetings, and because of the monumental nature of his work as the practical founder of African American history, it was with more than ordinary sadness that I learned about Professor Franklin's passing on Wednesday. He was 94.

Franklin holds a remarkable place in American historical scholarship. He is not known for any particular interpretive schools or historiographical debates, largely because he practically established the school and the historiography. His most famous book, From Slavery to Freedom, is still in use after several revisions. His memoir, Mirror to America, is a model of the historian's autobiography, with the added advantage that Franklin was a historian who made history, a thing so rare that you would excuse most people for thinking it nonexistent.

Creationists Are Idiots

Sometimes the level of complete fucktardery in the state in which I now live is astounding.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Curt Schilling: Kind of a Big Deal

At The New Republic Jason Gay compares Curt Schilling to Ron Burgundy of Anchorman. My favorite line actually comes from a commenter who quotes someone else: "another webs article summed up Schilling perfectly: 'since Curt was a bit smarter than your average ballplayer, he mistakenly assumed he was smarter than the public at large . . . being the tallest jockey in the racetrack locker room doesn't make you a giant'."

I am in the camp that, his bombast aside, Schilling belongs in the Hall of Fame. Everyone will look at his win totals, which at 216 are very good but not great, but of course wins are not necessarily the greatest metric for assessing how good a pitcher is given how team dependent a statistic it is. Think of it this way: Who pitched a better game, a guy who struggles through five innings, gives up six runs, but happens to benefit froma slugfest, or the guy who goes eight, gives up one, but loses 2-1? Surely one outcome is better than the other, but strictly looking at the pitching performances, the guy who lost did a much better job than the guy who won. In nearly every other statistical measurement, Schilling is clearly Hall-worthy, with the understanding that his postseason performances put him over the top.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Don't Care: Give Me a Steak

This tragic, sad, poignant, disturbing story may well be true. But a world of less red meat is a world where the living envy the dead. Plus, every time they find something that is yummy that kills you, someone eventually discovers that no, in fact, that consumable is actually good for you. I am ready for the inevitable egg-like comeback of red meat. Though for me, red meat never left.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Baseball Bits and Pieces

Even as the Red Sox look ahead to the upcoming season, including worrying about what effect participation in the World Baseball Classic will have on Sox players, especially Daisuke Matsuzaka, they also look to the past. Curt Schilling has announced his retirement. There are lots of aspects of Schill's personality that have grated in recent years when he either was not pitching or else was not pitching well -- he is, for example, bombastic and mouthy and has never met a microphone he does not love. But no matter what flaws Schill has shown while on the shelf, we'll always have 2004, the year when Schill was unquestionably one of the biggest difference makers on the field, in the bullpen, in the clubhouse and, yes, in front of the media.

Someone asked me to comment on the World Baseball Classic in the last couple of weeks. I love the idea of the WBC. I think it is great for the game and will help grow baseball internationally. But the problem is that it will never mean that much to American fans, not as long as teams and thus fans run the risk of losing some of their best players to injury right before a new season on Major League Baseball, which is where fan loyalties in the United States lie.

The reality is that in international sports, the national team has to inspire the loyalty above all other configurations of their teams in order for that sport to explode as a phenomenon within international competition. Thus in South Africa, the Springboks reign supreme above even Super 12 or Currie Cup competition. Even in England, people place their loyalties to England above their deep and abiding loyalties to their Premiere League teams, which usually ends up in country-wide despair. I wonder if a WBC played in November in the Caribbean or elsewhere where the weather would cooperate would not work better than one played in March. And I simply cannot abide the numerous days off during the WBC. Baseball is played daily, or near so. There is no reason for multiple days off during a torunament such as the WBC. So, I like the idea, but the execution needs some tinkering.

The Epic Road Trip

3,510 miles of driving. A nights spent somewhere in a highway hotel in east Arkansas, multiple nights each in in Asheville, Charlotte, Columbia, and Charlottesville, and a couple of hours dozing at a rest area outside of a place called Hope on a marathon drive home. Research at the University of South Carolina's South Caroliniana Library and a well-attended panel at the Virginia Festival for the Book (keep your eyes open for it on C-Span's Book-TV). A fellows reunion for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Also: a still unresolved hotel charge in Charlottesville involving a several-hundred-dollar error currently errantly going (natch) in their favor. Oh: And an absurd speeding ticket (note to Virginia's Highway Patrol: shame on you for pulling over five cars in a row in the last three miles on I-81 in Virginia, all of which had out-of-tstae license plates on a race weekend when thousands of people were descending on your highway redoubt. And fuck you, Trooper Badge #5093, you premature ejaculating lying pedophile -- the false accusations bit works both ways -- I had not even reached the speed limit and was barely even back on the Interstate after having stopped to get gas a few hundred yards before. I wasn't even going 70, never mind 79.)

Finally, home. Seeing the wife (yeay!) and eating home-cooked food. Serious unpacking. And blissful sweet sleep. Hopefully I'll be back in regular contact soon.

Monday, March 16, 2009

National Book Critics Circle Awards

The National Book Critics Circle has named its award winners for books published in 2008. I am a member of the NBCC. None of my top choices won (I am not a very influential member, clearly), though the winners are worthy.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Grammar FYI

Apparently lots of journalists are misusing the word "prepossess" and its myriad derivations. I have no idea if this matters to any of you, or to me either.

Friday, March 13, 2009

We're #1!

In honor of this year's 15th Virginia Festival for the Book, Charlottesville's alternative newsweekly The Hook is honoring its "15 picks for the 15th anniversary." Their number one pick for this year's festival?:
1. Stories from the Civil Rights Movement. The panel line-up may be heavy on the white guys, but UVA law profs Richard Bonnie and Mildred Wigfall Robinson co-edited a collection of 40 essays written by people who were in school when one of the most influential Supreme Court decisions was made. It's called Law Touched Our Hearts: A Generation Remembers Brown v. Board of Education. With Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides author Derek Catsam, and Peter Wallenstein, who wrote Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement. [An unsung Civil Rights hero, John A. Stokes, who helped lead the Farmville student strike in 1951, will be talking at another event at Walton Middle School open only to students].
Noon Thursday, March 19, at UVA Bookstore

Sure, their motivation for plugging the panel has largely to do with another book, and I basically get dismissed as just another white guy, which I probably am, but there is no such thing as bad publicity, especially at such a powerhouse event as the Virginia Festival. If you are anywhere near Charlottesville, please do attend.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Times' Upgrade

The New York Times has replaced the goddawful William Kristol, whose tenure as a columnist was mercifully truncated a while back, with The Atlantic Monthly's Ross Douthat. This seems like a good call and is a serious upgrade in intellectual heft and ideological seriousness.

On Journalism Schools

Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion that journalism school is kind of bullshit? Michael Lewis had just such a concern in 1993 and so visited Columbia's highly regarded School of Journalism to see if his suspicions were true. The result was this classic crackback in The New Republic. And frankly stuff like this (also at Columbia) doesn't help either.

The friend I am staying with here in Asheville is like a brother to me (and he periodically checks in on this blog) and he went to Albama's graduate school in journalism to get an MA. He enjoyed it, and surely found it useful in terms of giving him something to grasp on to after an undergraduate career in which he did not intend to pursue journalism and in an aconomic climate not especially conducive to helping a new graduate transition into professional journalism in small-town New Hampshire. He worked in the field for a few years and hated more about it than he liked - all while living in poverty even with full-time writing gigs - and is now a nurse (which required two more years of schooling). My own views of journalism school were shaped at my PhD program, an admittedly small sample, where the Contemporary History Institute included members of our nationally- ranked journalism program. The bulk of my journalism colleagues (CHI is an interdisciplinary program) were so enamored by the reputation of their school and the occasional big name passing through to teach for a year or a semester that they forgot to consider whether or not one-sentence paragraphs represent an especially wise approach to writing or why knowing stuff made their colleagues in history (or occasionally poli-sci, though at Ohio the political science grad students, and more than a few of the professors, tended to be fools and lackwits) so much more prepared to engage in substance than they were.

As far as I am concerned we could close all of the business, journalism, and education schools tomorrow, (keep early childhood education, which we could team with psychology or something) and the world would be none the worse for it. If these programs were limited to graduate school we could ignore them. But they pervade undergraduate education to the point where the journalists and teachers in training do not realize that you need to be teaching or writing something of substance that you know something about. Meanwhile undergraduate business majors all think they are going to be the next Donald Trump when the reality is that they are on a fast track to a middle-management trainee program somewhere that will teach them all they actually need to know about how to run that local Walgreens. Meanwhile the elite firms in accounting, consulting, investment banking, and what have you are recruiting senior English, history, and econ majors at Williams and Dartmouth knowing that smart people can be trained to pick up rudimentary business skills but that dumb people with business degrees cannot necessarily be trained to have analytical and critical thinking skills.

Road Trippin'

I am writing from a hotel room east of Little Rock. Yesterday I started a long road trip that will take me to, among other places, Asheville, Charlotte, Columbia and the University of South Carolina, and Charlottesville, where next Thursday at noon at the UVa Bookstore you can see me participate in the Virginia Festival for the Book. I'll post as I can.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Debunking New Deal Revisionism

In the latest New Republic Jonathan Chait puts the smack down on Amity Shlaes, the current darling among the conservative let's-selectively-(and badly)-invoke-history-for-our-own-ideological-purposes set. As an added bonus, he uses a new book by the incomparable William Leuchtenburg, to help reveal Shlaes' book on the New Deal for what it is.

The Natural

The Boston Globe has a story about a 16-year old baseball player in Las Vegas who conjures up images of The Natural.

Insanity Plates

Hate vanity plates and the people who own them? So does this guy, which is why he started this blog with a friend. Enjoy.

Another SI Snafu?

In his March 9 article in Sports Illustrated, "The Wrong Man,", which is drawn from a new book on the Dodgers, Forever Blue, Michael D'Antonio makes what he and SI present as a new, provocative argument : That Walter O'Malley is not to blame for the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. That this argument still defies conventional wisdom is a testament to the tenacity of conventional wisdom. But it is not new. Neil Sullivan, in his book The Dodgers Move West (Oxford, 1987), made a similar argument more than two decades ago. D'Antonio's article makes no mention of Sullivan's book. I hope D'Antonio's book does not make the same mistake. It is a grave ethical oversight in both journalism and academia to present an idea as original if it is not. In this case, the idea decidedly is not original and to present it as such is deeply dishonest.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Save Money, Go To College

Looking to cut costs but still want to travel? The New York Times recommends going to college. In a manner of speaking. College campuses and the towns that host them have art museums and public lectures, culture and sporting events, places to eat and drink and things to do, libraries and bookstores. I always find that one of the pleasures of research trips is getting to experience another college. Late next week I will leave for a trip that will encompass The University of South Carolina, where I am a fellow at the Institute for Southern Studies this year, and The University of Virginia, where I will be participating in the Virginia Festival for the Book and attending a reunion of fellows at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

An Odd Odd Man Out

Uh oh. Yet another memoir is having aspersions cast upon its veracity. Odd Man Out is a memoir about a season in the low minor leagues that has garnered considerable press in large part because its author, Matt McCarthy, is a graduate of Yale and is now a medical doctor. Sports Illustrated recently ran an excerpt of the book. But now The New York Times has done some snooping and something is awry.

The accusations are of two types, one damning, one (possibly) less so. McCarthy claims that he took prodigious notes in journals during the time. Yet there are clearly some factual errors, and enough of them are substantial. This is fairly damning, especially since as of now McCarthy has refused to show his journals to anyone. The issue appears to be that his journals are undated. If so, this might be sloppy, but also would explain some of the factual inconsistencies.

The second accusations come from people who insist that they never could or would have said or done certain things. In almost all cases, the things they claim not to have said or done are offensive and make them look bad. These accusations I take with a grain of salt. Anyone who has ever spent any time in a locker room or on a road trip with male athletes and coaches knows damned well the sorts of things that guys will say and do. As a general rule, athletes say piggish things all the time. None would want those words exposed necessarily, but when someone exposes them, a denial does not make them untrue. I sure as hell am glad no one had designs on writing a memoir about my high school sports teams, or even my college track team, as trust me, being at Williams does not make guys any more sensitive about bodily functions, physical abnormalities, women, or basically anyone who can be made fun of. If there is any solace it is that guys are every bit as awful to their teammates as they are in discussing outside targets of their mirth, mockery, or meanness.

Of course if someone who was never on the Williams track team were to write a memoir, would anyone be surprised? The genre is beset with difficulties to the point where maybe we need a five-year moratorium on no-names writing them.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Cassel Trade

Color me as one of the people who was unimpressed when I first heard that the Patriots had traded both linebacker Mike Vrabel and quarterback Matt Cassel to Kansas City for a mere second-round draft pick. After the year Cassel had, and with the paucity of good starting quarterbacks in the league, I think most people assumed that the market for him would slowly heat up and that the Pats would eventually be fending off suitors. Instead the Pats got rid of cassel on the first weekend of free agency, giving an indication that they felt the market might not be what they had hoped or that they are just that confident in Tom Brady's recovery from his devastating knee injury.

Whatever the circumstances, I think that the Kraft-Belichick era has shown us one thing, which is that the coach and his support staff know what they are doing. As today's Boston Globe editorial on the trade argues:

But the intensely competitive Belichick did not attain his professional preeminence by peddling talented players at discount prices. Critics of the Cassel trade risk putting themselves in the position of a tourist who thinks he knows that a rug merchant in the Tehran bazaar has sold a couple of carpets too cheap.
That sounds about right. Cassel had a wonderful year this past season and any Patriots fan has to wish him well. But he was not going to supplant Brady this year or anytime in the future and the time to get value for him was going to be fleeting. All's fine in Foxborough.

That Giant Flushing Sound

Naturally one of the things that an opposition party does above all others is oppose. But the Republicans are fast becoming the party of Rush Limbaugh and Joe the Plumber. I'm going to bet that on balance that is not good for either the GOP or American conservatism. For a party that only serves to oppose loses its relevance rather quickly. And while I am enjoying the short-term spectacle of the right shrilly imploding it is not good for American politics for the right to become little more than a cartoon of obstructionism in action.