Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Inevitable, Ignominious End of the Three Alphas

Lost in all of the losses, the roster upheavals, the endless disinformation campaigns, and the instagram recriminations, there was a cold comfort to the Three Alphas era of Chicago Bulls basketball.  The front office, fresh off of proclamations that the team would become younger and more athletic, signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, two decorated, headstrong veterans with big personalities and collectively two and a half functioning knees between them to a universal chorus of disapproval from the basketbloggerati, and the entire enterprise collapsed exactly along the lines that everyone predicted.  In a year that has seen the entire project of prediction and conventional wisdom fall by the wayside, it is at least reassuring to know that when Rajon Rondo is introduced to a volatile environment of executive sabotage, espionage, and bumbling coaching howdy-doodery, a rational person can still count on the inevitable dysfunction.

The Bulls ended the Three Alphas project by trading Jimmy Butler to their old nemesis Tom Thibodeau, who committed the cardinal sin of winning with enough vomiting Nate Robinsons that people gave him credit instead of John Paxson and Gar Forman.  There is no need to go over the details of the trade-- there is an entire internet of that for the universal condemnation of the hideous return the Bulls got for one of the best players in the league.  That was to be expected.  While there's a decent case to be made that the Bulls should cash in Butler, no Bulls fan wanted the flustered Adam West-era Batman Villain front office to get swindled for a package headlined by a Knee Guy.

Chicago fans once again go into the attic to get the 
crutches for their ironic knee-related art installations

The Bulls are left a smoldering crater of basketball horror, the remnants of poor drafts, lopsided trades, and a bizarre commitment to targeting players despised by fans.  The Three Alphas turned out to be a lone alpha operation.  Rondo, who honed his game into a Shermanesque repudiation of jumpshooting, played competently only in select national TV contests.  Wade disintegrated before our eyes like the guy who drank from the wrong grail in the Last Crusade on numerous dunk attempts.  He will pick up his option and gleefully pocket his $24 million while easing into semi-retirement-- it is possible that he will replace his seat on the bench with a hammock.  With the exception of the time he paid $25,000 to make throat slash gestures at the Boston Celtics, Wade's willingness to put up with the gruesome specter of hoiball in order to take more of Jerry Reinsdorf's money is the only thing he's done as a Bull that I respect.  The Bulls are now left with two vestigial alphas clogging the salary cap and sowing dissent as the team sinks to the bottom of the standings like a rotting ship floating aimlessly because the entire crew has already mutinied and eaten each other.

The Three Alphas devolved into increasingly bizarre social media feuding

The Jimmy Butler trade has ignited a firestorm of fan anger towards the Bulls' front office.  John Paxson, the floppy-haired hero of the 1993 Finals, has transformed into a bald, flinty-eyed executive who runs his front office like a crime boss in an action movie who spends all his time sitting angrily in an overstuffed office chair waiting for someone to be brought in to be either berated or fed to a carnivorous animal.  Paxson holds press conferences infrequently and only after an earth-shatteringly boneheaded move where he irritably fends off questions by people who he clearly thinks are too dumb to comprehend his plan even though he works in a field with the most literal definitions of success and failure possible.   Gar Formans' job is to burst out of ducts and gnash his teeth at people.

Bulls fans secretly hope for a Terminator incident to prevent Paxson 
from sinking that shot in the 1993 Finals in order to prevent him from 
trading Jimmy Butler for a guy who is going to be dunked into a Wile E.
Coyote accordion

There is little to look forward to.  A team with Butler and the largely incompetent roster from this season would battle again for a brief playoff cameo.  The Bulls acquired no additional draft picks and sold their second-round pick, a pick so old that it's riddled with those s that look like f letters for straight cash to the Golden State Warriors.  That money should, at the very least, go to upgrading the fleet of t-shirt blimps, hiring dozens of playwrights to come up with a new Stacy King catchphrase, or at least lowering the free big mac threshold to 99 points.  The Bulls are a sclerotic organization run by people who seem to have given over the entirety of their jobs to petty feuds and contracting exotic gouts. Thank goodness the city has an entire Big Ten team to fall back on.


There are few things in the world more unnerving than a wealthy, powerful industrialist who decides that it is time to do something especially if that industrialist has enough money to buy a tract of land the size of two Delawares and has a vision of society includes strict and specific ideas about folk dancing.  By 1927, Henry Ford had developed a company powerful enough to try to industrialize the Amazon rainforest while indulging his belief that he could also build a community based on his own bizarre beliefs in a non-existent idealized America in the heart of the jungle.  Greg Grandin's Fordlandia follows Ford's disastrous Amazon rubber plantation between its founding and abandonment in 1945.  Grandin argues that, in Fordlandia, Ford saw the rainforest as not only a source of rubber but a blank slate upon which he could project his interpretation of American ideals that were, he believed, under increasing attack in the United States from forces like the government, unions, Jews, and as Grandin suggests, the very forces of consumerism unleashed by his own ubiquitous automobiles.  Grandin shows how this grand Amazonian Fordism fell apart in the face of remote and incompetent management, workers who chafed against Ford's strange and exacting behavioral expectations, and the jungle itself, which laid waste to millions of rubber trees and rendered the entire enterprise futile.

Ford's foray into Brazil came from a concern over the rubber supply.  Brazil had been the world's foremost rubber supplier.  That all changed when a bumbling, hard-luck British man named Henry Wickham managed to spirit a cache of rubber seeds back to Kew Gardens.  British cultivators brought them to Sri Lanka and Malaysia where the trees thrived with no natural predators.  Soon, Asian production outpaced the less efficient Brazilian supply and brought rubber under British control.  Wickham's story is chronicled in Joe Jackson's The Thief at the End of the World, which ends with a brief section on Fordlandia, and which I reviewed although I focused mainly on a brief passage that involves one of Wickham's ancestors getting cheated in a horse race by the slovenly George IV.  As Grandin describes it, Ford and tire magnate Harvey Firestone resented that the British government had the ability to tax and restrict their access to such a precious resource and began to scheme to grow their own rubber, free from taxes and restrictions and the grubby fingers of Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill.

Grandin describes how Fordlandia from the start had problems with managers who were hired to build cars and then found themselves shipped out to carve an America from the rainforest.  One early manager, an overmatched ship captain, turned to drink as disease claimed three of his children.  His successor, a Ford engineer from Detroit, left after the heat made him swell up.  He did two stints, and I like to imagine that he returned, fit, and glowing with health only to step off the gangplank, blow up like a parade float, and get rolled back into a cabin.  Willis Long Reeves Blakely, the first manager and an acolyte of Ford's enforcer Harry Bennett, established himself by repeatedly subjecting the port city of Belém to his naked ass:
Blakely quickly gained a reputation among the rogues and expatriates as a drunkard and exhibitionist.  He stayed in the best corner suite on the second floor of the Grande Hotel, Belém's finest, with a veranda an floor-to-ceiling windows, the shutters of which he left open as he walked around naked and made love to his wife.  The hotel, since demolished, was located on the city's central plaza, and Blakely's room faced the majestic Theatro da Paz, where the city's gentry promenaded every evening, coiffed and bedecked in formal wear.  "Everyone on the street could see," complained the hotel manager...
When Ford came to a region, whether it was a Michigan lumber town or millions of acres of rainforest, it brought the promise of investment, infrastructure, hospitals, and high wages. The price, as anyone clamoring for Ford involvement found, was a demand for conformity with Henry Ford's ideas about how to live. These ideas included enforced temperance, refraining from jazz age "sex dancing," and not unionizing; Ford unleashed Bennett's Service Department, a violent, cudgelous goon squad, to intimidate, infiltrate, and physically attack any group with a whiff of union about it.
Bennett (l) with Ford (c) sporting his signature bow tie 
look that he wore because of its strategic value in fistfights. 
 Bennett's most interesting role in the company was in a 
bizarre Ford family psychodrama where Ford set him up 
as a rival to his son Edsel.  Ford delighted in taunting and 
insulting Edsel, who he saw as weak and unable, unlike 
Bennett, to call in swarms of violent goons to render violence 
against his enemies and hammer them with his fists 
probably with weird nineteenth-century boxing stances

In Fordlandia, the Ford proscriptions extended to Main Street USA style houses wildly unsuited to the climate; Grandin's interviewees and archival sources described them as "hotter than the gates of hell," "galvanized iron bake ovens" and "midget hells, where one lies awake and sweats the first half of the night, and frequently between midnight and dawn undergoes a fierce siege of heat-provoking nightmares."  A switch to a sweltering mess hall and buffet system so incensed workers already pushed past exhaustion clearing brush through a maze of biting insects and poisonous snakes provoked an uprising in late 1930 that could only be quashed with help from the Brazilian army.

Ford's greatest folly was his belief that industrialization could be brought to bear on the Amazon. The grand economies of scale that had turned Ford into an automotive juggernaut could not produce rubber.  The company's attempt to mimic the enormous plantation production in Asia failed Brazil, where an entire ecosystem had developed around destroying tree clusters.  As Grandin describes it, the rubber tree canopies became highways for blight as waves of insects, fungi, and caterpillars leveled the trees year after year.  Ford's management figured out how to perform elaborate tree grafts, but production remained dwarfed by Asia and, by the late 1940s, petroleum-based synthetic rubber. In 1945, Ford's grandson Henry Ford II took over the company and sold Fordlandia back to the Brazilian government for the cost of back wages owed the workers.

Grandin trawled through archives and traveled to Brazil to chronicle a largely forgotten monumental enterprise.  Parts of Ford's settlements and factories still exist with roads and water towers and homes and possibly stacks of mildewed newspapers with strong a strong editorial voice in favor of the fox trot.  The strength of this book is its profile of Ford as a man with the resources and will to not only bring a Fordlandia into existent but to suffuse it with his various monomanias, to send armies of people to clear and plant and build and die, and to try to control how hundreds of thousands of people ate and dressed, learned, and thought about time itself. The whole enterprise invites an inevitable comparison to Fitzcarraldo on a massive scale, Werner Herzog's movie about a madman trying to move a boat against the unyielding rainforest while yelling and making Klaus Kinsky faces. If Ford yelled at the rainforest, though, he did so in Detroit.  He never visited Fordlandia.

Friday, June 2, 2017


The Chicago Cubs, the Reigning Champions of Baseball, have returned this season and they are floundering.  They are under .500, in third place in baseball's most putrid division. They have just dropped six in a row; the last time that happened was in 2012 when they were literally trying to lose as many baseball games as possible so they could draft Kris Bryant, and their roster consisted of a bunch of Spinal Tap drummers.  That was the year they sent a possibly fictional baseball player to the All-Star game who then vanished from the face of the Earth like a reverse Roy Hobbs.

A new controversial theory suggest that Bryan LaHair eventually, over 
the course of millenia, evolved into modern birds

The Let Cooler Heads Prevail people are blogging away about their BABIPs and Regressions to the Mean, and the Cubs' placement in a division full of teams that appear to have just learned about baseball through Wikipedia entries illustrated solely with blurry pictures of Matt Stairs.  Yes, the Cubs will play more than 100 more games and have plenty of time to right the ship.  And yes, after last year's long-awaited championship ended a century-long drought, the Cubs could move to St. Louis, form a splinter group of ultra-Cardinalism that preaches a more stringent, boring, and righter way to play baseball, and slather themselves in ketchup while denouncing all of the weird condiment, sausage, and pizza preferences that have somehow become sacrosanct markers of civic identity and I wouldn't care for like five years.  The Cubs are shitty right now and it's time to strike while the iron is hot.

The Cubs destroyed the world last year and seemed to have enough young superstars, prospects, and briefcases full of Ricketts money that is currently being used to terraform the entirety of Lakeview into Wrigley Field to remain a juggernaut for years.  The Cubs would, by all accounts, continue to rampage through the NL Central and threaten in the playoffs.  Instead, the Cubs have stumbled and instead of having to write about how the Despised Cub Men are bludgeoning the National League with their Run Differential and Joe Maddon is now managing entire series as a new kooky character he invented called Vance Goatwright, we can settle into the comforting routine writing about how the Cubs are beefing it in the field, stranding enough players on the bases to require the mobilization of a baserunner helicopter rescue service, and altogether playing a flailing, inelegant, moron baseball that can only be described by years honed watching the Cubs try to play baseball.

The Cubs' main problem all season has been the starting pitching.  Their collection of Vintage Pitchers have begun to show their age.  John Lackey now exists only as a gleaming-toothed grimace tracing the path of a ball into the bleachers.  Kyle Hendricks accidentally erased the program on his graphing calculator that allowed him to strike guys out with 86 mile-per-hour fastballs.  Brett Anderson is on the Disabled List with standing on the mound emitting an unearthly howl as his skull exploded all over "Cowboy" Joe West.  Jake Arrieta's chest is swallowing up his arms and legs.  I read somewhere that this Jon Lester guy can't even throw to first.

Highly scientific diagram of the past two seasons of Arrieta pitching

The Cubs are balancing out their shaky pitching by swinging bats made of ashed cigarettes.  The most visible example of this is the struggling Kyle Schwarber but that might be because he is large enough to be visible from space.  Schwarber, who beefed his way into fans' hearts by waddling around and damaging Wrigley Field signage with his towering ding shots has been one of the worst hitters in baseball this season.  A man who made a miraculous recovery from a catastrophic knee injury to become a World Series hero against some of the best pitchers in baseball after a couple days of live pitching is now flailing against anonymous innings-eaters on tanking teams and relievers recently discharged from the Kevin Gregg Institute of Goggled Belly-Itching.  Schwarber is also a contributor to the Cubs' regression from a world-historical baseball defense to something resembling ordinary by doing things like belly-flopping so hard during a pouring game that the umpires immediately called for the tarp and a large piece of Schwarber-shaped turf.

Schwarber is not the only Cub struggling, though.  Only Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, and part-timers Miguel Montero and Jon Jay have a wRC+ over 100.  Addison Russell is hitting barely better than Schwarber, but still at least playing stellar defense.  The problem has been exacerbated by a road trip where the Cubs refused to knock in baserunners-- thousands of years from now, they will find the silhouettes of runners trapped forever in scoring position in Southern California.
Cubs advanced analytics tell us it is impossible to score from third 
base because of Zeno's Paradox

The sample sizes are small.  The division is bad.  The Cubs preceded their 0-6 slump with a 7-2 homestand, and they returned to Wrigley Field with a chance to get right back into it with a series against the Cardinals.  

But I'm going to take it in and savor it, this rare patch of Cubs Panic.  Last year, they came out of the gate as the best team in baseball, made it to the World Series, and won it in a game that exorcised all of the Cubs demons by essentially running through a truncated greatest hits compilation of choking before finally holding on in rain-delayed extra innings. Before last year, every hiccup was a stumble in a race against the destruction of another season in a losing streak so endless that the televised footage of their playoff games featured a large number of cemeteries.  They were a doomsday cult. Now, the Cubs are a mere underperforming baseball team.  This losing streak has been irritating and frustrating, and completely lacking in the existential despair that has accompanied every Cubs downturn in any year that they've actually been supposed to be good, but after a lifetime of pessimism and reflexive baseball doom-mongering, it's been strange to watch the Cubs flounder around, briefly worry, and then reach for the nearest piece of licensed championship memorabilia and go back to watching baseball like an approximation of a normal person.