Saturday, September 11, 2021

Who Knows

Many people attempting to tune into Northwestern football last Saturday had the experience of watching Mack Brown make the exact face of an alderman who has returned home to see that the FBI is ransacking his office for documents and then within seconds the broadcast switched to show Northwestern lining up to block an extra point already down 6-0 after 13 seconds, and the game never really improved over that. 
 
This is how I believe many Chicago Alderman have looked when the FBI 
discovered several clearly marked folders saying "Meat Crimes"
 
With the exception of last year's unexpected and inspired buttkicking of a pandemic-discombobulated Maryland team, it is not uncommon for Northwestern to stumble around the opening portion of its season, at some point desperately fending for life while down to a school that has just started playing a football again after some tough-looking guys showed up on campus one day in a van.  This is a suspect tactic in most years; in a year when the Wildcats had to start against a mysterious Michigan State team full of dynamic new players, it was disastrous.  By the fourth quarter, virtually no hope for a victory remained and with I continued to watch only because Northwestern football is on television and because I needed to do some important scouting of Northwestern's quarterback even though my knowledge of quarterback technique involves using up to three passing plays in the version of the NCAA football game with Larry Fitzgerald on the cover.  All that was left was to grimly wait for the most brutal consequence of a loss to the Spartans: Magic Johnson enthusiastically tweeting out the exact number of yards that Kenny Walker had run against the Wildcats.
 
One way to react to the loss is to panic.  Mike Hankwitz, the wizened defensive coordinator, has retired and been replaced by Jim O'Neil fresh from helming fairly bad NFL defenses, and if you really wanted to savor and lean into a narrative of collapse and ruin you could say that Hankwitz had been propping up the program while Fitzgerald served as the enormous figurehead and now Northwestern is going to go back into the days where they lost every game 49-3 and the students will have to purchase earth-moving equipment to throw the goalposts into the lake in the rare event that they eke out a win against Western Illinois and on top of all that several smart-alecks on the internet may go so low as point out that Northwestern is no longer geographically in the Northwestern portion of the country.
 
On the other hand, it is possible to take comfort in the fact that Northwestern remains a confounding and impossible program capable of the highest highs and lowest lows in the same season.  Maybe the defensive performance will remain at the wretched level we saw Saturday or maybe it will improve; maybe the offense will figure out how to get an effective running game going or maybe they will be forced to operate in the Tecmo Super Bowl offense when the computer decides to start cheating by making its players several times faster than yours and the only play that works in the playoffs is trying to eke out a few lumbering yards on Mike Tomczak scrambles except for the few times he is maybe able to dink it over to the tight end before he is instantly tackled. 
 
To be honest I have a hard time writing about reacting to these wins and losses because frankly I am not football person, I am not grinding tape or crunching numbers or speaking to anyone even tangentially associated with Northwestern football and so when I analyze Northwestern football on my Northwestern football blog week after week it appears the best I can come up with is fuck if I know.  What we are trying to do here (using the royal we here because imagine that this blog was actually a functioning organization and there were people here scurrying around a busy press room to get me a poorly photoshopped picture of Pat Fitzgerald turning into a werewolf that can be hastily crammed with a caption that is comically small while I'm barking on my phone to get quotes about a swashbucklingly corrupt nineteenth-century Chicago aldermen who died because his mustache got caught in an industrial apparatus) is not to try to figure out why or how Northwestern can win a game to determine how funny each result is and also to make fun of P.J. Fleck's Coaching Acronyms.
 
Northwestern's next game is against Indiana State, which will serve as an important test case to see if Northwestern can beat Indiana State.  Anyone looking to panic will find what they are looking for in this game; there is no amount of points that Northwestern can score against the Sycamores that can convince the skeptics that the Michigan State game is a fluke and anything less than a completely dominant performance can effectively augur doom and gloom.  Games against FCS opponents offer little more than a cheap win or the very amusing and satisfying upset for everyone else if a power conference team loses at home and then has to cut a large novelty check to the opponent and one can imagine a loss here would finally force Fitzgerald to tearfully admit that he is a "Rece Davis."
 
It is difficult to get too high or low for Northwestern.  While many of the people reading this have been lucky enough to support the Wildcats in their Golden Age of Decency and the years of crushing futility are now decades past, they still, I believe, maintain a hold on the program.  And leaving the 1970s and 1980s behind, the expectations for Northwestern football are still fairly modest: have a winning season, go to a bowl, and irritate the hell out of the Big Ten West.  While losing individual games can be a bummer, it is still kind of funny imagining a fuming a Northwestern fan storming out of the room after watching a desultory loss to, say, Minnesota and then angrily explaining to someone who doesn't watch football that "they're going to the Music City Bowl" when "I wanted them to go to the Outback Bowl." 
 
THE RETURNS
 
I am not really a pro wrestling guy-- even though I enjoy the concept of wrestlers getting unexpectedly betrayed then bonked on the noggin or how a wrestler will startle an opponent by appearing with the full fanfare of a theme song while everyone in the ring just stands there in a slack-jawed summerstock reverie while the music finishes up or even how much fun it is to imagine a professional wrestler who is just podcast personality Marc Maron who says things like "oh we're hitting each other with chairs now? really?" I don't really follow it or know who anyone is who is not a withered hot dog man who fought against Mr. T. or a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears.  But I did enjoy the video of the wrestler walking into the United Center and having people lose their shit for several minutes because I appreciate that a spectacle of athletic violence where people leap off of cages and occasionally slice their own faces open for dramatic effect is at heart a sentimental business.
 
This weekend Kris Bryant returned to Wrigley Field.  He is the first of the World Series players traded at the deadline to return to the park (Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber returned earlier this year after being let go last offseason).  A tearful Bryant got a rapturous ovation, a sentimental video, a piece of the scoreboard, a 2016 banner, and a photo with the team owner who ostensibly is the reason Bryant is no longer on the team.  The fact that Bryant is not a creaky retiring player but is in fact in his prime and an impending free agent that the Cubs traded only because they do not want to pay him what he and his agent think he is worth made this whole thing a little confusing.  The only more cynical tribute I can think of is the Bulls welcoming Luol Deng with a warm video after nearly killing him with an unnecessary spinal tap.

 
Regardless of the circumstances, I always eat up these videos and tributes to players coming back because I am a sentimental idiot.  It is always heartening to see players return to where circumstances-- usually a draft that consigned a player to years toiling for a crappy team-- allowed them to flourish and grow up and connect to fans.  Bryant and the other traded Cubs will eventually form bonds with other fanbases but right now they are just hired guns here to help get a team over the hump.  No one has felt this more acutely than Javy Báez, who has found that Mets fans are less accommodating of his tendency to swing at pitches that are currently being thrown at Yankee Stadium and reckless attempts at derring do on the basepaths because he did not help them win their team's first World Series in 108 years.  Báez and his teammates got involved in one of baseball's funniest controversies this season when he admitted that he was making a thumbs down gestures at the fans to boo them because he could not go to their places of business and heckle them, causing them so much distress that they run out of work and lose their pinky toe to a street cleaning machine.
 

The Mets immediately issued a press release claiming that 
Javy had been "very unfair to Mets fans with the thumbs" and that 
they are "looking into it very strongly."
 
It was impossible to imagine that the Cubs could do anything after the trades this season other than roll around and die in an undignified manner, but they somehow have been staggering through because of the improbable play of three 30-year-olds who have never had meaningful playing time in the majors and now are guys that Cubs fans may remember in ten years.  Patrick Wisdom has been bashing home runs since he came up in May and Rafael Ortega has delivered dramatic, game-winning hits.  But no Cub has more quickly endeared himself to fans than Frank Schwindel.  Schwindel, called up as part of the baffling array of players conjured seemingly from thin air on July 31, has been hitting the ball at an impossible, Roy Hobbsian pace.  
 
Schwindel has the unassuming look of a guy in suspenders knocking down cans of corn from the top shelf with a wooden pole.  He doesn't sound like a real ballplayer in 2021, but Frank Schwindel sounds like a name you would use if you were writing a lightly fictionalized version of the 1919 Black Sox and needed a name for a minor character who wasn't on the take and keeps trying to rally the team with dopey motivational speeches after they continue to lose World Series games with a series of spectacular errors. Schwindel was selected in the 18th round of the 2013 draft by Kansas City.  After five years in the minors, he managed to cling onto the major league roster for a few weeks before getting sent down and bouncing through a couple more organizations.  He played a bit for Oakland this year before they released him.  The Cubs did not so much promote Schwindel as unleash him.  He has hit .361/.414/.684 as a Cub with ten home runs in only 145 plate appearances and after hitting a home run is often found in the dugout soaking it up and making endearingly goofy facial expressions to the camera.
 
 
The central question when it comes to a player like Schwindel is whether this is sustainable.  Of course it is not.  It is unlikely that a 29-year-old journeyman minor leaguer is all of a sudden a version of Miguel Cabrera you would get if a video game did not have the rights to his likeness.  Every year, guys we have never heard of go on tears for a month or two at a time before coming back down to Earth; we've even seen almost the exact version of this in Chicago this year with Yermin Mercedes who terrorized opposing pitchers as The Yerminator before getting into a profoundly stupid controversy with Tony LaRussa  over Baseball Decency and then watching his OPS lower itself into a vat of molten steel.  
 
But the question I have is who cares?  I'm not the general manager of the Chicago Cubs so I don't have to worry about who their first baseman will be next year.  I'm not popping into a ballgame with the green visor of baseball statistics to mutter something about small sample size and regression to the mean with a set of numbers developed to help people win fantasy baseball leagues and general managers avoid spending too much money on free agents. I am not concerned if Schwindel follows the path of Cubs All-Star Brian LaHair and ends up playing overseas next year.  Every single one of his at-bats has counted.  He had a stretch where he single-handedly won a bunch of games with home runs, grand slams, and the first time I have ever seen a slide into first base work.  He is a former minor leaguer on a team that has given up as profoundly as any team has in the twenty-first century and he is going out there and exuding magic so that the Cubs can make an otherwise depressing series against a Pirates team that seems like it is actively trying to lose to blatantly that it requires an investigation fun, and he has made himself from a player toiling fruitlessly in the minors for years into a household name in Chicago however briefly.  I have seen multiple people wearing Frank Schwindel replica jerseys.  I am very sorry that I referred to him when he first came up as "Frank Schalmiel."
 
The central condition about baseball is that there is so much of it.  It is almost absurd how much baseball there is.  They play nearly twice as many games as the next major pro sport in this country and they are on every day and anyone who just casually flips on a game every now and then immediately gets to know the players whether they are formerly anonymous journeymen or superstars.  It is unlikely that Schwindel or Wisdom or Ortega get the type of ovation we just saw for Bryant at Wrigley Field.  But they play an important role even if their job is ostensibly just being there and not costing the owners a lot of money as they try to unearth the next Bryants and Rizzos and Báezes.  I am not sure how much I will remember this brief late Summer of Schwindel, but there he is every day, for real.



Friday, September 3, 2021

Mergers and Acquisitions

The consolidation of college football's most powerful teams into a superconference at this point seems inevitable. Once the college football powers that be had four playoff teams, the question became why they did not have more. Once the committee established that there is nothing a non-Power Five team could do to actually enter the playoff short of entering Bryant-Denny Stadium in the middle of an otherwise desultory Alabama win and challenging the Tide right then and there and then beating them handily, and once it became evident that the SEC was the only conference that mattered save for a smattering of other teams, then we would eventually reach a point where it seems like the sport is headed for a superconference that picks out the powerhouse teams and makes an entire season of the playoff while the remainders bludgeon each other in increasing obscurity and it is not clear to me if this is even bad.
If there is one thing I can appreciate about the College Football Playoff is that they
invest the proceedings to determine whether Ohio State goes to the playoff or the
Fiesta Bowl with the grim aesthetic seriousness of inventing Yugoslavia from the
Austro-Hungarian Empire

The fact of the matter is that the nebulous world of college football--the major conferences, the powerful schools, the television networks, and the NCAA sort of stumbling alongside them as a deputy emerging from a bathroom with a trail of toilet paper stuck to its shoe to ask players how they managed to afford those pants-- is going all in on a model that prizes the national championship picture over all else and represents a stunning misunderstanding of the sport. They understand that this championship focus is the surest way to bring in advertising dollars and cable carriage fees and sponsorships and even more money trickling to players for top schools in their NIL deals. It is the obvious thing to do by the rules that govern the operation of all sports and entertainment enterprises as vehicles for making money for grasping middlemen who don't have to get tackled by 365 pound nose tackles, but a myopic version of the sport that demonstrates a lack of understanding that the chase for the championship for most fans is a silly and irrelevant sideshow compared to watching their own teams slop around for twelve stupid games that mean nothing except everything to the people there.

What the college football establishment is doing is attempting to build a delicate floating island resort for top teams that can compete for championships over the awful, roiling ocean of football chaos. There are horrible things down there-- triple options, overtimes, toppled goalposts, Ryan Field filled with opposing fans on a gray November Saturday where teams combine for 17 total points and a sinkhole claims the special teams coach. But, for most fans, that cauldron of 11AM kickoffs in half-empty stadiums between godforsaken teams vying for a spot in the Pinstripe Bowl is the experience of the sport and will be until the United States finally makes college football illegal.

With Texas and Oklahoma set to join the SEC, there are few other teams left out of that conference that have any playoff resonance. There is Clemson, of course, and then Florida State and maybe Miami, there is a rusted Notre Dame still held aloft by enough load-bearing red-faced midwestern uncles, and maybe the desiccated husk of USC if they want to consider the west coast television markets. And then there is the big one, Ohio State, currently idling in a Big Ten with no actual challengers after rendering its rival Michigan into a pitiable program that mainly excels at sending strongly-worded letters. The Big Ten, ACC, and PAC 12 are attempting to fight off the SEC’s power grab by forming a hilariously gossamer alliance in a stunning exhibition of cunning and skullduggery in torchlit zoom sessions where they all banded together and vowed that they would hold a vague press conference.  Should the SEC or whatever name the superconference ends up going by attempt to gobble up their remaining glamor teams the way it has just done to the Big 12, they will come together in an attempt to salvage their piece of the pie by furiously trying to shovel each other into the superconference’s maw until they are all devoured, picked clean, and left as rotting piles of Marylands and Washington States.

******

Whatever shape that college football consolidation takes, it is obvious that there is probably no room for Northwestern. Northwestern managed to grimly hold on to its spot in the Big Ten long enough to get onto the cable television gravy train and become a genuinely annoying enough presence in the conference to repeatedly gatecrash the Championship Game, but even so it is very hard to imagine the Wildcats qualifying for the Playoff or contending for a national championship against the elite programs bursting with NFL players. The program offers little to the sport as an entertainment enterprise; outside of the smattering of Northwestern fans, supporters of the week’s opponent, and gamblers so degenerate that they are acquiring VHS copies of Wild & Crazy Kids to bet on, it is impossible to imagine anyone tuning into a Northwestern game so they can watch some fundamentally sound linebacking and Pat Fitzgerald get an experimental plastic surgery to he could have one of those lizard frills installed on his neck that he can flare up to intimidate a referee who has called a horsehit pass interference penalty.

 
Artist's rendition
 
Northwestern and the vast majority of other teams outside the top echelon of the sport operate in a nebulous shadow world of football that orbits around the playoff and championship picture. This is fine because the entire process of choosing the playoff teams and crowning a champion exists as the sports world’s most convoluted, ludicrous, and stupid procedure, one that revolves around a cabal of unaccountable bureaucrats twisting themselves into agonizing contortions to get the teams that will get the best television ratings into the playoff while sanctimoniously pretending they are not doing that and instead are carefully weighing criteria such as Game Control and Body Clocks and whether or not some alumni chartered enough airplanes with a banners over an opponents’ game while everyone from conspiracy-laden maniacs frothing on message boards to the most serious men who have ever lived grimacing in a suit on ESPN all yell about it. From an outside perspective, this makes an entertaining and funny way to crown a champion, but if it affected the team I care about, I would get driven insane to the point of writing slightly longer blog posts.
 
Since Northwestern emerged from hibernation in 1995, it has been a fairly consistent pain in the ass for the Big Ten, starting the twenty-first century with Randy Walkers’ track meet squads that forced teams to chase a pesky, undersized quarterback all over the field for four quarters and evolving into the program’s apotheosis under Pat Fitzgerald as a team of anthropomorphic neck rolls who turn every game into the aesthetic equivalent of Borat tackling his nude producer in a hotel ballroom for three and half hours.
 
Is there a role for Northwestern in the picture of big time college football? Will the Big Ten, enamored with tradition, desperately attempt to stay together even as the money that has driven it to rapaciously expand onto the Eastern seaboard is now poised to pull it apart? There is a future where the Big Ten rallies and tries to form a rival superconference to the SEC. There is also a future where Ohio State and maybe a few of the biggest names get picked off, leaving a rump Big Ten desperately clinging to its berth in the Music City Bowl.

Either way, I don’t think it makes a difference. Everything about Northwestern football that matters is because in the larger scheme of college football, it doesn't matter. If the Big Ten manages to plod on, Northwestern will continue to play its grim Sisyphus football and occasionally ruin a promising season. And if college football consolidation forms that superconference and the Big Ten becomes a gentrified MAC, the Wildcats will still be able to perpetrate sloppy, drooling messes against Illinois in the cold November rain for a trophy shaped like Abraham Lincoln’s hat, which is all any of can really desire from this wretched sport.
 
2021 NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL PREVIEW
 
Of course Northwestern thrived in the grotesque football season that should not have existed. They played college football with a shocking indifference to the raging pandemic, and the swashbuckling monstrousness of the entire enterprise really put a damper on the funniest Big Ten season in years. It started with Scott Frost offering to wander the Earth to find a team willing to play Nebraska in college football with the bravado of a first guy to take a swing at Steven Seagal in a pool hall with similar results and ended with the Big Ten calling an ad hoc Constitutional Convention to allow Ohio State into the championship game and in between a traditional conference power got stomped into a fine powder by Indiana every week and the result of all this fuss and secret maneuvering was forcing America to watch more Northwestern football.

The Wildcats face a tall order trying to repeat this year. Peyton Ramsey is gone. Paddy Fisher is gone. Greg Newsome and Rashawn Slater went in the first round of the NFL draft. As I write this paragraph, Isaiah Bowser is bludgeoning Boise State in a UCF uniform and his successor Cam Porter will miss the season with an injury. They also have some returning building blocks including veteran linebacker Chris Bergen and young stars Brandon Joseph at safety and Peter Skoronski at tackle. The most important returning player will be Hunter Johnson, one of the quarterbacks during a rough 2019 who will get another shot this time in Mike Bajakian’s offense and who I am excited to see because “Hunter Johnson” should also be the name of a character Arnold plays in a 1994 movie where he is a postal inspector tracking dangerous packages in an investigation that constantly requires him to fire antitank weapons in a city center and then say to a horrified bystander “he didn’t use enough stamps.”

Inspectah Huntah Chonson is heeuh to stop da mail froo-awdt
 
For some reason the Big Ten has decided to open the season with conference play so instead of getting to ease into the season with an alarmingly sluggish game against a local dental college, they have to play on a Friday night against Michigan State. A miserable Spartans team cost Northwestern their only loss of the regular season because Rocky Lombardi turned into a midwestern Michael Vick.  This will be a tough test for a team that traditionally eases into the season before powering up in October before they get FCS Indiana State, quasi rival and fellow member of the ACC/Big Ten/Pac 12 Unbreakable Blood Pact Duke, and Ohio before getting to play a Nebraska team that feels like it will have to cancel a game because Scott Frost has decided that he needs to drive the bus with purpose and a manful chin jut before confidently swerving off the highway and motoring directly to the Yukon.     
 
There is still a pandemic by the way and they probably should not be playing football but we’re at a point where people are either vaccinated and confused about whether they should be doing anything anymore or unvaccinated because they can’t get a shot or are hesitant because of nonsense conjured on social media or are one of those maniacs mainlining horse pharmaceuticals and no government entity will ever shut down anything ever again even if there is a variant that turns us into werewolves that cough a lot so I suppose the central question from a Northwestern football perspective is whether college football will remain reckless enough to feign a normal season or if things will get dysfunctional and stupid enough to allow Northwestern to once again win the Big Ten West. They might as well, while there’s still a Big Ten West to win.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Maniacs Blew It Up

 There is a point that I get to any time I play the baroque soccer management game “Football Manager” in the dregs of semi-professional leagues where I have to decide whether to sell off the contract of my club talisman and star who may or may not be any good at the next level or sign him to a potentially ruinous contract that will destroy the wage budget and every time that has happened I have just stopped playing the game.  These are not real people but digitally-created blips that I can sort of watch pretend to play soccer for me over a spreadsheet that have been given ludicrous computer generated names like “Paolo Pasta” but I have gotten so attached to these digital athletes heroically dragging my sorry-ass team from a league where you have a van to one where you have a slightly bigger van that I can’t possibly let go of them. I get so anxious about making the wrong decision that it completely drains the fun of playing anymore; the experience transforms from being in a rollicking overseas soccer adventure to a middle management layoff simulator, at which point I just stop playing and turn to other ways to waste time like writing long, ponderous blog posts for 45 people.  It should come as no surprise that this is a post about the Chicago Cubs.

For more than a year, Cubs ownership and management have been signalling that the team was unwilling to sign any of its star players and World Series heroes to large, lucrative extensions, and fans have been bracing themselves to see them get shipped out of town in an attempt to salvage some sort of trade value for them before they left in free agency.  Nevertheless, the ending came shockingly quickly, almost (apologies for using this word to describe a series of baseball transactions) violently.  On a Thursday and Friday in late July, the Cubs shipped off the remaining players that fans had followed since they were in the minor leagues while the big league placeholders oafishly ran into each other and struck out by spinning around so quickly that they levitated several feet over the air-- these were the prospects representing the hope of a team that could somehow win a World Series victory.  Somehow, against everything I had grown up believing about the Chicago Cubs, they actually managed to do it.  Then they were gone suddenly, like the Cubs were a crooked nineteenth century circus leaving exactly one hour before someone realizes that the bear is actually a guy in a costume or if they were the fucking Pittsburgh Pirates.
 
 
The season was already doomed when they traded Yu Darvish in a pure salary dump and replaced him with a variety of castoffs and sixteen-inch softball pitchers and despite that the Cubs briefly managed to fight into first place based on an MVP-calber performance from Bryant and a shockingly good bullpen, most of which has also been sold off for scraps.  The players seemed like they were trying to spite the front office and stay together for one last season, but like so many seasons since 2016 they came up short.  I made my first and likely only appearance at Wrigley in nearly two years on a steamy Tuesday night to see the remnants of the World Series team one last time in a desultory loss to the Reds.  The previous night’s game, where Baez hit a walkoff single in a display of rollicking shittalkery, would be his final appearance as a Cub and the team’s last home win for nearly a month.

The Cubs faced a management conundrum based on how teams operate in 2021.  That means that the central question has changed from whether a baseball player is good to whether or not the club has extracted the maximum value possible for him and will continue to do so.  And in those terms, Hoyer had a genuine quandary.  Is it prudent to give a large amount of money to a unique player like Baez who must make up for frequently striking out on swings that can only be described as cartoonish by clobbering enough pitches over the fence and making plays on the field and basepaths that seem so reckless and ill-considered that they somehow work out like he is a charming Southern state senator who keeps getting reelected despite getting caught up in extortion schemes involving alligators?  Is Rizzo’s status as the most beloved Cub since Sammy Sosa worth paying for if he ends up as a declining power bat with back problems?  Should the Cubs pay Kris Bryant the enormous amount of money he will command as a free agent if they suspect that he is no longer the perennial MVP candidate and franchise savior he looked in the 2015-17 seasons but merely a very good baseball player who suffers at least one power-sapping injury a season?  \In each case, Hoyer clearly said no, and chose to restock the farm with a bunch of mysterious 19 year-olds who are so far from the majors that it is impossible to tell what they will become without letting any of the beloved World Series Cubs turn into albatross contracts like Jason Heyward.  Under these conditions, Hoyer may have acted wisely-- it is certainly possible that all three do not live up to the WAR per dollar calculations that baseball players can be abstracted to.    

Watching these guys fade away like Marty McFly's family 
 
On the other hand it is also possible to say that those are stupid, self-imposed conditions.  Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap.  The Ricketts family could pay any or all of these players and run up an astonishing payroll and then use their unfathomable wealth and the enormous amounts of cash available from their garbage television network and real estate ventures to buy their way out of mistakes, even if their short-term profits are in the red from the pandemic.  I don’t care if the Cubs are “financially responsible” with their payroll if it means I get to watch Javy Baez strike out and hit moonshots and somehow bamboozle an unfortunate Pittsburgh Pirate so badly on the basepaths that he goes to play in Korea; giving a large amount of money to any of those guys even if they end up mediocre or playing poorly is probably the least objectionable thing the Ricketts family can do with their money.   

Sentiment is a tricky thing in sports.  A certain ruthlessness is baked into the entire enterprise, and there are no small number of websites and podcasts that have stacks of statistics and acronyms and salary arcana that can make the case for cold-bloodedly jettisoning players no matter their importance to the team.  At the same time, baseball in particular runs on sentiment; I have come to believe that if you are ever on the East Coast you run considerable risk of being buttonholed by a sweater-wearing notable author who insists on waxing poetic on the Boston Red Sox or a fictional player invented in 1989 by Ken Burns, Bob Costas, and Billy Crystal named “Mickey Mantle” as part of a CIA psy-op on the Baby Boomer generation.  The biggest baseball event this season was a syrupy tribute to a 30-year-old movie about dead baseball players and the only time something supernatural emerging from a remote cornfield in a film has ever not eaten two or three supporting characters.  Owners want fans to feel sentimental when they ask for taxpayer-funded stadiums or cable carriage fees.  The tension between that sentiment and a process where teams are now full of fungible athletes like the transient relief pitchers who essentially live in a boxcar that is constantly shuttling them between AAA and the bigs every other week has always been a part of baseball but seems magnified now more than ever.

Being a sports fan involves knowing that, at root, you are a sucker.  Fans know that they exist in the sports ecosystem like they do in all aspects of society as breathing wallets that companies can extract money from.  But most sports fans accept this because rooting for teams is fun, gaining access to a broad, shared human experience is fun, watching spherical guys hit a ball 450 feet at a person who is about to make the goofiest face a human being can make before inadvertently showering everyone around them with beer or nacho shrapnel is fantastic.  Still, to see a team so quickly cast off any guise of sentiment, to strip a supposed “big market” team to its rivets so easily simply because the people who own it have nakedly said that signing a paycheck for a player is less important to them than saving an amount of money that to them is immeasurably insignificant is one of those moments that makes it impossible to surrender to the spectacle.  I know that as a sports fan I’m a sucker but don’t make me feel like a schmuck.

ROCK AND ROLL FABLE

If you have not seen the ridiculous 1984 Walter Hill rock and roll action movie Streets of Fire, here is how it begins: there’s a packed auditorium of fans watching a band styled like they could be backing up Jerry Lee Lewis impersonators before Diane Lane bounds onto the stage dressed like a discarded X-Man and belts out a gloriously 80s song by the maestro of goth showtunes Jim Steinman while a 1950s biker gang menacingly approaches the venue and enters shrouded in shadow before it reveals the leader is a pale, leering, vampiric Willem DaFoe whose haircut causes him to look in silhouette like a man with a perfectly square head.  It is my favorite movie scene that I have seen in some time.
 
 
The Diane Lane character gets kidnapped by William DaFoe and it is up to her ex-boyfried with the delightfully idiotic name “Tom Cody” to rescue her alongside a tough former soldier sidekick played by Amy Madigan and a slimy music manager played by Rick Moranis who is somehow named “Billy Fish.” The plot is all incidental to the appeal of the movie, which is the world of steaming neons and roaring engines that it inhabits at the fictional nexus of 1950s fashions and cars and 1980s music in a city that consists entirely of a single street that looks exactly like the portion of Wells Street under the L tracks.  The particular fusion of 1950s kitsch into an 80s setting was not uncommon; here I am thinking of how the town of Twin Peaks has a biker gang that exists to rumble with the football team over girlfriends but keeps getting getting sucked into a vast interdimensional cosmology involving formless primordial evil and dangerous French Canadians.

I do not want anyone reading this to think Streets of Fire is a particularly good movie.  Hill said he wrote it as something a 13-year-old would come up with, and it works exactly at that level.  There are bad guys and good guys and everyone acts like they are action figures being maneuvered around a damp, neon-lit basement.  The movie’s major problem is that Tom Cody is supposed to be a laconic icon of American cool but is instead played by Michael Paré as a wooden doofus.  It is not his fault that he bears a slight resemblance to Jay Cutler and the entire time he seemed like he was attempting an impossible rescue mission with the disgusted resignation of Cutler relaying a Mike Martz play that would require J’Marcus Webb to block his man for like four and a half seconds before anyone was open.  
 
Tell Billy Fish I said "fuck you"
 
The best scenes in the movie are the music scenes that crackle with energy, more so than the action scenes with are mostly Tom Cody sullenly blowing up vehicles with his rifle.  The Steinman songs are completely over the top and I am convinced the only person in 1984 who could effectively write songs for this movie is a guy who mastered the art of vaguely supernatural teenage torch songs sung by a large, sweaty man in his 30s whose music videos convey the concept of turning into a werewolf.  The other best scenes are the brief times Willem DaFoe is allowed to do anything from strutting around in an explosion while wearing leather overalls to coming up with the loonily operatic way he would like to face Cody in a final showdown. 
 
Streets of Fire bombed in theaters.  It appears that the American moviegoing public lacked an appetite for movies about motorcycle gangs, synthesizers, and old-timey police cars that probably have one of those "woo woo" sirens in 1984 or preferred movies that offered more than cardboard cutouts.  But that sort of diorama quality is the best part of this film-- a movie that exists entirely as someone putting something in a movie precisely because it would look cool in a movie and do nothing else.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Baseball Botches Cheating Scandal By Not Calling it "Glue-Doping"

For my money, the most enjoyable cheating scandal in any sport is when a professional cyclist is caught using a motor secreted into a bicycle. That is an incredibly brazen way to cheat. It is cartoon cheating-- the only thing more dastardly than competing in a cycling race with a literal motor would be to see someone attempt to qualify for the Olympic high jump wearing enormous springs before getting carted out of the stadium with an injury where they are folded up into an accordion shape.

Cyclists have decided to refer to this, the practice of entering a bicycle race with a literal motor attached to the bike, as moto-doping. Presumably this name comes from the more common method of cheating in bicycle races through drug regimens or those programs where Tour de France riders have all of their blood drained and clumsily replaced with a mutant ooze in a dank hotel room. This is wonderful. Somehow, a plague of guys zipping past the peloton on improvised mopeds has yielded an all-time great cheating suffix, one that should be adopted immediately by every sporting concern.

Baseball, for example, spent most of the 2019-20 offseason entangled in the Astros sign-stealing garbage can banging scandal, which by all rights should be referred to as Can-Doping. Now, the biggest story in baseball is about pitchers using exotic adhesives to doctor the baseball. It seems like the baseball world is grappling with what to call this transgression. The most common term I have seen is a crackdown on “sticky stuff;” if MLB and baseball media had any sense or clarity of purpose, they would immediately begin referring to this crisis as Glue-Doping.

Pitchers have been rubbing baseballs with foreign substances as long as the sport has existed. The current glue predicament, like most modern baseball scandals, seems to have mutated into a crisis from the twin hobgoblins of analytics and technology. Baseball undergoes an approximate five-year cycle where a new term appears on the nerdiest baseball blogs that explains an advantage or long-sought market inefficiency and then the term then filters into the Sloan Analytics circuit and front office guys wearing those Investment Vests and then finally comes dribbling awkwardly out of the of mouths of grizzled former players on studio shows and local broadcasts like a trickle of tobacco juice. One of those recent trendy metrics has been Spin Rate, which has become ubiquitous.

The consequences of the new spin rate obsession were obvious: pitchers recognized that increasing their spin rate would lead to higher paychecks for established pitchers or the possibility of a steady job in the majors for the dozens of interchangeable relievers who are belt-fed at hitters are often yo-yoed back down to the minors.

The emphasis on spin rate manifested from technological change in two ways. First, spin rate was not something that could be measured without the fancy cameras that teams have all recently adopted as part of the increasingly-ubiquitous pitch labs. Second was the development of new sticky substances beyond the pine tar that Michael Pineda was attempting to hide by pretending it was some sort of alarming neck secretion or the various sandpapers and jalapeño snots that pitchers had used before. The most infamous of these is a product called Spider Tack, invented by one of those strongman guys who you see on ESPN2 wearing the car suspenders when strapped to a Volkswagen who made the glue so he could get a better grip on those gigantic concrete spheres that the strongman haul around. This substance was so sticky that the guy who invented it ripped his biceps because he physically could not release a boulder, and now it is used to make a guy swing and miss at a curve ball and yell an obscenity.

After reading the article on Spider Tack the thing that immediately struck me is there is no way that oafish baseball players who regularly hurt themselves in the most improbable and clumsy ways even if most of those stories are probably dopey inventions to cover for being drunk should be allowed to handle a substance that sticky. It is a minor miracle that a baseball player has not dangerously glued himself to his own person, a teammate, or a moving vehicle. I am shocked that a pitcher as not yet thrown a ball but remained stuck to it so he flies towards the mound still gripping the ball and the hitter hits it now the momentum has him flying toward the outfield still stuck to the baseball where a quick-thinking outfielder must snare him with a gigantic net before there is a five hour video review that ends with the umpire declaring that everything that happened is legal and then gets into a Mad Max chase involving bullpen cars shaped like gigantic baseball gloves as he flees from a manager desperate to scream at him two inches from his face and throw his hat.

While it is obvious that the Glue-Doping crisis is real and a detriment to a game already perilously tiled towards the pitcher, I am also somewhat skeptical of the impending crackdown only because I have no faith that Rob Manfred can competently resolve this situation, especially if it empowers Cowboy Joe West to do his Buford T. Justice routine as he becomes a Forensic Ball Inspector. Or maybe they will be able to pull it off and the change is enough to give hitters a bit more juice, let the ball go into play a bit more, and make baseball more than a festival of strikeouts. Either way, I think I have been very clear that the most important thing is that the practice of doctoring balls should be known as “Glue-Doping.”

THE DINK AND THE BATH

“Those reformers tried to blow up th’ place an’ look what they got for it. The Tribune thought people was gonna stay away. Well, look at it! All th’ business houses are here, all th’ big people. All my friends are out. Chicago ain’t no sissy town!”

Thus spoke Mike “Hinky Dink” Kenna, one of Chicago’s alderman for the first ward about a notoriously debauched 1907 First Ward Ball that he put on with his fellow alderman “Bathhouse” John Coughlin. The two were a classic team-- Bathhouse John (AKA “The Bath”), a large garrulous back-slapper who came up as a massage rubber in the swanky Palmer House, and Hinky Dink, the diminutive tight-lipped schemer who served as the brains behind the illegal voting strategies that kept them in power and in illicit profits for decades. I have written about them on this site earlier, but not after reading the full treatment of their antics from Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan’s Lords of the Levee published in 1943 that covers the full scope of their schemes in the rough-and-tumble politics of turn-of-the-century Chicago.

Wendt and Kogan were newspaper reporters, Wendt mainly for the Tribune and Kogan for the Sun-Times, and their depiction of Coughlin, Kenna, and Chicago politics comes off as cynical amusement. There are more recent and more academic studies that effectively grapple with the effects of Chicago’s crime and political corruption during this time period, but those studies would not have the alternate title of Bosses in Lusty Chicago that this book bore for several reprintings. Wendt and Kogan instinctively know that when someone reads a book about Chicago politics in the 1890s they want to know about crooks with dumb nicknames, big mustaches, and their hands in as many pockets as possible. Much like Gem of the Prairie, a Chicago crime opus published in 1940 that I wrote about in 2018, the central question driving this book seems to be “can you believe this shit.”


Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink sampled from a wide buffet of crimes including using the police to create protection rackets for saloons and brothels in the notorious Levee district, requiring anyone who wanted a contract with the city to buy insurance from Coughlin’s firm, and other sorts of standard Chicago clout-wielding, but they reveled in the art of the boodle. Boodling, in the parlance of the time, meant giving contracts to utility companies-- gas companies, for example, or those building the then-nascent elevated trains-- only after allowing company lobbyists to brazenly bribe them. The schemes were shameless, and the contracts usually meant a bad deal for taxpayers. Given the expansion of Chicago and the burst of new technology into cities like L trains and electricity, Bathhouse John, Hink Dink Kenna, and the bevy of corrupt city officials essentially sold off the entire city’s burgeoning  modern infrastructure to shell companies that often times did not yet exist or were already despised, such as one gas company whose shoddy equipment killed numerous people.

The two aldermen repeatedly faced off with reformers desperate to drive out corruption, crime, and vice. These reformers, like most late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century people devoted to good government, were blind to problems their solutions could cause and generally priggish, but it is hard to fault them on their basic premise that elected aldermen should not gleefully steal money from everybody. Wendt and Kogan, though, do are not really interested in analyzing the reform agenda.  They generally treat these reformers as if they were stern foils for the Three Stooges who are constantly getting their eyebrows singed off or getting hit by an errant pie meant for another Stooge. They are characters getting in the way of Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink but ultimately falling victim to their genuine popularity in the ward combined with Hinky Dink’s unstoppable voting strategy of rounding up as many indigent men as he could and registering them to vote and then hiring some street toughs to throw people down staircases and punch them using those nineteenth-century boxing stances; neither one ever lost an aldermanic election.

Of the two, Bathhouse John was the more colorful figure. He loved giving speeches constructed from the remnants of malapropisms; Wendt and Kogan also enjoy rendering his speeches in a phonetic Chicago accent that pushes the limit of typed nasalness. Unlike Hinky Dink, who preferred to scheme in his dank saloon, Bathhouse John craved the limelight like someone in collapsed cave digging towards brightness. In 1900, the Bath produced a sentimental poem he had written called “Dear Midnight of Love” that he had set to music and unveiled at the opera house. He attempted to get a famed opera diva to sing it but was rebuffed (she “according to contemporary account, ‘snorted’” as Wendt and Kogan note).  Instead, he hired a cronie's thirteen-year-old daughter and augmented her performance with a brass band and a chorus 50 voices strong. The swells and papers ridiculed him for the spectacle, but he sold out five shows. “That settles it,” proclaimed the Chicago Daily Journal, “From now on it’s Bathos John.”

Dear Midnight of Love
Why did we meet?
Dear Midnight of Love
Your face is so sweet
Pure as the angels above
Surely again we shall speak
Loving only as doves,
Dear Midnight of Love.

Bathhouse John also bought a large property in Colorado and tried to build it into an amusement park and zoo that involved essentially stealing an elephant from the Lincoln Park Zoo.

But the place where Bathhouse John made his greatest mark was in fashion. He decided that he should set a new standard for menswear that involved loud, blasting colors. Then, just before the Democratic National Convention in 1900, the Bath went out east to show off his new duds, as the Times Herald put it, “going to seaside resorts to startle the eastern men with is magnificence.” In reality, he was going to meet with Democratic power brokers before the convention to try to drum up support for Chicago mayor Carter Harrison Jr. His most notable article was a green suit described by one First Ward apparatchik as “like an Evanston lawn kissed by an early dew." The Times-Herald continued that “the alderman of the First Ward will dim the glory of J, Waldere Kirk and snatch from the latter’s grasp the crown of fame which he has worn so many seasons as King of the Dudes.”

 

I had made a grave and naive assumption that the King of the Dudes that the Times-Herald mentioned was Evander Berry Wall whom I had previously run across in this blog and has survived the twenty-first century with the great honor of being the Dude that pops up when you put King of the Dudes into Wikipedia. But it turns out that heavy and presumably ostentatious lies the crown, and by 1900 Evander Berry Wall was no longer King of the Dudes, presumably put out to some Dude pasture by larger and dandier Dudes. J. Waldere Kirk has become a more obscure figure here in 2021, but I was able to uncover an incredible article in the New York Journal and Advertiser from 1897 about him entitled “A Dude from Denver Reviews the Dudes of New York.”

“A dandy-dude from altitudinous Denver descended upon the Metropolis a week ago,” the article begins. “He resents vigorously the insinuation that he bears even a remote resemblance to a dude, but modestly declares that he is “considerable of a sartorial sirocco.” The rest of the article, which is lavishly illustrated with Kirk staring through opera glasses at a procession of Dudes under the legend “The Dude from West Inspects the Dudes from the East” is an interview where Kirk expounds on his various theories of wardrobes, and is one of my favorite specimens of writing where some obnoxious windbag gets to explain how things are. If there was a climactic Dude Off between Kirk and Bathhouse John where they put on elaborate hats and colorful cloaks at each other until one of them exploded into a mushroom cloud of fabric, Wendt and Kogan did not say.


 

 
Wendt and Kogan pick up the pace considerably as Batthouse John and Hinky Dink age into grises-eminences of the City Council. By the 1920s, their own political power base gets subsumed by a more violent and brazenly criminal organization: the mob under Al Capone. Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink supported Capone out of self-preservation and greed-- Hinky Dink served as an informal advisor to Capone’s chief henchman Frank Nitti while Bathhouse John hung onto his seat on the City Council, known mainly for his wardrobe and poems that were ghostwritten by a newspaper editor. Hinky Dink even managed to get elected once again as alderman at the age of nearly 80 because the Capone Outfit needed someone reliable.  He was still alive when Lords of the Levee was published.

It is a bit jarring to read a book on municipal corruption where the authors seem to celebrate it. There is no doubt that Chicago would have been better off if Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink had lost power or faced any sort of consequences for their larcenous ways, but Wendt and Kogan have the reader instead marveling at their brazen schemes and Bathhouse John’s ostentatious oafishness. Readers almost can't help rooting for these characters to steal another election, humiliate another reformer or anti-vice crusader, and defeat their equally sleazy aldermanic rivals for the biggest slices of the boodle pie. As reporters, Wendt and Kogan are primarily interested in a story, and this is a great story. And, they have made a tremendous case that when a aldermen in the present day is caught using the same techniques to extort a Burger King or collect kickbacks from a gambling operation, the least they could do is wear ridiculous outfits, build a disastrous zoo, or produce a musical extravaganza.

Monday, June 7, 2021

To Save Baseball, MLB Should Legalize Can Bangs

The Pittsburgh Pirates started their stalwart first baseman Kevin Young 125 times in 2001. Young, a Pirate since 1992 save a one-season dalliance with Kansas City in 1996, was now a grizzled 32 years old, in his penultimate full season with the club, and was creaking and groaning around the bases like a piece of antiquated machinery. For some reason he tried to steal a base fifteen times, and he got unceremoniously thrown out on eleven of those attempts. Young played for a putrid Pirates team that lost 100 games that season, and he was their fourth best qualified hitter with a .232/.310/.399 line. This diminished 2001 version of Kevin Young is the closest statline I could find casually scrolling around baseball reference for the past 25 or so seasons to what Major League Baseball players are currently hitting.


Major League Baseball is in a hitting crisis. This is one of many concurrent crises currently gripping baseball; the fact that baseball is circling the drain represents the official line from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who administers the sport like he is gravely overseeing a shareholders meeting for an electric typewriter company in 1994. In this case, baseball doom-sayers have a point: baseball players are currently unable to get a damn hit. They are striking out nearly a quarter of the time they come up to bat, they are putting the ball in play less than ever, and very few of them sport mustaches which you might think has little to do with this but compare statistics of eras when baseball players had rakish mustaches and when they were blooping and bunting it all over the place and I believe you will find a very strong correlation.

To be fair, baseball players face a foreboding gauntlet of challenges at the plate. Pitchers all throw harder and more wicked stuff then ever before and in the course of a game it is likely that they will face several guys throwing 98 with a wipeout slider or a bugs bunny curve from both sides of the plate as teams go to their bullpens earlier and earlier. More aggressive scouting and shifting in defenses has made it harder to get to first on a rare ball in play. And, after a 2019 season that resembled a decadent home run bacchanalia, MLB freaked out and deadened the ball while tacitly allowing pitchers to load it up with space-age synthetic goos that make give the ball a sharper break and make it stick to Yadier Molina's chestplate. It is small wonder that batters are hitting like a collective of 32 year-old glove-first infielders.
 
Baseball analysts and officials have made proposals to change reliever usage, crack down on illegal Eddie Harris substances, and even move the mound back a foot in an echo of the 1968 "Year of the Pitcher" when baseball lowered the mound height.  But there is a much simpler solution available and that is for baseball to allow teams to electronically steal signs and relay them to the hitting team by banging a trash can.
 
Sign stealing would help level the playing field.  We have all seen those overlays on the internet where a pitcher throws two or more pitches identically except one is a 98 mph heater that moves and the others take two or three sharp bends and disappear into another dimension.  Hitters must think that is, at least, very rude.  But if players knew to at least look for a breaking ball, they would have more a fighting chance and could strike out less.  Pitchers could be upset about this, but they would have a concrete thing to blame for shitty outings instead of having to succumb to crippling self-doubt that might lead to a form of yips where they are terrified to confront the catcher during a mound visit and start retreating back to the outfield when he comes out to tell him some important information such as if he throws two more like that he is going to walk someone.
 
MLB officials can do what they had, until recently, done with sign stealing which is to look the other way and have a hearty chuckle at the ridiculous Wacky Races-style cheating endemic to the sport.  This solution would allow teams to devise even more devious and tech-savvy sign stealing regimens that they are probably doing right now like using devises to transmit signals under the uniform with the type of wires that Chicago aldermen use in order to entrap other aldermen as part of a plea agreement with the FBI when they are caught stealing a Burger King or by hitting a wobbly piece of aluminum with a baseball bat.  It would take awhile for anyone to catch on, but by that point baseball may have entered a new offensive era with players spraying hits around the diamond and teams chasing the New Inefficiency which is no longer 6'7" beard guys who all throw 97 but squat, ungainly knuckleballers and fans will be so excited that they won't care.

Looking forward to a new inefficiency as teams 
rush to sign the schlubbiest relievers possible. 
If anyone reading this is currently in graduate 
school in the humanities, the next time someone 
brings up Foucault, I urge you to say "oh you mean 
Steve Foucault, the closer for the Tigers in 1977?"
 
But given Rob Manfred's obsession with emerging from a mountain like a Baseball Moses to announce that he has saved the sport by proclaiming that teams must use their relief pitchers in alphabetical order, I suggest that the most likely course for baseball to organically bring in sign stealing is for Manfred to allow teams a set number of Legal Can Bangs they can execute in high-leverage situations.  In this case, the manager could waddle from the dugout (actually, research shows that managers are younger and tend to be fit instead of being geriatric paunch-monsters that are so thoroughly grizzled that they appear to have been removed from a sarcophagus, but this is yet another Crisis in Baseball that remains unaddressed) and make a can-banging gesture that signals to the umpires and the crowds that it is time to bang some cans.

The Legal Can Bang can also bring some needed spectacle to baseball as teams can use all sorts of fanfare to bring out an enormous can either as the grounds crew drags it out or it is driven in on a custom vehicle modeled on the drum truck from Mad Max; it can even slowly emerge from a platform underneath the field while the sound system blares the Venga Bus song.  The can can be struck by an overly serious team employee wearing a polo shirt or even a mascot as the tense battle between pitcher and batter is reinvented as the battle between pitcher, batter, and a triceratops theatrically whaling on a trash can with an oversized novelty mallet.

This Legal Can Bang would introduce an element of excitement, a new layer of strategy, and, most important for Rob Manfred, a new thing that everyone has to keep track of like when a manager has to decide if it is foolish to waste a challenge on if a baserunner lifted his finger off the bag for a moment of time otherwise imperceptible to the human eye but caught by a replay camera that can be analyzed for 25 minutes.  Teams can put the number of remaining Can Bangs on scoreboards next to the fan favorite display for the number of legal mound visits.
 
Another important element of Legal Can Bangs would be the development of a baroque set of Unwritten Rules about them.  Imagine how delightful it would be for irate managers to grouse about how the other team does not "respect the can bang process" or for players to sniff "it is what it is" when asked if they threw at a batter because they believe the opposing manager allowed Bernie Brewer to karate kick the Waste Management Trash Can to signal an incoming curve ball while comfortably ahead.
 
You may think that there is a better way to improve baseball's offensive environment than by creating a small-scale Busby Berkeley number around a ritual of hitting a trashcan to signal an incoming pitch type but I guarantee you that whatever Manfred comes up with will be stupider.
 
RINGS OF SATURN
 
There's something slightly embarrassing about recommending a book that is already an acknowledged classic but given that my reaction to finishing W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn was general disappointment in everyone around me whom I've ever known who did not tell me that I should read The Rings of Saturn, I am willing swallow it.  
 
The Rings of Saturn is about a German man who wanders around East Anglia and ruminates.  He sees some fishermen and it reminds him of an educational film about herring fisheries he saw as a child the and physiognomy of herring and how they emit an eerie luminescent glow when they die and then he is talking about an eccentric landowner who left his entire manor to a woman who prepared his meals on the condition she never speak to him and also this man never bought new clothes and on occasions when he had to leave the house would wander out into 1950s Britain wearing whatever he could find in old trunks so he'd look like a weird Edwardian ghost and every chapter of the book is like that.
 
The book centers on change and decay.  Many of the coastal towns Sebald discusses fallen into disrepair or are shadows of themselves.  In one case, he discusses the town of Dunwich, which had been built on a piece of low-lying coastline and was taken, piece by piece, by the sea.  This is in the chapter about the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars.  Sebald focuses on the unreal and almost unthinking destruction people have wrought against the world around them and themselves, describing history as "but a long account of calamities."  He was born in 1944, and the horrors of the war remain omnipresent undercurrents throughout the book.  
 
The Rings of Saturn feels loose and rambling, but all of its digressions seem to take shape at exactly the right time and at the right place.  Sebald writes in long paragraphs, and it is not uncommon to see the foreboding sight of a paragraph taking up an entire page, but he and his translator Michael Hulse never let anything get ponderous and it is easy to get enveloped in whatever narrative he has conjured out of  the sight of an old hotel or the log book in a sailor's reading room that of course he likes to hang out in.
 
Sebald, I understand, is a major influence on the recently trendy genre of autofiction, which, in my unlearned and unsophisticated view, seems to be a literary style where the author writes largely about him or herself while having the decency to admit that they are making things up as needed for the purposes of literary merit or legal deniability.  For example, it is preposterous to believe that Karl Ove Knausgaard remembers a conversation between him and one of the dozens of people he knows named "Geir" in 1987 when he was doing some adolescent literary brooding but it absolutely opens up a world for him to write about what it felt like for him to brood adolescently and literarily in 1987.  The narrator in the Rings of Saturn is not necessarily Sebald, though the passages correspond to the very specific eerie photographs that he has taken and sprinkled throughout the book.  At any rate, the question of the extent to which the narrator's experiences correspond to Sebald's is beside the point; his own memories are blended with historical memories of places and of people and the art is not in whether Sebald in fact visited a dilapidated Irish manor house where a haunted, ecctentric family showed him slides of how things used to be in case he happened to be writing a book about decay but how these anecdotes fit perfectly with his historical research and observations of nature.  

The Rings of Saturn is not a novel, it is not a travelogue, and it is not even really a series of essays.  It appears at first like an unfocused jumble of misplaced information thrown together like forgotten objects in an abandoned attic, but Sebald makes readers understand that everything is precisely where it needs to be.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Strangest Thing About the 2021 NFL Draft Was the Prominence of Northwestern Football Players

Last year’s NFL draft appeared at an odd stage of the pandemic, just about a month after states had issued stay-home orders and while people were eyeing toilet paper stockpiles with the look of a Max Max warlord, and the Virtual Draft was highlighted by then-novel video conferencing and Roger Goodell’s jaw-jutted paeans to American Strength as reflected by the Official Truck of the National Football League.  The 2021 draft, done in front of a crowd of people who were masked, vaccinated, and wearing silly football-themed costumes, at least seemed like more of a return to normal where we can all revel in the entire exercise’s glorious stupidity without worrying whether a guy dressed as The Macho Man Randy Savage is going to instigate a superspreader event by screaming OOOH YEAH after the Browns draft a punter in the seventh round.

While the NFL did scale back on some of the tedious pageantry, they did manage a gimmick that was so profoundly odd and goofy that I am still unable to process what was going on.  They decided to take the chair from Goodell’s rumpus room and let a single fan sit in it while waiting for the commissioner to announce the pick.  This is an incredible peek into NFL thinking, that a team of marketing people thought that viewers would remember the famous chair that Goodell sat in and then replicate that moment by inviting a fan to sit in it on stage and do nothing while presumably the audience on TV would start nudging the people they are watching the draft with saying “See that chair? That’s the very chair that Roger Goodell sat in.”  They should have at least let the honorary Chair Fan announce the pick; ideally the chair would be situated high over the stage on a large platform or suspended on a series of wires and the fan, clad in sort of home made Miami Dolphins tunic, would have unilateral veto power over the pick while the writhing pit of fans fling down their cheese hats in disgust and angrily shake their LA Chargers lightning bolt staffs at the stage.  
Goodell takes 25 minutes to every fan sitting in the chair that
no they won't be able to do anything else, just sit there like a prop ficus
through gritted teeth as he holds a dead-eyed smile

Goodell’s prominence at the draft remains a mystery because he is a void of recognizable charisma.  He at all times seems like an executive trying to goad his employees into enthusiasm for a new unsanctioned team-building exercise he has designed that will result in at least two apology e-mails from human resources.  Every time he went to read an announcement referencing the NFL’s salute to the Coke Zero Healthcare Heroes he stumbled through like Tim Heidecker trying to read the cast list of Chappie in On Cinema.  

The draft, held outside on a cold, rainy day, seemed to ensure that only the most dedicated maniacs and Draft Sickos would be in attendance, giving the whole proceeding an undulating feeling of madness.  An endless amount of classic rock boomed menacingly over the broadbast.  The draft ended with Mike from Mike and Mike hoarsely screaming a summary of Draft Storylines over a deafening chorus of Fat Bottomed Girls. 

And yet the enjoyable grotesquerie of the NFL draft was overshadowed by three odd things that happened that had me less interested in the ludicrous sideshow aspects of it (I will never forget, for example, that Northwestern’s Anthony Walker was selected by an iPad-wielding orangutan, and that former NFL Network personality and current Raiders GM Mike Mayock was so disgusted by the literal monkey business  that he nearly walked off the set) and actually got me caught up in the process of the draft itself.

NORTHWESTERN CRASHES DAY ONE
 
This draft featured an unprecedented two high-ranking Northwestern prospects that were supposed to get drafted on the first day.  No Northwestern player has been drafted in the first round since the Chargers picked Luis Castillo in 2005.  This year, tackle Rashawn Slater and cornerback Greg Newsome II were widely expected to get selected; Slater had been listed as one of the top tackles in the draft, and mock drafters marked him as a possible top-ten pick.  Usually my draft experience involves watching the Bears take up to one player I have heard of and then watching hours of third-day draft coverage to see if someone deigns to pick up a player I would probably consider one of the best I have ever seen at Northwestern in the sixth round or something, at a time where instead of announcing the pick the broadcast is deep into a prerecorded package saluting how the army is using the official air-to-surface missile of the National Football League while a pit crew is sent to hose and towel off Mel Kiper Jr.
 
The selection of two Northwestern players was further validation for a program that thrived in the ill-advised pandemic season with another Big Ten West title.  Slater went thirteenth to the Chargers, where he'll reunite with Justin Jackson and is already starring in team-produced twitter videos about his pet lizard.  Newsome went twenty-eighth to the Browns, generating an ovation from the Cleveland crowd of people wearing dog masks.  Ernest Brown IV joined in on the fun on day three, when he was selected by the Rams.  Pat Fitzgerald got to make swaggering appearances on any NFL draft show that would have him, doing his signature verbal guitar solos about "our young men" and hitting the whammy bar for "high-character guys."  Whatever heights Northwestern had hit as an overachieving team full of the dreaded "Rece Davises," they have transformed into a place where, at least for a night, they featured more first-round picks than any Big Ten school other than Ohio State and Penn State, which also had two players picked in the first round.



The NFL draft was a triumph for Northwestern athletics before things took a sour turn this week as the university moved to promote deputy Athletic Director Mike Polisky to Athletic Director after Jim Phillips left to become the ACC Commissioner.  Polisky's selection prompted outrage; he has ties to most of the athletic department's most notorious scandals during the Phillips era.  Most prominently, Polisky is named in a lawsuit by a cheerleader suing the university after saying she and other cheerleaders were sexually harassed by slimy boosters.  The lawsuit alleges that Polisky ignored and dismissed the complaints when they were brought to him.  Some faculty have planned to protest the hire.  I admit that I had never heard of Polisky before this week, so I can't pretend I have any particular insight into the situation other than what I have read, but if Northwestern wanted to hire an athletic director who did not appear to have spent the past several years as a henchman doing the department's dirty work in the sleazy business of college athletics, they could have hired virtually anyone else.  
 
NOW I HAVE A QUARTERBACK HO HO HO 
 
I usually watch the draft for things to blog about because the NFL draft is the league's most prominent event that is not bailed out by having a football game and therefore exists as what the NFL's idea of spectacle without having the luxury of having 290 pound men try to tackle each other into a the consistency of an impossible burger to paper over the league's lunacy.  Without football, the NFL is left to its barest essence, which takes the form of a pageant of deranged tedium.  But then the NFL draft did something unexpected and actually created compelling drama that left me with something more insane than the idea of thrilling America by showing a person wearing a jack-o'-lantern on their head sitting in Roger Goodell's Executive Drafting Chair and that is the hope that the Bears might have a functioning NFL quarterback.
 
In the last post on this website, I spent a paragraph excoriating the Bears and Ryan Pace for extending fans' endless crawl through quarterback hell by signing Andy Dalton, a type of sentient tapioca.  But then, bizarre circumstances and an admittedly dashing amount of derring-do by Ryan Pace by making some high stakes phone calls got the Bears in position to draft inexplicably plummeting star Ohio State  quarterback Justin Fields and they did it.  There was a brief time, after the Bears traded up, when it wasn't clear whether they would take Fields or Roger Goodell-esque quarterback Mac Jones from Alabama, so it was a relief when, after an interminable series of unrelated announcements that heightened the suspense, the Bears took Fields, and Jones was left to wait four more picks before briskly stomping out to the stage to chop it up with the commissioner like they were on the 19th hole of a country club.
 
The Bears have never had a quarterback like Fields.  For most of my life, Bears fans have been forced to talk ourselves into some game-managing pud.  I can only think of three times in recent memory when the Bears actually had hope for a talented quarterback: two were Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler, who had just enough flashes of talent to make their ability to melt down at the exact worst moment maddening; the other is Mitchell Trubisky.  Fields is not a Trubisky situation.  He did virtually everything a college quarterback can do except win a championship and can do everything better than Trubisky except possibly deal with becoming a national joke and mascot and ironically-voted-upon Nickelodeon MVP with an admirable amount of grace.  I feel the way about Fields the same way I would have felt if the Bears had just drafted similarly talented big-name college quarterback DeShaun Watson in 2017, although given what we have learned about Watson over the past several months, I am relieved that they didn't.

Many Bears fans see similarities in the situation with Andy Dalton
and Justin Fields with the 2017 draft when the Bears drafted Trubisky
after signing Mike Glennon to be the starter, but the Bears apparently
warned Dalton that they would take a quarterback instead of surprising
Glennon at the official Bears Draft Party. The visual of Glennon
bobbleheading his way out of the draft party after getting blind-sided
by the Trubisky pick while a chorus of stunned Bears fans booed
the shit out of Mitch is one of my favorite bits of Bears Quarterback Lore

Will Fields be the answer?  Will the Bears' front office and coaching staff that many Bears fans wanted to see not only run out of town but pummeled with those American Gladiators Pummeling Rods on the way out be able to not fuck this up?  Are the Bears actually a Vortex of Quarterback Ineptitude that is destined to suck in every passer the Bears throw at it and somehow through mystical forces that we cannot even comprehend turn all of them into an eternal camp battle between Shane Matthews and Jim Miller?  That remains to be seen.  But the Bears have never had a chance to ruin a quarterback prospect this good, and if this means that I have to weather several games or even a whole season of Dalton demi-competence while braying for the vaudeville hook, I'll take it.  
 
THE GREAT DISGRUNTLING
 
The final reason why the NFL Draft became one of the greatest nights in the history of Chicago football had nothing to do with the draft itself but had everything to do with this tweet sent by Adam Schefter on Thursday afternoon:
 

 
For nearly 30 years, the Green Bay Packers have had a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback starting while the Bears started dozens of bums, oafs, jabronis, and boxcar hobos, and it has been extremely frustrating if not downright miserable.  Rodgers, in particular, has tortured Bears fans for the better part of two decades, beating them in blowouts, comebacks, and the occasional game where he gets destroyed for a half and goes down in a heap writhing in pain, surely dead, and then somehow comes back out in the second half to march the Packers down the field while dramatically hobbling.  And now, according to reports, he wants out. 

I want to note that there are many adjectives Schefter could have used to say that Rodgers was upset with the Packers, but the fact that he chose "disgruntled" has really elevated this whole thing and I have been delightedly muttering the word "disgruntled" to myself for the past week.  
 

As the week went on, more reports emerged: Rodgers was still angry that the Packers drafted quarterback Jordan Love in 2020 instead of a wide receiver.  Rodgers was steamed that the Packers released his buddy, a fungible sixth-string wide receiver.  Rodgers reportedly hates the general manger who is a person somehow named Brian Gutekunst, demands that the Packers fire him, and has mocked him in group texts by referring to him as "Jerry Krause."  Rodgers presumably will soon issue a Michael Jordan-style press release by fax that says "I'm Disgruntled."  

I have devoured all of these reports and soaked in the stupid drama because I never dreamed the Bears would ever have a good quarterback and the only joy I could imagine from professional football would be Green Bay contending for the first time in many Packers fans' lives without a superstar quarterback, forced to toil in the Andy Dalton mines like the rest of us, and I have been spitefully cackling over this for days.  Yes, please let me hear more about how Rodgers has told free agents he will never play for the Packers again.  Yes, please let me read reports about how Rodgers would spitefully retire and then woodenly host Jeopardy rather than throw another perfect pass for Green Bay.  Yes, let me see pictures of Rodgers surfacing two days after the Great Disgruntled Tweet at the Kentucky Derby dressed inexplicably like Tom Petty in the music video for You Got Lucky while desperately sidestepping reporters asking him how het got so disgruntled.

Will Rodgers actually force his way off the Packers, who remain adamant that they will not trade him?  Or will he come back to continue torturing the NFC North for another several years, using his own disgruntled attitude as fuel becoming more disgruntled in the process and somehow creating a perpetual motion machine made of resentment that will make him even more unstoppable?  As an expert in Bears football suffering, that is all par for the course, but the feeling that the Bears may finally have a quarterback at the precise moment Green Bay contends without a Hall of Famer is the type of dream that has transformed the NFL Draft from a drab meeting between combed-over executives in a dour hotel ballrooms to a television event watched by millions.  

Of course as a Bears fan, I am also preparing myself for the most psychologically devastating outcome, which is is for Rodgers to leave, and for Jordan Love to be better than Justin Fields.