Friday, September 30, 2011

Moneyball: Baseball, Statistics, and the Pervasive Human Element

"There are rich teams, and there a poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us."

This is how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) explains to his scouts the rationale for moving from a traditional purely physical attributes-based style of scouting to a hybrid style of scouting that takes into consideration the comparative analysis of baseball stats such as walks, hits, and runs (just to name a very few) and how they relate to wins, playoff appearances and, ultimately, World Series Championships.

Moneyball is the story of how a washed up former can't miss 1st round pick outfielder turned GM and a Yale educated economics major Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) effectively "turned the odds on the casino" that is the money based ideology that has run rampant in baseball since the game's professional inception. Whether it's the 1927 New York Yankees (and seemingly every Yankees team since), the 1939 Brooklyn Dodgers, or the 2004 Chicago Cubs the thinking in baseball has always been some variation of idea that the team with the most money can buy the most talent, which will produce the best team and the most wins. The problem with this commonly held belief (and most other generalizations for that matter) is that, more times than not, they prove to be false. The player that costs the most may not necessarily be the most talented and having the greatest collection of players that money can buy does not guarantee that they will produce the outputs that translate into winning. Brand simplifies this concept for Beane when he explains the value of statistical analysis in the development of a Major League team.

"Your goal shouldn't be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs."

Precipitated by the loss of superstar caliber players such as Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to juggernauts like the Red Sox and Yankees, against the advice of his seasoned scouts (who feel their longstanding jobs slipping out from under them) and with the ire of A's manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is already put off by Beane's lack of responsiveness to Howe's request for a new contract, Beane sets out to craft a team composed of castoffs from what Brand humorously describes as "an island of misfit toys" to field during the upcoming 2002 season. This search for value in the numbers centers around the recruitment of Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt). The scene opens with Scott Hatteberg sitting on the couch, forlorn and nervous, as New Year's fireworks erupt on a nearby television set. His wife is in the kitchen looking over unpaid bills. Hatteberg's contract has just expired with the Boston Red Sox and the prospects of him getting another shot in the show look slim to none due to nerve damage in his right arm that has made him virtually unable to throw. Hatteberg is a catcher by trade and a catcher who can't throw is an unemployable catcher. Just after midnight Hatteberg receives a call from Billy Beane. Beane wants to know if he has a second to discuss playing for the Oakland Athletics. Scott's ears perk up. Of course he does. Beane them implores Hatteberg to open the front door to let himself and 3rd base coach Ron Washington (Brent Jennings) in.

Beane explains to Hatteberg that the Oakland A's are impressed with his ability to get on base and would like to sign him to a contract, stipulated upon Scott's agreement to play 1st base. This leads to one of the more humorous moments in the movie. Billy Beane: We want you at first base. Scott Hatteberg: I've only ever played catcher. Billy Beane: It's not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash Ron Washington: It's extremely hard. After a few moments of dazed puzzlement by Hatteberg, Beane pulls an envelope from his inside pocket. He explains to Scott that the envelope contains a contract to play for Oakland and that a copy has been sent to his agent. He should discuss it with his wife and get back to Beane. With that Beane and Washington see themselves out of the residence. We are left with the image of a relieved Scott Hatteberg embracing his wife and young daughter.

Beane and Brand go on to fill out the roster with players such as an aging David Justice (Stephen Bishop), whom the Yankees feel is so washed up that they, as Beane so eloquently and directly puts it, "are paying you $3.5 million to play against them". He also signs Jason Giambi's younger brother Jeremy (Nick Porrazzo), who brings a history drug abuse and an affinity for strip clubs along with his hefty on-base percentage. Brand encourages Beane to take a flyer on a young pitcher named Chad Bradford (Casey Bond), who has been vilified in most Major League circles because of his unorthodox "submarine" pitching motion and less than stellar 82 mph fastball. With these pieces in place, Beane and the A's set out for Spring Training and march towards the season opener.

Things do not go as planned (where would the plot go if things turned . The Athletics limp out of the gate and soon find themselves situated comfortably in last place in the American League's West Division. Along with the consistent losing caused in large part by dormant bats and inadequate fielding, Beane finds himself in a veritable standoff with his disgruntled field general Art Howe. Beane has repeatedly requested that Howe put Hatteberg in the line-up at 1st base instead of rookie phenom Carlos Pena but every time Beane peers at the line-up card posted at the end of the A's dugout he sees the physical manifestation of Howe's defiance penciled in. The value of Beane and Brand's radical team building exercise is already in jeopardy due to the check marks in the wins and losses columns. The entire house of cards could come crumbling down if he allows Howe's insubordination to win out. There's more at stake than just his job as GM and Brand's apprenticeship as Assistant GM. Beane could lose out on the opportunity to see his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), whom he shares custody with his estranged wife. It was time for bold, decisive action.

Beane proceeds to trade star 1st baseman Carlos Pena to the Detroit Tigers to free up a spot in the starting line-up for Scott Hatteberg (he also gets an agreement from Tigers' GM Dave Dombroski to stock the clubhouse soda machine for 3 years!). A suddenly emboldened Beane then prances into Art Howe's office and demands that the manager put Hatteberg in the line-up for that night's game. Unaware of the deals that have been covertly arranged, Howe states that he has no intention of going 16 rounds with Beane and that Pena would be in the line-up as usual. With one of the funnier lines in the movie, Beane explains to Howe that putting Pena in the line-up will be a little difficult since he plays for the Tigers now. The look on Howe's face is priceless! Oh, but Beane's not done. He calls Jeremy Giambi into Howe's office and informs Giambi that he's been traded to Philadelphia. He gives Jeremy the Phillies' GM's number and wishes him the best. Beane then turns to Howe and sardonically states "Jeremy's gone too". In a swift coup d'etat, Beane has wrestled control of the team back. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Oakland A's go on to win a Major League record 20 consecutive games before being bounced in the ALDS by another formidable small market team - the Minnesota Twins. Devastated by the early playoff exit, Beane reflects on whether bilking the traditional method of organizational development was worth it if all it got them was 7 games short of the ultimate goal. His answer comes in the form of a meeting with Boston Red Sox owner John Henry at historic Fenway Park. Henry explains how much he admires Beane's bravado and pioneering methods and wants him to bring his talents to historic Yawkey Way. He then slides a piece of paper across the table to Beane. It is not until the closing credits of the movie that we find out what Henry's offer was to Beane - $12,500,000 - which would've made Beane the highest paid GM in the history of sports. Beane turns down the offer. "I made one decision based on money and vowed never to do it again" alluding to Beane's decision to forego college for the riches of a Major League contract.

The Red Sox would go on to win the World Series and break the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 and again for good measure in 2007. The Athletics have gone as far as the ALCS where they lost to Carlos Pena and the Detroit Tigers on a walk-off home run by Magglio Ordonez in 2005.

Moneyball is more than a movie about the merits of statistical analysis in baseball. If anything, the plot of the movie reinforces the human elements that initially made the game America's pass time. No matter what new method hot shot GMs and ivy league educated mathematicians come up with to slice the pie, baseball is still fundamentally about bunting runners over, fielding your position, and throwing. It is about the relationships between the 25 players in the clubhouse and how those relationships ebb and flow over the course of a 162 game season - what we generally describe as "chemistry". Moneyball is about a man tormented by the failure that he experienced in his own Major League career and who is driven by an insatiable desire to somehow live up to the preferment that was conferred upon him. For better or for worse (I lean towards for better), Sabermetrics in the game of baseball is here to stay.

However, baseball is still and will always fundamentally be a game played, officiated, and observed by human beings. Statistics can only measure probability. Nothing can measure or produce certainty. Just ask the 1986 Red Sox, 2003 Cubs and, recently, the 2011 Red Sox and Braves. The uncertainty on the baseball diamond mimics the uncertainty of life and that is why those who love the game can experience otherworldly elation and dire despair in the matter of a few pitches. In baseball as in life, it is not always the richest or most talented that wins but those who persevere to the end and who conduct themselves with humility, respect, and honor for their craft - paying homage to the craftsmen who have proceeded them while setting a dutiful example for those who will soon follow.

As Billy Beane exclaims with awe and reverence throughout the movie, "how can you not be romantic about baseball?"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Thursday Freestyle

Woke up this morning, all by my lonesome
Befo' the day over, bet I have a foursome.
The one with three women, I don't golf course 'em
Hit that shit from the back in the mirror, call it three leg motion
Bitches call me the alchemist cause they know I got that potion
Take two of these, wake up and take two more in the morning
While other couples is snorin', girl we pornin'
Bring in the closer on that pussy like my name is Drew Storen
Haters at work, but I love the sound of it
Spitin' poison on these weeds, I Just Roundup it
Drafted these haters into my war, they like "I ain't sign up for this!"
Walk in the door with 5 cards, all suited, straight flushing it.
Got your panties wet with my voice, ain't even touched you yet,
Fuck an OBGYN, you might need see a vet
D.JONES a veteran in this game, 5 stars on my Starter cap
This freshness in this rhyme is sealed so tight, now that's a Saran Wrap.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dearth of a Nation


These are the words that filled the streets and the airwaves shortly after President Obama announced that former CIA funded Soviet freedom fighter turned 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden had been killed in a middle of the night raid executed by an elite group of U.S. Navy S.E.A.L.S. Credible news outlets such as CNN and Fox News bragged that Bin Laden had been killed with a precision shot above the left eye, effectively combining two of America's favorite past times - graphic imagery and pornographic iconography.

After nearly 3 years of trying to convince a xenophobic wing of the Republican party that he was qualified by birth to hold the nation's highest office, it turned out that President Obama didn't need to produce the long form of his birth certificate afterall, which he did anyway for good measure. All he had to do to fully participate in exclusive club of majority white culture was call for the assassination of an Islamic radical. How many Korans do you have to burn to top that Pastor Jones (no relation to the rapper of the same name, I think).

Americans were rapt by the images of college students in Washington, D.C. assembling in front of the White House in impromptu celebratory keggers to express their jubilation over the death of Saddam Hussein, I mean Johnny Depp....whoever it was. Someone died and there's lots of cameras so let's go live out our personal reality tv dreams, paying special attention to the necessity of cloaking those dreams in the Snuggy of patriotism by waiving American flags and continuously shouting "USA! USA!" until our vocal cords bleed.

For me, the indelible image from the night when the War on Terror kind of sorta ended but not really because the 3rd ranked Al Qaeda leader is somewhere out there living in a hut watching American Idol Rewind are the three young ladies being propped up cheerleader style by their boyfriends (or guys that just wanted to grab some ass) above the crowd for optimal framing within the pantheon of media cameras and other amateur video recording devices. One of the girls, possibly a future "star" on the latest iteration of The Real Housewives of Washington, D.C., on a constant phone conversation with someone back at the dormroom to make sure that they are constantly being framed by the camera shots. As much as I want to, I can't blame the young ladies for taking advantage of this great opportunity to publicize themselves. I stayed up for 3 hours past my bed time because I was so enthralled by these images.

American narcisscism and its ever present and much needed companion voyeurism know no bounds.

As President Obama increases the use of drone attacks, targeted killings, and bombings on sovereign countries that so happen to contain people that we don't like, I am amazed how many of my fellow Americans are unable to draw the link between nearly 100 years of American interventionist foreign policy, the past 20 of which has been centered in the Middle East, and the terrible massacre that occurred on September 11th. Our last 4 presidents with the help of the slavish media has so thoroughly convinced the American public of our country's exceptionalism that the concept of taking human lives in another free country without the expectation of reciprocity or recourse has become earily common place. There is no shortage of idealogues driven to near vomit inducing disgust whenever images of darkies in some third world country burning the Star Spangled Banner are flashed across our airwaves in 8-minute increments for 24 hours. Where is that same level of revulsion when we hear that Americans have ambushed and murdered an unarmed man, no matter how evil and how heinous his crimes may have been.

The fact of the matter is that we only value American lives in this country, and white American lives at that (tell me the last time you saw an African-American soldier's funeral covered by the media?) There was no greater demonstration of this fact than the blood lust public orgy that took place in the streets last week all across this once great, once moral country.

Not to say that people can't change but the fact remains that past actions are the greatest indicator of future behavior. Every great civilization (I use this term loosely) that has ever existed on earth has walked down the road to perdition that our once great nation is now traversing. Once established as an imperial power whose main exports are the products of the military-industrial complex, these nations raided the coffers of their countries to maintain their military might while their infrastructures crumpled to near disrepair, their adults went unemployed, and their children went uneducated. We have entire braches of anthropology, archaeology, and philosophy dedicated to studying the fragments of truth that these ancients have left for us to decipher and study.

We don't need a special legend, key, or Rosetta Stone to read the writing on the walls. The words are written in the holy books, myths, and fables of all peoples. That which you sow, you surely shall reap. If you live by the sword, you will perish by the sword. For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. This is the law of the Universe and of existence itself. No one is exempted from this fact, not even the country that gave the world Dancing With the Stars.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Atlas Mugged!

It took me sometime to realize it (it's amazing how time stands still when your head is in your own ass) but, as Maureen Dowd stated in this post, rational self-interest sounds all good and well until you realize that what's rational and in one's self-interest is different to each woman and man. There's no better illustration of this than in the form of the current Republican budget "plan" that rewards the very people that robbed this country blind (the true moochers if Rand's philosophy is accurately depicted) while vilifying the poor, in what can only be described as irony, as being too dependent on public alms.

It pains me that men such as Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan have perverted the philosophy of Ayn Rand in such a way that the very men that she described as the enemies of freedom are being held up as heroes of the free market system. In another spate of irony, these men and women are being lauded as the saviors of the free market economic system (by the waym there has yet to be a pure free market economic system anywhere on earth) by mostly poor, white working class individuals that are adversely affected the most by Republicans irresponsible fiscal policies and social philosophies. As the presidency of George W. Bush proved, that's what happens when you have the loudest voice in the room. Obama and the rest of the liberals could learn a bit from the Republicans resilient brand of thuggery. They've already learned the selective memory portion of the lesson all too well.

What pains me more is that Rand herself and disciples of her philosophy (myself included) can be so enamored by the romantic idealism of the self-sufficient man that we ignore the concrete fact that these "ideal men", the men of industry, "produce' their wealth mostly by the exploitation and pillaging of the most vulnerable segments amongst us (e.g. women, children, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, etc.). They do this mostly by initiating hostile takeovers of smaller coporations and then, just as swiftly, push their business units and American jobs off-shore to countries that hand out tax incentives, dismal regulations, and cheap labor like Planned Parenthood hands out prophylactics.

In the absence of private sector philanthropic virtue, usually the first virtue to go out the door when profits are down along with the other 4 cardinal ethics, much to the chagrin of the modern conservative the government must necessarily step in to ensure that the weakest amongst us who do not have the benefit of representation by lobbyist and moneyed interest in their state and national capitols, are nonetheless protected, represented, and supported when market forces dictate that the means are insufficient for the support of oneself.

The Rand idealist have to look through our self-effaced smug to realize that very few humans want assistance or charity from others. Humans derive integrity and pleasure from self-sufficiency and productive work but when the mechanisms that produce these opportunities (the markets) are fundamentally flawed by no fault of the average person, who is not an expert in this complex game of chess, we can't double back and place the blame and burden of correcting the system on the people with the least say in how the system operates while absolving those with the greatest hand in the system's many and varied mechanations.

Even Rand, who wrote extensively on the purpose and role of governments as it pertains to protecting men and women from threats foreign and domestic and the maintenance of social and legal contracts, would have to admit as much. However, I'm sure that her romantic idealism and anal retentive protectionist attitude over the philosophy that it took her a lifetime to dictate wouldn't allow her to admit this above her own breath.

In the HBO series "Game of Thrones", writer George R.R. Martin depicts a scene where, after the leader of the northern tribes beheads a deserter, he turns to his youngest son and asks if he knew why the man was beheaded. His son nievely, but correctly answers that it was because the man was a deserter. The clan leader then asks his youngest son if he knows why HE, the leader of the tribe, had to behead the deserter. The son is befuddled by this question. The father then goes on to explain to his son,
The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

In much the same fashion, the men and women who have instigated two seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military action in Libya, clandestinely fomented unrest in Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt, undertaken irresponsible actions that were the genesis of the financial crisis, and pilfered American taxpayer monies that, if properly invested and utilized, would have staved-off the current budget crisis, should stand tall at the chopping block of public opinion and accept responsibility for their reprehensible stewardship of the American republic instead of shirking the blame on to the already slumped shoulders and broken backs of union workers, Medicare recipients, debt laden students, the masses of people that are still unemployed, and the 3 workers that are currently paying for Social Security benefits for every one retiree, benefits that they will quite possible never reap.

As flawed as Rand's philosophy is, that is truly what the heroic figures in her novels would've done. As selfish and self-destructive as it appears to be, the true "men of industry" in Rand's novels would rather leave all the mental energy that they have expended and all the wealth that they have amassed behind than to have the men in Washington, D.C. that deal in favors, the moochers that Rand was truly referencing in her novels, lay claim to that which they did not produce. P

aul Ryan, Alan Greenspan, and other Tea Party and conservatives that claim to be inspired by Rand's Objectivist Manifesto are no more than advantageous charlatans, riding the coattails of a populist movement based almost completely on illegal immigration fears, xenophobic sentiments towards the nations first African-American President and a conveniently incomplete comprehension of Rand's Objectivist philosophy. Paul Ryan and his conservative colleagues know this to be true but it is too close to election season for them to expouse these inconvenient truths. In the end, there is no doubt in my mind that they will pay for the desecration of Rand's monument to the universal law of cause and effect. As philosopher Manly Palmer Hall stated in The Secret Teachings of All Ages,
It is cosmically worse to know the truth and continue to act contrary to it than to never have known the truth at all.

In Chapter 10, page 297 of Atlas Shrugged, Taggert Railroad President of Operations Dagny Taggert emphatically states,
Don't ever get angry at a man for stating the truth.
Truth be told, the conservative movement in America has dismembered Rand's epic novel and reconstructed it as a monster that even Dr. Frankenstein would find ghastly and appalling.

Paul Ryan and the Republicans aren't shrugging at the weight of liberals and their entitlement programs on the backs of the rich producers. Oh no, it is far worse than that my friends.

Someone put out an all points bulletin for an elephant cloaked in Old Glory.

Atlas has been Mugged!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Nigger Just Ain't A Nigger No Mo' - The Censoring of Twain's Huckleberry Finn

In a recent post on Psychology Today, Dr. Mikhail Lyubansky of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign talks about the plan by publisher NewSouth Books (by the name of the publisher you should get where this post is going) to release a new, annotated (people who aren't full of shit say censored) version of the famous Mark Twain novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". In the new version of Twain's seminal novel, racially charged words such as "nigger" and "injun" will be replaced by the more politically correct terms "slave" and "indian".

As Twain expert Alan Gribben told Publisher's Weekly, "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." Dr. Lyubansky, who teaches a course on the psychology of race and ethnicity, has tried to accomplish just this feat in his classroom by quoting literature and scholars that deal with the issues of race and ethnicity. Sometimes, in the midst of these lessons, the word "nigger" will appear in the text. Dr. Lyubansky used to pronounce this word aloud but, due to backlash from some of his students, he has begun to use "the N-Word" in lieu of it's controversial cousin. The issue of interest is where most of the ire for his use of the N-Word came from.

"See, all of the students who complained that hearing "nigger" in class was painful were white and so it seems is the vast proportion of people who a) kept Huckleberry Finn off the school curriculum and b) like the idea of a "cleaner" version of Mark Twain's novel. Now I don't want to over-stress this point. The feelings and needs of white people matter too. It's why I switched to using "N-word" in my class. But the source of the discomfort is not irrelevant either. For one, it suggests whose needs are being considered and served by the given act. As far as I can tell, the new (edited) edition of Huck Finn is primarily designed to serve the needs of white conservatives. This too is okay, as long as we acknowledge that this is what's happening and not pretend that this is some kind of racially progressive act that will improve the lives of people of color."

I agree with Dr. Lyubansky that the publishing of this new, censored version of one of Twain's masterpieces may be primarily designed to appease the sensibilities of white conservatives. For many white people in America, many of whom do not self-identify as being politically conservative, it may be difficult to come face-to-face with the historical narrative that has contributed significantly to the privilege that they now enjoy. The very nature of the racial/ethnic identification of being "white" is derived from and developed in direct opposition to being "black" in America with all of its various social and cultural implications. Put another way, identifying oneself as being "white" is akin to identifying oneself as being "non-ethnic" (If being Irish or German isn't an ethnicity what is it, a pathology?). I also believe that the removal of racially charged terms from books like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" serves to further subvert the concept of racism in our society, furthering the myth that we now live in a "post-racial" America. However, this misreading of history is not confined solely to the white community.

In July of 2007, the NAACP symbolically buried the N-Word in a ceremony in Detroit, MI. Then Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick lauded the ceremony as a purging of the epithet from our spirits. "Today we're not just burying the N-word, we're taking it out of our spirit. We gather burying all the things that go with the N-word. We have to bury the pimps and the hos that go with it." Kilpatrick's political career was later buried when it was discovered that he sent sexual explicit text messages to a female staffer (not his wife) using a city-provided phone proving once again that we should all be wary of what we wish for. I digress.

The same line of thinking present in white communities, which asserts that if we close our eyes and pretend like nothing happened then it didn't, is present in black communities as well. This is irresponsible and dangerous thinking for a few reasons. Firstly, from a purely linguistic standpoint, it eliminates yet another word from the overly simplified, ever-decreasing pool of words available to us in an English language under constant bombardment from the growing popularity of texting and social media such as Twitter. Secondly, and perhaps more dangerous than the simple removal of a word from the lexicon is, the elimination of a word such as the N-Word from the English language also eliminates the social and political constructs that the word represents (again, a symptom or maybe the cause of the myth of post-racialism in America).

As Dr. Lyubansky quoted law professor Paul Butler as saying in Butler's recent New York Times piece, "I suffered through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white kids going out of their way to say "Nigger Jim" and the teacher's tortured explanation that Twain's "nigger" didn't really mean nigger, or meant it ironically, or historically, or symbolically. Whatever." While I am sympathetic towards Butler's quiet suffering in high school and the unease of Dr. Lyubansky's white college students, they are both quintessential elements, which assure that the historical social interactions between whites and people of color that Twain illustrates in Huckleberry Finn continue to inform our contemporary discussions on race relations on a micro level and inextricable link between race relations and all of our human rights in the bigger picture.

It appears to be commonplace in our society to remove, replace, or even bury words, people, and things that make us uncomfortable. In much the same way that burying the dead is ultimately a perfunctory act when viewed outside of the lens of religion, burying or discontinuing the use of the N-Word will only serve to erect an eternal monument to our social and political cowardice, providing no edification or growth for the effort expended (and, unfortunately, monuments to nothingness are what some people want). Instead, we should do the hard thing and leave words like "nigger" in the texts that we study not only to garner the historical implications of its use but also as a catalyst for discussions, preferably in mixed-race groupings, about what emotions arise when we hear or see the word and how we can move those emotions towards an active understanding of our relationship to the N-Word that can't help but to lead towards that more perfect union that our nation's Founding Father envisioned.