Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cubs' Hendry Gets Vote of Confidence, Craps Pants

The sports equivalent of the kiss of death was delivered to Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry this week. New owner Tom Ricketts wanted him to know where he stood in time for the mid-summer classic, of course. The Cubs have one All-Star, Hendry's centerpiece of last offseason, Marlon Byrd. Outside he and Carlos Silva (whom everyone who'd seen el hipopĆ³tamo pitch the past two seasons assumed to be dead weight), no one else on the $145 million roster deserved consideration.

How does that happen?

Somehow, Hendry has assembled a team built around the long ball, but can't hit home runs. With these mismatched parts, the Cubs have managed a dreadful 3-9 record against the perennial worst team in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates. In fact, the Pirates actually are the worst team in the National League right now. The Cubs at 39 wins and 50 losses are looking at the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds, who are leading the division and look to be a contender for the first time in a decade, running 9.5 games ahead. But even if the Cubs had managed to beat the Bucs two-thirds of the time like the rest of the league, the 3.5 game gap might still seem unsurpassable with an offense that wishes it were as robust as an argument that Barack Obama should be made King.

Aramis Ramirez hit .317 with 43 strikeouts in an 82-game, injury-shortened 2009. He has 53 strikeouts with a .207 average in 62 games played in 2010.
I would forgo a rundown of the stats, but Aramis Ramirez' production is so mind-blowingly terrible that he has had to hit .361 so far in July to bring his average up to .207. It simply must be written to be believed. But it would be a mistake to blame the entire debacle on a man who has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball the past several years. As a team, the Cubs are eleven points below the league average with runners in scoring position at .252. But it gets worse. They are hitting .229 with men in scoring position and two outs. Even the Royals think that's awful. Overall, the team hasn't hit, but not only that, they haven't hit in crucial situations. To kick a dead horse, the team, just over a month into the season had six regular starters hitting over .300 (Byrd, Soriano, Soto, Theriot, Fukudome and Lee), but were in the lower third of the league in runs scored. The Cubs have blown more quality starts than I can count on two hands thanks to both poor offensive production and middle relief pitching, but the starting pitching isn't without blame. They've only helped their (nearly) lights-out closer, Carlos Marmol, get 19 save opportunities in 89 games.

New Cubs Owner Tom Ricketts (center-left) and his sibling partners enjoyed their new toy. But that was before the season began.
So we're about to begin the second half, and it's time for most Cubs fans to start pointing fingers. Lou Pinella has been less than outstanding as manager, but he can only make use of the players the organization has under contract. I doubt that after spending $600 million just this past winter, Tom Ricketts is interested in looking in the mirror and wondering if he's good enough, or smart enough.

Hendry has good reason for that mess in his pants, even considering his positives. He's begun to resuscitate a minor-league system that had nearly flat-lined when management gave away Old Trusty's heart pills, desperate for a championship run after the Bartman incident in 2003. But today we have Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner and, certainly foremost in the minds of most, Starlin Castro, who appear to be the real deal and look forward to being solid contributors.

Marlon Byrd - File Under: Great Signing
Milton Bradley - File Under: Terrible Signing
Such contrast has been a hallmark of the Hendry era.
And the contract situation? Ted Lilly has earned his money. Ryan Dempster has been good. Ramirez wasn't a bad deal, even including his atrocious season so far. It was an under-market deal at the time, and his 2010 wasn't something that even the greatest of baseball minds predicted. And to say that Marlon Byrd is a solid professional would be on par with describing the death of George Steinbrenner as merely the passing of some baseball guy.

But then there's Soriano. Alfonso is still producing like a respectable major leaguer (if you discount his defense... deeply), but is not worth anything near his contract. Hendry can thank Carlos Silva for bailing him out of the Milton Bradley fiasco (lest we forget how hopeless that situation looked at the end of last season). All things are now normal on planet Zambrano after his meltdown and decommissioning. The crazy bastard isn't performing near the level to make him worth the headache of having him in the clubhouse, let alone take home an ace's salary. We continue on to Fukudome (who many fans love, but just can't put together a complete season), Jason Marquis, John Grabow (only a two-year deal), Scott Eyre, et al.

Carlos Zambrano in his natural state.
Considering the evidence, Hendry shakes out to be an average baseball GM with an above-average budget. Given a lower limit on payroll, he probably would have made the same mix of good and bad deals with different players. It's not like he wandered over to the Cubs front office while the Pirates were in town. The average MLB GM tends toward below-average results. Results that, as they say, are good enough for government work. Tough they claim otherwise when addressing the ticketholder, organizations tell us all exactly what they consider acceptable by revealing the amount they're willing to invest in their product (See: Los Angeles Clippers). The average MLB payroll in 2010 is $86,761,528. Cubs ownership has budgeted Hendry for nearly twice that, and he is about to find out that when you spend $145 million of someone else's money, every year, "good enough" tends to last about as long as Mel Gibson in South Central. We should know better than to ask, "What's that smell?"

Friday, July 9, 2010

Man Overboard on the USS LeBron

So everyone in Miami now loves LeBron. Everyone in Cleveland hates him. What's left of the rest of us who appreciated his skill, but never boarded the USS Mint?

Perhaps it's just me, but these shenanigans have turned me sour on a man to whom I previously had no emotional reaction.

Really? An hour special on ESPN is required to break the hearts of everyone in a town who have grown up loving you? An hour special is needed to announce the signing of the biggest name in basketball who hasn't won anything? Last I checked, Peyton Manning knows better than to pull a stunt like that with his next contract, and he has won a championship. And last I checked, he was an icon of his sport and an endorsement cash machine, too, LeBron.

This is just another shameless all about me ploy from an over-coddled, superstar athlete, with no sense of his place in the world. We're working on a parade for the time when we get unemployment back below nine percent, and Mr. James thinks what the world needs is a full hour dedicated to him and how much money he is about to make? Disgraceful. And that counts for the fans who sat watching with bated breath, as well.

LeBron has shown himself to be a callow creation of his day in age, fully costumed in whatever way would bring he and his associates the most money... straight from your pocket. And you're expected to thank him for it as well. Every day, we're faced with another revelation of a former child athlete who wants everyone to think that they "get it," but only as far as your holding tight to that image will inflate not only their pocketbook, but their never-say-boo-to-me ego as well. Tiger Woods, anyone?

And that isn't to say that LeBron owed anything to Cleveland. Is he a better story in Cleveland? Yes. Would it build a bigger legacy if he brought not only one, but several championships to Cleveland? Yes. So if this move is not about LeBron, but "winning" why bolt? Even if he does win in Miami with his superteam backing him (which is not assured, as I believe that at present, the Heat barely have enough players under contract to field five for tipoff), how will that build Brand LeBron? How does that fit into the legacy?

There are those who claim that LeBron would never find the support he needed to win in Cleveland. Could Cleveland have made better moves? Only those with more inside information into the world of NBA general managers than I can answer. But the organization showed effort. He wasn't with the Clippers. Anyone who paid attention to the 2010 playoff series against the Celtics could have deduced that the debacle wasn't entirely on the shoulders of the supporting cast. For someone who wants to be the next or even surpass Michael Jordan pulled a pancake in ways that I don't think Jordan ever saw even in his nightmares.

Regardless, even in your departure, LeBron, Cleveland and her fans deserved better than you felt obliged to bestow.

In pre-July 8, 2010 America, this guy could have probably won a popularity contest with Jesus. How about today? Give it at least a moment of consideration before answering. The stroke-session we saw last evening, lubricated by the smooth lotion of Stu Scott and friends, narcissism front and center, may be LeBron James enduring image. It's at the very least an image that sports fans will long remember. I doubt a championship of three will erase that travesty from the minds of true and pure fans and historians. And I hope that Mr. 'Bron, sir, you considered that risk into your calculations, as your greatest gamble could prove to be a tragedy of Oedipal proportions. And I, for one, will not shed a tear. We are all witnesses, indeed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Movie Perspective: The Last Airbender

Throughout the course of M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, I wondered who was more to blame for the film's state. The writer? the director? or the producer?

The question was answered in full during the first screen of the credits, when I found that Shyamalan occupied all three roles.

The story revolves around Aang, a boy monk and the last of his kind, who is to be the savior of the world. Not necessarily original, but the depth of the world created in the cartoon, consisting of four nations at war, each able to control a single element of Air, Earth, Water or Fire, finds charm in the fantastic hybrid creatures and characters, both human and spirit, that our hero encounters on his journey as the only soul who can master all four of the elements.

The adaptation is a demonstration in what not to do when condensing a ten-hour season of animation into a ninety minute movie. The storytelling is jerky, and unfulfilling, as Shyamalan manages to miss the essence of nearly the entire cast of characters with his script. The direction is equally poor, as the performances are substandard across the board. There is no emotion in the execution of the already stiff dialog. This could be attributed to the poor skill of the actors, being relative unknowns, we have no base line for comparison with the mostly youthful cast. But considering Dev Patel's (Prince Zuko) performance in Slumdog Millionaire, and Shyamalan's poor handling of Mark Whalberg and Zooey Deschenel in his last effort, The Happening, our judgment is certainly guided away from the acting talent in this case.

The high point of the film came as the credits began to role, and I was finally sure that we would not be subjected to Shayamalan's forcing himself into a pivotal role in the film. The Last Airbender should be the last in the line of Shayamalan films, but somehow, I fear that there will always be one more Hollywood executive willing to put him at the helm yet again. Shyamalan, whose career started so brilliantly with The Sixth Sense and to a lesser extent, Unbreakable, must be nearing its final curtain. We are left to hope that if the man is given one final gasp, studio executives finally find some semblance of sanity, and limit Shyamalan's influence to but one role in the production.

The film was heartbreaking only in the fact, that the soulful and entertaining cartoon was stripped of life and meaning, ending in a production filled with clunky lines and voice-overs, all situated in order to convey plot points that had been handled deftly in the hands of television animation writers. Anyone who wants to truly enjoy this charming story should do so by purchasing the animated collection, and fans who have viewed the series will be amply disappointed in the film.

Aang, you deserved better.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Movie Perspective: W.

Oliver Stone's supposedly controversial W. doesn't quite know what sort of film it wants to be. Stone's chronicle of the life and times of one of our most polarizing presidents, George W. Bush, whether it be because of the unruly task of compressing nearly forty years of history into two hours or the director's inability to commit his actors to a united form of storytelling, is unable to stay out of its own way.

Stone is notorious for presenting issues in a way that conforms to his vision of the world. I was prepared for a Bush bashing propaganda piece, but what I got was entirely different: It felt as if I were watching a two hour Saturday Night Live sketch with no jokes. The acting is terribly uneven with Josh Brolin playing a decent, yet cartoonish, version of George W. Bush. However, the flashbacks at the beginning of the film show Bush going through fraternity hazing, demostrating his knack for remembering people by their nicknames (a tactic he has continued to use into his sixties), the jarring effect pulls the viewer completely out of the conscious dream. The age gap between Brolin and the actors playing his fraternity brothers and fellow pledges is far too wide to be bridged.

The supporting cast was able at times, but spanned the gamut between Thandie Newton's extreme caricature of Condoleeza Rice, and James Cromwell not so much playing Bush the Elder, but James Cromwell himself wandering in and out of Bush 43's life. Understanding that Rice poses many challenges for the actress, as she possesses such a discernable manner, the film displays in full view the difficulties involved with playing a real person. Historical figures have been ably portrayed by such great actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, but W. presents clear evidence that if you cannot truly embody the character, he or she is better left alone.

The combined result made it difficult for me to take the film seriously when they portrayed some of the worst decisions made during the administration. It also made it difficult for me to identify with the characters when Stone allowed them to play sympathetically.

I believe that John Gardner summed up both the problems with this film and the Bush administration when he said, "In art as in politics, well-meant, noble sounding errors can devalue the world."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Full Steam Ahead on U.S.S. Irresponsibility

We have no rudder, we're almost out of fuel, springing leaks everywhere. Let's take this baby out to sea!

The congress has been busy spending money these past few weeks. Your money. Well, not actually your money, per se, it's either China's money that you are responsible to repay, or they are stealing it from you via inflation by firing up the printing presses. Either way, they have shown that they have no more concept of reality than the Wall Street Fat Cats that they would have you believe are our only problem. Only Wall Street tycoons are in a position to steal from you, right? Regardless, I hope you have your $39,000, because that's your share, and they'll end up getting it one way of another.

It began with the new $1.1T spending bill that made its way through the House and the Senate about a week ago. According to the facts as provided to me by Evan Bayh (D - IN), there is an 8% increase in the budget across the board. Not many corporations are fortunate enough to get that kind of increase in spending in their 2010 budget. Not many workers are getting a cost of living raise of four times the rate of inflation, either. Bayh, to his credit, voted 'No' on the bill, only one of three Democrats to do so, but he has been guilty of plenty of reckless spending otherwise (cash for clunkers, TARP, Stimulus, Healthcare).

We can also thank our friends in Congress for over $4B in earmark spending hidden in the bill. Over 400 earmarks were submitted by Chuck Grassley (R - IA), though he claims not to know how many actually made it into the final bill. I subsequently saw him on television defending himself, saying that while he submitted the earmarks, he did not vote for the bill. Apparently that leaves him, in his mind, entirely faultless in the fiasco. It's all justifiable in politician-logic. The way Grassley sees it, everyone wins: He gets his earmarks to mollify those who pay for his elections, because the bill passed without him, yet can still feign outrage, citing his 'No' vote on the Senate floor. He's in luck, because the bill has been signed. What was that I remember about going line by line to eliminate earmarks (2, 3, 4, 5)?

They tried to sell us that the budget would be better next time around when they passed the $410B 'Omnibus' budget bill at the beginning of the year. They tried to sell that it was 'last year's business, leftovers of the reckless spending of the dreadful Bush era (even though all budgets are constructed by congress, controlled not by George W. Bush, or even republicans over the past two years).

Without a hitch, they moved straight to healthcare. Not that anyone has read or knows what is actually in the bill. We do know a few things, however. Chris Dodd (D - CT) was able to get $100,000,000 packed into the bill for a medical center in Connecticut. What, exactly, does that have to do with providing health insurance for those who can't afford it? Ben Nelson (D - NE), was paid off, outright purchased, by getting the federal government to pick up the state's ENTIRE Medicaid tab, FOREVER. He had been holding out on 'moral grounds,' regarding federal funding for abortions. The people in his state made it clear that they didn't support federal funding for it, and it was looking like he would not be re-elected in 2010 if he voted for the bill. So did he change his vote based on a compromise in the provisions that he (and his constituents) found objectionable? No. He supplied his vote in exchange for CASH, just like Mary Landrieu.

Such fortitude! Way to stand your ground for your 'beliefs,' good sir.

For those of you living in the 49 other states, realize that he is voting 'Yes' on the healthcare bill in exchange for YOUR paying Nebraska's Medicare bill for the remainder of the existence of our republic. Enjoy!

Don't get me wrong, we need healthcare reform. There are a great many things within the system that are broken. And who broke it? State and federal government, of course. They were lobbied by insurance companies to put up walls to competition and falsely inflate their profits. We would not be here without the complete and utter complicity of those who are entrusted with the authority to 'fix' it.

Yes, something needs to change. But we don't need secrecy and back-room pay-offs to get it. Is their cause really so noble that they need to pass it behind closed doors and the cover of darkness? We need to know what is in the bill BEFORE it is passed. And, I know that this might sound crazy, the bill should ONLY INCLUDE PROVISIONS WHICH ACTUALLY ARE RELATED TO THE ISSUE TO BE ADDRESSED. No pork. But Harry Reid (D - NV) said himself, if Senators aren't trying to get something for themselves, they're not doing their jobs.

Why are these bills so ridiculously massive? Why do they keep getting bigger? Well, Harry just said it. Everyone has to have a little something in it for them. And each time, they feel like they need just a little more. And a little more. Have we had enough of politicians using taxpayer money to pay off their campaign contributors? Have we had enough of their pandering to corporate interests? Have we had enough of them using tax dollars to ensure their own continuing power? It would seem not. Apparently it's only the bankers and Wall Street fat cats and insurance company executives that we need to worry about. That's what the politicians keep saying, at least.

Wake up and smell the debt. Feel the water we're taking on. Realize that it won't be the Captains who go down with the ship, it will be the passengers.

Pelosi, you'll be back at the helm soon enough. Steer us well.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Perspective: Invictus

Is it a Nelson Mandela movie? Is it a rugby movie? No. It's a human movie.

The only things Clint Eastwood's latest has in common with his other recent movies (Gran Torino, Changeling, Letters from Iwo Jima / Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) is quality.

The movie, based on the novel Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation by John Carlin, paints a portrait of the cultural upheaval in South Africa in the early 1990s. It begins with a startlingly well conceived scene contrasting the two populations sharing the country. As Mandela is driven through his country, just released from prison, the black children play soccer in rags on one side of the street, while the whites practice rugby in uniform on the other. "Remember this is your country went to the dogs," the white coach tells his players.

I remember these events to a degree, from my youth. Taking place when I was ten or eleven, apartheid was explained to me, and my young mind couldn't wrap itself around the idea. What sort of people could allow such a system to take place? Yes, the U.S. has slavery in its past, but to me, at that age, it all seemed so long ago. I was shocked that this sort of thinking still existed in the world that I lived in.

Eastwood uses rugby as an effective storytelling device, demonstrating the tightrope that Mandela was forced to walk after he became president. Morgan Freeman's performance, per usual, is top notch as Mandela, who must persuade his people, to embrace the country's rugby team, Springbok, which they all hold as a symbol, down to the mere colors the team wears, of their oppression. In order to save his country, Freeman's Mandela must help his people to balance on a razors edge between justice and revenge.

Mandela works with Springbok coach/player Francois Pienaar, deftly played by Matt Damon, to find a way to overcome odds to win the 1995 rugby World Cup. A victory in the tournament, which was held in South Africa, could unite black and white in a way that few other accomplishments could. Mandela must inspire Pienaar to rally and overcome not only the cultural mores of the mostly white team, but their seeming lack of skill.

Other ideas explored were Mandela's own difficulty dealing with his estrangement from his family. The dichotomy of his ability to overcome the obstacles of integrating two people so untrusting of each other, with his inability to unite is family provides an interesting back drop. Furthermore, the integration, and later friendship, among the black and white presidential security detail is an entertaining underscore.

If I allowed myself one complaint, I suppose that I could have done without a few of the slow-motion-men-grunting-in-the-scrum scenes that portrayed the World Cup finals, but that would be nitpicking at the harshest. Invictus was a movie that informs while entertaining, keeping this viewer, with very little understanding of rugby fully engaged throughout. It has inspired me to learn more about the events as they took place, and is an moving tale of the unifying power of sport.

Rated 4, Recommended

Scale: 1 - Awful, 2 - Substandard, 3 - Average, 4 - Recommended, 5 - Must See

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Enlisting in the War on Christmas

When I woke up this morning, there were ships as far as the eye could see. The fleet had sailed in overnight. I watched as they loaded into their Higgins boats and amphibious landing craft, and now they are nearly to shore. But we will all fight to our last breath. We will take our beliefs to the grave. We will never be defeated in spirit.

Yes, the time of year is upon us again. The time when we are placed in the middle of a never-ending battle to the death: The War on Christmas. Fox News is on the television, droning on about their latest findings about which companies do and do not allow their employees to say "Merry Christmas." The ACLU has legions of lawyers at the battlements, prepared to fight off any perceived assault on what they believe to be the world view of the defenseless. Everyone has battened the hatches and armed themselves to the teeth. Careful liberals, Fox is watching you for war crimes. Don't get too cocky, Fox, Keith Olbermann has you in his sights. Gotcha!

But when did we transition from the tried and true cornerstone of democracy, "While I may disagree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it," to "While I may disagree with what you say, I will defend to the point of offense to my delicate sensibilities to say it?" Have our skin really grown so thin?

I have a hard time believing that a Christian wishing someone of another faith, or no faith at all, a Merry Christmas in the television department of Best Buy is really going to alter their system of beliefs. Nor do I fear that one person's decision to be an atheist should play any role whatsoever in another's choice of faith. Yet, faithful and faithless alike still take to the streets and do battle every year. Both sides love nothing more than to evangelize their point of view.

But what if, just what if, an atheist said "Thank You," when someone tells them Merry Christmas? What if a Christian said "And to you, too!" when a Jew wishes them a Happy Hanukkah? If all are comfortable in their beliefs, they should not feel the need to belittle the other for a greeting that is really only meant to convey good will. Should stores, businesses or government bureaucracies require their employees to convey such a greeting? Of course not. But is it the end of the world if they do?

Here's hoping for a day where liberals and conservatives alike can find a way to avoid taking offense to things that have no real effect on them or the people they are wont to protect. Until then, I look forward to many more meaningless arguments about whether it must be called "Winter" or "Christmas" break. Enjoy the season.