Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August Baseball

Rudy York hit 18 home runs in August of 1937 as a rookie.  He is also one of the most prominent American Indian baseball players of all time

August is my favorite baseball month of the regular season.  It comes before the start of (American) football season, giving the events primacy in the sports world.  Most of all, it is when things really get serious.  As I've mentioned before, the baseball season is not a matter of two halves, but of three parts.  The April-May part is subdued and hopeful in the early spring cool breeze, a time when surprise teams might briefly hold the spotlight and teams with high expectations are allowed to stumble a bit.  June-July is the winnowing phase, a proving ground where the teams that are going to have a shot emerge, and the also-rans make themselves known.  August-September is endgame, when the contenders fight to make the playoffs and the cellar dwellers have a hard time drawing a crowd to the park.  It comes after the trade deadline on July 31, when teams on the bubble scramble to get that last piece of the puzzle and the front runners stock up on spare parts.

It has been a few years since I've been able to enjoy August baseball as a fan of a contender, so seeing Noah Syndegaard blow his 109th (and last pitch) right by the fearsome Bryce Harper on the way to a Mets victory that put them tied for first with the Nationals on Sunday was a special treat.  The Mets haven't even had a winning season since 2008 and a playoff spot since 2006.  My other team, the White Sox, are indeed losing again this year, but not totally out of contention due to a strange bunching around the middle in the American League.  In any case, they haven't made the playoffs since 2009.  It feels good to watch these late season games with some emotional investment, rather than resignation.  When Syndegaard made the mighty Harper look a fool I jumped up from the couch and punched the air, which doesn't really happen in June, even in a similar situation.

When a team is contending the sometimes sleepy, laid back atmosphere of the ballpark is completely altered into a fervent, high stress zone where fans are keyed into every pitch.  The crowds at the last Mets home stand were going absolutely bananas, and sustaining loud chants of the sort usually reserved for soccer terraces.  Last night's game on the road in Miami showed the flipside of this phenomenon, where the Marlins barely drew a crowd on a Saturday night against the Mets, and quite a few fans were rooting for the opposing team.

The way fans of contending teams root is never the same, however.  When I was at AT&T Park in San Francisco last week the place was packed, but the Giants fans were fairly composed.  They had the confidence and swagger of a team that has won three championships this decade, whereas Mets fans are currently sloughing off a decade of futility and frustration in an ostentatious manner that fans of the likes of the Giants or Cardinals would likely find distasteful.  Thus is always the case with long-suffering fan bases.  I had just moved to Chicago during the end of the 1998 season, and Cubs fans treated the chance at a wild card spot like the Second Coming.  (I still remember watching the infamous Brant Brown botched catch and actually hearing the sound of a collective stomp and "aw fuck!" in the air.)

Baseball is a long season, from the first signs of life after winter to when the leaves begin to fall.  Hardcore fans watch a lot of games, a lot more than fans of any other sport.  It is a sport where one has to keep one's full emotions in reserve, because to treat every game with intensity will burn you out before Memorial Day.  Once August comes, it means either letting baseball fade into the background or, if your team is in a pennant race, suddenly throwing one's soul into each and every inning.  After Sunday I'm all in as far as the Mets are concerned, hopefully now that they have my heart, they won't break it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reagan, Neshoba, The Voting Rights Act, And The Eternal Return

Today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of an event little known in the general public but widely known among historians of recent American history: Ronald Reagan's speech in favor of "states rights" in Neshoba County, Mississippi, spitting distance from the site where civil rights workers James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered by white supremacists only sixteen years before.

It's good to see Reagan's statement about "states rights" in context, so here is the relevant section of the speech:

Today, and I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare, I know that one of the great tragedies of welfare in America today, and I don't believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they're trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.

I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement].

I believe in state's rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I'm looking for, I'm going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

Of course Reagan never mentions African Americans or segregation by name, but he sure implies a lot.  "States rights" itself had historically been used mostly (and vociferously) by the South to defend slavery, and then Jim Crow.  Reagan also talks about "welfare" and "education," which likely conjured up images of poor African Americans in the first place and integrated schools in the latter in the mind of his audience.  Note as well the sustained applause mentioned in the transcript, so loud that Reagan had to stop for a moment.  I doubt a crowd of white folks in rural Mississippi in 1980 was cheering that hard at the mention of "states rights" because they truly believed in the efficiency of state-level agencies.  No, I can bet that they had something else in mind.

And that's why the Neshoba speech matters, because it shows how modern conservatism has deftly incorporated color-blind racism into its arsenal.  According to a depressing article in the New York Times Magazine, that same color blind racism was used by conservative operatives and jurists to dismantle the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act.  Since the Supreme Court invalidated preclearance and allowed voter ID laws several states have passed a wave of legislation to restrict the vote, restrictions that fall especially hard on African Americans.  Such a wave of voter restrictions hasn't been seen since the 1880s and 1890s.  Gee, I wonder what was going on back then?  (Lee Atwater's infamous 1981 interview pretty much lays out the basis of this whole strategy.)

In the Times Magazine article former Kansas Senator and majority leader Bob Dole says something very interesting about what has been happening in his party:

But as [John] Roberts pressed his case [against a strong Voting Rights Act], a powerful opponent, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, was working against him. Dole, who voted for the Voting Rights Act in 1965, thought the Reagan team’s ideological fervor put the party’s efforts to build a broad, winning coalition of voters at risk. His argument prevailed, and Reagan ultimately signed the strengthened version of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, with the new standard for bringing discrimination cases intact. “I tried to make the point to the White House that, as a party, we needed to demonstrate that we cared and were concerned about votes from African-Americans and Hispanics,” Dole, now 92, told me earlier this summer. “I don’t know where we lost track after Abraham Lincoln.”

It's obvious from this statement that Dole does not think that the Republican party is making any effort whatsoever to concern itself with representing the interests of either African Americans or Latinos.  As others have said before me, the Southern strategy has ended up, fifty years later, turning the Republican party into a white identity party.  Considering the changing demographics of American society, the only way to ensure the success of such a plan is to disenfranchise those who would be likely to vote against Republicans.  For that reason new voting restrictions target people of color, the poor of all races, women, and college students.

That desire is sadly nothing new in American politics.  From day one there have been voting restrictions, whether they be by property or race.  During the Gilded Age nativists argued against immigration in order to suppress the power of immigrant voters, and some in New York even toyed with bringing back property requirements.  The Voting Rights Act wasn't passed until 1965, only fifty short years ago.  In a society where universal suffrage is the legal principle behind voting, those who defend the interests of the privileged will always attempt to drown democracy, since they can't win any other way.  In the wake of Neshoba, Reagan's followers fought to end the Voting Rights Act, and they effectively did, to this nation's great shame.  Much like the period of postwar prosperity that lasted until the 1970s, the 48 year stretch of actual equal voting will likely be remembered in the future as a bright blip in a much more dismal story.  Of course, things could change, but I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Track of the Week: Sir Douglas Quintet "Mendocino"

I'm back from the Bay Area but still can't get over what an engaging place it was.  I've only immediately fallen in love with three cities in my life: Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Francisco, and in the latter case I fell super hard. (I guess I have a thing for port cities.)

Like New York City it's a place that has long drawn musicians in like a cultural magnet, often from far away places.  Doug Sahm and his original band the Sir Douglas Quintet hailed from Texas, where they cut one of the best garage rock tracks of the mid-60s, before heading out to the bay like so many other "gentle people."  This gang of Texans who favored the rhythms of 50s R&B and Mexican folk music must have been out of place amidst amidst all of the psychedelia, something referenced in songs like "At The Crossroads," which have longings for the Lone Star State.

While Sahm wrote a lot of other songs about Texas (where he eventually returned), one of his best is about a California town, "Mendocino."  It has his usual off-hand feel, starting with a little thank you leading into a memorable Farfisa organ hook over a choogling piano part driving things along. The organ is not psychedelic, but reminiscent of 50's sock hops, and the beat is more Tex-Mex than it is rock and roll.  Sahm and his band were a throwback to popular music as a soundtrack to a good time, as something you could dance to.  Sure, I like heavy rock and music that takes itself super seriously, but now that it's summer I just want something fun for letting the good times roll.  That's why every year when summer hits the dog days I listen to a little Doug Sahm on the road to a Mendocino of the mind.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fort Campus

Today University of Cincinnati campus cop Ray Tensing was indicted for the murder of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed African American man that he shot in the head during a traffic stop.  The continued litany of black people killed by the police, whether directly like DuBose or more indirectly like Sandra Bland, is this nation's greatest shame.

Strikingly, this killing was done by a campus police officer off campus.  It reminded me of college campuses I've been affiliated with that had a heavy police presence, where the school seemed to relate to the surrounding neighborhoods like a fortress in hostile territory.  For example, my undergraduate institution sat right between downtown Omaha and the city's north side ghetto.  The police presence on campus was very apparent, although I mostly saw the cops issuing parking tickets.  Nevertheless, I felt like the school was very deliberately trying keep the mostly black local population from setting foot on campus.

The show of force was even greater when I was at the University of Chicago for my master's degree.  I would commonly see UChicago police patrolling off campus, and had heard through the grapevine that most of them were off-duty CPD cops earning extra money.  While there was a high level of street crime in Hyde Park when I lived there (I know multiple people who were threatened with knives and guns during robberies), I've seen robust campus police in the sleepiest of locations.  Campus cops were everywhere when I taught in a small East Texas town, and as faculty salaries were frozen, the massive police force maintained its outsize position.

The fact that so many college campuses feel like fortresses is telling.  It is part of a larger trend in America where social inequality is accepted and dealt with through force and violence.  Rather than trying to increase the life chances for all, our society builds walls and arms sentinels to keep what were once called the "dangerous classes" in the Gilded Age from getting inside the havens of the more fortunate.  Ray Tensing felt so empowered in this role that he pulled over Samuel DuBose even though he was off campus, and tried to make an arrest for what should have been simple traffic citations.  Yes, he appears to be a particularly violent and murderous officer, but our system apparently finds it fit to employ such people to defend college campuses.  As long as white America persists in building its fortresses and arming them to the teeth, more tragedies like this will keep happening.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes On A Game At AT&T Park

I am currently at Stanford University doing a week-long seminar, and on Monday decided to trek to San Francisco to see a Giants game at AT&T Park.  I am one of those weirdos who actually enjoys going to baseball games alone from time to time.  A good ballpark is like a good bar, you're bound to find good company if you make an effort.  As cool as some of my compatriots here at the seminar have been, I also wasn't too keen on wrangling others to come along anyway.  I didn't want the pressure of pushing through awkward conversation or having to come to decisions collectively about tickets and the like.  I just wanted to go to church, so to speak.

I strolled up to the ticket window in the first inning (I was late getting to my train) and got a ticket in the upper deck, knowing that being my first time in a new ballpark that I would be wandering around some.  When I got there high above the third based line, I knew I was lucky.  As is usually the case in the cheap seats, I was surrounded by families.  Nothing ruins a ballpark experience more than dealing with drunken assholes (more on that later.)  Since they (usually) don't have their kids in tow, they don't have to worry about affording four tickets, and can thus by something closer to the action.  One of the families were from North Carolina, possessed of a euphonious twang and friendly disposition.  They chatted throughout the game with the folks around them, who were more than happy to oblige.  (I was included in some of these conversations, which included Steve Smith's ability to demolish the Chicago Bears.) I sat next to a working class Latino man with his family who immediately talked baseball to me without any pretense or introduction.  That instant connection is one of the great things about going to a baseball game in the right circumstances.

For the first inning or so I was actually too awestruck to make conversation with anyone.  I have been to several ballparks, but none situated like this one.  Up high in the upper deck I got an amazing view of the San Francisco Bay, where I could see the big ships moving in and out, their lights reflecting on the water.  I would have paid the price of my ticket just to sit there without a baseball game.  The cool breeze started coming off of the bay, which felt immaculate after a week of scorching heat on the East Coast.  That breeze added to the feeling of surreality I've always had when visiting California.  It is a place that exudes newness and a sense of impermanence built on lofty dreams.  Rebuilt after the 1908 earthquake, San Francisco is a product of the 20th century, not the 19th like the big cities of the East, Midwest, and South.  New York too draws people from around the world, but in California it always feels like they don't just come for opportunity, but to slough off their past selves.  That's my perception, at least.

After the sixth inning I got up at started walking around the park.  I have been to a lot of ballparks, but none beat this one when it comes to the concourses. I could look right behind me over the bay if I wanted to, or look the other direction at the action on the field.  The ballpark food was also great, and I ate the best chicharones (fried pork skins) of my life that night.  After exploring the concourse I looked for an entrance to the lower deck not guarded by an usher, and found one on the third base side.  After the 7th inning I took my chance and traded up to the lower level.

Seeing the game on the lower level was a bit of an adjustment, everything suddenly seemed so near.  Before the 9th inning they played "Lights" by Journey, an ode to San Francisco, and everyone sang along and swayed.  In that moment I felt jealous that I was only visiting.  It also reminded me that a good baseball stadium will somehow find ways to draw people together in a community.

The only real blip was a dude sitting two rows ahead of me.  He had a baseball glove on his hand, marking himself as a humongous tool, since nobody over the age of 12 should be bringing a glove to a game, especially in a non-foul ball zone like the one I was sitting in.  He kept spitting tobacco juice into the aisle, and when anything happened in the game, would stand up and stagger into the aisle (he was obviously drunk) even though the elderly people sitting right behind him could then not see a damn thing on the field.  They were too feeble to keep standing up themselves, but did not contact any ushers or police.  It was a sad reminder that the assholes who ruin the fan experience for others are so often allowed to act with impunity.  Soon enough, however, Sergio Romo managed to close things out and have us walking to the exits.  Afterwards I felt calm, rested, fulfilled.  There's nothing like going to the ballpark.


Here are all the ballparks I've been to, ranked best to worst:

1.  Wrigley Field
It's different now with all the electronic doo-hickeys, but when I used to go there it was just pure baseball.  It's a truly beautiful place to see a game, and it transports you out of the daily grind in ways that other parks don't.

2.  AT&T Park
The view alone puts this park at the top.  There is no other ballpark situated in a better location.

3.  Camden Yards
This park is absolutely beautiful, and has a timeless element that makes it feel like something much older than the 1990s.

4.  Old Yankee Stadium
It was getting to be a bit of a dump when I went there, but man oh man did it have atmosphere.  The presence of the ghosts of the past was palpable.

5.  Kaufmann Stadium
This is where I saw my first major league game.  It is the paragon of the second wave of baseball stadiums, functionalist but still beautiful.

6.  Citi Field
While the design is not exciting, this park does the basics very well, from food to the availability of restrooms.

7.  Minute Maid Park
It is way too small, but it does have its own character, from the flagpole in center to the retractable roof.  The stadium has a nice intimacy to it.

8.  US Cellular Field
While I love the Sox, their stadium is a non-descript "ball mall."  At least the food and concourses are great.

9.  Turner Field
Pretty uninspiring, but at least the tickets are cheap (but not for long.)

10.  The Ballpark at Arlington
It looks better on TV than it is real life, which is the Dallas area in a nutshell.

11. Old Busch Stadium
Boring cookie-cutter stadium with bad sight lines.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Track of the Week: Buck Owens, "San Francisco Town"

I arrived at Stanford University today for a weeklong seminar.  I'm pretty excited about it, especially because I've never been to the Bay Area before.  As a young child growing up in the windswept plains of Nebraska, I developed from popular culture fascinations with two cities: New York and San Francisco.  I am now, of course, intimately familiar with New York, but never had the chance/time/money to get out here until now.

While there are a lot of great artists from this part of the country, my track of the week is from someone from outside the area singing about it.  Country great Buck Owens was the pioneer of the "Bakersfield Sound" in the 1960s, but actually had more broad musical interests than you would think.  In the early 70s he put out a fantastic album mostly of folk and rock covers called Bridge Over Troubled Water. (His version of the title track also happens to be quite good, as is this amazing cover of Dylan's "Love Plus One-No Limit.")  It showed his interest in the kind of music they didn't play on the Grand Ole Opry, and it might be my favorite of his albums.

There are a lot of songs written about the glories of San Francisco, from Journey's cheesy "Lights" to Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart In San Francisco."  Owens' "San Francisco Town" is different because its story is not just a celebration or statement of homesickness.  It is sung from the point of view of a member of the flower power generation down on his luck, homeless, and looking for a bite to eat.  Despite his desperate condition, he still pledges his love for San Francisco.  He seems to say that he loves the place so much that he's willing to put up with being down and out.  Not sure myself if the city is worth the hype, but looking forward this week to finding out.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Star Wars Universe Movies I'd Like To See

I still can't get over the fact that Disney is going to be putting out a Star Wars film every year, mostly since it offers endless possibilities for playing around in that universe.  What I really want to see are films that deviate from conventional action/adventure tropes and use the Star Wars world as a place to tell new kinds of stories.  Here's a a few I would want to see.

The Eyes of Obi-Wan
The greatest failure of the prequels may actually be in their very conception.  Making the story about Anakin's turn to the dark side was a huge mistake, in that he is not an easy character to empathize with, and that his turn simply is not enough to drive a three-film series.  Going into the prequels, I was much more interested in Obi-Wan's role.  As I have written about before, he is an extremely compelling character, someone whose failures haunt him but at the end of his life sees a way to make it good again.  For that reason I would love to see a Bergman-esque art film along the lines of Wild Strawberries where the old Obi-Wan is living as a hermit on Tatooine, contemplating his past.  Most of the film would be flashbacks, which would be a great way to retell the story of the prequels from a much more interesting perspective.

Binary Souls
I would really love the new Star Wars films to stretch out when it comes to genre.  Why not a romantic comedy?  In the binary-sun based Tschugarin System a freighter pilot's ship breaks down, and he meets cute with the tough-talking proprietor of a cantina.  They fall in love and match wits, but will he stay on the planet, will she fly with him to new worlds, or will they go their separate ways?  (I see this as a bit of an intergalactic Before Sunrise.)

Many Bothans Died
I'd also love to see a Star Wars-based spy thriller.  This film would tell the story of intrigue and bravery around the Bothan spies who managed to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the Empire's bureaucracy and confiscate the plans to the second Death Star.  Intrigue abounds as the Bothans fear a double agent in their midst whose machinations lead to several of them dying.

White Helmet
The odd thing about the Star Wars films are that none of them are war movies, proper.  I would like to see an All Quiet on the Western Front-style anti-war film made in the Star Wars universe.  This one would follow a squad of storm troopers who become increasingly traumatized and embittered after years of fighting.  This would be a no-holds barred picture, portraying things like summary executions of Jawas and the Empire's "take no prisoners" policy in regards to irregular war against the Rebels.  It would also serve to humanize the storm troopers a bit, which would change the moral calculus of the original films in interesting ways.