Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Shifting Perspectives

Take a moment to look at the woman in this picture and estimate her age….

Many of you probably know where this is going as this image is a well-known optical illusion that you imaginary readers have most likely seen before. Some see a young woman whose profile is viewed from behind her left shoulder and others see an old hag from a closer, more frontal perspective. The important point is that both images project clearly and, once pointed out, you can hardly believe that you didn’t see both from the start.

This is how I feel about my new perspective on human evolution. I have recently seen it from a new vantage point and I am stunned at the obviousness of what I have overlooked for so long. Stay tuned -- that post is in my mind but not yet on paper.

I know, I know…a real cliff hanger.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Non sequiturs

Contributed by Auggie: Opinionated Curmudgeon at Large

I think it’s time to coin a new phrase called “extreme extrapolation”. This is an argumentative technique employed by people who are desperate, myopic or logically challenged. Here is how it works: A person is unable (or too lazy) to come up with an intelligent, convincing case to support their position, so they argue that if event A occurs (the event they are against), then events B, C and D are the string of unwanted consequences that will naturally follow. Of course, when preaching the projected consequences they ignore facts, logic or anything else that might expose their argument as fraudulent.

A good place to find examples of this tact is the ‘letters to the editor’ section of your local newspaper, especially when a divisive public referendum is up for vote. Let’s say for example there is a referendum to ban baiting as a bear hunting technique. Some dolt will submit a passionate letter crying how the authorities are trying to exert too much control over the common folk, and “they won’t stop there, no, the next thing you know they’ll outlaw bear hunting altogether and then deer hunting, duck hunting and eventually fishing”. These hypothetical events are completely unrelated to the referendum and there is no evidence that anyone against bear baiting wants to protect yellow perch, but it’s bound to strike a chord with Frank’s bait & tackle shop. Assuming Frank is an idiot too. I wonder, since these people are already on the delusion express, why not keep chugging along and pick up a few more passengers? I’m sure that once big brother gets the fishing ban approved, its only a matter of time before mouse traps and bug zappers are prohibited. I’m still waiting for someone on the other side of the argument to use the same tactic, if only to demonstrate it’s absurdity; “Hey listen pal, you’ve already got your duck, bear, and deer hunting. If we keep relaxing the rules the next thing you know we’ll be legalizing pet hunts, and sooner or later you’ll want to hunt humans for sport”.

Now that I think about it, I bet that’s exactly what happened to Jonathan Kincaid

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Puzzling behavior

Auggie here...

A little help? If there are any behavioral psychologists or cognitive scientists among the readers I would appreciate some help explaining two human behavioral patterns that, quite frankly, have me baffled. Let’s call these two behaviors “the scowl" and "road stupidity”.

You know what? Even if you’re not a scientist feel free to chime in – all theories are welcome.

1. The scowl:

I think NBA stands for National Bizarro Association. How else to explain the scowl?
Observe the nearby picture of Chris Bosh, a basketball player for the Toronto Raptors. Based on your understanding of human emotion and corresponding facial expressions, what emotion do you think he is feeling at that moment? In my world it is clearly anger. That’s the exact expression I would make if I just discovered a hair line fracture in my new Nike Sasquatch driver. Let me pose the question another way - suppose this was your SAT and the question was worded: From the following choices, describe the event that would NOT produce the accompanying facial expression:

  • A rookie just backed into his new Hummer H3
  • An opponent made a derogatory comment about his Mama
  • He just competed a rewarding play to help his team.

If you answered “c”, enjoy community college. This is the typical facial expression of an NBA player after a positive play. It is not just occasional, it’s the norm. Now, I know why most players do it – because they have seen their predecessors do it and the herd mentality impedes them from alternative expression. But how did it all start?

When I was a child, if I had seen my dad arriving home from work with that face do you think I would have said, “Whoa dad, you really nailed it today huh?” Nope. I might not have known the problem but I’d have been out of there faster than George W. at a fifth grade spelling bee.

There must be some good scientific theories out there.

2. Road Stupidity

We hear a lot about road rage these days, but the precursor to road rage is road stupidity. I witness it daily on my commute to work and back. When I see people risking the safety of themselves and others, or worse, me! it’s infuriating. They’re basically saying “I’m more important than the rest of you oafs, and these silly laws and regulations do not apply to a person of my stature”. Attempting to describe the levels of stupidity and inconsiderate behavior is beyond the scope of this blog, but I’m sure we all could cite examples we’ve witnessed.

Sometimes as I’m cursing a person from the safety of my car, I stop and think - if I knew that person I might like them and think of them as a good person. Even as a stranger, they would probably come to my aid if I needed help. And that is probably true a majority of the time, so the question becomes: what happens to an otherwise decent person when they slide their sorry butt behind the wheel of their vehicle? This is not a rhetorical question, I firmly believe a chemical change takes place the brain.

We’re all at least vaguely familiar with similar scientific concepts in other aspects of life. For example adrenaline. When a person encounters certain kinds of stress, a hormone is released that prepares them for ‘fight or flight’. And what about the numerous brain activity studies that show how certain brain regions are activated by certain experiences. You gonna tell me something similar doesn’t happen when some people get in a car? Can we get a control group together and study this? Slap some probes on their noggins and see what happens, its not that hard. Why hasn’t it been done?

I have some brain activity (or lack thereof) theories based on empirical evidence, but I’m not fluent in the scientific terminology so I’ll need to express my theories in lay terms.

Brain regions that become more active when some people begin to drive:
  • The region controlling territorial instincts
  • The region controlling the basic attitude “since we are all anonymous behind our steel barriers, I can act like a cretin and get away with it”
  • The region controlling general buttheadedness.

Brain regions that become less active when some people begin to drive:
  • The region controlling consideration for fellow humans.

I look forward to some enlightenment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Moments in Time

I keep hearing that these are "tough times". For sure the health of the economy, of the planet, and of the public psyche have all had better days. Much better days.

Nonetheless, it's an extremely relative statement to be bantered about without context. For example, I'll take 2009 over the Middle Ages with no reservations at all. Come to think of it, the 1930's don't look like a hot destination in time travel either.

Here's a perspective: none of our lives, once played out and reflected upon, will really be defined by "the times" in which we lived. Our lives are extended constructions of small moments, some more enduring than others, strung together from birth until death. The "times" are merely the backdrop, the "moments" are the life.

As my inaugural attempt to embed video in a post, I present a short clip about one of my all-time, favorite, feel-good moments. This wasn't a part of my life but it was for many others in one of my former hometowns, Rochester, NY.

Among the seemingly dire circumstances of the day, it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on the moments that make life good in all times, be they tough or otherwise.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Why is it so difficult for so many Americans to see that our prosperity and quality of life is more than just a little influenced by our neighbors to the south? I find it so distasteful that middle-class Americans can sit around and disparage Mexican immigrants as “drags on the health and educational system” with so little regard for the facts.

Where I live, there are lots of Mexican immigrants and many of them are here illegally. I don’t condone their lack of regard for the law but I really can’t blame them. If I were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary geographic boundary and was condemned to a life of poverty while those on the other side enjoyed much greater comforts and opportunities, I think I would be deeply motivated to cross over, especially if I had children for whom I wanted to provide modern healthcare and a solid education.

Granted, some illegal immigrants make trouble and for that, they also make headlines. They become the lighting-rods in the evidence-seeking mission of those who wish to highlight the burden that illegal immigrants place on our institutions. However, the published facts suggest that they tend to make trouble at exactly the same rate as the rest of those in the lower socio-economic strata of the American public. As is true with legal residents, the vast majority are hard working, honest, tax-paying cogs in the wheel of American industry.

Mexico has a vast and hungry work force that could greatly benefit America. We need to recognize this and embrace them on fair terms that will allow them to prosper in the manner that we have all prospered over the past several decades. The disparity of wealth and comfort between our two adjacent populations is untenable in the long run. As such, we must choose between facilitating an orderly marriage between American opportunity and Mexican need or letting the two sides continue to find each other in the chaotic and inefficient market of illegal immigration.

One more difference (per prior post)....

I should also mention the other visually obvious and good to see difference between players on the WBC Asian teams and the MLB players: relief pitchers run to the mound from the bullpen. I find the leisurely stroll that MLB relievers take to be the height of arrogance and absurdity. You're a professional athlete; you can't jog 300 feet?

Different approach brings better results?

Last night brought the conclusion of the second World Baseball Classic with Team Japan defeating Team Korea for the title. This makes Japan 2 for 2 as winners in each of the only two WBC tournaments to date. Korea, the reigning Olympic champion, was a worthy opponent tying the final game in the bottom of the ninth only to lose in extra innings. Given the current dominance of these teams, are the Asians truly the superior baseball players compared to the Cubans, the North Americans, the Latin Americans, and the Dominicans who are often considered (along with the Asians) as the dominant groups?

While Asian pitching seemed the same to me as what I commonly see in the MLB (where, in fact, many Asian pitchers practice their craft), I thought the rest of the defensive scheme was played more aggressively by the Asians, with outfielders playing shallow to take away hits and infielders creeping in to cut runs at the plate and to save precious time on double-play balls. However, the major difference I noted between typical MLB play and what I saw in the championship game of the WBC was in the player's approach to hitting.

As I have described in this blog, the MLB has come to place a huge premium on power hitting. Whether it contributes to winning is not clear but it certainly leads to bigger contracts and so hitters, being rational decision makers, have responded with according effort. The best data supporting the trend towards hitters swinging for the fences in the past decade is the dramatic rise in strikeouts per at bat despite the shrinking strike zone. Here is how I thought the difference in "hitting approach" was so visually obvious.

In general (I know there are exceptions), MLB hitters tend to have one swing. It is a long swing through the strike zone designed for maximum power. The swing has parts of the strike zone where it is effective and parts where it is not. Players "holes" (pitch locations where their swing is not effective) are well known and MLB batters often take pitches for strikes if they are not thrown in a hittable portion of the strike zone. By "hittable", I mean hittable with their long swings designed for the home run. The Asians, on the other hand, seem to have a multitude of various swing forms depending on pitch velocity, location, and movement. They bat to make contact and put the ball in play using long swings when appropriate but more commonly using short, inside out, hands back, and/or lunging swings as needed. Each swing unfolds masterfully as a reaction to the pitch and I must say, it is both artful and entertaining to watch.

Is this small-ball, team approach to getting on base, advancing the runners, sacrificing, and scratching out runs more effective than the MLB approach of relying on the dinger? It was last night.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

World Basesball Classic

When I lived overseas, I got a close look at the intense passion with which countrymen followed their teams in international soccer matches. I was living in Italy in '96 when they lost the world cup on penalty kicks and the national grief was astounding. I was impressed by how closely the WC tournament was followed by men, women and children alike and wished that I would have the opportunity to join with my compatriots and cheer for a US National team in an effort so deeply important to so many.

I am encouraged by what seems to be, to my uncultured eye, a steady rise in US competitiveness in soccer. However, it's a sport I never played, can't understand deeply, and doubt will gain a broad national following in my lifetime. American football is played almost no where else so the prospect of meaningful international competition in that sport is not promising. Basketball is great in some parts of the world but, for some puzzling reason, there doesn't seem to be much global spirit and energy channeled toward being the world basketball champion (although beating the US is a major goal for many Olympic teams).

Given this scenario, I was keenly interested in the birth of the World Baseball Classic and followed it closely in 2006, its inaugural year. Now the WBC is underway again and I can't help but notice the minimal public interest and general lack of media fanfare. My fear is that it will fail commercially and dissolve forever. If so, I will blame the failure on timing.

Holding this tournament in March means that many MLB players are not yet in game-playing shape and are unwilling to participate. This in turn dampens US fan interest and diminishes the commercial appeal in our country, which is one of the major global markets where the tournament must attract wide-spread attention to be successful. More importantly, a March schedule means that this fledgling enterprise must compete with the wildly popular and over-hyped NCAA basketball tournament for viewership.

I contend that the tournament should be held in mid-summer during the All-Star break. Perhaps it would require lengthening the All-Star break by a couple days but throw in a few double-headers (my favorite old-school baseball construct that is almost extinct) and the MLB season could end on schedule.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A dubious honor

Ever the news hawk, I recently ran across a story from the BBC about people with unfortunate names. I skimmed it over, found it moderately amusing, and forgot about it until last night when I was perusing the coverage of the World Baseball Classic. One Korean player is so unfortunately named, I believe he belongs at the top of the BBC's list.

I know it's immature, but I first cracked up about this guy when I attended the WBC semi-finals in 2006 and read his name on the scoreboard. I had largely forgotten about him and resumed my former appearance of a well-adjusted adult when I ran across his name again last night. I've chuckled off and on all day whenever I've thought of him but I've been fairly discreet in my mirth and, as far as I know, my lack of maturity has gone unnoticed.

If you are either (a) very mature or (b) cool with the idea that everyone might glimpse the juvenile nature of your true self, then feel free to check out the piece I read about this guy and get in touch with your inner 6th-grader.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What motivates athletes?

Auggie here...

When you are born an artist, the world is a canvas. You engage in artistic endeavors for the love and personal contentment they grant you. If you can make a buck at it then great. I think this is how youths approach sports. They play for the love of the sport without a dime of compensation, and they can’t get enough. They strive for excellence for the intrinsic satisfaction they get for excelling at the art they love. When I was a youth I would swing a lead pipe to improve at baseball and practice with my left hand to improve at basketball, solely for the satisfaction I received from improving at the games I loved. But a funny thing happens on the road to stardom – players who reach elite status begin to play for far different reasons, or so it would seem. With today’s professional athletes it seems that intrinsic satisfaction is a distant third in the hierarchy of reasons to excel. What’s the top reason? Money you say? Nope – that takes the silver. The real reason of course is r-e-s-p-e-c-t!

I watch a lot of sports and I’m amazed, truly amazed at how often athletes talk about proving others wrong as a motivating force, or about getting the respect they deserve. Every player that is waived, traded, not drafted high enough, not voted to the all-star team, not fawned over by the pundits, not game planned against, etc. etc. makes it their personal mission to prove the naysayers wrong. Improve because you want to be the best at your craft? Nah! It’s all about showing people up.

The other day I saw an ESPN segment on Dwayne Wade. I watched for about 90 seconds and he mentioned getting the respect he deserves (“deserves” I say!) at least five times. The NBA finals MVP trophy from a couple years ago is getting old, nowadays if you talk about Lebron and Kobe and you don’t mention D-Wade in the same breath you are flat out dissing him. A few years ago I was going to collect examples of this syndrome for some future use but it was too much like work (little did I know I would someday be a guest blogger on “What would Den say?” and need the material). However, I do recall one particular example involving Dwight Howard after he had just become the first overall pick in the NBA draft by the Orlando Magic. Keep in mind, with global basketball culture that we now live in, there are advanced players in countries all over the world, and hundreds of elite players at major universities in the U.S. And yet, the Magic saw fit to draft a kid before anyone else in the aforementioned global pool of talent - despite the fact he had proven nothing beyond a high school level. So what's the first thing Dwight wants to talk about at his press conference? Is he happy to be the first pick? Is he excited to go to Orlando? Those questions will have to wait while he jabbers on about proving all the people wrong who didn’t think he should be the number 1 pick. Yes it’s true, there were some people on the planet who had the audacity to express an opinion that a high school kid was not the safest pick, no matter how many double-doubles he dropped on Ridgemont High. Shame on them!

Interestingly, Howard has probably since “proven” that he was the right choice. Call me naïve, but I’m going to believe he propelled himself to stardom for the love of the game, and not to prove wrong some talking heads on ESPN2.

Auggie in the House

Some of you may recall a mercurial and controversial media voice from the mid-Atlantic region who gained a modicum of fame in the 80's and 90's for his dogmatic sports opinions and smarmy communication style. While his true identity was (and is) shrouded in mystery, he was known in the press as "Auggie". For the past decade, his voice has been silent, leading to some speculation that Auggie and the Una bomber (now incarcerated) are the same person. It appears that those reports were misinformed.

On behalf of the entire staff at "What Would Den Say", I am happy to announce that Auggie has identified our forum as an important epicenter in the global opinion market and has agreed to air his vitriolic thoughts and opinions exclusively on our blog. While he would not commit to a schedule or to any particular volume of activity, we expect to see his opinions appearing here from time to time at his discretion.

As a precaution, the "What Would Den Say" legal team would like to remind you imaginary readers that Auggie's opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of this enterprise.

A Pesky Little Force Called ‘Logic’

Ignorance is a continuum that we can only view clearly in one direction. When encountering a person who knows less than us, we can see with precision the gap between our knowledge and theirs. When encountering those more learned, we can really only conceptualize, in cloudy terms, the magnitude of the unknown information. In this respect, the old adage about ignorance being bliss applies to all of us in some degree. It is relative.

I believe there is another group of people that is more discretely defined than “the ignorant” and that may actually enjoy the most blissful existence of all. I refer to those whose behavior is un-tethered to the world of reason and feel not the constraint of that pesky little force the rest of us know as logic. These lucky souls are free indeed.

They can (and do) emerge victoriously from every argument for it is impossible for the logical person, tactically constrained by valid reasoning, to overcome the handicap of sensible thought in an effort to thwart the unrestricted debate-weaponry of the illogical. Since this disadvantage has been a source of much suffering for this rational writer, I can imagine it to be an equal font of bliss for those on the other side of the fence.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What the Scrut?

Sometimes in life, we encounter local or regional words that perfectly convey a concept to those who adopted the words into their vernacular at a young age, but utterly baffle those who encounter the words for the first time as an adult. As a service to my throngs of imaginary readers, we discuss one of those words today, and highlight the mystery of its derivation.

I introduce you to "scrut". It's a short word that is similarly defined in my two primary reference sources for words of central Maine origin (The Purington's Unabridged Dictionary and The Balsamo's Revised Desk Reference for Editors), but shows different derivations as noted below. This modern day literary conundrum has wrought tortured academic debate, flabbergasted the media, and spawned nick-names across wide swaths of Franklin County.


a person with no dire need who requests to share another person’s personal resources for the sole purpose of their own satisfaction.

the act of requesting, in the absence of dire need, to share another person’s personal resources for the sole purpose of one's own satisfaction.

ORIGIN: mid 16th cent.: via Old English from Central Maine

DERIVATION (Purington's): ‘scrounge’ + ‘art’ incorporating local dialect of de-emphasizing an “r” that trails a vowel. Scrounge: seek to obtain (something, typically food or money) at the expense or through the generosity of others. Art: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.

DERIVATION (Balsamo's): ‘scruffy’ + ‘rat’. Scruffy: shabby and untidy or dirty. Rat: rodent that resembles a large mouse and is known for its proclivity to hoard or (informal) a person regarded as despicable.

Personally, I find Purington's derivation more compelling in terms of the actual definition, but Balsamo's derivation is more closely related to the final form of the new word. The truth may never be known.

Until next time, let the debate rage and keep an eye out for scruts (tip: they often materialize around pizza).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Half Full or Half Empty?

With regard to the eternal question about the fullness of the proverbial glass, I have lived the majority of my life as a member of the “half full” brigade.

This was especially apparent during my years as manager in a large corporation where undertakings of all sizes are conceived, planned, and initiated on a regular basis. Most such undertakings require a diverse team of specialists with varied functional backgrounds. As one would expect, assembling a group of diverse people brings a splendid mix of attitudes and beliefs to bear on a common course of action. Since the modern corporate model is to compensate employees, to the extent possible, based on direct measures of success, the dialogue at a team meeting would effectively sort the optimists (who would advocate that the team aim for the "difficult but possible") from the pessimists (who would lobby for the "certainly achievable" so as not to fail).

While I enjoyed my share of satisfying successes, I also lead teams that fell short of lofty goals from time to time. Through it all, I never considered that there might be a third perspective on the glass.

For the past seven years I have worked in a smaller company with limited resources. In this environment, the impacts of both right and wrong decisions ripple immediately and palpably through the organization. The challenges seem more daunting, the daily fires are hotter, the wins are sweeter, and the failures more painful. It has been through this experience that my perspective on the glass has changed.

Now, while still an optimist, I see the glass as neither half full nor half empty. With an eye for efficiency, cultivated in the under-resourced environment of an emergent corporation, I have come to view the partially filled glass merely as an asset with excess capacity. I now see the glass as two times bigger than it needs to be.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A study in stark contrast

Today I had two administrative tasks on my “To Do” list. I had to call AAA, my home insurance company, to discuss with them some moisture near one of our doors and hopefully to get some advice about capable contractors who could diagnose and fix the problem. I also had to call LL Bean to arrange for a merchandise return. I spoke to each on back-to-back calls and was struck by the difference between the two organizations.

Reaching a person at AAA required a first attempt that I aborted after spending forty minutes on hold followed by a second attempt where I had to navigate an automated voice menu including the entry of my long, alpha-numeric policy number on the key pad (a task I find aggravating for some reason). Once I reached a live person, I was required to repeat my long, alpha-numeric policy number and state my home address, home phone, cell phone, and work phone. Once all of my contact information had been collected, ostensibly for security purposes, a brief exchange with the fast-talking, script reading, customer-service representative ended abruptly with her conclusion that I had reached the wrong department. She transferred me to another fast-talking, script reading airhead who required that I repeat my policy number (third time they collected it during one call) and all of my contact information. I am skeptical that any of this information has been retained in a manner that will allow its retrieval on my next call. Forget the fact that the rest of the call was entirely fruitless, let’s just stop here and reflect on how many hoops I had to navigate before explaining the point of my call and seeking assistance. It is experiences like this one that have helped me develop my geezer quality muttering skills which, I can assure you, I practiced a bit after hanging up the phone.

Once I finished muttering, I called LL Bean and was greeted on the first ring by Bonnie who asked how she could help. I responded thusly, “Hello, this is Dennis Fortier and I am calling about an exchange”. I said nothing more and nothing less, did not spell my name and gave no other identifying information. Without so much as a pause, Bonnie inquired “Do you still live on Broadhorn Drive?” which, of course, I do. She asked a couple of brief questions and offered a clear and satisfying solution to me in about a minute. No muttering required.

I found the contrast striking. Triple AAA doesn’t know the number on the policy they wrote for me even after I punch it into a phone and repeat it to a live human being on their payroll. LL Bean knows where I live as soon as I mention my name.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Warning: Dark Post. Read at your own Risk!

I know where the poets stand on this one. I’ve seen the movies and listened to the folk ballads. I am well aware of the common notion that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I am not so sure I agree.

I have a bad feeling about my mistress, also known as the NFL, and I’ve been thinking I should extricate myself from this love affair on my own terms, at my own pace, before I end up with my heart ripped out on a random Sunday in autumn. How could that happen you ask? Well read on and I shall tell you.

I could be watching a game on a sunny October afternoon when, on a routine play, an inopportune collision between a linebacker and a wide receiver could result in a severed spinal cord and a dead player crumpled on the field. I can imagine the pall and the sickness that would seep through my veins. I would say to myself “this was inevitable” and ask myself “why have we all embraced such violence in the name of sport?”

As players get bigger and faster and as explosive hits are increasingly celebrated, who among us can doubt the rising probability of a player dying of injury on the field? Given the number of NFL and college players and the number of games they play each year, it is truly surprising that no one has yet died from injury. The forces they generate and the collisions they perpetrate are nothing short of scary.

While this would be grievous for society at large, I suspect a deeper nausea would take hold of us fans who are so emotionally invested in the sport. It would be especially sickening for us, the constituent commercial force that has driven the escalating wave of danger to its current amplitude. I can imagine being among the shocked and dazed, unable to escape the sense that I was in some small but direct way, responsible for this senseless loss.

I love football but I think it is eventually going to end badly. The way I see it, I can wean myself from this addiction on my own terms, or I can pay the price when the inevitable comes to bear. Perhaps, despite the conviction of the bards, it is better to have loved for a time and then taken cover with a joyous heart, partially empty but fully intact.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"The Yankee Years"…I give it a solid B+

I just finished Joe Torre’s book with Tom Verducci "The Yankee Years" and gave it a pretty good grade despite my notoriously tough grading system (you imaginary readers know exactly what I’m talking about!).

My biggest surprise was that he had more negative comments about more people than I would have expected given his usual sensitivity to politics. His biggest targets in that regard were A-Rod, Kevin Brown, and Randy Johnson but he was also pretty liberal with the denigrating comments toward Pavano, Cashman, Wells, and (the one that surprised me the most) Johnny Damon.

At the extreme other end of the spectrum were Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Posada who were portrayed with great reverence at all times. He also registered glowing support for Paul O’Neil, Mel Stottlemeyer, and (again to my surprise) Theo Epstein.

I enjoyed the insights into Steinbrenner and his first-hand account of the Boss’s management style, the Yankee perspective on the Red-Sox, the thorough writing on the 2004 post-season, the palpable hatred of Pedro Martinez, and the vindicating support of those saber-metric philosophies first espoused publicly in my favorite sports book of all-time, Money Ball.

And speaking of Money Ball, any of you who haven’t read that yet better get your arses down to the imaginary bookstore and rectify the situation.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

5 baffling sports-related questions

1) How do athletes' salaries become public information? Who has the right to talk about their compensation agreements other than themselves? If any of my imaginary readers know the answer to this, please send me an email.

2) Why do so many athletes, coaches, analysts, and journalists speak of "going out on top" as a noble way to exit the game? To me that is the height of cowardice. If an athlete loses his drive and motivation after climbing to a certain height on the ladder of success, then I think that is a good reason to retire. But quitting so that everyone's last impression will be the one when you won is just another way of saying "now that I've succeeded, I can no longer bear to let anyone see me fail". I will never understand this attitude and I am amazed (and quite frankly, flabbergasted) at how casually and comprehensively it has been socially embraced. The poster boy for "staying too long" seems to be Willie Mays who loved the game so much he couldn't walk away even after his skills had diminished. In my eyes, that makes him all the more worthy of my adulation. He loved the game and played for as long as he could earn a spot on someone's roster, even if he no longer played like a superstar.

3) What is the basis for the common belief that a certain style of play or approach to competition may work in the regular season but not in the play-offs? I understand that the stakes are higher in the post-season and that there may be more pressure to perform on a bigger stage but the rules of engagement, the equipment, and the fundamental competitive parameters are unchanged. A competitive advantage in the regular season is still an advantage despite the date on the calendar, right? So why do I hear this nonsense spewed repeatedly by "experts" while other "experts" nod in agreement? Anyone?

4) Why does the NBA allow its referees to call games in such a way that the home team is expected to shoot significantly more free throws in a match-up than the visitig team? Over and over again...game after game...season after season. This is a direct affront to the notion of fair play. What is the purpose of this travesty?

5) Ever been to the circus? Isn't it mind-boggling to see the upper limits of physical precision that a person can achieve with a concentrated effort? A human being can fly off a trapeze and land on a lever that flings his brother 30 feet into the air where, after a few twisting somersaults en route, he lands squarely on his uncle's shoulders and proceeds, in one fluid motion, to pull a 14-inch carving knife from his teeth with his left foot and flings it through an apple that is strapped to his daughter's head as she rides a roller-skating elephant along a high-wire with no net. Pretty impressive if you ask me. So, why has no major league pitcher developed a behind-the-back pick off move to first base? It is a very simple maneuver compared to the upper limits of what we know we can achieve. Do I have to think these things up or can we expect that the guys who are getting paid to win will start stretching their bounds a little?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

It ain't easy being one of us....

We humans have been paying attention to "aspects of personality" for some time now. It is very common to hear people refer to someone who is "Type A", "Compulsive", "Passive Aggressive" or a host of other labels that refer to personal characteristics about behavior. Among the earlier of these stereotypes to enter the public lexicon were "Introvert" and "Extrovert".

Despite the long tenure of these labels as common descriptors, it is amazing that so many people (approaching practically everyone is seems) totally misunderstand what is meant by "introvert". Jonathan Rauch wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago and I thought he did a good job of summing up many of the thoughts I've had on this topic; I really wish all the extroverts would read it and try to remember it.

We introverts mean no harm, we just find idle banter tiring, especially if it must be conducted with someone we really don't know well. Not engaging in small talk does not mean we are shy, nor does it mean we are inept at conversation, it just means we don't always have the social energy to do it. Preferring not to dress up at Halloween and not to whoop loudly at the stroke of midnight on New Year's eve doesn't mean we are grumpy or anti-social, it just means those kinds of things are drains on our shallow social reserves.

It ain't easy being us. I dressed like a pirate to please my kids on Halloween of 2007 and I am glad I did for their sake. But don't be fooled into thinking I enjoyed my time in the costume. Introverts are not like children who need to be goaded by adults to join the fun and then end up realizing what a good time they had been missing. We make rational grown-up choices based on a good understanding of what we will enjoy and what we will not.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Don't Hate Me!

As best as I can recall, I became a fan of the Boston Red-Sox in the summer of 1971. It may have happened before then but certainly not after. If you are even half-way good at math you'll no doubt conclude that this has afforded plenty of time to learn the rules of Red-Sox Nation and I think I have a pretty good command of my role as a faithful follower.

I also think I have a pretty good sense of what is in my heart and lately, there have been a couple of un-Red-Sox-like feelings skirting around in there. I'm not talking about strong passions, just a fleeting sense here and a casual preference there. Not real strong sensations but unmistakeably present and of the type that emanate from the heart.

Here goes. I think I really want Manny to have a great year with the LA Dodgers and part of my wish is tied to my respect for and admiration of ex-Yankee skipper Joe Torre. I know I am supposed to hate both of those guys but I really can't. Manny quit on his team (my team!) which I cannot respect but I am really incapable of carrying a grudge and while my brain is telling me he acted dishonorably in Boston, my heart is rooting for him. I followed his free-agency lunacy, rejecting the Dodger's offers while seeking a more lucrative deal. I know his behavior struck a bitter chord with the public; turning down millions of dollars when so many people are embracing difficult financial times. But what can I say? In my heart I wish him nothing but success. I don't know if this is right or wrong but it is honest.

As for Torre, I can't hold his Yankees association against him. Since I am coming clean, I'll go on the record and say there are many Yankees players I have liked over the years (even the years prior to 2004 when it was sooooo easy to hate that entire franchise from the ownership right down to the fans). I have always really liked Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada. I also like Matsui but mostly because he doesn't leave the batter's box between pitches (one of my top recommendations to those seeking ways to speed up the game). As for Torre, I think he has always played the game right, handled the players right, held his own in a dicey relationship with Steinbrenner, and been a general credit to the game of baseball.

Here's to Manny, Torre, and a great year in 2008...may they lose the World Series to Boston in seven games!

Friday, March 6, 2009

What is it with these freakin' birthday parties?

When did we become a society that is required to intensively celebrate the birthday of every freakin' kid, every freakin' year? When did parties start needing a theme other than "it's a freakin' birthday party"? How did we arrive at the expectation that the fathers of the invitees need to attend these extravaganzas? Who came up with the notion of supplying "gift bags" and paid entertainers at these gigs? How did this happen? How long will it last? Is it really unfair to my kids if I take a firm stance and buck this ridiculous trend?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Much ado about steroids...

Look, I'm not condoning it and I join you all in questioning the morality of cheaters...but I really don't think the use of banned substances requires that asterisks begin populating the MLB record book. It seems that those screaming loudest about this issue are trying to protect something as inconsequential as statistics. Not the game, not the players, their concern is for the statistics. Particularly acute screaming has been heard in reference to hitting statistics, especially the hallowed records for home runs hit in a season and in a lifetime. As I will argue below, the statistics are probably only minimally influenced, if at all, by the recent era of increased steroid use in MLB.

If you've ever tried to hit a baseball thrown by an athlete who intends to make you miss it, then you know that "raw strength" is way, way down on the list of physical characteristics needed for success. In fact, physical characteristics as a group are surely subordinate to intellectual characteristics required for success. For example, it takes carefully honed judgment to learn the strike zone and stone-cold discipline to obey that judgment in the heat of competition. It also takes snap-cognitive reflexes to estimate the velocity of the pitch, which may be quite different from the velocity of the previous pitch thrown, and to make the necessary timing adjustment to begin a swing. If the proper timing can be instantly deduced, a hitter still needs lightning-quick decisiveness to determine if the pitch will arrive in a hittable location. Furthermore, a cultivated ability to discern one pitch from another based on a pitcher's motion and/or release point and/or the spin on the ball is primal in hitting success and surely benefits hitters more than any physical characteristics I could name.

Also in the non-physical realm, let's consider psychology, mental toughness, and what I will call "baseball intellect" as it pertains to why one tries to hit the ball in the first place.

First, psychology: Hitting is largely a confrontation between a pitcher and a hitter. There is an element of history between the two stemming from previous at bats and who "won" those encounters. Both parties rely on that history to inform themselves and seek advantages against the other. Each is aware of what the other may have learned last time around and a silent chess match unfolds across the pitches of every at bat. Hitters try to own the plate by crowding close to ensure that they can hit a ball on the outside corner. Pitchers try to reclaim turf by throwing inside and moving the batter back in the box. The psychological victor is heavily favored to win the physical battle and, as far as I know, steroids confer no psychological advantages.

Consider mental toughness: Given the enormity of the competitive pressure under which MLB hitters often find themselves playing, the intellectual challenges described thus far are commonly exacerbated by the emotions of the moment. To remain calm, to concentrate, and to focus one's intellect on the physical task at hand, despite the swirling emotions, the energy of the crowd, and the tension of the competition, requires a confidence and a state of mind that steroids really cannot facilitate. In fact, the scant evidence available suggests that steroids might attenuate mental focus in favor of emotional intensity which would theoretically serve to reduce hitting efficiency.

And finally, baseball intellect: There is a lot to think about during an at-bat and the hitter with acumen for distilling the nuances of the game is advantaged. The contemplative hitter benefits when he knows the pitcher's "go to" pitch and can anticipate the pitch, velocity, and/or location that the pitcher favors in certain circumstances. Furthermore, knowing the game situation is important. For example, if there is a runner on third base, the pitcher may be less inclined to throw low and may resist throwing a breaking pitch to reduce the possibility of a passed ball that would allow the runner to score. Using such knowledge demands that the hitter know and process the score of the game and the stage of the game in order to make a judgment about if such a run would be important enough to influence pitch selection or location. He must also consider who bats next and what kind of success that hitter has had against this pitcher (and against any pitcher who might be called in for relief) as all of this information will greatly influence the likelihood of seeing pitches in the strike zone versus seeing less hittable pitches that might culminate in a walk. In this example, he must also know and process the speed of the runner on 3rd base, the depth of the backstop, and the mobility of the catcher to properly calculate the likelihood of that runner influencing pitch location. Clearly, there is a lot to consider in addition to hitting the ball. It is the hitter who can process this multitude of information and draw a likely conclusion (during the brief moment between two pitches) who will step back into the batter's box with a distinct advantage against the pitcher. Such advantages are not likely derived from abusing banned substances.

If one has the intellect and processing speed for making good swing decisions, the psychological dexterity to spar and win against a crafty pitcher, the mental toughness to tune out the distractions and master the moment, and the baseball intellect to anticipate the probable tendencies of his opponents, then we may begin to consider the physical characteristics of good hitters. But don't kid yourself, even among the physical characteristics that abide successful hitting, it is the non "strength-based" skills such as hand-eye coordination, timing, and flexibility that serve a hitter more faithfully than power.

Alas, if the majority of the disparity between good and bad hitters is explained by the characteristics above, some small portion is certainly attributable to strength. There is no doubt that steroids can help hitters gain strength. Of course, steroid use may also lead to unnatural development of those muscles specifically taxed in weight training and to strength imbalances across muscle groups. This is a recipe for injury and injuries tend to hamper on-field performance and suppress the accumulation of gaudy statistics.

I know what you're thinking....home run statistics went through the roof exactly when steroid use appears to have become more prevalent. The hallowed records fell! What's more, the numbers have diminished in the face of tighter drug testing by the league. Both thoughts are commonly reported, both are untrue. Yes, the records fell; no, the statistics did not go through the roof; no, home run hitting has not declined in the face of drug testing. A look at the data clearly shows that the number of home runs per at bat has been flat for forty years. A few hitters have pushed single season records upward but this may have more to do with economics than with physics. A salary premium has come into effect for home run hitters, which probably has players swinging for the fences more often in a bid to earn higher pay. This plausible explanation is supported by the facts that strike-outs per at-bat have risen dramatically even though the strike zone has shrunk in the recent era. The economics of the game have shifted the focus from “contact hitting” to “power hitting” and the most gifted sluggers have set new records.

Also, let's not forget about our old friend "multi-colinearity" who would suggest that another coincident development that most probably aided the power hitters in their home run campaigns is weight training. It is well documented that widespread weight training, even in the off-season, first became common during the period in question. The conventional wisdom had always been that baseball required flexibility, speed, coordination, and other physical attributes that might be diminished by bulky muscle mass. The home run kings of my childhood, (those whose records are now being fiercely protected by aforementioned screamers), did not lift weights. Presumably, they didn't take steroids either. The point is, weight training and steroids came to town at the same time and new home run records were set shortly thereafter. Naming steroids as the driving factor in the new records requires an unscientific leap.

Last but not least, let us bear in mind that raw strength also favors pitchers and many of the alleged abusers have been pitchers. I concede that steroid based strength has probably helped some hitters hit more home runs but probably not as much as better weight training programs have helped. Furthermore, these hitters have performed against juiced pitching. I invite any body-builder with bulging, steroid-fueled muscles to step into the batters box and see if he can even make a good decision to swing or not. Every major league player has the strength to hit a home run. In fact, I suspect that most grown men, be they accountants or auto mechanics, probably have the strength to hit a baseball out of a major league park -- it really is not about strength. The greatest home run hitters are usually strong but they are smart first, talented second, and strong last.