RIP President Bush, who taught us that change isn’t always scary

When celebrities and political figures pass on, my default position is to let it go without writing or saying anything about them. Social media tributes feel trite and unsatisfying. Plus, why should you care what I think about someone I didn’t know?

America mourns former President George H.W. Bush today, though, which makes it prudent to share some thoughts on steady, sober leadership at this juncture.

On election day 1988, my Dad took me with him to vote (though, for some reason, we couldn’t go into the booths; I don’t remember why). Later, at school that day, I taped a lined piece of notebook paper from my desk, “BUSH” proudly penciled across it in large block letters. (Two desks over, a kid named David dropped a Dukakis sign.)

Even though I was rooting for Bush, I was a little nervous. Despite living through two years of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Ronald Reagan was really the only President I had ever known. How would things be different, I wondered, with another President?

It turned out, not that different.

Over the next four years, I started following the news a little more. The Cold War ended, and the Berlin Wall fell. My fifth-grade history teacher, watching a November 1989 newscast showing people chipping away at that concrete monstrosity, shook his head, turned to our class, and told us that these were amazing times and that we were lucky to be living through them. It took years of reading about history before I appreciated just how right he was.

In 1991, the United States went to war with Iraq. My Mom cried the night the air strikes started. CNN burst into the national consciousness with Peter Arnett, John Holliman, and Bernard Shaw reporting live from Baghdad. President Bush announced the strikes, leaving no question of why he felt the war was justified, or of his resolve. America had not been at war in my lifetime, but seeing the President appear at once grave and purposeful let everyone know that everything would be okay.

Then came the 1992 election, the first one I really sank my teeth into. I knew President Bush’s positions, backward and forward. I engaged everyone I could, relishing debate with my teachers, my fellow students, and with the bottom of a trash can after my fellow students decided I was lame and needed to shut up. (That’s not 100% true. Maybe 95%, 97% tops.)

(Fun story: I showed up at the eighth grade Halloween dance wearing a George Bush mask as my costume; when I walked in the school doors the teacher chaperoning that dance took one look and said, “That’s gotta be Eltringham.”)

When Bill Clinton won that election, I was crushed. Crushed! How could our country do that? I wondered. What would the country be like with a President I so vehemently disagreed with?

It turned out, not that different.

There has been plenty written about the Bush family’s commitment to public service, and the very concept carries a whiff of the air of aristocratic nobility which made George Bush such an unsympathetic candidate in 1992. Yet in that concept is a sort of humility, too; it’s an acceptance that no one person is truly bigger than the times, and the best ideals worth fighting for are generational in scope. If you’re committed to public service it means being committed to being a cog in the wheel of progress – and one that will most definitely get replaced.

In other words, you put a lot of effort into making things seem not that different in all the right ways.

Bush was a one-term President who was roundly rejected by the country he served – one of only two elected Presidents since Herbert Hoover who lost out on a second term. Yet the only time he ever uttered a bitter word was in jest during a 1994 Saturday Night Live gag when his impersonator (and pal) Dana Carvey hosted.  Bush’s loss might have been a historic anomaly, but he never made it seem abnormal.

President Bush, from his initial victory, through his successes, and into his final defeat, taught that the country moves on and the world keeps spinning. That’s an important lesson for people to hear (and, sometimes, re-hear). Not many get a chance to teach it, and fewer do it well.

As we celebrate the life of President Bush, it’s fashionable to look at the current state of politics and say we need people cut from his mold. Maybe that’s the wrong lesson. As we remember our former President, maybe it’s better to remember his lesson too – that even if our national politics seem to be topsy-turvy, everything will probably be okay in the end.

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Rudolph is actually QUITE problematic. Here’s why.

Last week at Medium, I had a post about the kind-of-sort-of controversy around Rankin Bass’s Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Really, no one probably cares all that much about the non-issue, but it’s a fun way to look busy during December. Still, as silly as it is to call the 1960s children’s cartoon racist or bigoted, there were some things that are deeply bothersome about this special:

  1. At the end, Hermey the Elf schedules his first appointment for the week after Christmas. The week before Christmas, he was practicing on dolls, and the week after he’s authorized to poke around someone’s gums?
  2. Staying with Hermey, during the climactic scene he de-fangs the abominable snowman – or “The Bumble,” as Yukon Cornelius calls him – just before Rudolph, Clarice, and his family are about to be killed and consumed. The Bumble, as near we can tell, subsists on venison and other meats, probably requiring a protein-heavy diet to carry himself around. So what i he supposed to do without teeth?
  3. Rudolph’s nose is bright enough to cut through dense cloud cover that would have otherwise cancelled Santa’s yearly flight. This level of fog is implied to be unprecedented, yet Rudolph’s light cuts through it. All of the other reindeer laugh and call him names, but did no one think to contact a doctor? At the very least, as a public health measure they should have quarantined him for testing.
  4. Following from point number three, Donner’s attempt to cover Rudolph’s nose is not only poor parenting but wreckless endangerment of public safety.
  5. Also, in the picture where Hermey the Elf is playfully touching Rudolph’s nose – shouldn’t his finger be a singed and possibly tumor-ridden mess?
  6. And by the way, Santa knew about this so he’s complicit. Between this and letting people practice unlicensed dentistry, there’s a potentially massive class action liability here.
  7. Didn’t the Island of Misfit Toys seem a little odd? The winged lion, King Moonracer, insists on Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon leaving the island pretty quickly, refusing their requests for asylum. On the other hand, he happily brings so-called “misfit” toys to the island. Note the toys on the island they aren’t simply unwanted toys that children have outgrown or grown bored with; the misfit toys he brings back are either obviously defective (such as the cowboy who rides an ostrich) or made to feel defective (such as the Charlie-in-the-Box who functions appropriately, but simply has a different name). It all suggests that King Moonracer is seeking out damaged toys (or toys who can be convinced they’re damaged). He clearly wants Santa to distribute these toys after they’ve been on the island for a while. This seems wrong. Moonracer is up to something.
  8. What’s Yukon Cornelius’s story, anyway? I get that he’s looking for silver and gold, but does anyone already have mineral mining rights on the land he’s dropping his pickaxe on? And if so, what’s his plan – try to buy them out by affecting the appearance of a bumbling prospector? This seems the most realistic business plan he’s following.
  9. Wow, Sam the Snowman seems to know a lot, doesn’t he?
  10. Most problematic of all: People spend way too much time thinking about this stuff. Present company included.

What if Luke Heimlich is telling the truth?

Luke Heimlich did not get drafted by a Major League Baseball team this week. He was expected to, but last year’s revelation that he admitted to child molestation charges as a minor has made him pretty much radioactive.

Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, perhaps realizing this possibility, wrote a pre-emptive column bemoaning that sports teams would overlook such a sordid past. Others have suggested his past crime makes him unfit for a job as public as a professional baseball player. Yet, even in the 40-round MLB Draft, where teams assume they won’t be able to sign half the players they select and where late-round picks are routinely flushed on nepotism, no one wanted to be anywhere near the former top prospect.

Heimlich maintains his innocence. In recent interviews, he claims his guilty plea to charges of molesting his niece were a play for family harmony and based on poor legal advice. Such a non-apology tour sure seems like something you would do about a month before the MLB draft if you were starting to sense that they wouldn’t call your name from the podium.

But Heimlich’s side of the story also sounds fairly reasonable.

Imagine being a 16-year-old star athlete, getting early attention from MLB and college scouts, and suddenly having your future placed in jeopardy because you are accused of a crime like this. Assume, for a moment, you are also innocent (which is a big assumption, but within the realm of the possible so let’s run with it).

Your lawyer presents you with two options: Option A is a lesser conviction with a very light punishment (probation, therapy sessions, and a court-mandated admission) plus a sealed record in five years. Option B is a more public trial, family discord, the risk of a much harsher punishment (including time in a juvenile detention center), and the probability you will lose scholarship offers and a future professional baseball career due to the public scrutiny. You also face a court system that rightfully tilts toward the victim.

Assuming you were innocent, which would you pick? Option A sure does sound like a low-risk alternative.

Remember that law enforcement officials offer plea bargains to avoid the risk of losing a conviction. They are not always used for the benefit of the accused.

Also worth remembering: The only reason this is public at all is because a sheriff in Oregon made a mistake, citing Heimlich for missing a reporting requirement which turned out wasn’t required. That citation made his previous conviction public. In other words, if not for a bureaucratic snafu, no one would ever know about Heimlich’s past. Heck, he could have been drafted last year and might be halfway through his first year of Single-A minor league baseball by now.

I still breathed a sigh of relief when the New York Yankees passed over Heimlich; fans of every other team probably did the same. The reality is that, outside of a complete exoneration, Heimlich would have brought a media circus with him to whatever sleepy, short-season rookie league he would have been assigned to. And that mess would follow him throughout his career – which might not last that long anyway. It’s tough enough to make the major leagues without having to constantly justify a child molestation conviction. That’s to say nothing of any remorse or guilt Heimlich may carry onto the field with him if he actually committed the crime.

That “if” is, of course, an important factor.

The only person who really knows for sure what happened is Luke Heimlich himself. He could be a monster who really did molest his niece and who presents a predatory danger to any other child he’s around. He could be someone who perpetrated an evil act and who will hopefully and rightfully bear the consequences for the rest of his life. Or, he could be someone who, faced with the promise of short-term pain, admitted to something he did not do for the sake of expediency.

None of those three situations are far-fetched. Each is reasonably plausible. And each conclusion spawns more questions.

Much of the pre-draft coverage assumed Heimlich’s guilt and asked to what extent his past actions should influence his future.

Yet if Heimlich is innocent, doesn’t that raise some important red flags about the legal system? If a star athlete can get his life derailed with bad legal advice, what happens to people who don’t have that level of privilege?

The story of Luke Heimlich’s career in baseball (and whether it continues or not) is the story of a series of uncomfortable questions. As the story unfolds, it’s only fair to ask them all.

 

It’s apparently hard for some athletes to fake politeness

Most of today’s professional athletes grew up with ESPN. Teams have become increasingly savvy about the use of social media and have entire public relations departments to help spread good will in the community.

So how is it that the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco don’t understand how it sounds when they get defensive about their own team’s draft picks?

In a radio interview, Roethlisberger questioned the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to draft quarterback Mason Rudolph with a third-round pick:

“Nothing against Mason — I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid,” Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Friday. “I just don’t know how backing up or being a third-[stringer] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. But, you know, that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things. If they think he can help our team, so be it, but I was a little surprised.”

On the other side of the NFL’s biggest rivalry, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco said even more by saying much less, opting not to answer questions after his team nabbed Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the first round. The Ravens were complicit in his silence.

Professional athletes, like top performers in any field, need a competitive edge that most people don’t have. Beyond that, anyone who has done excellent work for their employer for several years wants to enjoy some measure of job security. But unlike most people, Roethlisberger and Flacco routinely get microphones shoved in their faces for comments on their job.

It isn’t hard to know exactly what to say here. Any of the following will do:

  • “Everyone we draft has the chance to make us a better team.”
  • “I’m looking forward to playing with [GUY THE TEAM JUST DRAFTED TO TAKE MY JOB]. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned during my time in the league, and I bet I could learn something from him, too.”
  • “Hey, I’ll do anything to help the team win. I’ll start, I’ll line up at wideout, I’ll kick, I’ll carry water, I don’t care as long as we win the Super Bowl.”

It’s not hard. Boring? Sure, but the fans love that. Derek Jeter spent two decades feeding boring to the New York press and they practically built a golden idol of him outside Yankee Stadium when he retired. (He’s had some interesting times in Miami, and interesting isn’t going so well for him.) The New York Giants brain trust of coach Ben McAdoo and General Manager Jerry Reese benched Eli Manning last year. While it was obvious Manning wasn’t a fan of the decision, he wisely remained relatively quiet after it was made. Of course, he didn’t have to: Everyone who followed football knew the move was idiotic and said so.

Squeaky wheels don’t always get greased, either. Neither Reese nor McAdoo finished the season with the Giants; Manning is locked in as next season’s starter.

Come to think of it, the only time Manning had real controversy in his career happened on his own draft day, when he very publicly made it known he wasn’t interested in being a San Diego Charger. Notably, though, Manning himself has always refused to give any reason for what prompted his trade demand.

Typically, the less an athlete says (or implies), the better. Maybe that’s boring, but boring is a much better look than the defensive jealousy brewing right now in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

A politically incorrect moment with Apu

The Simpsons invited controversy last week by responding to criticisms about their Apu character and racial stereotyping. The accusations are both accurate and 30 years late. As The Simpsons has progressed, Apu’s character has, as well; He isn’t the common stereotype he was in his first appearance in February 1990.

My favorite Apu moment is the final question on his citizenship test:

That scene seems like something television couldn’t get away with today – not because of Apu, but because so many are so willing to put the same effort into historical literacy and nuance as the test taker.

Modern media doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance, which is one reason I argue The Simpsons’ producers will have trouble resolving their Apu problem.

Toys ‘R’ Us’s “forgotten” slogan

In a Medium post, I discuss a commercial from what turned out to be Toys ‘R’ Us’s last Christmas season – and how that commercial, as much as anything else, foreshadowed this week’s news that the “biggest toy store there is” will cease to be.

During the research – which involved looking at a bunch of old TV commercials on YouTube – I stumbled across a few that used the  late 1980s tagline, “You’ll never outgrow us.” It’s a play on the “I don’t wanna grow up / I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid” jingle, and a Toys ‘R’ Us wiki shows that it was in use from 1987-1989.

That seems especially ironic now, as consumer behavior (seeking out lower prices in physical and online locations) led people away from Toys ‘R’ Us. On the other hand, Toys ‘R’ Us didn’t do themselves any favors. Thirty to forty years ago they promised both the best variety and the best value compared to department store toy sections; as they shutter operations now they can offer neither. There will always be a market for toys, but Toys ‘R’ Us couldn’t keep up with it.

The kids of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t necessarily outgrow Toys ‘R’ Us; Toys ‘R’ Us shrank.

 

 

 

 

MLB’s expanded postseason might be hurting player salaries

The Yankees signed Neil Walker to play second base this week. In most off-seasons, the Yankees signing an All-Star caliber free agent to play second base and bat eighth is a dog-bites-man story.

This year? Walker’s cheap contract is a sign of (relatively) difficult times for Major League Baseball players.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports chronicles how free agents have struggled to find work this year, and the rising discontent within the players’ union. The hand-wringing comes down to a simple fact: The current market simply values free agent players differently than the market did even five years ago.

There are many reasons for this: advanced analytics, exciting and fruitful youth movements (i.e. cheap talent) on big market teams, and harsh penalties for signing other teams’ free agents (i.e. lost draft picks and international spending restrictions).

Looking at the way teams have spent money, one has to conclude MLB’s postseason format dampens offseason activity, too.

In 16 full seasons with an eight-team playoff format (three division winners plus on Wild Card per league) from 1996-2011, the average Wild Card entrant totaled 93.1 wins. Major League Baseball moved to its current, 10-team playoff format in 2012, with two Wild Card teams in each league facing off in a one-game play-in after the regular season. In six season from 2012-2017, the average Wild Card team’s win total was 90.2.  For good measure, the second Wild Card – the one with the lower record – averaged 89.2. During that time, the average division winner tallied 95 wins.

In the winter of 2007-2008, if you were the general manager of a team that looked like it could win somewhere in the neighborhood of 87-90 games, you might look for players in free agency who could help you add a handful of wins over the course of the season. If everything broke right and you brought in some extra talent, you might bump your win total up to 93-94 games, enough to grab a Wild Card and a chance to see if your elite signees could dominate a short series or two.

In the winter of 2017-2018, your 87-90 win projection might put you in the playoffs already. If you bust your hump to improve to 93 games, you might still only be a wild card, playing in a crap-shoot, one-game playoff. And anything can happen in a one-game playoff.

Is it worth spending money on more players in December if the payoff is a single postseason game which may not be decided by talent? Probably not. Teams who are in the middle are arguably better served to see how their season plays out, then making trade deadline moves if they find themselves in a position to contend for a division title.

Part of the rationale for the Wild Card round was to incentivize teams to push for the division; the unintended consequence has been the devaluation of winning the Wild Card. If winning is less attractive, it naturally follows that teams will spend less in pursuit of winning, right?

Of course, the MLB Players Association faces an uphill battle making any changes to the playoff format in their next round of collective bargaining. Going back to the old model would force owners to give up the gate and media revenues from two postseason games, which isn’t happening. The MLBPA’s best hope might be to propose eliminating one Wild Card but pushing the divisional round from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven format. That adds postseason games, though it sacrifices two teams’ worth of “MLB Postseason” merchandise.

The current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021, though, and the concerns of the MLBPA might be very different by then. Heck, next postseason, teams may spend boatloads of cash on free agents, and this year’s peculiarities will be forgotten. Still, the MLB postseason starts with a game of chance; as long as that stays true, teams will be hesitant to gamble – which will remain bad news for the game’s most expensive players.