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.

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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.

Kicking off year No. 40

Last week was my 39th birthday. I tend not to make a big deal about my birthday every year. In fact, I don’t even share my birthday with friends on Facebook.

This year, Facebook did remind me of a blog post I wrote for my 30th birthday, sharing 30 lessons I had learned from life to that point. Some of them I still follow every day, but many of them I have forgotten.

Since I turned 30, I’ve gotten married, had two kids, and bought a house. My family has suffered losses that we feel every day. I changed jobs twice. Growing older in years but staying young at heart is an easy prospect for those whose age is marked only by years.

Life experience tends to make time and everything else go faster. It’s easy to forget stuff, even big stuff. It’s easy to forget to find the joy in life when the kids are making messes, or when figuring out how to refinance a mortgage, or when your boss gives you a bad performance review. It’s especially easy to forget or question your own abilities in the face of your daily responsibilities.

But just because it’s harder to remember those things doesn’t make them any less important. I’m almost a week into the last trip around the sun before my 40th birthday. On this pass, I’m going to try to be less forgetful — and do a better job following my own advice.

This one just hit me this morning: You’re only old when you wake up in the morning and feel like your best days are behind you. If you wake up every day feeling like you are about to embark on a new adventure, you will always be young – no matter how long ago you were born or how sore your body is.

 

Battling over batting average

Baseball’s back… sort of. Grapefruit League action started on Friday, one of several milestones counting down to Opening Day. Even if it doesn’t mean anything in the standings, it means something to the fans.

Speaking of the fans, baseball has new rules this year designed to speed up games, with more under consideration.

While most of these will help lower game times, they won’t necessarily help pace, i.e. how fast a game moves. In response to a reader question, River Avenue Blues tabbed strikeouts as a major factor in slowing down games:

MLB has set a new record strikeout rate every year since 2008. The league average strikeout rate was 21.6% last season. It was 16.4% back in 2005. Huge difference! Given the value of on-base percentage, these days we’re seeing more deep counts and long at-bats than ever before, and with each passing year, more and more of those long at-bats are ending without a ball being put in play. It can get dull, for sure.

In related news, ESPN recently mused that we’ll never see a .400 hitter again, citing a combination of evolving offensive philosophy and the variety and quality of pitchers a hitter faces. No worry, most general managers might say, since batting average doesn’t have quite the shine it did when Ted Williams put up a .406 in 1941.

Batting average, like pitching wins and RBIs, have largely become casualties of the analytically-focused Moneyball Revolution. Teams from markets of all sizes value players who turn in grinding at-bats and see a lot of pitches. (A great example of this is any nationally televised Yankees-Red Sox game.) Sometimes that means walks; sometimes it means strikeouts. Eventually, as the strategy goes, it means a pitcher makes a mistake and gives up a three-run homer.

It’s a strategy that, statistics say, helps a team win, even as batting averages dwindle. And the idea from the owner’s box was that winning sells tickets, and even if it doesn’t a few home runs will at least make things interesting.

Now look at this past offseason in baseball, which for many free agents is still going on. Owners understand that spending big on free agents is a crap shoot, even when the player turns out to be pretty good. Heck, teams that signed players to two of the biggest contracts in history, the Texas Rangers (Alex Rodriguez) and the Miami Marlins (Giancarlo Stanton) had to pay the Yankees to take those players as reigning MVPs. At the same time, watching how much interest teams like the Yankees, Astros, and Red Sox garnered from promoting young, home-grown players, owners might sense that fans will come out to the park for more than just a guaranteed winner. So no one is signing free agents because, frankly, they don’t need to.

Will this translate to other baseball decisions?

If a team builds around a contact-heavy lineup with a bit of power – think late-1990’s Yankees or early-2000s Seattle Mariners – that’s a) fun enough to watch that fans buy tickets and jerseys, and b) good enough to challenge for a postseason spot, might contact hitting make a comeback? Probably not, but possibly so. After all, who’d have thunk capable pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb would be unsigned at the start of spring training?

If teams start looking for an aggressive, hit-first philosophy it will happen because one team tries, it and enjoys success with it – in the standings, in the turnstiles, and in the television ratings. You might also find strikeouts going down and games getting quicker – even if they don’t get shorter.

 

 

 

 

 

Dust to dust

As a Catholic, I try to go to church on Ash Wednesday. (As a bad Catholic, my batting average on this isn’t great.) If you’re an observer of the Lenten tradition of having a priest mess up your complexion, you’ve probably heard something like this:

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Really knocks you down a peg, doesn’t it?

Here’s the real kick though: It’s true! Stars and planets form from clouds of space dust. Almost everything we have ever seen or touched began in some amorphous cloud floating in nothingness, until the forces of the universe (like gravity) started working on it.

Then, sometime between tomorrow and several billion years from now (bet the over because you win nothing for the under), scientists speculate the sun will go red giant and swallow up the Earth before eventually collapsing into a white dwarf and turning back into a nebula, i.e. a cloud of gas and dust.

Wherever your composite molecules and atoms are in a few billion years, you’ll be stardust again.

Happy Lent!

RIP Reg E. Cathey, who used to teach math

Most of Reg E. Cathey’s obituaries have referenced his roles on House of Cards or The Wire. That work is both excellent and recent, so those mentions make sense.

But one of Cathey’s earliest roles was one of his most important. Cathey’s first regular gig was a spot on the cast of Square One Television.

Did you know that if you take any number, multiply it by nine, and start adding the digits, you eventually get nine? It’s true. Here’s Cathey explaining it:

(Come to think of it, Cathey died on February 9 and the CNN obituary says he started acting at the age of nine… but that’s probably all a coincidence.)

Square One was a cousin of Sesame Street, a Children’s’ Television Workshop-produced PBS kids’ show. Just as 3-2-1 Contact tried to get kids into science, Square One tried to stoke interest in math. Cathey and his cast-mates acted and sang in sketches to illustrate concepts like percentages, patterns, and probability.

Surely, no one from the cast was solving equations on a chalkboard in the back room or finishing up a masters’ thesis on Fermat’s Last Theorem between takes. Yet when the cameras’ red lights blinked on, they became math professors.

Effective education goes beyond the simple regurgitation of knowledge. The ability to impart that knowledge is a skill of its own. Cathey taught probability while taunting a pizza guy running from a mummy, and joined a Motown ensemble to explain percentages. There’s a subset of a sub-generation that learned those concepts from him and the rest of the Square One cast.

Reg E. Cathey built a distinguished career as a dramatic actor. It’s worth remembering that he was a pretty good math teacher, too.