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.

 

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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.

Going for it

In any sport, the pivotal moments of a game can come long before the deciding play.

Super Bowl LII fit that description. The Philadelphia Eagles officially become NFL champions when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s final pass fell incomplete. But the gutsy play calling by Eagles coach Doug Pederson early in the game put them in the position to win.

With 38 seconds left in the first half, and leading by three points, the Eagles faced fourth-and-goal from just inside the New England Patriots’ two-yard-line. The conventional call – going for an easy field goal – probably would have meant a six-point lead heading into halftime. Not too shabby, right?

If you didn’t see it live, you’ve surely seen the highlight by now (assuming you care about football): Pederson went for the touchdown – and with a trick play, to boot.

It worked.

It wasn’t the play itself which won the game, of course. It gave the Eagles a 22-12 halftime lead, but a crazy second half but Pederson’s willingness to gamble demonstrated the aggressive strategy the Eagles would deploy all the way to the final whistle.

Contrast this with the AFC championship game a couple weeks ago. With just under a minute left before halftime, New England had scored to pull within four points. On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars had just watched their “commanding” 14-3 tighten to 14-10. There were 55 seconds left in the half, the Jags had two timeouts, and a kicker with enough range to make a 54-yard field goal later in the game.

But instead of trying to answer New England’s touchdown and reclaim some momentum, Jacksonville simply ran out the clock, waving a white flag on the first half rather than risking a turnover. They ran into the locker room satisfied with a halftime lead – any halftime lead – against the defending champions (who had, incidentally, become champions by erasing a 25-point deficit in last year’s Super Bowl).

The Jags kicked two long field goals in the second half; otherwise, their predictable, conservative play calling lead to four punts. Predictably, the Patriots stormed back. The final score, 24-20, suggests that another field goal at the end of the first half wouldn’t have helped the Jaguars’ cause.

Sure, that math works out, but the bigger point is the strategic error: When they got an early lead, Jacksonville stopped playing to win and started playing to “not lose.”

And they lost.

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots can be accused of many things, but neither satisfaction nor timidity is among them. Belichick called for a few trick plays of his own in Super Bowl LII. They didn’t work, but would that prevent him from calling those same plays in Super Bowl LIII? Doubtful.  If he had it to do over again, would he have told his defense to let the New York Giants score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLVI to conserve more time for his offense? Probably. Belichick’s willingness to push the envelope has been a major factor in his well-documented success.

Pederson and the Eagles succeeded where the Jaguars failed by coaching the same way Belichick does: staying smartly aggressive. No wins a championship by running up a big lead and hoping the other team can’t catch up. That lesson transcends football, too. Sears pioneered direct-to-consumer sales; now the company circles the drain as Amazon experiments with innovative ways to give customers what they want. Instead of presenting an original vision for America, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan – “Stronger Together” – played off of the loud, often offensive rhetoric of her opponent. On the other side of the coin, note how much Coca-Cola spends on advertising and branding to remind you that their soda is more than just soda.

Like Rocky squaring off against Apollo, Doug Pederson stepped into the ring against Bill Belichick determined to give his maximum effort, win or lose. When he got into the flow of the game, he stayed true to that philosophy, especially when it meant taking a risk.

The risk paid off – and now, Doug Peterson may not have to pay for his own cheese steaks ever again.

 

 

You can’t handle “your truth”!

Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech sure struck a chord, didn’t it? The erstwhile talk show host and current media mogul said enough to spur online discussion of a made-for-TV 2020 Presidential matchup.

There’s certainly plenty to say about what the whole concept says about current affairs, politics, and culture.

Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire and the Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau, among others, picked up on a phrase Winfrey used, “your truth.” The context (from the full transcript):

What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.

This is one of those tricky phrases that means different things to different people, which makes discussion difficult. Critics of Winfrey’s phrasing note that the truth is the truth. People may have different perspectives or opinions, but objective facts are objective facts.

That’s certainly accurate, from a certain point of view. One person may look at a three-dimensional cube and, seeing only one side, claim it’s a square. Their perspective – or lack of it in this example – does not change the objective fact that this is a cube.

That’s not really what Winfrey’s talking about, though.

As the mentions in her speech, Winfrey’s life experience meant living through turbulent times when being black carried overwhelming social baggage. As a woman in show business in the 1980s, she likely had to deal with the same harassment issues that are only now being brought to light. Today, you may look at Oprah Winfrey and see the “truth” of a powerful, car-giving-away, bread-loving media empress who could build or ruin a career at whim. Her vantage point is different; when thinking about her “truth” Winfrey also remembers the local news anchor struggling her way up the ladder.

“Truth” is a strong and probably miscast word for perspective, but intentionally so. Its strength validates experiences. In the immediate context, it validates women who suffer harassments in all walks of life, and see those experiences echoed in the current mess in the motion picture industry. It isn’t just your story, Winfrey seems to say; for you, it is the absolute truth.

There’s a parallel to draw from President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which so famously used language that most politicians did not, and Winfrey uplifting her audience through subtlely coded language. In each case, it fosters a connection with the audience that just about every speaker tries for, but which few can establish.

The next election sure ought to be fun, huh?

Two Forgotten Christmas Classics Turn 30

A Garfield Christmas Special / christmastvhistory.com

According to IMDB, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration both premiered on December 21, 1987, on CBS. They both turned 30 this week.

You can be forgiven for forgetting: Neither seems to have aired on a major network this year… or in the past several years, for that matter. But both used to be seasonal staples for CBS.

Christmas specials tend to fall into one of two broad categories: Either a grumpy killjoy learns the “true meaning of Christmas” (the myriad re-tellings of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” fall into this bucket) or a hero must “save Christmas” by making sure Santa Claus can make his rounds. (One might argue the existence of a third category about finding love for the holidays. I highly recommend the We Just Saw a Movie podcast, which has explored this odd genre in great detail over the past two Yuletides.)

A Garfield Christmas

A Garfield Christmas Special falls into the first category, inviting us to the Arbuckle family farm for a “good old-fashioned Christmas.” There are no human children characters, but thirty-something brothers Jon and Doc-Boy Arbuckle prefigure criticisms of today’s millennials by immediately reverting to childlike behaviors. (Also, we learn that Mr. Arbuckle paid for nearly a quarter century of piano lessons for Doc-boy. That’s… odd.) Garfield, for his part, plays the closest thing the episode has to a Scrooge; while not openly hostile toward the holiday, he welcomes Christmas with a shrug and a trademark, “big fat hairy deal.” He has a heart-to-heart with Grandma Arbuckle (a stereotypical 80’s “sassy old lady” in the mold of Sophia from the Golden Girls) about her late husband, then both gives and receives thoughtful gifts to inspire a change of heart.

As a media franchise, Garfield doesn’t get a lot of credit for its subtle, Letterman-esque sarcasm. There’s passive-aggressive friction between Grandma Arbuckle and her daughter-in-law. There’s Mr. Arbuckle, wondering aloud why he has to entertain his grown offspring with children’s stories, while his wife enables their sons. The family gawks at the Christmas tree that probably looks like every Christmas tree they have put up for decades. Doc-boy spends Christmas morning wearing a bunny rabbit onesie; Jon receives a horrible oversized sweater but seems fairly appreciative nonetheless.

The Arbuckle Family Christmas is at various time silly, ridiculous, tedious, immature… and ultimately perfect because it belongs to them. Garfield himself summarizes the message: “It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving.”

A Claymation Christmas Celebration

Remember when the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom? Decades before that debacle, the stop-motion animated California Raisins went from selling dried fruit to multi-media stardom.

The signing raisins were the grand finale of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Claymation is the rare children’s Christmas program which doesn’t fit into the categories mentioned above; it has more in common with variety specials by the likes of Michael Bublé. Six short, unconnected, musical vignettes fit around the banter between Rex and Herb, a couple of dinosaurs trying to find the definition of the word “wassail.” (They eventually learn from a  band of leprechauns or elves who appear to be driving with open containers.)

Each song is a unique take on a classic. The Magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar sing the traditional verses of “We Three Kings,” while their camels provide jazzy, upbeat improvisational choruses. Walruses ice dance to “Angels We Have Heard on High” while inadvertently tormenting a waddle of penguins. The Carol of the Bells is played by an orchestra of anthropomorphic bells who whack themselves with mallets (including one who has apparently taken a few too many hits). And the California Raisins improvise after missing a bus by crafting their own magic sleigh to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

There’s no story to be had here, but each vignette is funny in its own way.  And the music is fun. (There is also something to be said for true, stop-motion claymation. Imagine the painstaking process of sculpting the characters and bringing them to life.)

Why We Don’t See Them Anymore

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Garfield and Claymation were holiday television staples. They aren’t anymore. That’s probably fine.

Cynically, one might blame it all on merchandising. Suction cup Garfields don’t adorn every third car anymore, and dancing clay figures aren’t selling dried grapes. Why devote prime airtime to specials that advertise yesterday’s product when Olaf’s Frozen Adventure could start building excitement for the upcoming-but-still-far-away Frozen 2?

On the other hand, yesterday’s Christmases are yesterday’s Christmases. Today’s Christmases are the wholly owned domain of today’s kids.

Garfield hugging Odie might inspire misty-eyed memories for me, but I can buy Garfield on DVD or watch him on YouTube if I need a nostalgia fix.

Other people (like me) grew up watching this stuff, but my kids don’t know Garfield. They know Olaf the snowman. We watched his special this year, and we all liked it. It was an imaginative story which doesn’t fit into either the “grump finds Christmas Spirit” nor the “save Santa/save Christmas” categories, and that’s a bit refreshing. The music was catchy, and the messages about Christmas traditions and being with loving family were there.

The characters might be different, but the best Christmas stories run a little deeper than that. Maybe, 29 years from now, my kids will look at the calendar and think, “Wow, that Frozen special is 30? That reminds me of when I was a kid…”