September 30, 2004

Still on Top of the World

Today's Musical Selection: "Centerfield" by John Fogerty

Hi again, everyone! I'm still coming down from yesterday's celebration. One of the things that really struck me about our barroom gathering last night was the diversity of our band of merry revelers. We had a couple lawyers, a delivery-truck driver, a retired politician, a couple office workers. We had older guys who remember the team's departure in '71, and younger guys who grew up without a home team. We came from Maryland, Virginia and the District. And giving the lie to baseball's lily-white reputation, we had a mixed-race gathering. (All we lacked was women, alas.) We had a cross-section of the Fedroplex giving toasts and talking baseball in that bar last night. This baseball team has the potential to bring this town together.

I got a couple comments on last night's post. My man Frinklin had this to say:

While I'm less than thrilled about what happened to Montreal, I'm happy for you Fred. Will these guys replace the Brewers for you? And how did you become a Brewer fan for that matter?

I can understand the sentiment, Frinklin, and I feel terrible for the people of Montreal. If given a choice, I would absolutely have opted for an expansion team over taking someone else's team away. But honestly, I feel like this is the only way we'd have gotten a team. I don't think MLB wanted to come here, because of the Angelos situation. That's a fight they'd have preferred to avoid. But the Montreal situation had become intolerable; they couldn't go on another year with the split-schedule fiasco. And Washington was the only city with a major-league-ready facility and the political will to fully fund a new stadium. Las Vegas and Portland will probably have teams some day, but right now, they're just not ready. Especially not for a team starting play next year.

I wish things had worked out better in Montreal. I wish the '94 strike hadn't wiped out their best season. I wish Loria hadn't run them into the ground. I wish MLB hadn't turned them into a punchline. The fans there deserved better. (Even if the Expos haven't finished in the top half of league attendance standings since 1983.) Maybe in the next life.

I'm still pondering what to do about the Brewers. As for the story of how a D.C. born-and-bred boy became hooked on the Brewers.... well, I'll tell that story tomorrow.

More from Frinklin:

Lastly.. if they do go ahead and name the team after the Homestead Grays, I might even have to pick up a jersey.

Loyal reader Carl is a step ahead of Frinklin here:

I already have a Homestead Grays jersey, albeit an NLBM updated-logo one, not particularly authentic. Got a Montreal jersey too. I am READY.

I saw somebody wearing one of those updated-logo jerseys on NewsChannel 8 today, and I have to say I was impressed. I was kind of down on the Grays name until I saw that jersey. It looks very sharp. I'd be able to get behind jerseys like those.

I have no Expos garb, but I do have a Senators cap (1960 issue, red "W" on a navy cap), and a Senators T-shirt I had when I was a kid. I used to have another Senators cap - a navy "W" on a cap with a navy bill - which I lost in DC during the '92 inauguration. I wish I still had that one... it's a pretty rare bird.

Carl also asked, "Did you toast Peter Angelos?" You know, we did toast Peter Angelos at some point (details are a tad hazy). In wasn't a toast in his honor, though. It involved his name, and some words I'd rather not repeat. You get the picture, I'm sure.

You know, it's hard for people outside of DC to really appreciate what this means. Other cities have lost teams, and other cities have gotten teams. But no other city has endured a 33-year interregnum. Milwaukee lost the Braves, but got the Brewers five years later. Kansas City lost the A's, but got the Royals after only one fallow season. Seattle lost the Pilots, but got the Mariners eight years afterward. Other cities that lost teams, like Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis, had other teams to console them. Washington's wait has been unique and special.

We know that outsiders see two failed teams and wonder why this will be different. In Washington, we know why, and we've long since grown tired of trying to explain it to people who don't really believe us anyway. We know what a glorious opportunity we have now -- a knowledge we've bought at a dear cost -- and we know what people will say if we fail. That's why we're not going to let it fail.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 11:16 PM | Comments (2)

September 29, 2004

Dispatches from Mt. Vernon Square

Today's Musical Selection: "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy

Hello, friends! Oh, boy, I just got back from the celebration. The minute I got off work, I clapped on my Senators cap and dashed with lightning speed over to the City Museum, where we got official word that the Expos are coming to town. When I arrived, there was already a throng of humanity, undeterred by the late announcement. They were driven by a desire to be part of history.

I met up with Papa Shaft and a group of fans in Senators garb, caps and shirts and jackets and jerseys. I saw pennants and "Baseball in '87" buttons and tributes to the departed Washington teams and the one yet to come. I raised my cap in tribute as Mayor Williams walked by. I spotted Winston Lord, one of the Washington Baseball Club bigshots. And reporters galore! You may well have seen me on the evening news; I posed behind the "City Museum" sign with my fellow revelers whooping it up.

We all high-fived and shook hands and sang "Centerfield" and chanted every baseball-related slogan we could think of. Just a joyous, wonderful occasion. Seeing the groundswell of support, the widespread joy, was simply glorious. I looked at the older fans, the ones who remember the club's departure and have waited, with varying degrees of patience, for 33 long years.

And after the ceremony was over, I went with Papa and a group of Senators fans to a local bar to hoist a few (okay, more than a few) in honor of our team. We talked about the past and the future, the failed plans in Virginia, Portland and Vegas, and we toasted everyone we could think of. Frank Howard, Mayor Williams, Eddie Brinkman, Shirley Povich, Jerry Reinsdorf, Commissioner Selig... if it was someone or something related to Washington baseball, we probably toasted it at some point.

It still hasn't quite sunk in, to be honest. But it was that barroom gathering with my fellow fans that really brought it home for me. Here, on a mid-week night, was a cluster of baseball fans toasting and talking about their team. Our team. This is an opportunity we've been denied for so long, and it's as if we were determined to make up for the lost generation in one night. I love the free-flowing chatter and easy banter of serious baseball fans, and I was surrounded by some of the most serious and dedicated fans in the country. These are the people who've kept hope alive during the dark era. These are the people who kept the candle burning all these decades. They haven't forgotten, and we picked up right where the city left off in '71.

I look forward to future gatherings with these guys, before our home games. If this is what fans like me have to look forward to, I can't wait to get started.

And on the Metro home, Papa and I were chatting about the team and the game, and some nearby folks chimed in. Casual conversations like these keep a sport living and vivid. I can't wait to hear the city buzzing over this team for years to come.

We deserved this day. For our 33-year wait, we definitely deserved a glorious, crazy, dizzy moment like this. Even if the new team never wins a championship -- hell, even if something goes haywire and the deal falls through -- they can never take this day away from us. It's a top of the world feeling.

Now we can worry, if we want, about the RICO lawsuit, the wrangle over stadium funding in City Council, the search for new ownership, the rush to assemble a front office staff, and oh yeah, how we might field a compeititive team. And I'll worry about all that. Tomorrow. Tonight we celebrate.

That's all for now. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 11:18 PM | Comments (2)

September 28, 2004


The news is just breaking... the announcement is tomorrow.... THE EXPOS ARE COMING! THE EXPOS ARE COMING! I'm so delirious with joy that I can't even type any more. More tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 10:23 PM | Comments (3)

Taking a Pass Today

Can't write anything today, folks. I'm feeling conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I'm giddy as a schoolgirl over the possibly impending announcement of the Expos' move to Washington. (Fair warning: If this move goes down, look for this blog to become a DC baseball fest for the foreseeable future.) I'm all too aware of the hurdles we still have to cross, and yet... and yet... it's so close. As I warned Papa Shaft yesterday: "Just please God don't let anything stop this or I'm going down to the Stadium/Armory stop and throwing myself on the tracks, dammit. We've suffered enough."

Speaking of Papa, he offers this assessment of the mood down at Camden Yards in light of recent developments.

One thing I noticed today in Baltimore is that some people seem to be running scared, while others are just shrugging their shoulders and trying to ignore it all. I don't think anyone expected any of this to happen, especially after the head of our department was told that Angelos had been told that it wasn't happening...

[T]he people who have been there for several years seem to be the ones shrugging their shoulders and ignoring it. From them, there's talk about it in hushed whispers, but no one's seriously upset over it. I think people are more concerned with (or more accurately, interested in) whether Angelos sells out after all this gets settled.

The part-time employees who are young (ie, college age) don't seem to care much one way or another. On the other hand, the older part-time employees seem to be spouting the Angelos lines about how DC can't support a baseball team, how it's going to hurt the Orioles, how the DC team is going to fail, etc. I've come to regard these people as complete idiots. I was about to say something to this one 60-year old guy, but thought better of it because he's a rather dumb provincial Baltimorean who wouldn't have listened anyway.

The end game is so close... so close... I can hardly bear to wait for further development. To pick up on my Christmas analogy from last week, it's Christmas Eve right now, and it seems like the night just... won't... end. My inner 6-year-old won't sleep a wink until it's time to look under the tree.

While Washington baseball is making me jubliant, Washington football is making me want to throw myself under a bus. Cowboys 21, Deadskins 18, and the game wasn't as close as the score suggests. Yes, the Skins got hosed on some bad calls, but we more than merited our defeat with our poor play. The mental errors continue: We lost all three timeouts in the second half for no good reason (lost one on a botched challenge, and two because we couldn't get the play to the field in time). One reason the game was close: the Cowboys secondary repeatedly quit on their coverage before the play was over. This is a matter about which Dallas fans might wish to be concerned.

Oh, and a special thank you to Frinklin, who put a big ol' hex on the Skins by picking them to win last night. Hey, buddy, next time pick someone else, okay? Not that I blame Frinklin for the defeat; if we're casting blame, I'll start with Chris Samuels' extremely loose interpretation of "blocking."

At any rate, enough of my truncated thoughts. Pray for baseball! See you tomorrow.

Posted by Fred at 07:26 PM | Comments (1)

September 27, 2004

More Construction Work

Hi, everybody. Today I started transferring the June archives over to the new site. Hope you enjoy!

Rumors are swirling that some former Senator players have gathered here in DC for some briefing ahead of an announcement to happen tomorrow or the next day. Also, the Brewers have reportedly reached an agreement to sell the club to an LA investor named Daniel Attansio. Since informed speculation suggested the losing bidders for the Brewers would get a crack at the Expos, it seems likely that they wanted to get the Brewers' news out of the way first. Add to this Mayor Williams' statement that DC could be getting the good word in "a matter of hours," and I think the next chapter in this story is on the brink of unfolding. Stay tuned!

Posted by Fred at 07:27 PM | Comments (0)

September 24, 2004

Let the Carping Begin!

Today's Musical Selection: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

Hi, everyone! Well, it looks like Major League Baseball is grinding toward the logical, obvious conclusion: moving the Expos to Washington D.C. Bud Selig took the temperature of the Executive Council, and found no significant opposition (with one obvious exception; more on him below), and as a result is planning an announcement for next week that baseball will bloom with the cherry blossoms again next April.

Of course, any veteran Washington baseball observer knows better than to take a "done deal" for granted. And there are indeed a few roadblocks to clear before I can start daydreaming about President Kerry throwing out the first ball at RFK in a few months. (Hey, if I'm already daydreaming, why not dream all the way?) The stadium financing plan needs to pass the DC City Council, but the prospects there look good as long as the legislation is introduced soon. There's the issue of the racketeering lawsuit filed by the Expos' former partners, a nettlesome issue but one in which baseball, it's agreed, has a strong case. The lawsuit might slow down the works, but it's not likely to prevent the move from happening.

So what's holding back my daydream? The obvious exception I referenced a couple paragraphs north. The 800-pound litigious elephant in the corner of the room. The Asbestos King himself, "Havana Pete" Angelos, owner and operator of the Eastern Seaboard Orioles baseball club. As we all well know by now, Peter Antichrist feels that a team in Washington would cripple his team's ability to rake in obscene profits, er, I mean cripple their ability to compete. Of course, many baseball fans would point out that the Orioles' personnel decisions have done more to cripple their ability to compete than the loss of Washington ever could, but let us not cavil.

Inside observers report that Angelos is the primary obstacle to Washington's baseball dream. He thought that Commissioner Selig and the other owners had his back, but in the end they sold him out for the best interests of the game. (Hey, what a novel switch!) Having tried and failed to develop a realistic alternative to Washington, Selig cleverly put the squeeze on Angelos, assuring him everything would be fine while rounding up support for Washington behind Havana Pete's back. And by the time Angelos realized that Selig kept standing so close in order to apply a knife to his back, it was too late. The deal was all but done.

But Angelos did not become a highly successful attorney and prominent man-about-town by admitting defeat just because he is beaten. No, he's determined to fight back. Rather than negotiating a fat compensation payment, Angelos is steadfastly refusing all offers thrown his way. He's making noises about suing, which is after all his day job. He's determined not to go quietly and gracefully into that good night.

And behind him all the way is the house organ of the Angelos Establishment, the Baltimore Sun, which is out to prove that, as Stuart Smalley liked to say, "de Nile" isn't just a river in Egypt. Despite the overwhelming evidence that baseball in DC is good for the game and that MLB is going to find a way to get the Expos here, the Sun is determined to defend Havana Pete's turf. No one is more adamant about this than Laura "Riding My Last Name Farther Than Anyone Since Dubya" Vecsey, who wrote a column this morning that is so simple-minded and ignorant that it ought to have run in the Weekly World News. The thrust of Vecsey's argument is that MLB's attempt to compensate Angelos is proof that they know a Washington franchise would cause him ruin.

If Major League Baseball agrees to pay Peter Angelos millions to make up for losses the Orioles will suffer upon the relocation of the Expos to Washington, that's a win-win for Angelos.

But it's not a win-win the way it first appears.

With the promise of a cash bailout, the master litigator, Angelos, may find he has extracted exactly the kind of evidence it would take to bring a lawsuit against baseball. If they fork over money, Bud Selig and Co. all but admit they are inflicting harm on the Orioles by putting the Expos 35 miles to the south.

In some lines of work, it's called "hush money."

And in some lines of work, that passage is called "nonsense." Vecsey acts as though compensatory payments are some sort of new thing in sports, when in fact they're as old as the hills. For instance, when the NBA and ABA merged in 1976, the New York Knicks received a compensatory payment of $3 million from the ABA's Nets for moving in on their territory. And yes, Laura, the Senators got a compensatory payment from the Orioles when they took roost in Bal'mer back in 1954. A fact that she might have known had she done something we like to call "research." But as we'll see, research is not a particular strong point of Vecsey's, unless by "research" you mean printing out an e-mail containing Peter Antichrist's talking points.

No one's arguing that the Orioles would suffer no harm whatsoever from having a DC team in their backyard. Hence, the compensatory payment. The reason Selig and the MLB owners are willing to make this payment is that the good of the game outweighs the cost of recompensing Angelos. (By the way, Laura, expect baseball to make this argument if Angelos tries to prove that the so-called "hush money" proves harm: "But look at the size of these payments that Mr. Angelos turned down. In our estimation, the value to the game of a Washington franchise would be larger than that." MLB has some smart lawyers on its side too, you know.)

Vecsey then goes to say that no, the incompetent way the Orioles have been run has nothing to do with how well the team is supported. Oh, no. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Yes, Angelos has meddled and therefore mismanaged his precious asset. For that, he deserves criticism and blame. Pat Gillick should have never left. Nor Davey Johnson. Nor Frank Wren. On it goes.

The Orioles are still trying to climb out from under their non-competitive rock, which only partly explains the misery of a franchise that has not produced its own "franchise player" since Cal Ripken.

The talk is the Orioles' scouting department will undergo an overhaul this winter, now that reconstruction of the minor league system has begun. Lee Mazzilli has not exactly earned the confidence of anyone and where the Orioles find pitching to hang with Boston and New York remains a mystery.

But as difficult as this task seems, separate the mismanagement of the Orioles over the past 12 years with Angelos' right to operate the business as it was designated, via the franchise's territorial reach into D.C. and beyond...

Territory is where it's at, which is why when you sit in your Williamsburg, Va., hotel room on a weekend jaunt away from Towson, you can catch Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora doing that flappin' handshake.

From York County, Pa., down past the Potomac toward the Outer Banks, the Orioles have had free rein. Until now.

Don't you get it, Laura? You can't separate the Orioles' mismanagement from the Washington case, because the O's incompetence is what fueled the desire for DC baseball. After the Senators left, Washington's desire for a major-league team of its own tended to fluctuate along with the Orioles' fortunes. The better the O's were, the more DC was willing to adopt them. (At least until Peter Antichrist came along and pissed in our faces and told us to go to hell.)

The O's declining fortunes have helped relight the DC flame, and so has Angelos. Suppose the Orioles had, sometime in the '80s or early '90s, started playing a handful of games at RFK. Maybe put together a few DC-friendly ticket packages and marketed themselves as a team the Capital Region could love. Do you think the Expos would be so close to moving here? I don't. The Orioles had a chance to make themselves a Baltimore-Washington outfit. Not everyone would have loved it, but enough people would have been happy enough that MLB wouldn't have wanted to rock the boat.

Instead, here comes Angelos, arrogantly insisting that the Orioles are Washington's team while making no real attempt to reach out, at the same time his on-field product was going down the crapper. You can believe (if you wish) that this was a coincidence, but to DC fans it looked as though Angelos was flipping us the bird (so to speak). "Ha! You want a team of your own? You'll take my fourth-place club and like it!" I'm sure it's hard to imagine why this was an ineffective sales pitch.

So territory's where it's at, huh? Imagine that. Problem is, Laura, nowhere in baseball's governing documents does it say that any team has a God-given right to a 500-mile stretch of the mid-Atlantic. (In fact, what baseball's governing documents do say about territorial rights will become important later on in this argument.) And as a matter of fact, there's this other thing in baseball's governing documents called the "antitrust exemption." Perhaps you've heard of it. And one element of that exemption states that the league's owners have the right to move teams where they wish without having to explain in court. You know how I found that out? It's that miracle process called "research" again. It's a good word, Laura. Write it down.

Now, at this point Vecsey hits the part of the argument that actually makes sense. Of course, it's buried in a mountain of horse dung, so you might just skate on by it.

There will be damage to the Orioles if that territory is compromised, which is not what the owner of a team attempting to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox wants to deliberate.

That the Yankees and Red Sox are bigger problems for Angelos and the Orioles than the D.C. Expos isn't the point, either.

Whether it's 13 percent or 33 percent or somewhere in between that Camden Yards attendance draws from the D.C./Virginia area, it makes little difference. The fact is, there will be some impact, particularly with broadcasting rights. Television and radio and merchandise marketing are primary sources of income.

Ask the Yankees why they have the biggest payroll in baseball. It's the cable revenues, stupid.

Here we have it. If the Orioles were in the AL Central, no one would care about his arguments, or at least they'd care a lot less. But the Orioles need all the territory they can steal because they need to compete with the Yanks and Sox, right?

See, baseball's economics have undergone a startling change while no one was paying much attention. About a decade or so ago, baseball was famously divided into the haves and have-nots. There were about eight or ten rich teams, and the peasant class. The peasant class, however, could join the elite by getting a spiffy new stadium (like Cleveland, Colorado and, ahem, Baltimore).

Nowadays, most of the peasants have new stadia. And the "Moneyball" model has permitted lower-revenue clubs to compete even with outmoded facilities. So the peasant class has become limited to small-revenue clubs with bad management. Everyone else has a decent shot.

Except for those who have to compete with the Yanks and Sox. Their astronomically high payrolls (and, to be fair, the relatively smart use of it) make it almost impossible for smart management to carry the day. (Or so the theory goes. The fact that baseball, like all businesses, runs in cycles doesn't seem to occur to anyone.) The Yankees and Red Sox are creating a two-team duopoly atop the AL East, and the rest of the division is SOL.

I agree that this is a problem. But doesn't it occur to anyone that bringing in DC might highlight the problem? After all, MLB has kind of shrugged off the Sox/Yanks ascendancy, because the only apparent victims are the Blue Jays and Devil Rays, a weird Canadian team and of the league's dregs, and no one cares about them. But if the Orioles are added to the list of perceived victims, perhaps the league will finally take action.

Wait, I have it! I've got the solution. Tell you what, Mr. Angelos: let's swap leagues. We'll join the AL East, and you can go join the NL East, where you'd have a much easier time competing. Do we have a deal? No? What's that? You don't want to give up the revenue of the games against the Yanks and Sox? Hmmm. Very interesting.

Just in case you thought Laura was all complaint and no solution, she does have a solution. Unfortunately, it's on a par with the rest of her argument.

Maybe baseball's owners should have pressed harder to find a solution in northern New Jersey. No owner in his right mind would be talking anonymously about compensating George Steinbrenner for moving the Expos to the Meadowlands, which is not as far from Yankee Stadium as D.C. is from Camden Yards.

That New Jersey Expos scenario is not as far-fetched as it seems. It's not a pie-in-the-sky diversion drummed up just to prove a point. Negotiations to move the Expos to northern New Jersey were the idea of Stan Kasten.

The former general manager of the Atlanta Braves was, up until the All-Star break, covertly attempting to mediate discussions that would put the Expos in the one market where no one could argue they would cause irreparable harm.

Yankees, Mets, Expos.

Just like the old days of Yankees, Giants, Dodgers.

New York can handle it. New York probably needs it. New York/New Jersey would have been baseball's answer to two questions: where to put the Expos and how to rein in the Yankees.

If you rein in the Yankees, it effectively puts a drag on payrolls for all major league clubs. The Red Sox could take a chill. The Mets would stop thinking they have to imitate every move the Yankees make. The trickle-down effect of competitive balance would result from such a move.

It would help the Orioles compete. It would help everyone compete.

And you know what? I agree with her that baseball needs to put a team in Jersey. It would be good for the long-term balance of the game. Let's work together to bring baseball to north Jersey, okay? There's just this eensy-weensy little problem.

Remember that mention of "territorial rights" I made a while back? Here's where it gets important. See, each team has a zone of exclusivity in a 25-mile radius around its city. Get out a compass and draw a 25-mile radius around Baltimore, and you'll notice that the circle stops shy of DC. Now do the same with the Bronx and Flushing, and you'll notice that the circles encompass all the key parts of north Jersey. (Try it!) By rule, the Yanks' and Mets' territory in Jersey is considered to include Bergen, Hudson, Union and Essex counties. The O's territory consists of four counties in Maryland. (More of that pesky "research" again, Laura.) Theoretically, the team could go somewhere like Morristown, which is to the New York metro area what Loudoun County is to the Baltimore-Washington megaplex. Or they could try, say, Trenton. But if you want to put the team somewhere that New York metro area residents will actuallly go, that's against the rules.

And even if MLB went the Morristown or Trenton route, the idea that the Yankees, Mets and Phillies will just shrug and smile and say okay is insane. And you may scoff at the idea of someone offering compensation to Steinbrenner, why is it okay to grab a chunk of his alleged turf and not okay with taking some from Angelos? Hmmm. I think I just heard the sound of the air rushing out of Vecsey's argument.

The truth? Angelos has to know he can't win a lawsuit. He's too knowledgeable not to understand that. Furthermore, just filing a lawsuit would make him a pariah among the other owners, and must lead to Congressional scrutiny of the antitrust exception, which would be destructive for all the owners, Angelos included. A lawsuit against MLB is like a nuclear weapon; the collateral damage is too high for it to be useful except as a deterrent.

What Angelos wants to buy with a lawsuit -- or the threat of one -- is time. Time is his friend. A delay might cause DC's stadium funding to fall apart when the new Council is seated. A delay might allow another city to put together a good proposal. A delay is Angelos' only real hope. Unfortunately for him, DC -- and MLB -- are prepared to wait him out.

Boy, you just can't make people happy. I thought yesterday's column cleared up any lingering arguments from the day before, but it turns out my friend Frinklin is still pissed. He agrees with me on my definition of "hero," then bashes my loose use of another term:

Fred does, however, commit something that just irritates the living hell out of me. It's the misuse of a word, one that has become so bastardized the true meaning is known only by a few dozen drama majors and grumpy cretins such as myself. That word is "tragedy". A tragedy, for those who don't know, is a literary work, involving the ruination of a main character, who's ill-fortunes stem from an internal flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with a difficult situation. Nowadays though, "tragedy" is slapped onto every single bad event in modern life, from as big as 9/11 to everyday occurrences like kidnappings and murders. These things are horrific events, but they aren't tragedies. A tragedy would be me ruining my family's fortunes due to my rapturous lust for the delicious snack food Poppycock.

The word, obviously has had it's meaning replaced. I think I know why. We, as a people need a big word to describe such things. Calling 9/11 a horrible event doesn't get to the reality of it. So we've grabbed tragedy. And only grumps and drama majors don't like it.

And you know what? He's completely right. And I knew it. I actually debated whether or not to use the word "tragedy," precisely for the reason that Frinklin articulates. It's an imprecise use of the term. And here I am railing against "lingusitic imprecision!" For shame.

But, as Frinklin says, what else to call it? "Tragedy" is one of the few words that evokes an emotion similar to that of 9/11. So we've appropriated it. I'd prefer to have another word too. Shall we lobby to create one, Frinklin? I'm open to suggestion.

Thanks for busting my chops, buddy. I deserved it. Grumps unite!

That's all for me this week. See you Monday!

Posted by Fred at 10:19 PM | Comments (2)

September 23, 2004

Taking a Comment Tour

Today's Musical Selection: "Midnight Star" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

Hi, everyone. You know, one of the things about writing a blog like this and permitting comments is that you never know what people are going to respond to. As likely as not, you can write a long involved treatise on something you care about, and it'll be completely ignored. Toss in a throwaway comment or a little sidebar, and it'll get people buzzing.

Such was the case with yesterday's column. The column was intended to comment on the way economic logic looks so cold and unfeeling in the face of emotional suffering. Once I'd made my point, though, I found myself running a little shorter than I wanted to (loyal readers probably would have considered this a reprieve). So, looking to fill a couple paragraphs, I weighed two related topics that the conversation with my friend had made me think about: the way that improved economic statistics don't improve the mood of someone who's out of work, or the payouts to the 9/11 victims. I thought the 9/11 connection was a little more germane, so I stuck that in there, so naturally everyone commented on that part. I should have known.

Let's start with loyal reader PG, who disagreed with my contention that the payments to the 9/11 victims were strictly an emotional reaction by the country:

The government fund was created as a way to prevent litigation against the airlines, Port Authority et. al. People who opt into the fund agree not to sue these parties for their loss (though the suits against non-American actors, such as the Saudi government, may still be permissible). This is not a purely emotional reaction, but a very economically calculated decision to ensure that the airlines and other parties that could possibly be considered liable for the deaths are not bankrupted by lawsuits.

The family of a Twin Towers worker who died in a car crash on the way to work could sue the person whose negligence caused that accident, and the government would let that one play out in the courts, but there's enough litigation surrounding 9/11 as it is without having 3000 suits against American Airlines.

As PG is a law student herself, and a formidable woman generally, I defer to her erudition on this. It makes me feel better, in a way, that Economic Reason is restored to its throne. Which is another reason that people don't invite me to cocktail parties.

But the bulk of the commentary devoted itself to the definition of "heroism" as applied to the 9/11 victims, which isn't even something that I talked about, but a matter that generates a fair bit of heat and light. This was the subject of a fairly feisty debate in the gallery. The thread started with loyal reader Carl of FoolBlog, who shares my outlook on the economic issues:

You are not alone in wondering why the 9/11 victims' families got so much money. I also find it mildly bothersome that the victims have been so frequently referred to as "heroes." The firefighters, cops, etc., who lost their lives trying to save others, yes, those people are heroes, no doubt. But someone who just happened to be at work at the WTC on a floor that was hit by a plane is just an unfortunate person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing particularly heroic about that, at least as far as I can see.

After correcting me on the legal/economic aspect of the 9/11 payouts, PG weighed in with her take on heroism:

As for the "heroism" of the people whose entire role in 9/11 was having been so unfortunate as to die that day, I agree that calling all victims "heroes" evaporates meaning from the word. However, the people on Flight 93 who deliberately crashed the plane in Pennsylvania to keep it from hitting another target, and all those who attempted to rescue people from the Towers and Pentagon, certainly qualify as heroes for their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others. (Though it's worth noting that the Flight 93 passengers knew at that point that they probably would die in any case, whereas the first responders could have avoided their duty and saved their own hides.)

Papa Shaft, who makes a study of aviation, wrote in to dispute PG on the passengers of Flight 93:

Not to be an asshat, but the commission investigating the crash of United 93 concluded that the passengers were unsuccessful in breaching the door to the flight deck before impact. Whether this is true we'll never know, but it seems a bit questionable to state outright that the passengers aboard that flight deliberately crashed it to save another target in Washington (unfortunately).

All right, let's begin at the beginning. This is obviously a touchy subject, and whatever anyone says, it's bound to irritate someone. So I'll just auto-generate some hate mail to myself and save the critics the trouble, so spare the poison pens, okay? I've got it covered.

First thing, like Carl, I'm irritated about the excessive use of the term "hero." It offends my linguistic sensibilities. (Between my grammar-hammer tendencies and my fascination with Economic Reason, it's a wonder anyone ever talks to me at all, no?) Dying in a tragic accident, or a terrorist attack, doesn't qualify you for heroism in my book. Heroism involves putting yourself at risk to save someone else, and making a choice to do so. (If someone falls out of a window on top of you, saving his life, that doesn't make you a hero if you just happened to be standing there. If you ran to the spot to break his fall, then you're a hero.)

By this standard, just reporting to work at the World Trade Center and perishing that day, or getting on one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, pretty obbviously doesn't make you heroic. Being a rescue worker who went into the wreckage to save those trapped in it is just as obviously heroic. This certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't honor the office workers who died We should simple select a more appropriate term, such as "victim."

Now, what of the passengers on Flight 93? It seems that they might fall into a sort of gray area. Does it matter that they knew they were going to die anyway? Does it matter whether they succeeded or failed to enter the cockpit and force the plane down?

While it's true that a passenger on a doomed plane has less to lose than a rescue worker who, as PG points out, could choose to stay home, it's equally true that the passengers don't have to do anything. They can sit quietly and wait for the plane to crash into its intended target. They chose to prevent further suffering and loss of life when they didn't have to. Does the fact that they were already likely to die make them less heroic than the rescue workers? I think we're splitting hairs too fine to consider degrees of heroism in this instance.

But what of the commission's finding that the passengers did not breach the cockpit? Does that make the passengers unheroic? I would say no; heroism as defined above is a matter of intent more than deed. I certainly doubt that anyone would argue that rescue workers who died in the wreckage of the Twin Towers without saving anyone were unheroic. Therefore, I see no reason to call the passengers on Flight 93 unheroic if they did not actually gain entry to the cockpit.

I do think, however, that Papa Shaft's note is important, because we should remember our history as accurately as possible. I can understand why some people might prefer to remember the passengers' attempt as successful even if it wasn't. After all, heroism may be a matter of intent, but mythology has a strong preference for successful acts of heroism. We don't write stories and sing songs about the guy who, say, tried and failed to stop the Chicago fire. It makes for a better story if the Flight 93 passengers were actually responsible for forcing the plane down. It also makes us feel better about ourselves as a country; getting caught with our pants down security-wise is a potentially big blow to the national morale. But we can't let those urges blind us to the truth of what happened.

In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, we were hungry for stories of American courage, of our citizens triumphing over the terrorists. Matter of fact, given the still-dangerous conditions of the world, we still are hungry for stories like that. But as far as I'm concerned, the fact that the passengers of Flight 93 even made the attempt is a fine example of American courage and heroism. We shouldn't have to re-write the ending falsely in order to make ourselves feel better.

Americans are used to Western-style heroism, where at the end the guy in the white hat stands tall astride his horse while all the guys in the black hats lie bleeding in the dirt. But life isn't always like that. We'd be well-served, as a nation entering the early stages of a long and dangerous war on terrorism, to develop a more realistic concept of what to expect. We can start by accepting history for what it is, and not twisting the ending to suit our conception of what it should be.

That's it for me today. Mush tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 07:51 PM | Comments (1)

September 22, 2004

Why They Call It The Dismal Science

Today's Musical Selection: "For Love of Money" by the O'Jays

Hi, everyone. I'm pondering over a conversation I had with a friend of mine a couple days ago. Since I studied economics in school and didn't fall asleep in class or develop an undying hatred for it, friends often come to me with economic queries. This one, though, sort of came at the end of a conversation, seemingly somewhat randomly.

"You know what's interesting?" my friend said. "Families of military personnel killed in combat get all kinds of money, scholarships etc. But if you die at home in a traffic accident, your family gets none of that. Why is it that families of war casualties deserve more than families of soldiers who die in other ways?"

As you might imagine, my friend's question wasn't purely theoretical. Her father was a retired Navy man who perished in a crash. "I'm not being greedy," she said. "I'd rather have my father back than all the money in the world." But it occurred to her to wonder.

"People bend over backwards to help if your death is 'worthy' or 'heroic,'" she said. "But if it's ordinary, who cares, right?"

The unfortunate fact is that there is an economic logic to it. Economically, the remaining years of your life can be viewed in terms of expected earning potential. Let's say we can expect the average American to work for about 40 years (from age 25 to 65, say.) If you're killed in combat at age 45, you've been deprived of half of your earning potential. (More than half, actually, since your earnings tend to increase as you age.)

And if you die in combat, the government has deprived you of that earning potential by sending you to war. Therefore, they could be said to "owe" those lost earnings to your survivors, in the same way that the operators of, say, a faulty amusement park ride owe your heirs compensation if you die when the roller coaster collapses.

Now, death is part of the normal operation of a war, so the government probably wouldn't be found legally liable if it were a matter of trial. But since we have an all-volunteer force, the government has to find a way to convince people to sign up for a job with a significant possibility of death, so ensuring that the family will be compensated for the soldier's lost earning potential is one way to do it. (Other incentives, like the Mongtomery GI college bill, are particularly welcome to lower-income people who might not be able to afford these opportunities otherwise.)

On the other hand, if a soldier dies in a traffic accident, that's not the government's fault. His being in the service didn't affect his death at all. It would have been exactly the same if he'd worked in an auto factory or a university all his life. The government isn't responsible for his death, and therefore they have no other responsibility to the survivors, economically, than whatever pension the soldier might have been entitled to.

Of course, this kind of economic logic is cold comfort to someone who's just lost a parent or spouse. And my friend wasn't particularly mollified by my explanation. "My father was willing to die for his country, regardless of economic incentive," she said. She told me how he was twice on a battleship in the Persian Gulf when the country was close to war. And it's hard for her to understand why it would have been so much more financially advantageous for him to die on the battleship.

I can't fully comprehend her feeling; my father left the service before I was born, and he never came close to serving in combat. But her question made me think further, about the victims in the 9/11 attacks. It's uncomfortable to think about this, but there's no economic rationale for the enormous payouts that the families of the victims received. The government was not responsible for these deaths, certainly not in the direct sense that they're responsible if they send a soldier to die in Iraq. It was an outpouring, a purely emotional reaction by a grieving country. And I understand that. It certainly made me feel good to know that those families were taken care of. But what if a worker at the Twin Towers had died in a car wreck on his way to work that morning? Would he be SOL? Was he somehow less deserving of our financial generosity just because he died in a different way?

As an economist, I'm comfortable with the payouts extended to the families of soldiers killed in combat. I'm less comfortable with the payouts extended to the families of 9/11 victims. If it's a one-time thing, fine. The psychic comfort to the nation might be worth it. But what if, God forbid, terrorist attacks become more commonplace? Are we going to see everyone sticking their hands out, treating tragedy as a winning lottery ticket? I certainly hope not.

You see, this is precisely why people don't like to hang out with economists. People think our attempts to quantify human life in dollars and cents is cold and unfeeling. And in a way, it is. I happen to like it because it's a way to look at life, and a way that makes otherwise mysterious aspects of life quantifiable. I'm a rationalist at heart, and I like to have explanations for things. Economics offer explanations for many aspects of life. But there's a reason I don't tend to get invited to cocktail parties. For those of you contemplating a course of study in economics, I recommend it. Just be sure and develop a compensating interest, one that other people might want to hear about.

Carl over at FoolBlog is a fellow suffering skeptic when it comes to DC baseball. The buzz is growing increasingly encouraging, but we've all been burned too many times. All we can do at this point is wait, and hope. Baseball's Executive Committee meets tomorrow in Milwaukee. Things might start happening then. We shall see.

That's all for me today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 06:28 PM | Comments (3)

September 21, 2004

Taking a Drive Up Lovers' Lane

Today's Musical Selection: "Heart and Soul" by T'Pau

Hey there, everybody! It's Tuesday, and that must mean it's time for the couple that is to romantic advice what Bonnie and Clyde were to bank robbery, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. Today's column was filed from Twin Falls, Idaho, believe it or not. Also, Uncle Millie has asked me to inform all of you that he has established a second e-mail address for women wishing to file paternity suits. I asked him to do this, since all the claims were overflowing my mailbox. Therefore, all women with paternity claims, please e-mail With that administrative business out of the way, I turn things over to Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. Take it away!

- - - - -

It Hurts to Be In Love, At Least When The One You Love's Husband Catches Up With You, by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice

UM: Hello, lads! And greetings from beautiful Idaho!

AB: Hi, everybody. Uncle Millie is driving my batty, which is probably no surprise. See, we decided to get away from it all for awhile, and we selected our next destination at random. Unfortunately, when we stuck a pin in the map, it landed on Idaho. Nothing against this beautiful state, but ever sinced Uncle Millie realized that it's the state where the potatoes come from...

UM: You've got the real thing, baby, and not an imi-tater!

AB:... he's been non-stop with the potato puns.

UM: My favorite writer is Spuds Terkel!

AB: Really bad potato puns.

UM: I don't like that one. It won't take its eyes off me. Haw haw!

AB: You see my dilemma. Unfortunately, I've decided like I'm not ready to do time for the murder rap. At least not yet. So I've decided to try reading a fresh batch of letters, in the hopes that his bad relationship advice will be easier to listen to than the puns. So shall we read our first letter, Uncle Millie?

UM: Sure thing, my little French fry.

AB: Stop it.

UM: All right, all right.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I've been married for 8 years. My wife "Megan" and I have two children, ages 7 and 5. Before we were married, my wife worked, but she quit her job when our first child was born. At the time, we'd agreed that she was going to be a housewife, while I would be the family breadwinner. Now that the children are in school, she's changed her mind and decided she wants to go back into the working world. I feel like she's reneging on our agreement. How should I deal with this?

Peter in Escondido

AB: Hi, Peter. I can understand why you're feeling tricked. You thought you had an agreement, and suddenly she's decided it's no good any more. But I think there's no harm in letting her go back into the workforce. With both kids in school, they're taken care of for most of the day, and if she works part-time or if you find a good after-school program, it's not as though your kids will be sitting around for hours alone. She's probably decided that the housewife life wasn't for her -- raising two young children can do that to you -- and she's not looking forward to having an empty house most of the day. I'd say that, as long as you make arrangements for the time between when the kids get off school and when one of you gets home, I'd say let her do it.

UM: I disagree, lad. Call me old-fashioned, but I've always believed that a woman should "honor and obey" her husband, as they say in the vows.

AB: I'll call you old-fashioned. In fact, I'll call you a Neanderthal. Should he club her and drag her back by her hair if she tries to escape into the workforce?

UM: Don't be melodramatic, my dear. Your wife made an agreement with you, and now she wants to go back on it? Sounds pretty shady to me. What else might she be lying to you about?

AB: Lying? She wasn't-

UM: When she says she isn't sleeping with other men, who's to say she isn't going to "change her mind" about that?

AB: You're a fine one to lecture about fidelity.

UM: I think you need to confront her about this, and tell her you aren't going to deal with any more of this untruthfulness.

AB: Oh, brother.

UM: Lay down the law. You're the man of the house, after all.

AB: Should he have her flogged for her insolence, too?

UM: You're making light of this.

AB: Really?

UM: But it's a serious issue, lad.

AB: Tell you what, Peter. If you follow Uncle Millie's advice, I'll bet the problem will go away. As will that pesky, lying wife.

UM: Now you're coming around.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I'm 20, and I'm having a problem with my best friend "Rod." Rod and I have always been tight, but lately I've noticed a pattern. I start going out with a girl, we go along fine for a while, but after a while she dumps me and winds up not long after with Rod. Rod swears it's a coincidence, but I have a hard time believing him, since it's happened with three of my last four girlfriends. How should I deal with this situation?

Horace in Clifton

AB: Hi, Horace. Rod doesn't sound like much of a friend to me. The kind of friend you'd be better off without. Having it happen once would be unfortunate. Three times is a pattern. I think you'd be well served to end your "friendship" with Rod.

UM: My beloved is right. But she doesn't go far enough.

AB: What? How is that possible? I said he shouldn't keep Rod as a friend. How much farther can you go?

UM: Well, lad, when a man makes a habit of bird-dogging his friends, he's no man at all. And a fellow like that shouldn't be kept around on this earth.

AB: Wait. What do you-

UM: In the old country, this was the sort of situation that called for a duel. But a duel is supposed to be a contest between men of honor, and your "friend" clearly doesn't know the meaning of the word. Therefore, I suggest just killing him.

AB: Millie, you've given bad advice before, but this is possibly-

UM: It would likely give you the most satisfaction to do it yourself, but it's safer all around to hire a professional. Most decent-sized cities have a few such fellows around, if you know where to look.

AB: Stop. Just stop. Millie, I can't believe you. How much have you had to drink?

UM: A little bit. I was showing some nice local residents how to turn their potato crop into something useful, namely vodka. And we were sampling some of the results of our work.

AB: How much sampling went on?

UM: On the advice of my attorney, I decline to answer that, Your Honor.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

Why is it so hard to find the right person? I'm 27, and it's always the same thing: every woman I meet turns out to be crazy or clingy or not into marriage or something. All I'm looking for is a nice normal woman with a decent sense of humor who isn't afraid of a lifelong commitment. I'm a reasonably good-looking guy, I'm smart and funny and kind to animals and small children. Why can't I do better?

Morton in Grand Rapids

AB: Hi, Morton. I know it seems like it's difficult, but it's just a matter of time. All of us have to deal with relationships that don't work out and people that are a bad fit for us. Keep your chin up and you'll find someone! If you really are finding nothing but bad relationships, though, especially if they tend to follow the same patterns, you might wonder a bit about what keeps attracting you to these women. Other than that, though, I'd say just be patient and the right woman will come along in time.

UM: Hello, lad. You know, you're the reason I got into the advice-giving business. Not you personally, of course, but lads like you. I've noticed a lot of you out there, good-hearted lads who do everything right and just can't seem to find that special someone. The romantic landscape is awfully confusing these days, and sometimes it seems like everyone's going around in circles, chasing and chasing and never reaching their goals. It's those lads, ones like you, that I most want to help.

AB: That's beautiful, Millie. Please don't spoil it by being you.

UM: Where you're going astray, lad, is in setting the goal of a "lifetime commitment."

AB: Here we go.

UM: A lot of lads like yourself shoot themselves in the foot by insisting on this idea that they should be looking for that one woman who's going to be with you until you both die in a nursing home in between shuffleboard games at age 95. In fact, lad, you'd be doing yourself a great many favors if you kept your focus more on the short term. Rather than setting your goal as lifelong marriage, why not aim a little lower? For instance, a month of good sex. Or a night of really, really great sex.

AB: I'd say I don't believe it, but this is you we're talking about.

UM: Focusing on marriage and lifetime happiness is the kind of things that leads to alimony payments. Start treating your women like the Lone Ranger treated pistols: fire 'em until they're empty, then throw 'em at the bad guy.

AB: You've been sampling the potato vodka again, haven't you?

UM: Well, perhaps.

AB: You know what? I liked it better when you were doing the potato puns.

UM: Let's dance, my love. Do you know the Mash-

AB: On second thought, I'm not so sure. Maybe we'd better go gentle into that good night. See you in two weeks, everyone.

UM: Call me Chip from now on, lads. Happy hunting!

- - - - -

I'm not sure what to make of that column. I think I'm going to retire with my confusion. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 05:08 PM | Comments (0)

September 20, 2004

Dawn of the Deadskins

Today's Musical Selection: "Are You Ready For Some Football?" by Hank Williams Jr.

Hello, everyone. Today I'm wearing black, to honor the memory of the Washington Redskins. Local fans here in the Fedroplex know what I'm talking about. For those who might not be aware, the Redskins suffered an ugly 20-14 loss to the New York Giants yesterday. This may not sound like a particularly troublesome defeat, except that the Skins handed the game to the Giants with an incredible seven turnovers, which is as staggering as it sounds.

I was watching the game in the company of my dad, a fellow Skins fan. Our commentary can get caustic when the Skins are struggling, and we had a lot to taunt yesterday. Highly-paid new running back Clinton Portis had a nasty case of fumble-itis, laying the ball on the ground twice under minimal pressure. Quarterback Mark Brunell had a fumble of his own, and made consistently bad decisions, looking like a raw rookie rather than a multi-year pro. Once, on the verge of a sack, he panicked and threw directly into the arms of a Giant defender. Dad and I were feeling pretty vicious. When the play-by-play man said, "The Redskins have to do more with the ball," Dad snapped, "Yeah, they could try holding on to it, for instance."

The game went from bad to worse when Brunell left with an injury and backup Patrick Ramsey entered the game. Ramsey looked clueless, hopeless and rusty, completely failing to read defenses or remember pass patterns, and throwing wobbly off-target passes, except for the passes he laser-beamed directly into the chests of the Giant secondary. Ramsey threw three interceptions, all deep in Giant territory, one in the end zone. Dad and I started openly discussing the possibility that Ramsey was tanking. With each interception or overthrown pass, we made remarks on the lines of, "Mr. Ramsey, your bookie is on line 3. Are you in for $1,000 on the Giants?" After Portis' second fumble, I suggested that Ramsey offered him a cut of the winnings. It was awful... we saw the interceptions coming even before Ramsey had released the ball. The play-by-play man said, "Ramsey clearly has some work to do," and I replied, "Yeah, he can start by learning which color jersey are his."

It was a complete and utter debacle, a costly division loss to a bumbling foe on the verge of a player revolt against martinet coach Tom Coughlin. It's a sight that Redskins fans have become accustomed to seeing on Sunday over the past few years. But this loss was so disheartening because this is exactly what the hiring of the sainted Joe Gibbs was supposed to prevent. Instead of playing the smart and cohesive ball we saw in Week 1, the Redskins reverted to form. And we all got a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs.

As linebacker Lavar Arrington said to the press after the game, "That's the worst thing about losing, you know, when you lose." Or as my dad put it, "Welcome back, Joe Gibbs. Now you know what you have to deal with.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Gibbs was supposed to be the savior who led us out of the desert we've been wandering in for a decade, underachieving and looking sloppy and selfish under grumpy Richie Petitbon, genial Norv Turner, short-timer Terry Robiskie, stiff-necked Marty Schottenheimer and overmatched Steve Spurrier. In the lost decade since Gibbs departed to spend his weekends at the race track, the Skins turned from a model franchise into an embarrassment. Patrician owner Jack Kent Cooke died, and the franchise was sold to Dan Snyder, the impulsive boy billionaire who swapped out players and coaches like trading cards and made an art out of profit-maximization. The team left downtown and RFK Stadium for arid empty Landover and bland FedEx Field, a stadium with all the modern convenience and without a soul. And the Skins went from a team that was always greater than the sum of its parts to a team that somehow never was.

Skins fans watched with growing disgust, pining for the return of the great Gibbs, but never believing it could happen. But this offseason, Snyder somehow persuaded Gibbs to return to the game and the city where he made his Hall of Fame name. Washingtonians reacted with a fervor that normal cities might reserve for the second coming of Christ. At last, here was the man who could lead us back to glory. We'd seen Bill Parcells turn the Cowboys from a 5-11 fiasco to a 10-6 playoff squad, so we figured surely Gibbs could do the same. The hype and hysteria reached incredible levels.

And Week One made all the hysteria look sensible, or nearly so. The Skins dominated Tampa Bay in all phases of the game, with a top-notch defense and a presentable offense and a kind of discipline and professionalism we haven't seen around here in years. My dad noted with approval, "It's good to see the grown-ups back in charge." Super Bowl, here we come!

Alas, the revival express hit a bit of a snag yesterday. We went from "silk purse" back to "sow's ear" in the span of a week. The me-firstism, poor communication, sloppiness and self-defeating play that characterized the Spurrier Era returned with a vengeance. Gibbs spent most of the game standing silently with a "They didn't tell me about this when they hired me" look on his face. Dad, who was so inspired by Week One that he dug out his old Redskins T-shirt for the first time in years, immediately turned the shirt inside-out when the game was over. It was that bad.

So what have we learned? Well, one man, no matter how great a coach he is, cannot single-handedly turn a franchise around overnight. I suspect the Skins are neither as good as they looked against Tampa nor as bad as they looked yesterday. What they are, I suspect, is an 8-8 team, or something like it. This is itself constitutes a marked improvement, but we haven't reached nirvana yet. There's still work to do, organizational attitudes to change, improvements to make. Yesterday's stink-bomb was a needed reality check to Skins fans. Before we have visions of the Lombardi Trophy dancing in our heads, we need to become a good team first.

That's all for me today. Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 08:39 PM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2004

A Call to Arms

An Open Letter

To: Commissioner Bud Selig and the Powers that Be at MLB
From: Mediocre Fred, long-suffering Washington fan

Dear Gentlemen,

So, it looks as though you might finally be serious. George Solomon's column in the Post tells us that the protracted dance between your guys and my city concerning the Expos is reaching its endgame. Sources are saying that the two sides have drafted a memorandum of understanding, and that you, Commissioner Selig, are preparing to call a meeting of the Executive Council to discuss your findings. Reportedly, a decision could come as soon as next week.

I suppose I should be dancing with joy, shouldn't I? The team I've waited my whole life for is reportedly weeks or even days away from becoming reality. My fondest wish, so close to happening. I ought to be ecstatic, an outside observer might say. Perhaps you would think so yourselves.

But I'm not ecstatic. I can't be, I won't be, not even if the rumors are true. Why? Because I have calluses on my soul from all the times before when Washington "had" a team. Like a constantly-cuckolded spouse, there's no room any more for hope and optimism.

You want me to get all fluttery just because a little birdie's whispering that we "have" the Expos? Please. I mean, hell, we "had" the Padres in '74. We "had" the Astros in '96. And we "had" expansion teams in '87, '91 and '95. President Ford went to bat for us in '76, to no avail. We were dumped by that racist bastard Calvin Griffith and then by that money-grubbing con man Bob $hort. And we've "had" the Expos four or five times already. We used up our lifetime supply of faith years ago.

All this isn't to say I don't want the Expos. Of course I do. But Solomon's story and similar vibrations we've been hearing on the grapevine lately are a tease. It's like looking in your parents' closet on December 21 and seeing that bike you've always wanted. It's a good sign, and it's tempting to get excited. But if you start celebrating and acting like it's yours, it turns out the bike was actually for your brother or your cousin or the kid down the street. You don't celebrate it until -- and if -- that bike is under the tree on Christmas Day.

I don't know what goes on behind closed doors -- no one at the top of baseball's hierarchy is willing to talk on the record about Washington's standing -- and I don't know how you really feel about all this. But I want to tell you, as a lifelong Washingtonian and baseball fan, how we feel here. If you're not aware of fan sentiment in the Fedroplex, you ought to know.

Commissioner Selig, you know what it's like to lose a team. You were a teenager when the Braves to town and became the toast of baseball for a while, and you were a young adult when they took the team away, bound for a sweetheart stadium deal in lifeless, baseball-clueless Atlanta. You spearheaded the drive to get a team back. You dealt with the White Sox's flirtations, then the last-minute move of the Pilots in '70. You understand the pain of watching your team leave. But Milwaukee was only without baseball for four seasons. Four years is nothing like 33 years. The fact that we're still bothering at all shows how deep our love for the game is, no matter what the skeptics say.

Time and again, when Washington's baseball bids failed, there was always a what-if to ponder, something that had prevented our pitch from being as good as it could be. What if Washington wasn't famous (or infamous) for being a majority-black city? What if we weren't the Murder Capital? What if Marion Barry wasn't mayor? What if the bid was based downtown, instead of in Virginia? What if the stadium deal was a little sweeter? What if we had a legitimate ownership group? There was always something, a nagging concern that left us wondering when baseball passed us over for a frankly inferior city, like Miami or Tampa Bay.

But not this time. All the nagging questions have been resolved. We're no longer the murder capital. We're still a majority-black city, but it no longer matters so much, and we have majority-white Northern Virginia around to set unreconstructed racist minds at ease. We have the best ownership candidates we've ever had, in the Malek group. The best stadium sites are actually downtown, not out among the tech barons and country squires in Virginia. We have stadium sites and financing plans that MLB can love. Barry has been reduced from mayor to gadfly councilman, and no longer hold sway over the city's affairs. In his place we have Anthony Williams, a dorky technocrat who's short on charisma and natural magnetism, but long on competence. The old caricature of drug-ridden, corrupt Washington is known to be a fiction.

Not only that, but conditions in baseball are better now for a Washington team than they've ever been. There's no Western city that's unjustly without a team (like Denver in '91 and Phoenix in '95), and the Florida fad that gave us the Marlins and Devil Rays has fizzled. Old-line cities that supported their minor-league teams, like Buffalo and Louisville, are no longer factors in today's media-market-driven universe. The new Western boomtowns, like Vegas and Portland, are promising but not ready just yet. And baseball's not quite ready yet to cross the Mexican or Caribbean frontier. In short, there's no reasonable alternative to Washington. And in the Expos, you have a team of vagabonds that has no real home to go back to. They've reached the point where a decision needs to be made now. They can't wait five or ten years for Vegas and Portland to be ready. They can't even wait for another shot at contraction in '06. It's got to happen now.

I'm sure you know all this. And of course, you also know about Baltimore, and its attorney owner Peter Angelos. We know how he's tried to claim the Washington market as his own, eliminating all evidence of the Orioles' Baltimore ties from the park and producing reams of fishy statistics purporting to show that the Orioles depend on the D.C/northern Virginia area for the health of their franchise. And for years, the Orioles' objections have provided cover for MLB when we were rejected. "Don't turn one strong franchise into two weak ones," you told us. And we countered with statistics of our own showing that Baltimore didn't depend on us to survive, but the doors were already closed. We passed the statistics around among ourselves in the empty boardroom, while you put your arm around Angelos and said you had his back.

But now, conditions are better than they've ever been. Your need for Washington is at its highest just when we're at our readiest. Finally, our argument has an audience. And Angelos is suddenly having a hard time finding friends for his market-protecting argument.

Let's level with each other, shall we? You need Washington right now. The Expos have to go somewhere. It's time to end that charade, and DC's the only real option. It's okay to admit it; we promise not to blackmail you with it.

And you know what? We need you too. Or at least we really want to. You'd think that as badly as you've treated us over the years, we'd have long since told you to go to hell. Maybe we're idiots for not having done so.

But dammit, we love the game. Baseball means everything to us. Many of us would give years off of our lives just to see Opening Day in our hometown. Because we're proud of our city. We've taken our lumps and weathered the ridicule in the national media, but we're proud of what we've become. We're proud of being the economic engine for the region. We're proud of the nightlife in Adams Morgan, and the vibrant downtown (nothing like the '70s), and the urban renewal in places like Petworth and the Anacostia waterfront, and our thriving suburbs too. We're proud of being the cradle of democracy, and we want to see the president throwing out the first ball where he belongs, in his backyard. We're proud of our beautiful cherry blossoms in the spring, and we'd love them all the more if they were a sign that baseball's coming again. We're proud of Thomas Boswell, possibly the greatest baseball scribe in the country, and wish he could be writing about the exploits of our team. We've learned to live without baseball in town -- what else can we do? -- but we don't really like it. Life isn't as rich without a team in town. We're not afraid to admit it.

Now that we're being honest with each other, if there was any justice in this world we'd get the team we deserve and everything would be hunky-dory. But it's hard for us to believe in justice any more. 33 years without baseball isn't our idea of justice.

So I'm not asking you for justice. I don't dare suggest that we deserve a team, even though we do. No, that's not how it works, I know.

All I'm asking is for resolution. Because this is our last, best shot. I know it, we in Washington all know it, and I suspect you know it too. The stars have never been in alignment like this, and they probably won't ever be again. The election of baseball-funding opponents to City Council for next term means that we'd have a hell of a time getting a stadium after this year. The next mayor will probably be less baseball-friendly. And even if we elect baseball backers again a few years down the line, by then Portland and Vegas and God knows where else will have much stronger cases than they do now, and we'll be back to bridesmaid status. If it doesn't happen now, it never will. We know this.

And I have a special message for you, Commissioner Selig. Having no local team to root for, I picked up an affection for the Brewers during my misspent youth, an affection I've never lost, through thin and thinner. When you became commissioner, I was perhaps the only person outside of your immediate family not to start booing. For years, I've defended you to my friends, who called you "Clueless Bud" during the '94 strike and didn't get much warmer toward you in the aftermath. I even defended you during the contraction fiasco, which would strain the faith of any fan.

At first, I defended you because of my loyalty to you as Brewers owner. But over time, I came to admire you as a leader of the sport. I believe you learned your lesson in the '94 strike; you learned the perils of taking an uncompromising hard line, and you learned the folly of negotiating through the press. You, the owners, and the game took a real shellacking. Some thought you'd never recover. Even when the game started returning to health, everyone credited Cal Ripken, or Sosa and McGwire, or the Red Sox and Cubs, everyone but you. But I knew better.

I told my friends that you're like Columbo; you look like an unimpressive bumbler who couldn't manage a McDonald's, much less a major sports league. And so when the public image of negotiations looks like a chaotic, anarchic mess, everyone assumes that you're steering things into a ditch. But just like my favorite detective, behind the scenes you're piecing things together and making it happen out of the spotlight. Then, when you make the announcement at the last minute, everyone wonders how it could have possibly worked out. I'm convinced that the 2002 labor negotiations followed this exact pattern.

And this whole Expos business looks like the same kind of deal. You had to get Jeffrey Loria out of the ownership role -- no one wanted to reward his incompetent stewardship by handing him a plum market -- so you worked out this franchise-trading business that put him in Florida and John Henry in Boston. Everyone screamed and hollered and called you incompetent or corrupt, but you stood your ground. (And I notice that very few fans in Florida or Boston are complaining now.)

Once the team was in MLB's hands, you still knew there was no way to overcome the Angelos resistance, so you did a bold and seemingly crazy thing: left the team in MLB's hands. Had you sold it immediately, you probably would have received a low price, and the new owner would have either had to try to make it work in Montreal or braved the Angelos opposition to try to go into DC. Not a good idea.

The split-schedule, another seemingly stupid idea, had a double purpose: It allowed you to field-test the idea of Caribbean expansion, and it made the Expos' plight all the more desperate. A team owned by Jeffrey Loria drawing 10,000 a night in Montreal might garner sympathy, but that wouldn't spur action. A team with two hometowns, with a bunch of exhausted and angry players, whose mounting losses were bankrolled by the other 29 teams is a problem demanding a quick solution.

But Angelos wasn't going to be so quickly outmaneuvered. If not for Angelos and his unyielding opposition, one season of split scheduling would have done it. But you knew he wasn't going to go away. So you concocted this relocation derby, with every conceivable city involved. Anyone with a remotely viable argument for supporting a team was invited to pitch their case. And in a particularly diabolical twist, you put Angelos on the Executive Committee, the inner circle of decision-making in Major League Baseball. It sure looked like you were going out of your way to stop Washington. Angelos thought so. And a lot of fans here did too.

But I tried to convince them that this was strategic on your part. If Angelos thought you were looking out for him and would never let Washington get a team, he wouldn't bother to go looking for allies to stop it. And so you did everything you could to convince everyone that the relocation process was clanking along, and something would happen, eventually, but we don't know when.

So Washington got mad. We felt our opportunity slipping away, and that gave us the collective will to roll out the big guns and putting our best offer out there. And you went about quietly lining up support, making sure that everyone could see that Washington was the only real option. And now, seemingly out of the blue, it all looks like a done deal. It's too late for Angelos to go twisting arms. Because I know, as I've told everyone, that you never bring something up unless you're absolutely sure you have the votes for it.

I've been pitching this case, and my friends think it's plausible. But they point out that it doesn't mean a damn if the deal doesn't get done. And they're right. In the end, either you close the deal or you don't. I want to believe that you can do it, Commissioner. I'm ready to start calling you "Commissioner Columbo." But I need to see the results. We all do.

So don't leave us hanging. This has been dragged out long enough. Since we know that this is essentially our last shot at a team, give us a quick resolution. Give us the team or don't, but spare us further suffering. 33 years is long enough. Red Sox and Cubs fans may disagree, but we'd give anything to be in their shoes. At least they have a team to follow. We wouldn't care if Aaron F-ing Boone knocked our pennant dreams over the left-field wall every year. As long as home is here.

Mediocre Fred

Posted by Fred at 10:39 PM | Comments (2)

September 17, 2004

Going Away for a Day

But you'll still get to enjoy my random thoughts tomorrow. See you Saturday!

Posted by Fred at 12:59 AM | Comments (0)

September 16, 2004

Are You Being Served?

Today's Musical Selection: "Material Girl" by Madonna

Hello, friends. Today something shocking happened to me, so shocking as to defy belief. Many of you won't believe it happened, but it did. Are you sitting down? Here goes: I received good service at a fast-food restaurant.

I'll pause here so you can recover from the shock.

The details: It occurred at the Boston Market here in Dot-Com Canyon. I strode in to a mostly-deserted restaurant, and was greeted warmly by a woman named Leslie. After a seemly pause for me to consider my menu options, Leslie asked for my order. She filled it quickly, efficiently, and correctly (and generously; she piled on the potatoes, which met with my definite approval). We then proceeded to the cash register, where she rang me up, politely asked if I cared for a drink (as opposed to trying to upsell some new menu item I didn't want), took my money, produced correct change, thanked me and handed me my food. She looked me in the eye the whole time, and had a terrific attitude, as if she was actually pleased to be assisting me. Talk about a shock. (The food was even good, even though it was a late dinner.)

I share this example primarily because it's become so rare. At restaurants and retail stores, service has gone to hell. Too often, you get help that's incompetent, indifferent and/or surly. It's become an accepted fact of life that, when you go out to buy things, you're going to get lousy help. It wasn't always this way. What went wrong?

Papa Shaft and I had this discussion the other weekend, after receiving atrocious service at a restaurant.

"I can't believe they're talking about raising the minimum wage," he grumbled, "when the service you get isn't even worth the minimum wage now. Why reward incompetence?"

I pointed out that with service-industry wages as poor as they are now, it's almost impossible to attract decent help. You tend to get recent immigrants, high-school students and the otherwise unemployable, which tends to lead to spotty service for a variety of reasons (communication problems with immigrants, bad attitudes with high-schoolers, lack of competence with the unemployable). With wages as poor as they are, the only people who will take those jobs are those who don't have other options.

"Yeah, but forcing companies to pay over market value is just going to drive up prices," he said, "and that eats up the rise in wages. It's a cycle of inflation."

He's right, of course. Raising the minimum wage without providing some sort of offsetting government subsidy to companies will eventually increase costs. If Wal-Mart has to pay its workers $10 an hour to stock shelves, they won't be able to sell 100 gallons of ketchup for a dollar as they do now.

But you get what you pay for, and our national obsession with discounting and low prices means that companies can no longer afford to pay for decent help. Look at the case of grocery stores. They used to be famous for offering wages that allowed their workers to make a good middle-class living. Now, pressure from discounters like Wal-Mart has forced the supermarkets to cut costs to survive, and this has led to a wave of ugly labor showdowns for a lot of grocery chains. Unions are forced to accept dramatic cutbacks in wages and benefits or face the possibility of major job loss.

Restaurants like McDonald's are in a similar bind from a different direction. McDonald's sorry service is well-known (though interestingly, Boston Market is owned by McDonald's). Presumably, by doubling wages they might get a better quality of worker. But what if the prices doubled too? Are customers going to pay double for a McDonald's meal when they could go to a chain restaurant and get better food for roughly the same money? What's made McDonald's successful through the years is its national profile, convenience and price. Many chain restaurants now offer takeout, so that they're not much less convenient than McDonald's. And the Arches' once-hegemonic domination of the low-end restaurant business has been shattered by competing fast-food chains as well as the "fast-casual" places like Applebee's and Chili's. McDonald's is trying new menu options to try to make themselves more appealing, but they're never going to have very good food. If they're going to compete, it has to be on price.

So what does the future hold? Papa rightly suggests automation. McDonald's has been experimenting with an automated ordering system, and Papa points out that an automated system could probably provide more efficient and accurate service than low-paid unskilled workers, and in the long run it would be cheaper. (See also the self-service checkouts becoming increasingly popular at grocery stores.) Of course, once that happens, we face a fresh wave of unskilled workers who are going to be without jobs, and I don't have any idea what we intend to do with them.

In the meantime, though, other restaurants might benefit from Boston Market's example. Now, since this was only one visit, I don't know if Boston Market routinely provides better service or if I just lucked out in showing up when Leslie was there. But I do know that the good service and good food were enough to make me want to go back. Sure, Boston Market is a couple bucks more than McDonald's or Burger King, but it's worth it. I'll gladly make that trade.

Offering higher wages will tend to attract the cream of the retail-worker crop. And it will tend to keep them there; if they're making more with you than they would be elsewhere, they'll want to stay. And they'll want to do a better job so they can stay with you. And having a desire to keep a job leads to pride in your work. A high-school student working at 7-11 for the summer isn't going to care if he does crappy work, because in a couple months he'll be gone anyway and he doesn't care what they think of him. But if you intend to stay with a company for a period of years, you'll want to do good work and impress them.

Over time, this has a cumulative positive effect. If I'm a customer driving around looking for dinner and I happen to see a Boston Market as one of my options, maybe I'll remember the good service and go there instead of hitting Hardee's. Good service is a hook, something on which a company can build a reputation, even in the low-end market. Surely I'm not the only one who's tired of rude cashiers filling my order wrong.

Of course, the plan can only work if the customers show the will for it. If good service isn't worth the extra couple dollars to a customer in that market segment, then we're stuck with the race to the bottom. Which is a legitimate market choice. But if that's the choice we consumers make, we have no right to complain about crappy service. We made our own bed. We can't have it all.

I think we can afford to spend a couple extra dollars for decent service. And if we start demonstrating our willingness, patronizing places that offer it and avoiding places that don't, we can get it. Markets are amoral; they respond to what sells. If customers start rewarding places that treat customers well and hire quality employees, then we'll see more such places. If we focus on saving that last possible dollar, then we're going to see service get worse and worse. The power is truly in our hands. The lousy service at McDonald's isn't some corporate plot to make us miserable; it's a direct response to our desire for cheap eats. We can choose to make things better, if we recognize it. Here's hoping we will.

And that closes the book on today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 04:48 PM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2004

Entering an Ice(less) Age

Today's Musical Selection: "Cold as Ice" by Foreigner

Well, it's official: the NHL announced that it's locking out its players starting tonight at midnight. It's no surprise: the negotiating sessions between owners and players have been so acrimonious as to make the Israelis and Palestinians look like something out of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. But for real, true hockey fans like me, it's still a discouraging sign. We don't know how long the stoppage will be. All indications are that it will be long. There's talk of losing a whole season, or possibly even two. And the hell of it is, it just might be good for the league. Assuming it doesn't kill the league first.

Which side is right and which is wrong? At this point, it doesn't much matter. Reports are that the players have been making many more concessions than the owners, which is to their credit if true. It's reported that the concept of a salary cap is coming between them (the owners insist on it, the players swear they'll never accept it). If this is true, both sides are dramatic overestimating their own power. The owners don't seem to understand that their league's hold on the sporting public is far too tenuous to even toy around with the idea of losing a whole season. And the players don't seem to understand that their union isn't exactly the MLBPA. Both sides are far too willing to be stupidly stubborn and risk Armageddon. They're both behaving like Dirty Harry with his finger on the nuclear button.

And yet... this is a league in dire need of a new financial model. Stagnant revenues aren't coming close to matching the spiraling growth in salaries. Trying to act like a big-time league on the level of the Big Three (MLB, NBA, NFL) has crippled the NHL. It's not the players' fault -- they were perfectly entitled to sign the absurd contracts the owners were dumb enough to offer -- but any real solution will have to involve a pay cut. The players appear to understand this; it's reported that an across-the-board salary cut was part of their last proposal. The owners are right to pick this fight now; the current salary structure is simply insupportable. Yes, it was largely their fault, but just because you start down the wrong road doesn't mean you have to stay on it until you go off a cliff.

Take the infamous 7-year, $77 million contract handed to Jaromir Jagr a couple years back. Jagr's been openly tanking since he got his money, but that's not the issue. The issue is that given the current financial state of the NHL, no player can be making $11 million a year, not even the best. There simply isn't the sort of revenue out there to make that feasible. And once you have one player making an insane amount of money, other players start using that as a benchmark. And that's a swift road to ruination. The league can survive one guy with an outrageous contract, even if it cripples the team that's paying it. But once other salaries start ratcheting upward to meet it, they're doomed.

But isn't that entirely the owners' fault, you might ask? (In this case, the fault of Ted Leonsis, the ebullient owner of the Washington Capitals.) It is. But that's where a salary cap comes in. Despite what player's unions love to say, it's not a tool to save owners from their own stupidity. It's a tool to save smart owners in small markets from their idiot big-market brethren.

When Leonsis made Jagr the richest player in hockey, none of the other owners got a say. It's probable that at least 25 of the other 29 owners wouldn't have made the same deal. But Leonsis felt that he needed a star, and Jagr was the biggest star available, and Leonsis wanted to make damn sure he got him.

Now, because one or two of your free-spending fellow owners handed out dumb contracts, the price of your own stars is going to go up through no fault of your own. Suddenly, Pierre LaCrease is going to say, "Hell, if Jagr's worth $11 million, I'm worth $7 million." Now, you have two options: You can pay Pierre his $7 million and throw your salary structure out of whack, or you can say no and watch him skate off to some franchise like the Rangers, who seem to exist primarily as a retirement home for players with insane contracts.

Now, every other major sport has found some way to deal with this. The NFL headed the salary explosion off long ago with the imposition of a hard cap. The NBA had a showdown with its union in 1998, and thanks in no small part to that union's incompetence, managed to secure a structure that makes owners very happy. MLB, after a long series of fruitless work stoppages, finally arrived at a livable plan with a luxury tax in 2002, and Billy Beane and the Moneyball A's developed a blueprint for smart teams to win on a budget.

And the NHL? There's no salary cap or luxury tax to slow down rich owners who are itching to win now. The league has a decent revenue-sharing plan, but the total revenue pie isn't large enough. (Unlike MLB, where the problem isn't the size of the pie, but the disparity in the size of each team's slice.) And there's no Moneyball-esque model for low-revenue teams to follow. So a cataclysmic labor showdown probably had to happen sometime. Player's unions are almost never farsighted enough to try to head off problems before they happen.

And while the players are going to have to get used to an end to the crazy salary explosion, the owners will have to adjust to the fact that Gary Bettman's league vision is a failure. Big Slick thought he could make the NHL a league comparable to the Big Three, a league of the same (American) national prominence and revenue scale. For a while it came close, but it ultimately failed. And the sooner the owners realize that, the better.

So in the long run, a long and bloody strike may actually be the best thing for the game. Rumor has it that teams like Atlanta, Carolina, Phoenix and Nashville might not survive a long strike. To be brutally honest, the league is probably better off without them.

So as a diehard hockey fan, I'll make the NHL a deal. Take as long as you need. If it takes a year, fine. If it takes two years, fine. I'll be waiting when you come back. Provided, that is, that you meet the following conditions:

1. Fix the salary mess. Call it a cap, don't call it a cap, I don't care. Just find a structure that both sides can live with that gets the salary structure back under control. Find some way to control runaway rich owners and keep them from poisoning the well for everyone else.

2. Remember your roots. Whatever deal you cut, make sure it protects teams and fan bases that have had long and loyal relationships. No moving the Flames to San Antonio, or the Sabres to Orlando. If the new revenue system doesn't allow small-market teams, especially in Canada, to survive and compete, you've failed.

3. Come back leaner. 30 teams is too many. Let attrition shrink the ranks. Cut back to 26 at minimum. 24 is better. 22 is fine. Even 20 is okay. If you're fixing the salary structure, trim the bloated team ranks too. If said attrition spells the end of the stupid six-division structure and restores the old beloved rivalries from the Wales-and-Campbell conference days, so much the better.

4. Don't waste time with public posturing and drawing lines in the sand. No one cares. Get in the conference room, lock the door, and work together to save the sport, okay? I'm willing to wait as long as it takes, but don't make it take longer than it has to.

I call upon my fellow hockey fans to sign on to this pledge. I know we all hate losing games, and the thought of a hockey-less winter hurts us all. But rather than pressuring them to work out a half-measure just to get back on the ice, I think we'd be better served to have both sides sit down and make the sweeping changes the game needs. Think of the potential loss of the season as an investment in the game's long-term future.

I also wanted to take a moment here to look at the curious case of Art Howe. Howe is the manager of the Mets, for the time being. I always liked him, but I never thought he was cut out for the big-market pressure of New York. Looks like I was right, as the Mets have stunk like toxic waste floating in the East River during Howe's one-year-plus in charge. A week or so ago, the New York papers began buzzing about Howe's impending departure at season's end. Howe was displeased with the rumors, and demanded that if he was to be fired, that the Mets do it now. He met with ownership, and they reached the following compromise: Howe was fired, but he'd stay on until season's end. What the hell is this?

I understand why Howe didn't just quit; he'd rather get fired and keep the money he's due in the remaining two years of his contract. And I understand why the Mets fired him. But why keep him around? Why leave Howe out there as a lame duck, with no authority to speak of, to preside over the end of the mess? I can only imagine two reasons for this: either the team's other coaches refused to take over for Howe, or the team's so cheap that they didn't want to pay Howe not to manage the last two weeks of the season. Neither speaks well of the Mets. Ugh.

And that does it for me today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 05:00 PM | Comments (6)

September 14, 2004

Bad Advice on Parade!

Today's Musical Selection: "Go Ask Alice" by Jefferson Airplane

Hi, everybody! As loyal readers know, every other Tuesday in this space I run the romantic advice column by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. It's a proud part of the Mediocre Fred Experience, and I'm certainly glad to have them on board.

However, some people don't seem to agree. In addition to the letters seeking advice that pour in every week, America's sweethearts receive some, er, less-than-complimentary mail. Negative opinions of their advice range from
"clueless" to "criminal." Uncle Millie seems to come in for the worst of the beating; he's derided with names that I would hesitate to publish in this space, lest any young children find it. The gist of the criticism is that they're peddling bad advice, and I should be ashamed of myself for hosting it.

I would like to take a moment to leap to their (and my) defense. First of all, they're offering advice to you on a pro bono basis. If you don't like the advice, or it doesn't work out for you, you're not out a penny, a deal that I dare say you wouldn't get from your psychiatrist. Second, when you're taking advice from a proud alcoholic/Lothario and his harried wife, you're proceeding at your own risk, in my opinion. Finally, we live in a world in which Dr. Laura is permitted to roam free. Given that, I think it's hardly fair to attack Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice for bad advice.

But, though Dr. Laura is controversial, she has quite a following. Personally, I think Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice are a much better source. It's like the difference between getting advice from your bartender and getting advice from your parole officer. But I feel certain that there are certain sources of advice that are indisputably worse than our favorite couple. So I started looking around and, lo and behold, I found a couple.

For instance, take this article from today's Post. You may believe that Uncle Millie's advice is bad for young women, but how about Web sites that describe anorexia as a "lifestyle choice"? What a great message! As if images of rail-thin models plastered all over the media aren't bad enough, now we have "thinspirational" (possibly the most disturbing phrase ever) sites offering support and encouragement to women who want to starve themselves! To quote Yakov Smirnoff, "What a country."

It's one thing to set up a site offering dieting tips; that's fine. But these sites are encouraging people to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, by definition. And in the manner made famous by cults, these sites encourage anorexics to tune out the voices of those who want to save them:

The terms "Ana" and "Mia" -- short for anorexia (a condition characterized by eating so little that one's health and life are at risk) and bulimia (overeating and then purging by vomiting or taking laxatives) -- are often used by those with eating disorders who don't want treatment.

Frequent visitors to these sites refer to themselves as "anas" and "mias" and say the sites offer a safe haven where they can talk, share advice and commiserate away from the harsh criticism of family, friends and other "outsiders."

It's refreshing, when you're making a serious attempt to kill yourself, to know that there's someplace you can go where no one will try to save you from yourself. After all, who wants to listen to people who care about you and want to see you healthy? They're such a drag.

And why stop with anorexia? Why not set up Web-based support groups for other stupid and dangerous behaviors? How about a Web site supported and encouraging people to have unprotected sex with heavy drug users who share needles, or to clean their loaded guns with the safety off, or to bungee-jump with a frayed cord? Think of the fun we could have!

Of course, those pesky free-speech prohibitions prevent the government from shutting these sites down, since they aren't promoting anything illegal. But eating disorders are a real problem among young women in particular, and the very concept of a Web site that exists to cheer them on is revolting. Kudos to America Online, which is moving to shut down such sites as a violation of its user agreement. I wish more ISPs had the guts to follow in AOL's footsteps, but too many of them are playing see-no-evil in the hopes that they won't get sued.

So the next time you think that Uncle Millie's advice is dangerous, I remind you that it could be much, much worse.

And for those of you who think the advice in this space is more stupid than dangerous, I've got you beat there, too. I direct you to this column, written by a woman who calls herself Mama Gena. She received a letter from a woman who's dating a loving, caring guy who lacks ambition and drive. She's wondering if she should marry him. Now, before I address Mama Gena's reply, I can imagine several possible replies that would constitute good advice. Here are a few:

- There are no fairy-tale princes out there, and if he loves you and is good company, that's what matters. You don't need a mansion and fancy cars to be happy.

- It seems like having an ambitious, hard-charging man is important to you. This guy's never going to be that, so you're never going to be happy. Don't marry him.

- Assume that he's always going to be like he is now, and imagine being married to that man. Does that sound like heaven or hell to you? Decide on that basis.

- You claim to love this man, but you also look down on him. He'd be a lot better off not being married to some snob who's going to be embarrassed by him, so do him a favor and take a hike, you vapid little materialistic twit.

You'll notice that I'm fairly generous about what constitutes good advice. The advice-giver can say she should or shouldn't marry this man. The advice-giver can be warm and friendly or acidic and sarcastic. Anything in this fairly wide range can constitute good advice, because there are a lot of valid ways to view the situation.

Given the large variety of "right" answers, you'd think it would be nearly impossible to give a wrong answer, wouldn't you? Well, Mama Gena proves that it is entirely possible to give a wrong answer. I quote her response verbatim:

Oh my, oh my, come rest thy weary head on Mamaís knee and allow her to spin you a little yarn. We have to clear that sweet little head of yours and set you to rights about who and what a man is, so you can make a great decision. Did you ever hear the story about Beauty and the Beast? Belle, a lovely young woman, met this hairy fat beast with really bad table manners. He was gruff on the outside, but he had a pure heart. Belle fell in love with this beast. And it was through her love and training that he turned into a prince. See, guys on their own recognizance wonít necessarily aim very high. A beer and a channel-changer is about enough excitement for them. But a man with a woman by his side, a woman who wants things from him, a woman who sees his potential and is unafraid of asking the best of him, oh, my darling, that man has a shot at becoming a hero. Dennis is your friend; he is attentive to you and your desires, right? Thatís a great start. Now itís time for you to ask him for everything you want: Where you want to live, what career you want to see him in, what kind of life you want to create together. He has the potential to take care of you in any style you desire, just point him in the right direction and enjoy the unfolding adventure of turning your beast into your prince!

If you want some inspiration from your predecessors, check out how Nancy Reagan inspired Ronald. Or how Annette Bening inspires Warren Beatty. Or Goldie Hawn with Kurt Russell. Join the ranks of the brilliant man-trainers of the world: Women who use men to fulfill their dreams and desires!

This is atrociously bad writing, but let's not even worry about that right now. Let's consider instead the advice given, which is even worse than the writing.

In my woozy idealistic moments, I occasionally wonder why everyone's so worked up about the "battle of the sexes." How hard can this be? Surely our common traits as human being outweigh our gender differences. And to the degree that gender differences exist (and I believe that they do -- apologies to my friends who disagree), anyone who spends a reasonable amount of time with friends of the opposite sex should have a working understanding of these differences. Why should the opposite sex be treated as some great mystery? I smile to myself, sure that I've figured everything out. Then I'll read some crap like the above advice and realize how far we have to go.

Ladies, as a card-carrying member of the male gender, I want to offer you some advice, should you think that Mama Gena's onto something. Consider this my contribution to greater understanding between the sexes. You're welcome.

When it comes to drive and ambition, men are a lot like women. Some are terrific self-starters, some would never leave the couch unless the beer supply ran out, and most are in between. And it's true that a good partner can challenge and inspire you to be your best. I hope to marry someone like that. But men hate being told what to do just as much as women do. We're not sitting around waiting for a woman to rescue us and make us into their ideal vision of the perfect man. And any woman who tries is going to find herself in for an unpleasant struggle.

Ladies, how do you feel about The Taming of the Shrew and Pygmalion, in which men try to mold women into their ideal vision? How would you feel if your husband or boyfriend tried to do that now? You'd detest it, right? (Dedicated feminists are preparing to beat me vigorously about the head and shoulders for even bringing it up.) So why would you think that it works well in reverse?

I've had women in my life who inspired me to be a better man. When playing baseball, I always play better when I know that someone I care about is there rooting me on. But do you know the difference between that and what Mama Gena so charmingly calls "man-training"? The impetus to become better came from within me. My lady love wasn't cracking the whip and demanding that I shape up to meet her standards. She loved me for who I was, and encouraged me to have faith in my abilities. And I did. That's how the right relationship can make a better man.

So what's wrong with Mama Gena's advice? For one thing, her opinion of the male gender is ignorant and condescending. No self-respecting man would want to date someone who held such a low opinion of him. Second, she encourages the idea of the fairy-tale prince, just waiting for a woman to make him wonderful. This is a textbook case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. A woman who passes up men with normal human flaws to hold out for that prince is setting herself up for a life of solitude.

Finally, and most important, she encourages women not to consider their mates as they are. Maybe the man as he is currently is enough to make the woman happy, and maybe he isn't. Either is okay. What's important is that if she plans to commit to a life with him, she needs to be happy with him the way he is. Otherwise, she's ensuring a life of unhappiness for them both.

In short, Mama Gena's advice is a great way for women to find themselves either permanantly single or mired in an unhappy marriage. Great! And if that wasn't bad enough, she actually offers courses for which women and men can pay money, featuring her bad advice! Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice would never stoop to anything like that. (Well, Uncle Millie might.)

So lay off Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice, friends. I hope I've demonstrated today that you don't know how good you have it. I trust that you will be appropriately grateful in the future.

And that's all for today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 03:19 PM | Comments (1)

September 13, 2004

Trying to Keep the Faith

Today's Musical Selection: "Dazed and Confused" by Led Zeppelin

Hi, everybody! Today we turn our attention to the presidential election, which I understand is coming up sometime soon. On Saturday, I mentioned that I'd seen Kerry speaking effectively at the Black Caucus dinner. This prompted loyal reader Ensie to leave the following query:

If Kerry does learn to speak in the next few weeks, do you think there's any chance in hell he could win? We do have the debates coming up...

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. As an avowed Kerry man, I've noticed the trend in the recent poll numbers with considerable concern. I'm especially concerned because he's been looking good out there lately. That may seem like an odd thing to worry about, but if Kerry's doing well and he's still not rising in the polls, what's left to do? You see the dilemma.

I was discussing this the other day with Papa Shaft. Papa's a right-leaning fellow politically, but he respects Kerry. He pointed out the bind Kerry's in on foreign policy: he has to appear strong enough to be seen as a safe alternative, but he has to present an actual alternative to the Bush Doctrine. This is an extremely thorny challenge.

Bush has a double advantage on foreign policy. First, his policy has the great advantage of clarity. Most voters have neither the time nor inclination to study foreign policy in detail, so they have just one simple question: "Will it keep us safe from the bad guys?" And Bush can confidently reply, "Hell yeah. I'm gonna blow the crap out of anyone who looks at us funny. Of course we'll get the bad guys." It sounds comforting and effective, if you don't bother to consider the long-term effects. Kerry, on the other hand, has to try to explain how he's going to decide when to attack and when not to, and it tends to sounds wishy-washy no matter how you explain it. Voters are afraid that, somewhere in the middle of rhetorical curlicues, the bad guys might get away. There's no such fear with Bush.

Second, Bush has the incumbent's advantage: He can demonstrate what he plans to do, while Kerry can only theorize. Even if you don't love what Bush is doing, at least you know what to expect. With Kerry, there's the uncertainty that comes with not seeing a plan in action. In dangerous times such as these, it's difficult to take that chance.

Of course, a challenger can only present a viable alternative if he can find a public voice. And I think that's been Kerry's biggest problem: he's having a hard time getting people to listen. At this time in 1992, Bill Clinton was all over the media. Bush the elder was perceived as distant and inaccessible, while Clinton had his finger on the pulse of everyone who was hurting. Bush the younger may not be exactly having a lovefest with the American public, but he is dominating the airwaves. And that's fatal to a challenger.

So to answer your question, Ensie, I do think Kerry's in fighting trim for the debates. I think he can beat Bush there. But he has to establish himself enough to get people to listen. The truth about the debates is that they're always the incumbent's to lose. Unless he's already reeling, or he makes a significant gaffe, the debates alone aren't going to lift a challenger to victory. Kerry has to get himself out there in front of the media, hitting key themes effectively and preventing Bush from monopolizing the airtime.

And the best way to get airtime is to convince the media that you're a viable challenger. I think the media are willing to listen to the case against Bush, but they don't seem to think that Kerry's a viable alternative. And time's running out for him to make his case.

Ensie had a couple other thoughts for me. One was about helping strangers:

Yes--we are far too afraid of things for our own good in this country. My parent used to pick up hitchikers (I remember sitting next to them in our car), but I would never pick one up now. Michael Moore excellently points out American's obsessions with being "safe" and how we are afraid of everything in Bowling for Columbine. I have a feeling we wouldn't see a dramatic increase in murders/assaults if we all started being more "helpful" to each other, but no one really wants to take the chance.

Sadly, I think Ensie's right. Statistics are a cold comfort at best, if you're the one who winds up getting mugged or killed. If the crime rate drops, but you personally get assaulted, you're not going to feel safer. It's like the old saw about the economy: a recession is when your neighbor loses his job, and a depression is when you lose yours. Tell someone it's one-in-a-million that something bad will happen when he helps a stranger and he'll reply that it's zero-in-a-million if he stays inside and doesn't help. And the cumulative effect of each of these individually rational decisions drains our reservoir of civic goodwill.

Of course, you have to beat some people over the head to realize that there is such a thing as "civic goodwill." With each passing year, we feel a little less sense of a common cause with the people around us. It frustrates and saddens me, because I think we're a much richer country when we come together, rather than skittering off into our little gated bunkers to live our atomized existences. But no one wants to be the first mover. Fear and avoidance is safer.

Also, Ensie remarked about my Wienermobile experience:

Oh my God! You got to ride in the Wienermobile! I am so jealous!

I'd have to say that it was one of the highlights of my life. I've forgotten most of the details of that trip, but that one stands out, as does the visit my dad and I paid to the Watkins Glen race track. The latter stands out because it's become a life lesson for our family.

Watkins Glen was not an official destination of the trip, but we happened to stop there one night, and being the car nut I was then, naturally I pestered my parents to take me to the track. Finally, Dad agreed to take me in the morning, while Mom and my sister were off antiquing. We drove up to the track, expecting to park and walk around the perimeter. But the gate to the complex was open, and we drove through to the infield. I looked around at the famous blue-and-white striped guardrail and imagined Darrell Waltrip and Mark Martin swapping paint in the turns. This was definitely cool!

Then Dad noticed that the gate to the track was open. We could, if we chose, drive out and take a lap around the track ourselves. Dad and I looked at each other, hesitated... and decided not to. Didn't want to cause trouble, I guess. So we drove away and back to the hotel.

Ever since, Dad and I have been kicking ourselves about it. If we'd driven out and taken a lap, we'd have had a story worth telling for the rest of our lives. Instead, all we have are regrets for the path not taken. Ever since then, we've had a policy that whenever a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity prevents itself, we don't quibble over details. We just do it!

The most memorable invocation of the policy occurred at my college graduation. Dad brought his photographic equipment (he's pretty serious about this stuff), and he thought it would be great to have a shot looking out from the stage over the assembled graduates. So he snuck up, stood behind the speaker and took the pictures. He was immediately ushered off the stage, and Mom went to find someplace quiet to die of embarrassment. But he just looked at me and said, "Watkins Glen," and I nodded and smiled. And I'm the only one who has a picture of my graduation from the stage. It's a very cool shot.

Speaking of Dad, I think the world should know that he's become so disenchanted with Esteban Loaiza that he now refers to him as "Lost Cause Loaiza." I like the poetry of it.

And that closes the book on me for today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 08:50 PM | Comments (0)

September 11, 2004

Random Weekend Thoughts

Today's Musical Selection: "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy

Good day, all! Apparently, my mini-sabbatical made the natives a bit restless. My man Frinklin led the grousing:

Dude, you can't go on expecting us to answer to Fredhead and not put out. I
toyed with naming my readers once... Not only did the guy who first suggested it stop reading, he shut down his own blog too.

It's a curse I tell ya.

Some words of wisdom from a man who knows. I'll take your words under advisement regarding the use of "Fredheads". And do understand that it wasn't laziness or pique that kept me from posting... I just had too much on my plate to post the last couple days.

Ensie, aka Mrs. Frinklin, had a short, simple, sweet approach:

Fred! Fred! Come back! We miss you!

Thanks, Ensie. And I'm back! And though there will be a bit of bumpiness regarding posting while I move into the new home, I'll be back on the usual schedule as soon as I can.

And rest assured, loyal readers, that I'm not thinking of abandoning the blog or anything. You can expect to receive the dubious pleasure that is the Mediocre Fred Experience for some time to come.

Let's start today with some reactions to Wednesday's column, in which I recounted the story of my late-night visitor in distress. Only Frinklin and Ensie have left comments, but their remarks are right in line with what I've heard from those I've told about this in person.

Ensie thought that the night-time part of the equation was problematic:

I'm plenty happy to help my neighbors, in broad daylight, with plenty of people around.

And Frinklin apparently lives in a bad, or at least unfriendly, neighborhood:

I'd like to think I would help my neighbors, but I really dislike them. Maybe
if I lived somewhere else...

Thanks for commenting, Frinklin and Ensie. And I don't fault either of you for feeling as you do. I don't fault anyone who grew up in this society, suffused as it is with cautionary tales about the dangers that surround us, and developed reservations about good Samaritanism. There are enough horror stories about people with good intentions running into trouble that a policy of helping anyone in trouble who comes to your door isn't exactly wise. I understand that, believe

But how much less of our modern fear is legitimate? Crime rates have certainly gone up over the last 50 years, but not nearly as much as our fear. In the old days, most people seeking help were on the up-and-up, and a few weren't. Today, I suspect the same is true. Maybe there are a few more bad apples out there now, but not nearly as many as we're afraid there are.

When the fear takes over, our society becomes poorer. We stop enjoying each other's company. In a society as atomized as ours, where it's ever easier to avoid your neighbors, the last thing we need is further encouragement to be afraid of the outside world.

As I say, I don't blame anyone who feels reluctant to help others, for a variety of reasons. But I think the further we envelop ourselves in our cocoons of self-protection and fear, the less unified a country we are. And the less unified we are, the poorer we are.

(By the way, John Kerry was speaking before the Congressional Black Caucus tonight, and he referenced the story of the Good Samaritan. He used the tale to hammer Bush for speaking about compassion, but not backing up his words with deeds. It's a good point and Kerry makes it well. I think he should hit that theme more. Kerry's becoming an effective speaker, by the way, but nobody's noticed. I have some thoughts on why. Maybe tomorrow.)

On a lighter note, I took a drive down to central Virginia today, and I realized yet again what a bizarre, divided state this is. Up here in Dot-Com Canyon, the bumper-sticker count leans heavily Democratic. Kerry stickers outnumber Bush stickers by a good two-to-one margin. You take a drive around here, and you start thinking sure, Virginia's in play for the Democrats. Kerry could notch a win here. So what if the Democrats haven't won the state in a presidential election since 1964? People want a change.

But then you drive an hour or two south, and you're smack in the middle of Bush country. Yes sir. The signs tacked to the split-rail fences on the cattle farms and townhouse in central Virginia proclaim "Bush/Cheney '04," and they do so loud and proud. These are big signs, I assure you.

How Republican is this part of the state? Even celebrity appeal didn't work for the Democrats. A couple years back, a fellow by the name of Ben Jones ran for Congress in the region. The name may not ring a bell, but you probably saw him as Cooter the mechanic on "Dukes of Hazzard." (You watched "Dukes of Hazzard." Admit it.) He's a pretty big name in the state, and he's well-respected. But he made the fatal mistake of running as a Democrat. A conservative Democrat, but a Democrat nonetheless. He lost. This is a yellow-dog Republican region. (The term "yellow-dog" is traditionally applied to Democrats, but I believe in equal opportunity in partisan labeling.)

On my trip down, I witnessed the perfect symbol of the region. Not surprisingly, this occurred at Clark Brothers gun shop.

For the uninitiated, Clark Brothers is more than just a gun shop. It's the true dividing line between North and South. The Mason-Dixon Line is obsolete. Maryland, supposedly part of the "South", is actually quite a liberal Northern state. And the part of Virginia where I live is hardly Southern. If anything, it's virulently anti-Southern. But down around Clark Brothers, the accents begin to thicken and the Confederate flags start to come out. Clark Brothers itself is a masterpiece of tackiness, a red-roofed building with a giant sign reading "GUNS" and, to complete the effect, a giant fiberglass bear mounted on the roof. (No, I'm not kidding.) Around Christmastime, they put a Santa suit on the bear. (Seriously!) It's like a neon sign reading, "Welcome to the South, y'all."

Clark Brothers has declared its allegiance in the forthcoming election. Oh, yes. Naturally, a "Bush/Cheney" sign wouldn't be enough for them. Oh, no no no. Rather, they fashioned a 10-foot-high metal "W", mounted it on the roof, and decorated it with tinsel and blinking lights. I'm serious. I've never seen anything quite like it in my life. The idea that this is the same state where I live and work and sit fuming in traffic between high-rise buildings... truly, it boggles the mind.

And on an even less serious note, I saw the Batmobile on the road today. No, I hadn't been drinking. It was a perfect replica of the Batmobile from the TV show, the red one with red trim. Just tooling down the main drag here in Dot-Com Canyon. On my list of on-the-road sightings, it's cooler than the Hershey's Kissmobile but slightly less cool than the time I saw the Wienermobile in the parking lot of our hotel in upstate New York. Of course, I got to ride in the Wienermobile, so that may have colored my opinion.

And on that triumphantly frivolous note, I'm done. See you down the road!

Posted by Fred at 08:24 PM | Comments (3)

September 09, 2004

Nothing Today

And probably nothing tomorrow. I'll be back Saturday. See you then!

Posted by Fred at 11:32 PM | Comments (2)

September 08, 2004

The Price of Being a Good Samaritan

Today's Musical Selection: "Strange Brew" by Cream

Hi, everybody. Today I want to invite all you Fredheads to play along with me. I'm going to tell you a story, something that happened to me, and I want you to imagine what you would have done in the same situation. I also want to invite you to imagine how the scenario turned out. It could be fun!

This happened a couple of weeks ago. It was about 1 in the morning, and I was watching the end of a West Coast baseball game. Suddenly, I heard a knock on the door. It sounded like the same knock my mother uses when she drops by, but I couldn't imagine she'd be out at this hour, so I went and looked through the peephole. I saw standing there a young man I didn't recognize, wearing a wife-beater tank top, a couple gold neck chains, and a scraggly beard and mustache. He kept looking around, kind of twitchy, like he was expecting something bad to happen. I didn't like the look of him, but I opened the door.

He said, "Hey, man, I locked myself out of the house. Can I use your phone?"

I nodded, and he started walking directly back to the bedroom. I had to stop him and indicate that the phone was in the kitchen. He smelled vaguely of beer and cigarettes. I showed him to the phone and sat down to watch the game. I kept an eye on the man in the kitchen. He was talking quietly but incessantly, pacing back and forth, poking his head out every so often to look at me. I tried to be casual, but I found myself propping my chin up on my bat.

He noticed; I heard him tell his friend that I was sitting in the living room with my bat. I reddened a bit and laid the bat aside and tried to focus on the game. But the call went on, and on, and on. He must have been on for a good twenty minutes. What could he possibly be talking about? At last he finished, and came and stood in the living room, saying nothing, looking around. He asked the identity of the woman in the picture on my dining-room table. I told him it was my mother.

"She's a beautiful woman," he said, still looking around.

"So, did you get all set up?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "I'm gonna go to my friend's house. Can I get you to give me a lift?"

A lift? This sounded strange. Didn't he have a car? "Where's your friend's house?" I asked.

"Oh, not far," he said.

"How far?"

"Just up the road a little. I'd walk it, but I don't want to be out on the streets at night. It's not safe. But I guess you know that -- that's why you've got the bat there."

"Actually, I always keep it with me when I'm watching ballgames." This is, technically, true. I took a moment to size him up. I was taller than him, but he was in better shape. I didn't think I could take him hand-to-hand. And this was assuming that he wasn't packing a weapon. I didn't like the idea of being alone in a car with this guy at night. But I didn't see how I could reasonably turn him down.

We got into the car, and he gave me directions in dribs and drabs. "Right here. Left up there." He went on about how he'd been jumped on two separate occasions walking alone at night. "You ever been jumped?"

"No," I said.

"You're lucky." He paused. "You like living here?"

"It's all right," I said. "You?"

"I like it fine," he said. "But I'm not planning to stay here."

"Oh yeah? Where you headed?"

"I don't know yet. I could go anywhere. I'm in sales, and the good thing about my business is that I can live anywhere, just set up my office and I'm in business."

"That's convenient." What kind of sales? He didn't seem eager to say, so I didn't ask.

"Left up here." We pulled down a dark residential street. All the lights seemed to be out up and down the block.

"Fifth house on the right. Look for the basketball hoop."

I squinted -- it was awfully dark. "Fifth house, you say?"

"Yeah. You know, you seem like a real healthy guy."

A real healthy guy? What sort of remark was that? How odd. But I just smiled and said, "Thanks." Then I spotted the hoop. I pulled over to the side of the road and prepared for what was next.

"Well," he said.

"Well," I said.

"This is it. Hey, thanks a lot for the lift, man." He offered his hand and I shook it. He offered me money and I declined.

"What did you say your name was?" I asked.

"Ben," he said.

"Hey, Ben, take care of yourself."

"You too, man."

And he walked away toward his friend's house. And I turned around and drove home.

So, did you guess right? Everyone I've told this story to says the same thing. "You were crazy to let him in! I'd have barred the door and gone to sleep. How could you get into a car with him?"

So I ask them if this means they don't believe in helping people in trouble. "Oh, no, of course not," they say. "But at that hour... a guy who looks like that... you've got to be smart."

If I'd heard this once of twice, I'd assume that some of my friends just weren't trusting people. But I've told this story several times, to several people, and they all assume he was up to no good, and they all think I was crazy to let him in. I notice a pattern.

From my perspective, if someone comes to me needing help, I'll offer that help. It's just the way I am, and the way I've always been. I do this because I want to live in a world where we can depend on the kindness of strangers when we need help.

But wanting something doesn't make it so. And it appears that my attitude toward helping people is not shared by the world at large. So, for those of you who wouldn't have opened the door for this guy, I'm curious about where you set the limits. Does it matter if your neighborhood has a particular reputation for being safe or unsafe? Would you have helped him if he'd been a 75-year-old woman? Would you have helped him if he'd been dressed professionally, rather than as a wannabe gangster? Would you have helped him if he'd come by at 3 in the afternoon? How about 7? Is there a time limit beyond which people seeking help are turned away?

Or is it a combination of factors? Did the combination of the hour, his appearance and his demeanor just make the situation seem too threatening? Do you just have a sixth sense that tells you when to let someone in and when to slip the chain lock on and go to bed?

Or was I right to help? Are my friends just a particularly cynical bunch of city slickers? I'd be heartened, if surprised, to find this was true.

I guess my point is this. Once upon a time, we believed in helping our neighbors. If we saw a stranded motorist, or someone who needed a hand up or a door held open, or a neighbor locked out of his house, we helped that person out. It was simply how things were done in this country.

Now we hear horror stories every day about what happens to people who try to help. They get mugged or shot or abducted for their efforts. We're taught to assume that the guy trying to hitch a ride is probably a serial killer, and that the guy who stops to pick up the hitchhiker is probably a serial killer too. Keep your head down, ignore the panhandlers, keep to yourself, and for God's sake don't go out at night, especially alone.

Once upon a time, we assumed that the stranger we didn't know was a friend. Now, we assume he's an enemy.

You think maybe we should let that bother us?

I look forward to reading your comments. Leave them below. And see you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 04:47 PM | Comments (2)

September 07, 2004

Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice, Meet Your New Home

Today's Musical Selection: "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players

Good day, Fredheads! As promised, today Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice make their debut here at the new site. Today they are coming to us from Sandusky, Ohio, home of the famous Cedar Point amusement park. Cedar Point is famous for its roller coasters, and I'd always been under the impression that Aunt Beatrice was afraid of heights, but perhaps I was wrong. I'm sure all my confusion -- or at least some of it -- will be cleared up momentarily. Take it away, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice!

- - - - -

Love Hurts, Especially If Your Wife Catches You At It While She's Armed, by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice

UM: Hello, lads! A fine good morning to you from beautiful Sandusky, Ohio. Wait, I take that back. The city has suffered quite a bit in my personal esteem of late.

AB: You see, Uncle Millie came here to enjoy the roller coasters at Cedar Point, which I can't stand. But as always, what Uncle Millie wants, Uncle Millie gets.

UM: I was all set to enjoy a lovely diverting Labor Day weekend here, only the grim-faced Cedar Point management refused to accede to my wishes.

AB: What Uncle Millie means is that they refused to let him ride the roller coasters. They felt that he posed a danger to himself and others due to his drunkenness.

UM: Who ever heard of a breathalyzer test to ride a roller coaster? I'll bet they never do that to anyone else.

AB: You're one of a kind, dear.

UM: Well, that's certainly true. At any rate, thwarted in my desire, my lovely wife and I went ahead and saw everything there is to see here in Sandusky.

AB: That was an enjoyable fifteen minutes.

UM: And since we were booked here through today, we decided to make the best of things here in the hotel room. Isn't that right, my dear?

AB: Well, I have managed to finish the Sunday New York Times crossowrd.

UM: That's not what I meant. I was referring to last night.

AB: I know you were. But I don't think our readers need to hear about that.

UM: Two hours straight just-

AB: All right, Millie, that's enough.

UM: I mean, I'd never even thought of using Icy Hot arthritis rub that way before.

AB: Millie!

UM: What?

AB: We still have an advice column to do. Shall we get to the letters?

UM: Certainly, my dear.

AB: And please stop humming "I'm a Man" over and over.

UM: Very well.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I'm having ex-girlfriend trouble. I dated "Mallory" for a year and a half, and we broke up about five months ago. The breakup was my decision, and she didn't take it well. That I understood. What I don't understand is the fact that she refuses to let it go. She keeps calling and sending letters, and whenever mutual friends have get-togethers, she "mysteriously" shows up, whether or not she was invited. I've tried being nice, I've tried being mean, I've tried ignoring her, and nothing works. How do I get Mallory to stay out of my life?

Steve in Clarksville

AB: Hi, Steve. It can take a long time to get over a break-up that wasn't your idea, but Mallory's behavior is over the line. She needs to leave you alone and sort through this on her own. You should sit her down and explain to her that she can't keep doing this, and then you need to back it up. Screen your calls and don't answer the letters, and if she insists on showing up at group soirees, just ignore her. If she can't get your attention, she'll have to give up.

UM: Lad, you're a saint to have put up with it this long. I'd have summoned the boys in blue well before this point. On occasion, I've been known to keep the authorities on call during difficult breakups. This woman is a stalker, lad. She's a danger.

AB: Now, Millie, she's awfully persistent, but I don't know if I'd call her a stalker.

UM: I surely would. Have you seen "Fatal Attraction," lad? You should rent it so that you know what you're up against. I went to see that film when it came out. I was between marriages at the time, and that movie put me off dating for the better part of three weeks.

AB: Oh, come on. The woman in "Fatal Attraction" was a homicidal maniac.

UM: And you think this woman isn't? Here's a tip, lad, from a man who knows. Whenever I break up with a woman, I change my phone number and my locks. In fact, you might be better off in future never giving the woman your phone number or address. You might even consider giving her a fake name, so that she can't track you after you break up.

AB: And what happens if you decide to marry her? Do you reveal your real name and address then?

UM: I'd seriously consider it.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I've been married for five years. "Jill" is a sweet, caring woman, and I enjoy spending time with her. The problem is that, since our marriage, she's put on about 75 pounds. We haven't had any kids or anything; she just let herself go. Naturally, this has put a dent in our sex life, in the sense of making it go away. We haven't made love in months. I can't help it; it's like mounting Bossy the Cow. Is there a sensitive way to approach this subject?

Mike in Hammond

AB: Hi, Mike. I'm certainly glad you sought someone else's advice on how to be "sensitive" about this. That "Bossy the Cow" line alone is grounds enough for divorce. I'm sure you look exactly the same as you did when you were married.

UM: I'm sure he put on a few, but my Lord, woman! 75 pounds? It's like strapping a female gymnast around your waist! I'd have dropped this woman like a stone a long time ago.

AB: Uncle Millie's all charm, isn't he? Look, Mike, no one gains 75 pounds by accident. Something's clearly bothering her. A lot of people, for instance, overeat as a result of depression. Maybe the marriage isn't working out so well for her, either. I think you two are overdue for a talk, possibly in the company of a therapist.

UM: Oh, my sweet naive darling. Lad, my dear Beatrice believes greatly in the power of talking. She must; I assume that's why she talks all the time. And I mean all the time, lad. I could tell you stories-

AB: I assume there's some advice coming here.

UM: Yes, yes. Let me offer you an analogy, lad: Let's imagine you just bought a car. And about 5,000 miles down the road, the transmission fell out. You'd take the car back, right? Well, there ought to be a similar warranty for marriages. If, upon a little road testing, it turns out that you didn't get the same spouse you thought you did, you should be able to return her for a refund.

AB: Ladies, I give you the man with whom the honeymoon never ends.

UM: Thank you. At any rate, lad, since our esteemed politicians have yet to write a lemon-law provision into the marriage codes, you're probably stuck with her. But lad, this is what mistresses were designed for. If your woman isn't putting out to your satisfaction, get yourself a spare!

AB: We're going to get letters.

UM: Of course we are. This is an advice column.

AB: I'm talking about the letters giving us advice about what we can do with our advice.

UM: Oh.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I have a bit of an odd question. I'm 21, and my friends think of me as an advice-giver. They're always coming to me with relationship questions and stuff. Well, my best friend "Karen" just came to me with a stunning story. She told me that she's having an incestuous relationship with her brother. She asked me what she should do, and I had no idea what to tell her! What kind of advice do you give someone in that situation?

Glenda the Mother Confessor

UM: Well, I assume this letter must come from-

AB: Sorry, folks, I had to gag Uncle Millie for this one, because I knew where he was heading. He was about to make a joke about West Virginia, because in his mind he associates West Virginia with incest. He can't help himself. And since his "advice" was going to consist of a bunch of bad one-liners, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

UM: Mmpf!

AB: Now, Glenda, this seems like the sort of matter best left to the professionals. Incest may seem like a bad joke to most of us-

UM: Mmpf...

AB: -but it's actually quite a serious matter. Your friend is probably going to have a lot of emotional issues to deal with in the wake of this. I'd suggest looking for a good family therapist and giving that number to your friend. It's not the kind of thing for amateurs to be meddling with.

Now, let's remove the gag and see if Uncle Millie has any actual advice for Glenda. How about it, Millie?

UM: Five million people and fifteen last names! Ha ha ha hmmpf-

AB: I guess he doesn't. So seek out an expert, Glenda, and go from there. All right, Millie. Do you promise to quit with the incest jokes?

UM: Mmpfpfph!

AB: Unless you want the gag to stay there permanently, you'd better stop.

UM: Mpf-hmpf.

AB: All right.

UM: Well, it looks like that's it for today's advice column! I do want to take a moment and be serious, though.

AB: Is that possible?

UM: Hush now, Beatrice. Seriously, I'd like to wish a swift recovery to Bill Clinton, who underwent quadruple bypass sugery yesterday. Mr. Clinton was a fine president, and a lover of the ladies. Old-school rogues like Bill and myself are a dying breed as it is, and here's hoping that he'll be able to continue the tradition for years to come. Godspeed, Mr. President!

AB: Yes, we wish you well, Mr. President! And we'll be back in two weeks.

UM: Happy hunting!

- - - - -

Thank you, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. And I'll see all you readers tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 07:29 PM | Comments (0)

September 06, 2004

Pardon My Dust

Hi, everyone. Happy Labor Day! I spent my time today relocating the July archives over here, in lieu of a new post today. Another one-day vacation for you loyal readers.

Speaking of readers, I'm thinking of coming up with a new collective term for describing you folks. I was leaning toward "Fredheads," but I'd prefer to leave it up to you. Leave me a comment and let me know your preference, if any.

Tomorrow, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice will be making an appearance. See you then!

Posted by Fred at 05:56 PM | Comments (0)

September 04, 2004

Mourning a Titan

Today's Musical Selection: "Bright Future in Sales" by Fountains of Wayne

Hi, everybody. Today I want to take some time and a few column inches to note the passing of Herbert Haft. Those of you outside the Fedroplex probably have no idea who I'm talking about. Those of you in the Fedroplex probably can't forget him. But I want to make the world aware of Haft, because he's a notable figure, a true giant (though he only stood five feet tall). Herb Haft is a symbol of a Washington not long gone, but irretrievably so. And though it may not be well-known, Haft was the godfather of the modern retail industry. He reaped the benefits for a while, but in the end he was swallowed up by his own creation, as well as the ugly family feud he sparked. Herb Haft was one of a kind, and we'll never see his like again. I'll miss him.

So who was Haft? He was a tough urban kid, born in Baltimore and raised in Washington, who graduated witha pharmacy from George Washington University but claimed that none of his classes taught him as much as the bridge game in the student union. In 1955, he and his wife Gloria, who was working as an Avon lady, opened up a drugstore in Adams Morgan. They called it Dart Drug. Working on the primciple of underselling the competition, Herb and Gloria turned Dart Drug from that one store into a chain of 100 stores from Baltimore to Richmond. And anyone who grew up or lived in Washington in the '70s and '80s knows all about Dart Drug. Dart was where the Fedroplex went to get basic stuff for cheap.

Like a lot of families, mine went to Dart from time to time. They ran circulars in the Sunday paper about their latest deep discounts, and every so often Mom would see something she liked and off we'd go. Dart had a low-class reputation, and deserveredly so; competitors grumbled that Dart stores were dirty and the shelves were always empty, and they were right. Even as a little kid, I remember noticing that Dart was grubbier than other stores, and that they were far more likely to be out of things than other stores. But I didn't care, because to me, Dart was Hot Wheels central.

As a kid, I was a car nut. I had car sheets, car curtains, car posters on the wall, and toy cars all over the floor. I had a subscription to Motor Trend at the age of 4. Every year, I'd beg and wheedle my parents to take me to the auto show downtown. Since it tended to fall right around my birthday, they usually said okay. I'd come home with bags and bags of information, pictures of wild concept cars and brochures on current models, which I read with religious fervor.

Given my obsession, it's little surprise that I tended to spend my weekly allowance on toy cars. And Dart was a prime place for a 7-year-old on a budget. Why? Because everywhere else, cars cost a dollar each. Didn't matter where you went, everywhere it was a dollar. But at Dart, they were 79 cents apiece. For a kid pulling down a dollar a week, this was a significant savings. It meant approximately one extra car per month. Sure, Dart's selection was pretty weak, and they only carried Hot Wheels and not the better-constructed Matchbox cars, but 79 cents is 79 cents. I knew a deal when I saw one.

But Dart Drug was only the beginning of the Haft empire. When Herb's son Robert graduated college, he joined the family business and founded Crown Books, the Dart Drug of bookstores. Actually, Crown was generally cleaner and better-stocked than Dart, but the principle was the same. The literati sniffed that Crown was a plebian store, stocking the best-sellers and ignoring classic works, and again the critics were right. But the Hafts didn't care, and neither did most of their customers. Crown did a booming business, eventually growing to over 250 stores. But what I, and no doubt many others, remember best are the commercials.

Dart didn't do TV commercials, but Crown did. And the Crown commercials were all roughly the same: They featured Robert Haft standing against a plain white background, and complaining in his high-pitched voice, "Books cost too much!" He then went on to extol Crown's latest bargain, and then wrapped the whole thing up with the tagline, "If you paid full price, you didn't buy it at Crown Books." And my family shopped at Crown, too. I was still young enough not to have developed my taste for literary works, so Crown's bestseller-oriented stocking philosophy didn't bother me.

And a couple years after founding Crown, the Hafts came up with their next innovation: Trak Auto. Ironically for a man accused of running a dirty drugstore, Herb realized that many existing auto-parts stores seemed grimy and forbidding to the typical consumer. So he designed an auto-parts store that catered to the typical motorist, rather than the professional mechanic. Predictably, it worked like a charm. Trak expanded to nearly 300 stores at its height, and the Hafts had another hit on their hands.

And in between these successful business ventures, the Hafts made even more money through a bold if ethically iffy tactic. They attempted hostile takeovers of retail giants like Safeway, Stop and Shop and Eckerd Drugs. In no case did they succeed, but they made a handsome profit for trying. (A brief primer for non-economics types who are wondering how this works: Hostile takeover bids begin with someone buying up a chunk of a company's stock. The takeover attempt increases the value of the company and drives up the price of the stock. If the bid fails, the company has to buy the stock back at the inflated price from the person who bought it, leaving the failed bidder with a tidy profit.) Retailers grumbled that the Hafts' practices amounted to piracy, and left the companies they tried to take over saddled with debt. But it was good business for them.

So what happened to Haft's empire? Why are Dart, Crown and Trak all gone? Well, there are a lot of reasons, particularly well-heeled and more nimble competitors like Wal-Mart, Target, Barnes and Noble and Borders. But one major reason is the blowup that Washingtonian will never forget, when Herb Haft tried to fire his family.

The year was 1993. The Haft empire was starting to slip, but it was still a major player in Washington. Herb had ceded control of day-to-day operations for the most part, but he was still the primary stockholder. And he evidently decided he wanted to get back in the game. So he kicked his wife off the board of directors and fired his son as president of Crown. This set off a chain of lawsuits and ugly accusations that kept the notoriously media-shy Herb and his family on the front pages for the better part of a decade.

By the time it was done, Herb and Gloria's 45-year marriage was over, Herb was out of the company with a $50 million buyout, and the company was crippled by the massive bills from the legal wrangle and never recovered.

Very little remains of Herb Haft's empire. The last retail enterprise he founded, Total Beverage, still survives. His real-estate company still holds two shopping centers in Fairfax. And Shoppers Food Warehouse, a grocery chain not founded by Haft but very much in line with his principles and which he bought out in the '90s, is thriving. But the man who once dominated the Washington retail scene left behind little more than memories.

That's one reason I'll miss Herb. A lot of the Washington of my childhood had his stamp on it somewhere. I'll always remember the Crown commercials, Trak's radio spots and the Dart circulars. Plus, he was such a character, with his ruthless ways, his wonderful white pompadour, and his bickering family. He's a legend of the Fedroplex scene, the last true Washington retail giant. We'll never see his like again, not with the chain-choked nationalized state of the retail industry.

Although it's not well-remembered, Haft's legacy extends beyond his own businesses. The giants that eventually ran Haft's companies out of the game owe a great deal to him, whether they realize it or not. It was Haft that made the Wal-Marts and Targets possible.

How is that? Well, way back in the '50s, when Haft was getting started in Adams Morgan, he knew that he'd have a hard time beating the local drugstore titans of the era, like Peoples and Drug Fair (also gone, now). His strategy was to undercut his competitor's pricing, getting good deals from wholesalers and shrinking his own profit margins. Unsurprisingly, this worked.

Problem was, at the time, it was illegal. At the time, fair-trade laws actually prohibited retailers from selling goods below the manufacturer's retail price. Haft's competitors complained to the suppliers, and his suppliers refused to sell to him unless he raised his prices. Haft was repeatedly sued for his practices. At least until the government got involved.

In 1958, Senator Estes Kefauver held hearings on drug prices, and invited Haft to testify. After that, Kefauver got Haft in touch with the Justice Department, and in 1960 the government sued drug maker Parke, Davis for price-fixing. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the government (and Haft) ultimately won, paving the way for discount retailers everywhere.

Haft was, in a way, a champion of the common man. Robert said his father viewed discount retailing as a social good as well as good business, and he was right. After all, Dart Drug (and Haft's lawsuit against Parke, Davis) was based on the idea that retail price-fixing was bad for the customer. And Crown Books was a bookstore for the average man; they didn't carry Proust, but a lot of people would rather save money on the latest Grisham potboiler than pay extra for a store that also carries Proust. And Trak was designed for the do-it-yourself motorist, who wanted to do basic car fixes himself but was intimidated by other auto-parts stores. Haft's retail empire was built on serving the needs of the working-class customers, something that drugstores, bookstores and auto-parts stores didn't do before his. So Haft not only made discount retailing legal, he pioneered its ethos.

Wal-Mart and Target owe a great debt to Haft. And in Target's case, I'm not even talking about the logo, which looks remarkably like Dart Drug's. As with many innovators, those who followed in Haft's footsteps ultimately reaped much more than he did. But at the least, we can honor Haft's memory. And I hope that I've done my part in that regard. Farewell, Herb. Washington is a poorer city for your loss.

That's all for today. See you later!

Posted by Fred at 04:15 PM | Comments (3)

September 02, 2004

Kicking People Out of the Closet

Today's Musical Selection: "In the Navy" by the Village People

Hi there, everyone! Today I wanted to talk about this disgraceful Ed Shrock business. Even you political junkies might not have noticed this, having been distracted by the convention, but it deserves some attention. Shrock's story gathered little national notice, but it could very well presage the latest ugly chapter in political gamesmanship. And any activists who think this is a good way to get attention or create pressure for a cause should be ashamed of themselves.

Let's begin at the beginning. Ed Shrock is a Republican Congressman from the southeastern corner of Virginia. Shrock was a loyal and highly-regarded (if fairly obscure) Republican who did good things for his district, and was cruising toward re-election to a third term in Washington. All that changed when a Web log dedicated to outing anti-gay-rights politicians had a taped conversation of someone, allegedly Shrock, soliciting sex from other men. That's it. There was no testimony from anyone claiming to be Shrock's lover, no correspondence, nothing other than that one conversation. And no one came along to back up the accusation. But that was enough for Shrock. He announced this week that he was ending his re-election campaign, saying that he didn't want to drag his family through the mess (Shrock is married with children), and that he didn't want to deal with a campaign centered around the accusation.

Why did this blogger do it? The man behind the blog, a fellow named Michael Rogers, believes that it's the height of hypocrisy for politicians who engage in clandestine homosexual behavior to endorse anti-gay legislation. This hypocrisy, per Rogers, is grounds enough for outing these politicians, and damn the cost to their lives and livelihoods. After all, they deserve it, right? (I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm starting to get more than a little sick of this modern school of thought suggesting that the only real sin in life is hypocrisy. I'm no moral absolutist, but relativism has to have its limits. Doesn't it?)

Now, Shrock has not admitted homosexuality, and no conclusive proof has emerged. Significant circumstantial evidence, perhaps (what Congressmen would abandon re-election under such faint pressure if it weren't true?), but nothing conclusive. And frankly, I don't care whether Shrock is straight, gay, or bisexual. I'm sorry that I have to bring his name up in connection with his story. I'd be happy if Shrock led the rest of his life in peace and no one ever brought him up in public again.

But the particulars of Shrock's case are a lot less important than the precendent it sets. If anyone out there is naive enough to think that Shrock was merely an isolated case, they haven't been paying attention.

Periodically, Washington goes through these little spasms of revelation where a number of similar scandals are brought to light at the same time. These charges catch on like wildfire, as the expose of one scandal seems to trigger others, like moths flying toward a light. Some of you might remember the string of sex scandals in the mid-'70s (Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hays, &c.), or at least remember the stripper jumping into the Tidal Basin. Others may recall the set of ethics scandals in the late '80s and the early '90s (Jim Wright, the Keating Five, and so forth). Although I doubt many of you remember that, because then everyone might remember that the sainted John McCain was one of the ones caught with his hand in the cookie jar during the S&L scandal. Oops. And I'm sure you remember the wave of infidelity revelations in the wake of the Clinton impeachment hearings (Henry Hyde, Robert Livingston, Newt Gingrich and on and on).

Does this mean that Congress was experience greater venality and corruption during those periods? Of course not. It's just that one high-profile case tends to send enterprising reporters and partisans scrambling for evidence of similar cases elsewhere. One high-profile sex scandal brings a hundred mistresses and call girls out of the woodwork, looking for headlines, fame and money. In truth, corruption and infidelity happens all the time. It's just that we care about it more sometimes, under the guise of high-minded moral outrage. Really, though, we just love a juicy story.

So Shrock isn't going to be the end of this. There will be others. More outings of closeted Congressmen are sure to follow. So are we happy with ourselves? Are we? Personally, I'm sick.

Now, some activists may defend the outing of Shrock as fitting punishment for his hypocrisy, as I suggested. If they're feeling particularly righteous, they might add that they personally don't have any problem with homosexuality, and it's only the closeted politicians' embarrassment that makes it a problem. If they'd just out themselves, this wouldn't be an issue. It sounds like a principled stand, but in truth it's just hogwash.

If (and I stress"if") Ed Shrock is homosexual or bisexual, that doesn't make him a bad person. And if Shrock is homosexual and in the closet and nonetheless supports anti-gay legislation, that doesn't make him a moral monster either. I simply feel sad for him if he feels forced by social pressure or his upbringing or whatever to feel ashamed of himself for having natural human inclinations. It's always unfortunate when people feel compelled to deny and condemn who they are.

None of this justifies outing him, especially not with a sneer of perfect righteousness. Ed Shrock is just as entitled to a private life as you or I. Shrock's choice in sexual partner is a matter of discussion for him, his family, and his God. That's it. The public doesn't factor into it anywhere. It's not our business. And Shrock's policy positions don't make it our business. No dice.

And no, comparisons to the Jim McGreevey situation aren't valid. For one thing, McGreevey outed himself (under pressure or not, who can say). For another, McGreevey had plenty of other problems that contributed to his resignation, whether or not he chose to admit it. And most importantly, McGreevey stood accused of elevating his lover to a post for which he was unqualified. Thus, his relationship directly compromised his governing, and his private life was no longer purely private. Only in such a case do politicians' private shenanigans become a matter of legitimate interest in the public sphere. Shrock's relations (if he had any) did not affect his governing at all.

And while I didn't particularly enjoy the parade of infidelity revelations around the time of the Clinton trial, those had more public validity than this. In those cases, the exposed Republicans had been arguing that Clinton deserved to be removed from office because of his extramarital affair. (And yes, Republicans, that's what the argument was. You can admit it now.) If you take a stand that infidelity makes you unfit for office, then your own infidelity is fair game.

How is that different from Shrock's case? He never said that being gay makes you unfit for public office. If he had, then the outing would have been justified. But this doesn't rise to the level of tit-for-tat; this is just political blackmail.

There's only one case I can think of that's similar to Shrock's is Strom Thurmond and his bi-racial daughter. Like Shrock, Thurmond practiced privately what he denounced publicly. Like Shrock, Thurmond was a hypocrite. Should his daughter have become a public issue while he was in office?

I think it's good that she didn't. As with Shrock, I think it's just sad and pathetic that Thurmond felt it necessary to make a public issue of something he himself practiced. It's especially sad because it kept Strom from being as good a father as he might have been. I feel sorry for his daughter. But I think that it was a matter for them, not for us.

The Washington Post ran an editorial this morning that was right on the mark. Here's what it had to say about Shrock's anti-gay stance:

Not only is [Shrock] a co-sponsor of the federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he also opposed President Bill Clinton's far-too-modest relaxation of the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military, the same military in which he served for many years. "You're in the showers with them, you're in the bunk room with them, you're in staterooms with them," he told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 2000. "You just hope no harm would come by folks who are of that persuasion. It's a discipline thing."

Our view is that such comments are repugnant regardless of Mr. Schrock's private life or "persuasion." Whatever the truth of the allegations, Mr. Schrock has been part of the problem -- that is, a political leader who used his position to retard the acceptance of gays and lesbians in American life.

And that's just it. Shrock is wrong on gay rights. No question about it. But it's his stances and anti-gay remarks are what deserve public scorn, not whatever he chooses to do privately. Gay-rights activists would be far better served encouraging the public to reject Shrock for remarks like that, rather than examining his bedsheets. Using the threat of exposure as an offensive weapon only serves to further the public perception that homosexuality is something that deserves to be stigmatized.

That's all for today. Until tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at 04:36 PM | Comments (3)

September 01, 2004

Daily Update

Hello, fans! Today I spent my usual blogging time transferring my August archives to my new home. Newcomers to the Mediocre Fred Experience, I encourage you to check it out. Everyone else, enjoy the day off.

Posted by Fred at 06:17 PM | Comments (0)

I Give Up On This Country, Again

And no, it doesn't have anything to do with the Republican convention.

I just saw a commercial for a CD called "Symphonic Rock." It is, appallingly, just what it sounds like: some symphony orchestra (described in the commercial as "one of the world's finest," but never actually named or anything) playing a variety of recognizable rock standards, such as "Stairway to Heaven" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." Oh yes.

How does this sound? It sounds just like you'd imagine: like rock hits played by a symphony orchestra, which is to say pretty awful in most cases. What bilge this is! There aren't words enough to describe the awfulness of this CD. Now, I like symphonic music. And I like rock. I even like "Bohemian Rhapsody." But the very concept of this CD makes me feel like jamming a pencil into my ear.

Now, don't get me wrong: this is not a dyspeptic curmudgeon's rant against modernity. (Not that I'm not capable of such a thing.) I'm well aware that our country has a long history of adapting high culture into pop culture. You're probably aware that "10 Things I Hate About You" is based on a Shakespeare play, but did you know that in the old West, playhouses used to adapt Shakespeare for rural audiences, including such gems as having Hamlet say to Ophelia, "Get thee to a brewery"? "Symphonic Rock" is very much in the American tradition. It just happens that the tradition stinks.

America is a culture based on newness, on dumping old traditions with glee and forging a new way. We've always been unapologetic about this, and we tend to sneer at the culture snobs of old Europe. At least on one level. On another level, though, we feel they have a point. We hate to admit it, but when the culture snobs look at us like a bunch of rubes and poor relations, we make a big show of defiance, but underneath it we feel insecure. We hear the voices of our parents and teachers telling us we'll never amount to anything if we don't study the classics. Even though we find the classics musty and dull and lifeless, we believe there must be something to them, because the culture snobs say so.

Now, don't get me wrong; I think the culture snobs are right about that. I think that the classics have a lot to say, and they're as powerful today as they were then. And done properly, modern interpretations of old classics can be quite clever and worthwhile in our own right. (I enjoyed "10 Things," for instance.) But done wrong, our attempts to merge high culture and pop culture are the equivalent of putting a tuxedo on a dog: it just makes everyone look foolish for trying. Painting a velvet Elvis with Mona Lisa's face doesn't make it any classier.

Rock music has been around long enough that it deserves respect as an established art form. We shouldn't be ashamed of our love of rock music. I'm not ashamed of mine. But trying to dress it up in symphonic clothes cheapens both symphonic music and rock. And the fact that this idea in all likelihood sprang from some orchestra's attempt to play recognizable music in the hopes of selling tickets doesn't impress me at all. This country's dismal funding for the arts is another rant for another day, but doing "Stairway to Heaven" to put butts in the seats isn't the answer.

Is there a point here? I don't know. It's late and I'm tired. Anyone who thinks they discern a point, feel free to leave it in the comments. Everyone else, thanks for reading. See you later!

Posted by Fred at 12:18 AM | Comments (2)