Wednesday, April 1, 2015

2015 MLB Picks

Some exciting trends to look for in the new season soon to start. Lots of excitement about several teams which have been down but look like they are ready to move up--Cubs, Astros, Marlins, Padres, Mariners. Any of these teams could be the Royals of 2015. With Joe Maddon at the helm of the Cubs, it will be particularly interesting to see what their year will look like.  Here are the picks:

AL East  --  Blue Jays, Orioles, Red Sox, Rays, Yankees

NL East  --  Nationals, Braves, Marlins, Mets, Phillies

AL Central  --  Royals, White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Twins

NL Central  --  Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, Brewers

AL West  --   Mariners, Angels, A's, Astros, Rangers

NL West  --  Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Rockies, D-Backs

I have learned my lesson about making sentimental, or idiosyncratic, picks. But the Mariners, my new "home team" since I moved to the Pacific Northwest, look to be much stronger, and I pick them over the Angels, one of my favorite teams. Similarly, I hate to bet against the Cardinals, one of my other favorite teams besides the Angels, but the Cubs might well strike gold this year, and what a fun trip that would be. Reason suggests the Cubs are a year away, but for fun I pick them this year. Reason also suggests the Royals will drop back down after their great run last year, but I don't know who else to pick for first in that division.

For comparison purposes, here are the picks made by "Sports Illustrated" magazine.

AL East:  Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees, Rays

NL East:  Nationals, Marlins, Mets, Braves, Phillies

AL Central:  Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Twins

NL Central:  Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Brewers, Reds

AL West:  Mariners, Angels, A's, Rangers, Astros

NL West:  Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rockies, D-Backs

And here are the picks from "USA Today":

AL East:  Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays, Yankees

NL East:  Nationals, Marlins, Mets, Braves, Phillies

AL Central:  Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Royals, Twins

NL Central:  Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Reds, Brewers

AL West:  Angels, Mariners, A's, Rangers, Astros

NL West:  Dodgers, Giants, Padres, D-Backs, Rockies

Friday, March 27, 2015

"Too soon to Say Goodbye", by Art Buchwald

I have enjoyed Art Buchwald's humorous political columns for about as long as I've been reading the daily newspaper.I have never used the cliche "I couldn't put it down" before, but that applies to this book. I literally could not stop reading.

After declining to go on dialysis due to failing kidneys, Buchwald checked into a hospice in February of 2006, with two weeks to live, three at the most. Many friends started visiting him, some, like Ethel Kennedy, on a daily basis.

But miraculously, his kidneys started to function, and when July rolled around and he still had not died, the hospice kicked him out and he went back home to Martha's Vineyard. He then wrote this book about his experience. He asked his friends and family members who had been writing eulogies to be delivered at his funeral to submit them, and they are included in this book.

Buchwald finally died the following January, after having lived a life so rich and filled with great experiences that the rest of us can only look on with envy and admiration.

There is much autobiographical material in this book, as Buchwald looks back on his life in expectation of his imminent death. A mild caveat to readers: Buchwald's actual autobiography, "Leaving Home", contains some duplication of material, but both books are well worth reading and both contain much heartfelt material about Buchwald's life growing up in foster homes. In a number of places in "Leaving Home", Buchwald says "I have never until now told this to anyone". It is obvious that writing these books was a healthy and therapeutic experience for him. RIP, Art.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Reclaiming Conservatism", by Mickey Edwards

As is usual these days, there is a long subtitle to this book which explains what it is about: "How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost--and How It Can Find Its Way Back".

Edwards has impeccable conservative credentials. He was part of Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, he was a national chairman of the American Conservative Union, he was one of the founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation, and while in Congress he was chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.

Edwards documents in excruciating and painful detail how the conservative movement completely lost its way during the George W. Bush presidency. All important conservative principles were simply forgotten in the zeal to support Bush and to attack the Democrats.

It is useful to examine how Edwards defines "conservatism". He says that in Europe prior to the American revolution, conservatives were those who supported the ruling monarchy. However, in the American context, with our entirely new and radical idea that government is the servant of the people, and not the master, the conservative is the person who wants to preserve the system of checks and balances and limitations on power as set out in our constitution. It is this system of checks and balance and limitations on power which have become completely forgotten by those who call themselves "conservatives" in the 21st century.

Edwards says that "At its core, conservatism embraces a philosophy of freedom. More libertarian than prescriptive, it is inherently protective of individual rights and resistant to concentrated power." What the conservatives of today have lost sight of is that "there is a profound difference between being bothered by the behavior of another and legally prohibiting it". Thus, we see alleged "conservatives" seeking to impose their views on many social issues on the whole of society, in flagrant disregard of the constitution which provides freedom of religion and freedom from religion. They seek to prohibit women from having an abortion, even though this is absolutely no business of the government. They seek to bar gays from marrying. They seek to criminalize flag-burning. In the aftermath of 9/11, they sought to take away our civil liberties in many different ways, all of them contrary to the constitution, which is designed to protect the rights of minority groups from the tyranny of the majority.

Conservatives traditionally, according to Edwards, were the party of prudence and peace. Yet, in the George W. Bush era, they completely abandoned their principles and gave Bush carte blanche to make war on countries which had not attacked us, thereby abandoning the constitutional principle that only Congress can declare war, and abandoning the conservative principle that we should be reluctant warriors.

Similarly, in the area of criminal law, the alleged "conservatives" have advocated for harsh imprisonment, for capital punishment, and for procedures in the pursuit of these goals which undermine liberty for all of us. One of the few true conservatives left, George Will, captured the essence of conservatism when he wrote, "Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order".

Conservatives started losing their way in the Reagan administration, an example being when Robert Bork was nominated. Bork claimed to be a conservative, and had the support of conservatives, yet his testimony on the Supreme Court cases enunciating a right of privacy was totally off-base. Bork said the decisions were wrong because there is no right of privacy set out in the constitution. In other words, for Bork if the right isn't spelled out, it doesn't exist. Edwards says this is exactly backwards; the 9th and 10th Amendments clearly state that all rights not specifically granted to the federal government remain with the states and the people. The true conservative position recognizes this reality and seeks to expand liberty for all people, and limit the government from infringing on that liberty.

Another example, even more outrageous, is when AG Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate in 2007, and made the incredible statement that "There is no express grant of habeas corpus in the constitution; there is a prohibition against taking it away".  Gonzales was surely the most inept person ever to serve as our AG, and is a prime example of how low things sank in this country under W. And the so-called conservatives in Congress simply sat back and played the role of cheerleaders for the administration, instead of fulfilling their constitutional duties as watchdog over the executive branch.

For Edwards, the key to reclaiming conservatism lies in embracing the concept that "The pursuit of conservative principles has been severely compromised by three superseding allegiances: to president (when the president is of the same political party), to party, and to religious identity". Edwards observes that the pollution of the conservative movement with religious ideas began after George Wallace supporters drifted into the Republican Party following Wallace's runs for the presidency in 1968 and 1972. These people were determined to foist their own religious views on everybody else, and the party has been in the toilet ever since.

The emphasis on party reached its zenith under Newt Gingrich in the 1990's. Under Gingrich, anything Democratic was demonized, and the politics of personal destruction grotesquely manifested itself, as illustrated by the profound hatred shown to President Clinton. What was important was no longer principles, but opposition to the other party.

The hypocrisy of so-called conservatives was evident during the George W. Bush presidency, when the right stood idly by and watched as Bush violated every conservative principle there is. Conservatives were passive supporters of the ballooning of the federal deficit, of irresponsible tax cuts, of profligate spending on foreign wars against countries which had not attacked us, and on and on.

This book was published in 2008. And has anything improved since then? To the contrary, things have gotten worse, if that is possible. The right has demonized President Obama, regularly calling him a socialist, a Muslim, and on and on. We have Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell saying that "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Nothing about achieving conservative policy goals. In fact, it is unclear if there even is any such thing as a "conservative policy goal" anymore. The main goal in life for these people seems to be opposition to anything Obama or Congressional Democrats propose.

Just this month we have the news that Republican Senators have sent a letter to Iran telling Iran to be forewarned that any agreement it makes with the Obama administration may not last after 2016! We have house speaker Boehner unable to deliver a vote to fund the government; these right-wing loonies are more committed to shutting down the government than they are to actually governing. This is how low things have sunk.

So, is the term "conservative" even of any use anymore?  Should we instead substitute the term "libertarian? This is a legitimate question which deserves analysis.  I see libertarianism as a three-legged stool. One leg is noninterference in the personal lives of citizens, a second is noninterference in the economic lives of citizens, and the third is noninterference in the internal affairs of other sovereign countries. Edwards would say that the difference between the libertarians and conservatives is on the third leg; conservatives believe in a strong national defense, for the purpose of discouraging aggressive actions by other countries. The conservative is a "reluctant warrior", using military action as only a last resort, but he does not preclude the possibility of using force and he advocates maintaining a strong military for the purpose of discouraging military adventures on the part of other countries.

Personally my dispute with libertarianism is on the second leg of the stool. If the government had not taken action to encourage economic fairness in the lives of its citizens, we would be much worse off today. Just think of the situation in the 19th century, and how much better things are now. It has been liberals who have provided us with child labor laws, workers comp laws, workplace safety laws, the right to unionize, the 40-hour work week, anti-trust laws, food safety laws, and on and on. All of these have made this a better country.

I would side with the libertarian philosophy on the third leg. Where conservatives are quite happy to squander our national treasure on a bloated and unnecessary military, I see that we do more harm to our national interest than good by interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Do we really have to have a military presence in 150 other sovereign countries? Any other problem has conservatives whining that "you can't solve the problem by throwing money at it". However, the conservatives seem quite happy to throw money right and left at the military, even to the absurd extent of funding weapons systems which the Pentagon itself says it does not need and does not want.

Unfortunately, Edwards remains a voice crying in the wilderness. Until there appear on the scene people of principle and strong personal character, people, that is, like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, I'm afraid that the political scene will remain as polluted and distasteful as it is today.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Movies I've Learned to Enjoy Through Watching with my Kids

One of the joys of watching movies is watching together with others, be they family, friends, or merely strangers in a dark theater. There are a number of movies among my favorites which I know I never would have learned to enjoy as much as I do if not for watching with my kids, especially with my daughter Lisa. Here is that list.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Court Jester (1955)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Field of Dreams (1989)

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Hook (1991)

Groundhog Day (1993)

Gattaca (1997)

Home alone (1998)

The Mighty (1998)

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

New Harper Lee Novel

Really exciting news today from the world of American literature. Harper Lee, who never published anything besides the classic "To Kill a Mockingbird", is coming out with a "sequel". The back story here is amazing.

She wrote a novel in the 1950's, entitled "Go Set a Watchman", featuring Scout as an adult. Her editor's response was to say that he/she liked the flashbacks to Scout as a young child, and maybe Ms. Lee should write another novel about that, which she did.

She says she thought the original manuscript was lost, but her friend and lawyer recently discovered it among her papers, and now it is to be published!! Amazing. And amazing that Harper is even still alive, but she is, at 88, though impaired.

These stories of writers who only write one book and nothing more fascinate me. One thinks, of course, of J. D. Salinger and "A Catcher in the Rye". When I was living in Lawrence, Kansas,  in the early '70's, some of us counter-culture types were quite taken with Frederick Exley's great book, "A Fan's Notes", and we eagerly awaited his sequel, "Pages from a Cold Island". However, the sequel was a complete bust. Exley had said all he had to say in his first novel; and, in retrospect, it was really only in the first half of that novel, as the part after he underwent his electric shock treatments is not nearly as engrossing as the first part of the book.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

"Angelina", by Andrew Morton

I have never cared for Jon Voight, and now I know why. This book portrays him as an overbearing, authoritarian, hyper-critical person who alienates just about everybody he comes into contact with. This is not just true of his two children, Angelina and her brother, but of people he has worked with.

Part of the problem is that Angelina's mother never forgave Jon for abandoning her and the kids for another woman. Her bitterness knew no bounds; for example, when her assets were being listed in her will, she wrote in the margin "$150,000 unpaid spousal support". This despite the fact that Jon had always faithfully paid his spousal support to her. However, Jon has done enough cruel things to the kids during their adult lives that constitute ample grounds for resentment in their own right.

Jon never has remarried since divorcing Angelina's mother in 1980. He has expressed sadness at having to go home to an empty house when he is done working for the day. Well, Jon, it is said that "you reap what you sow". No tears will be shed from this quarter for that bum, Jon Voight.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"The Last Boy", Jane Leavy's biography of Mickey Mantle

Jane Leavy's biography of Mickey Mantle is well-researched, and includes much useful new material on Mantle's life. What I want to focus on here is the new information about his relationship with Joe DiMaggio, whose center field position Mantle took over after DiMaggio's retirement following the 1951 season.

DiMaggio had some nagging injuries which limited his effectiveness in 1951, the year Mantle came up from the minors to join the Yankees. And yet, Joe wouldn't hear of giving up his center field position to some upstart rookie. When a writer asked him if he would consider moving to left to make room for Mantle in center, Joe replied "There's nobody taking center from me until I give it up."

This sort of arrogant, me-first attitude was typical of the negative portrait of DiMaggio depicted in this book. Although they had a locker next to each other for at least part of the year, DiMaggio never once spoke to Mantle the whole year, until his World Series injury in October. Contrast this with Hank Bauer, who took Mantle under his wing, and taught him how to act and survive as a country boy in the big city. Now who is the hero here, DiMaggio or Bauer?

During Spring Training in 1951 Mantle was an absolute sensation, wowing everyone with his power-hitting, his speed, and his incredible fielding plays. Joe was used to being the center of attention, and his jealousy was palpable.

The whole story of how Mantle hurt his knee during that fall's World Series plays into the narrative of DiMaggio as a self-centered jerk. Mantle, of course, was still playing right field, since Joe insisted on playing center. In the fifth inning of the second game against the Giants, a fly ball was hit between Mantle in right and Joe in center. Manager Casey Stengel had instructed Mantle to go hard for anything he could reach, telling him "The dago's heel is hurtin'. Go for everything".

So, Mantle was going all out for a ball when, at the last minute, he heard Joe say 'I got it". Mantle had been chastised earlier in the year for catching a ball that Joe could have caught, so he obediently tried to stop suddenly, and in the process he caught his foot in a drain and went down with a serious injury. As he lay hurt, Joe whispered to him, "They're coming with the stretcher, kid". Mantle said it was the first Joe had talked to him all year. Mantle played in pain every game for the whole rest of his career, because DiMaggio was too proud to relinquish his center fielder's prerogative of catching every ball he could get to.

DiMaggio did not give his version of what happened until 1973, twenty-two years later, when he claimed that he had said, "Go ahead. Mickey. You take it".  This is patently false, for why would Mantle have been trying to stop at the last second, if Joe had not called him off the ball? It should be noted that Mantle had the class to never blame DiMaggio publicly. He confided it in private to the author (and to his wife, who the writer interviewed), who only published it in this book after Mantle had died.

After Mantle retired, the snubs kept coming from DiMaggio. At Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium in 1969, he presented Mantle with a plaque and made a graceless comment about it. At Old Timers days, Mantle would regularly get a greater ovation than Joe, which irritated Joe to no end. At one such ceremony, Joe actually punched Billy Crystal in the stomach because Crystal had failed to introduce Joe as "baseball's greatest living player", an introduction that Joe insisted upon as a condition of his making any public appearance.

At the opening of Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, practically every celebrity in New York showed up, but DiMaggio refused to come. His jealously of Mickey had never abated. At an autograph-signing event in 1995, the two of them shared a room. Mantle was being friendly and spending time with the visitors, which irritated Joe, who sent a representative over to Mantle's table with the message, "Joe D. wants you to quit shaking hands and being nice." By this time Mantle had grown up and lost his awe of DiMaggio, and he responded, "Tell Joe to get another room."

When Mantle died later in 1995, DiMaggio did not attend the funeral, instead issuing a statement which gracelessly made reference to Mantle's being sent down to the minors during his rookie year.

Mantle certainly had his flaws. His drinking and womanizing are legendary, and are not sugar-coated in this book. However, he had endearing human qualities as well, a generosity and friendliness which dwarfs the haughty, spoiled picture that emerges of Joe DiMaggio. Mantle was a true hero, while DiMaggio was a haughty, self-centered jerk who had to be the center of attention wherever he went, and who would throw a fit if he wasn't.