A week ago I finished Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, Nick Reding’s account of life in Oelwein, Iowa, in the first years of this century. This morning I finished The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game, Edward Achorn’s account of the 1883 season in the American Association.
What next? Why not combine the two themes? A book that recounts a season of baseball in Iowa in the early years of this century would be in order. And what do you know? Such a book appeared five weeks ago: Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. Perfect timing. I’m now a few pages into it.
I learned about the book last month at the Harper’s blog, where Jeffery Gleaves had six questions for Mann. (A week later, the NYT ran its own online Mann interview.) Of course, the book isn’t simply about baseball. It’s about life in Clinton, Iowa, and about the author’s own travails. Here’s the blurb:
An unforgettable chronicle of a year of minor-league baseball in a small Iowa town that follows not only the travails of the players of the Clinton LumberKings but also the lives of their dedicated fans and of the town itself.
Award-winning essayist Lucas Mann delivers a powerful debut in his telling of the story of the 2010 season of the Clinton LumberKings. Along the Mississippi River, in a Depression-era stadium, young prospects from all over the world compete for a chance to move up through the baseball ranks to the major leagues. Their coaches, some of whom have spent nearly half a century in the game, watch from the dugout. In the bleachers, local fans call out from the same seats they’ve occupied year after year. And in the distance, smoke rises from the largest remaining factory in a town that once had more millionaires per capita than any other in America.
Mann turns his eye on the players, the coaches, the fans, the radio announcer, the town, and finally on himself, a young man raised on baseball, driven to know what still draws him to the stadium. His voice is as fresh and funny as it is poignant, illuminating both the small triumphs and the harsh realities of minor-league ball. Part sports story, part cultural exploration, part memoir, Class A is a moving and unique study of why we play, why we watch, and why we remember.
In the Harper’s interview, Gleaves asks, “Why not write this book as pure journalism? Why insert your own story?” To which Mann replies:
So much of how I write is wrapped up in voice. I write personally; that’s how it comes out. I like essays and nonfiction that try to do a lot of things at once, that investigate and report on subjects but never shy away from showing how all that observation affects them. I’m terrified of omniscience, both as a writer and a reader. Lawrence Weschler, the great New Yorker writer, has a quote along the lines of, “I like to insert a strong I into what I’m writing not out of some sense of egomania, but precisely the opposite.” I agree with that. I don’t have the hubris to traditionally report on something, then step back, remove my personality, biases, memories, and screw-ups, and speak with authority. I’m the neurotic, often-confused dude who is trying to figure out why all this stuff is important to him, and that crucial, intimate honesty isn’t something I’d ever want to remove from the work.
Mann’s bleak description of Clinton in the opening pages is redolent of Methland‘s Oelwein and Ottumwa, Iowa.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Clinton was the center of a lumber empire. Millionaires were made here. … Though the industry and its spoils have long since disappeared, some mansions are still here. …
A lot of things are gone. Things downtown closed; some collapsed. Things burned. In 1968 the sociopathic hippie son of a local businessman set fire to nine buildings …
That hippie boy set the most famous fires, but not the last ones. Fans have told me that it feels as if something were always aflame now. When buildings are old, when nobody’s watching, anything can be tinder. Some of the fires are on YouTube. The dilapidated apartment with the mother and her two toddlers inside. The ancient white house without smoke detectors. The Lutheran church with flames dancing in the stained-glass windows. Old homes with no life in them, no care for them, so eventually they burn. …
… Allied Steel, back when steel, along with paper, along with wood, along with plastic, along with corn, catalyzed the town. But Allied left with a lot of other businesses, and left behind 100,000 tons of coal tar blocks down from the riverfront stadium, not cleaned for decades.
As for the baseball, two players have been introduced so far: shortstop Nick Franklin, of whom great things are anticipated, and Nicaraguan pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. Clinton is a Mariner farm team, and Franklin was big news here in Seattle two weeks ago when he was called up to the majors for the first time to replace one-time-can’t-miss second baseman Dustin Ackley (the second overall selection in the 2009 draft, behind Stephen Strasburg). In his fourth game, Franklin hit two home runs. Ramirez also made it to the majors, pitching in 16 games for the Mariners last year with mixed success, but is back in Triple-A Tacoma this season.
I don’t yet know what to expect from the book. And I’m not yet committed, having downloaded only the free opening pages to my Kindle. I suspect I’ll keep going. Certainly Boston Globe reviewer Adam Langer would have me do so:
Watching Clinton’s star pitcher, Erasmo Ramirez, strike out 12 on the road in Quad Cities, Mann wryly notes that the performance was watched by more people than will ever watch Mann do anything.
But he is being overly modest. For if there’s one surefire big-league prospect among the has-beens, might-bes, and never-will-bes who populate this memoir, it’s Mann himself who, in his first trip to the plate, knocks it out of the park.
The fate of most writers may ultimately be not all that different from that of most ballplayers. Decades from now, the vast majority of the names currently seen on the spines of books will probably seem as unfamiliar as those found in a pack of random 2013 baseball cards. But I’d be willing to wager that Lucas Mann is one of the names that will endure.
Three weeks ago, at the New Yorker blog, Jon Michaud wrote about a book I might otherwise have missed, Edward Achorn’s The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game. As Michaud explains,
the dramatic 1883 pennant chase in the American Association forms the core of Edward Achorn’s newly published history, “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey,” but it is far from the only reason to read his book. The eighteen-eighties were a pivotal time for the national pastime. Baseball (or “base ball,” as it was known then) was losing fans, many of whom were disenchanted by high ticket prices, cheating scandals, and the malevolent influence of gamblers on the sport. In 1881, a newspaper editor referred to baseball as “a dead crow.” Achorn argues that the American Association did much to revive interest in the sport and propel baseball toward its place at the heart of American culture. Combining the narrative skills of a sportswriter with a historian’s depth of knowledge and stockpile of detail, Achorn has produced a book that is both entertaining and informative.
I downloaded the book’s free opening portion from Amazon and had a look, anticipating that I might turn to it on finishing Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers. But instead I turned to Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.
After that, I wasn’t sure I was ready for Achorn’s book. I have a long list of books that struck me as potentially more interesting. They’re not short, though, whereas The Summer of Beer and Whiskey is just 260 pages. Two nights ago I started it. I’m now about 145 pages in.
Like any good writer of history, Achorn excels at making time vanish, so that the events of the 1883 baseball season seem as real as today’s Mariner 2-1 loss to the Yankees (another wasted pitching gem by Felix Hernandez).
I had long imagined that late nineteeth-century baseball wasn’t the real thing. It was certainly different. In his blog post, Michaud touches on this:
Among the many rewards of reading Achorn’s book is learning about the ways that baseball in the nineteenth century differed from the sport we now know. Games were officiated by a single umpire. Players did not wear numbers on their uniforms, nor did they use gloves. Before they took the field, they often served as ticket-takers at the ballpark gates. The first team to bat was determined by a coin flip. But the most startling difference can be found in pitching. The pitching leaderboard for the American Association’s ninety-eight-game 1883 season would be unfathomable to the modern fan used to five-man rotations and squadrons of bullpen specialists. The Reds’ Will White led the league with forty-three wins. He pitched five hundred and seventy-seven innings, including sixty-four complete games. His earned-run average was 2.09. On the Fourth of July, 1883, Tim Keefe of the Metropolitans gave a one-man display of pitching fireworks, hurling both ends of a doubleheader, winning the first game with a one-hitter and the second with a two-hitter.
Yet, in Achorn’s hands, the differences melt away. Team owners want to control player rights. (We learn about the origin of the reserve clause, which bound a player to a team forever.) Players abuse substances to their detriment. (Alcohol.) Teams in the thick of a pennant race attract big crowds. And an upstart league competes against an established one, until the older league merges with and absorbs the more successful teams of the new league. (Think 1950 and the absorption of the All-America Football Conference with the NFL, or 1976 and the NBA-ABA merger.)
That thing about players not using gloves, though–that’s different. So too the absence of a rule that when a pitcher hits a batter with a ball, the batter goes to first base. From what I’ve read so far, these differences led to high injury rates. And no batting helmets either. This was a dangerous sport.
Again, though, it’s the similarities that come through. However dangerous professional baseball was, it sure beat working in factories or mines at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of protection or insurance for workers. The player salaries, in relative terms, were nothing like those of today. Yet, they were viewed as privileged, as this passage attests:
The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette … found it astonishing that any professional player would squander his extraordinary good luck by becoming a drunkard. After all, many men toiled six days a week, ten hours a day, doing brutal, dangerous physical labor for a pittance. The paper noted that:
a ballplayer’s path in summer time is on beds of flowery ease. He gets a big salary, travels all over the country, stops at good hotels, and has the best of everything. He is paid by the public to furnish one hour and a half of amusement each afternoon [games weren't dragged out by television ads between innings or players stepping out of the batter's box to adjust their clothes], and he certainly should be able to keep clear of whiskey during the season, especially as he had all winter to get even. The great trouble with some men on the Allegheny club is that they look on base ball merely as a pretext to open their pores and enable them to sweat out the whiskey drank the night before. They regularly fill up and regularly sweat it out at the expense of the reputation of the management and the regret and sorrow of all lovers of base ball hereabouts.
Too bad Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the heroes of the 1986 Mets, didn’t read this warning before squandering their own careers.
Another difference is worth mentioning. Not a baseball difference, but a difference in the distribution of US population between then and now. Much of the book focuses on teams in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. In the 1880 census, the largest eight cities, in order, were New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn [not consolidated with New York until 1898], Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. In the 2010 census, Philadelphia had dropped from 2nd to 5th, St. Louis from 6th to 58th, and Cincinnati from 8th to 65th. (This is a bit deceptive, since suburbs weren’t as significant in 1880 as now, so one should compare metropolitan area populations. Doing so makes the decline of St. Louis and Cincinnati less dramatic.) It’s a very different US that the book describes.
Jumping ahead three decades to 1900, a review of the census clarifies why it is that the cities with teams in both the National and American Leagues were New York [including Brooklyn], Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston. They were, in that order, the five largest US cities. Which reminds me, I should explain that the 1880s St. Louis Browns team of the American Association featured in the book was not the ancestor of the later American League St. Louis Browns (still later to move to Baltimore and become the Orioles). Rather, it was the ancestor of today’s St. Louis Cardinals.
I haven’t gone to many Mariners baseball games in recent years. Until last weekend, the last time I was at Safeco Field was almost two years ago. The year before, my brother-in-law Jim had won an employee contest that had allowed him to pick a game the next season for which he would have full rights to a suite. He chose a Saturday night game on July 2, to celebrate his and Tamara’s 20th anniversary, and invited the family. (I wrote about it here.) That was our lone game that season, and then we managed to let last season pass without a game.
I’ve already written about the game we went to last weekend, in the context of its being Felix Hernandez bobblehead doll night. What I didn’t explain is that we had Diamond Club tickets. This was our friend Judy’s idea.
Judy and her family have had season tickets behind home plate since 1977, the Mariners’ first season. We’ve been fortunate to join Judy for many games, both at the Kingdome and at Safeco. The seats are maybe fifteen rows back from the field. The last couple of times we went, I noticed that people seated in the first few rows had food served to them at their seats. I didn’t know what the deal was. Now I do. It’s the Diamond Club.
What Judy suggested to Gail is that we choose a game for which she had tickets and she would trade them in for Diamond Club seats. The Diamond Club consists of the first eight rows behind home plate in the two sections immediately left and right of the line that runs from the pitcher’s mound and home plate straight into the stands, as well as the first eight rows of the two sections just left and right of these two. (The outer two sections run into the sides of the dugouts, and so aren’t very wide.) But more than that, the club consists of the space under the stands in these sections, with a restaurant, a bar, and more.
One enters the club from outside by going to the ticket takers at the southwest corner of Safeco, walking through an area that leads up to the stands, and then showing tickets again at the club entrance in order to be admitted. Inside the door, you are greeted, given an overview if you haven’t been in the club before, and shown to a restaurant table. It’s buffet eating, but first you can order drinks at your table before heading to the food.
Everything, I should add, is included in the price of the ticket. And these tickets aren’t cheap, though Judy pointed out that one could pay almost as much just for the seating in the stands, so it’s a pretty good deal. One doesn’t have to eat and drink to excess to feel like one has gotten one’s money worth.
The buffet is set up in an upper level surrounding restaurant tables. Then there’s a lower level with the bar, booth seating along a wall (where we were), and still more seating down around the bend. We ordered our drinks, then took our plates and headed back up to see what our options were. At one table, a man was making crab cakes in a frying pan. At another, there was mashed potatoes, asparagus, and barbecued ribs. Maybe fish too. I have to say, I should have written this post a week ago. I’m forgetting. Next, there was a man carving turkey and slicing meatloaf. Around the bend, on another wall, was Caesar salad, an array of fresh and roast vegetables, fruit, potato chips, and lots more. Then came desserts, which we didn’t look at closely until later. One table had a chocolate fountain with bananas and strawberries for dipping or coating. And along a counter were seven or eight cakes and pies to choose from.
Hard not to eat to excess. And from our booth, we could see a large grab-and-go center for people to get food to bring to the stands, or to come in from the stands for. Bratwurst, pizza, pretzels. And about a dozen candy dispensers on the wall.
There was a refrigerator behind our booth. It took me a while to realize that this was for our use too, filled with water and soda. This is all near one of the openings to the stands. By the next opening was a popcorn station, with hot butter too. And the next opening had boxes of candy of various types along with a soft ice cream dispenser. Oh, back by the brats and pizza were bags of caramel chocolate popcorn and some other type of popcorn. It’s really too much.
Game time was 7:10, with the club opening a couple of hours ahead of time. We were there shortly after opening, and at our seats an hour ahead of game time. The seats were in the seventh of the eight Diamond Club rows, about six to eight seats in from the center line. Which means we had a pretty darned good view of everything, including all the people milling around behind home plate for the pre-game activities. A boy and his dad who would go out to centerfield to catch balls shot from a machine in order to win assorted prizes. A boy who threw a ceremonial first pitch. Later, a group of kids from some school in Federal Way who were marched out just in front to sing the Star-Spangled Banner. But before all that, we caught the tail end of Rangers batting practice, with Rangers manager Ron Washington leaning against the batting cage watching his charges.
And did I mention the food? Yes, we could go back in any time for the grab-and-go offerings. But we also had menus at our seats from which we could order burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, drinks, and more, which would be brought to us by the next half inning. The sandwich special that night was a cheesesteak that I had my heart set on when we read about it on arriving at the club. However, after the dinner we ate, it simply wasn’t possible. I did eat some of Gail’s chocolate caramel corn. And I couldn’t resist grabbing a box of gummy bears on our way to the seats. That pretty much did me in. No cheesesteak for me.
The game? Oh yeah. We didn’t pay just to eat. We paid to see baseball. And so we did. There’s Felix Hernandez, at the top of the post throwing a pitch. The photo gives a better sense of where we were seated than my words provide. Great location.
But Felix had an off night, was hit hard, and we lost. A bleak game. Plus, a totally unrelated issue arose in an early inning and I found myself distracted for about two innings in a series of texts with Joel, despite his protestations that I should just enjoy the game and get back to him afterward.
I don’t imagine we’ll be getting back to the club soon. When we do—if we do—I might go for the seats farthest away from the center, over by one or the other dugout. For one thing, they’re just far enough off center to be beyond the screen that protects us from foul balls, offering a clearer view. A first- or second-row seat there would be pretty cool. And I might space out my eating better, so I’ll have room to eat the sandwich special at my seat.
According to this history of bobblehead dolls,
the bobble head doll seemed to be deemed a 20th century relic by the turn of the century, but Major League Baseball again brought back the bobble head doll from pop culture oblivion. The San Francisco Giants presented the Willie Mays bobble head doll on May 9, 1999 to 20,000 visitors to their ballpark celebrating the 40th anniversary of Candlestick Park, which was the last year of the Giants playing at that stadium by the bay. That ushered in a whole new era of bobble head madness. Baseball teams throughout the United States began to offer the bobble head doll as a promotional item for their fans and bobble head dolls were one of the most popular and eagerly sold items in the early days of eBay along with Pez.
Here in Seattle, the first bobblehead giveaway was at a 2001 baseball game and featured then-rookie breakout star Ichiro. In the years since, I’ve never attended a Mariners gave during a bobblehead giveaway night.
Until last night. We weren’t aiming to get a Felix bobblehead. We just wanted to see Felix pitch. When our friend Judy suggested that we join her for a game this weekend, we agreed to choose the game that Felix would start. As a bonus, it was Felix Hernandez Perfect Game Bobblehead night.
I’ve never seen such a crowd two hours before game time. Well, come to think of it, I don’t know when I’ve ever arrived two hours before game time. We did last night, though not because of the bobblehead promotion. (More on our early arrival and special evening in a separate post.) There were huge lines to get in early, since only the first 20,000 people would get their own Felix.
I have no idea why last night was designated as the giveaway night. It boosted attendance, but didn’t relate in any way to when Felix pitched his perfect game, which was last August 15. The box itself is a souvenir. Below is the front side.
And here’s the back side, listing every batter Felix faced in the perfect game and the result.
I should explain what a perfect game is. It’s one in which no batter reaches base, whether by a hit, a walk, an error, or being hit by a pitch. Nine innings pitched, three batters an inning, twenty-seven up and twenty-seven down. Well, more innings if needed until the pitcher’s own team finally wins the game. (There’s the famous 1959 game in which Harvey Haddix pitched twelve perfect innings, but his Pirates team didn’t score. He lost it in the thirteenth. That, alas, doesn’t count as a perfect game.)
Perfect games are rare. Years go by without any. Felix’s was the last one, though it was one of three pitched last year. You can see the complete list here.
Anyway, this post isn’t about perfect games. It’s about Felix bobblehead dolls, two of which we are now pleased to own. Other proud owners include Gail’s sister Tamara, husband Jim, and son DJ. It was a big night for the family.
And perhaps last night also marks the start of a collection. I just checked. There’s one more bobblehead night this year, on August 10. It will be Ken Griffey Jr. “Mariners Hall of Fame” Bobblehead Night, in honor of his induction into the team’s hall of fame. Gail, should we get tickets?
St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial died today. I was too young to see him play at his peak. And when I began to go to baseball games, New York lacked a National league team, so the Cardinals didn’t come to town. But I saw him on TV, and I grew up understanding what a giant he was.
What made him a giant? The start of an answer lies in his stats, which you can examine here. Or, you can watch the excerpt above from a 1990 documentary, which shows his final at bats in 1963.
In the NYT obituary, Richard Goldstein offers this summary:
Musial won seven batting championships, hit 475 home runs and amassed 3,630 hits. His brilliance lay in his consistency. He had 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 on the road. He drove in 1,951 runs and scored 1,949 runs. And his power could be explosive: he set a major league record, equaled only once, when he hit five home runs in a doubleheader.
“There is only one way to pitch to Musial — under the plate,” Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant teams that Musial often victimized, once said.
Musial played on three World Series championship teams, won three Most Valuable Player awards, had a career batting average of .331 while playing in the outfield and at first base, and was the fourth player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He was the most cherished Cardinal of them all in a city that witnessed the exploits of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Red Schoendienst, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols.
I especially recommend Joe Posnanski’s blog post some time back, which he updated two months ago. Though brief, it is full of great tales. I’ll get you started with the first paragraph.
Stan Musial never got thrown out of a game. Never. Think about this for a moment. Musial played in 3,026 games in his career, or about as many as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky played combined. He played across different American eras — he played in the big leagues before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, and he retired a few weeks before Kennedy was shot. He played when Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller ruled the Top 40 charts, and he played when Elvis was thin, and he played when Chubby Checker twisted. He played before television, and after John Glenn orbited the earth. And he never once got thrown out of a baseball game.
Read the rest.
[AP Photo/James Finley]
The NYT crossword three days ago puzzled me. A typical Wednesday crossword has a theme built around several clues with long answers, ones that run at least half and perhaps the full width of the frame. This one, in contrast, had six starred clues, all with solutions that were five letters long. Even after I had filled in words for five of the six starred clues, I didn’t see what they had in common.
What’s a word ladder? I managed to get through a good part of my life without knowing. Then, on a trip to Colorado with Gail and Joel fifteen Augusts ago, I invented them (as no doubt many thousands of others have). We were staying for a few days in Estes Park, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, before going down to Denver to see the Mariners play the Rockies at Coors Field. That was the first year of interleague play, and the Rockies and Mariners were the biggest hitting teams, if not the most successful, in the National and American Leagues. This series was getting a lot of attention, and we were thrilled to be there. But first, Rocky Mountain National Park and word ladders.
One morning, we headed to one of the park visitor centers near Estes Park. The Moraine Park Visitor Center I would guess, as I look over a map. There was a gigantic parking lot, beyond which was a small lake surrounded by a paved path. You could grab a little brochure and take a self-guided nature tour around the lake, stopping at each numbered sign to learn about the flora, fauna, and geology of the area. Which we did, along with many hundreds. As we returned to our starting point, Gail headed toward the parking lot. In surprise and dismay, I suggested that we hadn’t come all the way here just to walk on pavement with the masses. We needed to get a ways into the woods. Joel would have been 10 years old then. I don’t recall how he voted, but off we went, with packed lunches, up a bit of a hill, then onto a relatively flat trail through the woods. A couple of miles in, we reached a pond, sat on some pondside logs, and had lunch.
The word ladder came into play because we needed a way to keep Joel occupied, and so I threw out a four-letter word, challenging him to come up with a new one by changing a single letter. Then Gail did the same, then me, and so on. At some point, we decided that the loser would be the one who couldn’t come up with a new word when his or her turn came.
This game would prove to be a great discovery. Over the next year, it was our game of choice when we needed to pass time. Some years later, I learned that what we were doing was constructing word ladders, the point usually being not to produce ladders for as long as possible but to get from a known start to a known end, perhaps with a ladder of minimal length. Now I see, in the wikipedia entry, that Lewis Carroll is credited with inventing them.
When we played our game, we didn’t allow proper names, but one might wish to make proper names the starting and end points of a ladder. For example, let’s choose the two baseball greats Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. How can we get from Mays to Ruth in minimal length? Here’s one way: mays-rays-rats-ruts-ruth. See? It’s easy. And fun.
Back to Wednesday’s crossword. (Read no further if you wish to try it yourself.)
The six starred clues were:
Brother of Moses
Von Richthofen, e.g.
Element in the cleanser 20 Mule Team
Bklyn., Queens and others
Sonny and Chaz
I got these, but I was puzzled. Enlightenment came in three stages:
1. I realized that they formed a word ladder.
2. I realized that the two ends were intended to be Hank Aaron and Bobby Bonds.
3. Two days later, by chance, I read that the fifth anniversary of Bonds’ breaking Aaron’s career home run record had just taken place.
Now I understood the puzzle’s point. Five years ago, on August 7, Bonds hit his 756th career home run. A little obscure, no? Not that one needs to know that to solve the puzzle. One doesn’t even need to know who Aaron and Bonds are. But really, did anyone solving this puzzle recognize that it fell on the anniversary of the record?
I wrote a post last Saturday, Skyboxification, taking off from a review by Jeremy Waldron of Michael Sandel’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. On finishing the post, I thought that maybe I should read the book. Sunday I downloaded it and today I finished it. Not hard to do, given how short the book is. It reads more like an extended essay.
As Waldron pointed out, the book is loaded with examples in which money and markets have been introduced (or intrude) into parts of life that might better be kept free of them. This is what motivated me to turn to the book itself. Waldron discussed a handful of examples, all intriguing, and I was curious to see more.
One family of examples has to do with fines becoming fees. A particular case to which Sandel returns from time to time is a daycare in Israel that decided to fine parents who were late to pick up their children. The surprise effect? Tardy pickups increased. Without fines, parents felt properly guilty about keeping the daycare staff at work after hours. With the introduction of fines, tardiness was monetized and parents stopped feeling guilty. They could simply pay for being late — or so one imagines they reasoned, consciously or unconsciously — and they were happy to do so. How the staff felt is another matter.
Or what about gift cards? Giving someone a gift shows thought, interest, a connection. Sandel reviews arguments from economists that giving cash would be better, since the recipient can make better use of the money. But this doesn’t feel right to many. Are gift cards different? Apparently so. The gift card business has been booming. What’s up with that?
Sandel doesn’t so much offer answers to every situation. Rather, he describes the monetization of a traditionally non-economic behavior, discusses what may feel wrong about it, and often analyzes it in the twin contexts of fairness and corruption. For example, in discussing college admissions, he writes:
The idea of selling admission is open to two objections. One is about fairness; the other is about corruption. The fairness objection says that admitting children of wealthy donors in exchange for a handsome donation to the college fund is unfair to applicants who lacked the good judgment to be born to affluent parents. This objection views a college education as a source of opportunity and access, and worries that giving an edge to children of the wealthy perpetuates social and economic inequality.
The corruption argument is about institutional integrity. This objection points out that higher education not only equips students for remunerative jobs; it also embodies certain ideals — the pursuit of truth, the promotion of scholarly and scientific excellence, the advancement of humane teaching and learning, the cultivation of civic virtue. … allowing fund-raising needs to predominate runs the risk of distorting these ends and corrupting the norms that give universities their reason for being.
This is one case where perhaps the appeal to fairness is more compelling than the appeal to corruption. But what about developing a futures market on terrorism: a gambling site where people can place bets on terrorist attacks on certain targets? The logic for suggesting this, as the Defense department’s research organization DARPA did a few years ago, is that such a market would provide useful intelligence. Yet, betting on death makes many people queasy. Sandel devotes an entire chapter to death bets, with numerous examples, including basic life insurance, which was outlawed in many cultures for centuries.
A final chapter addresses naming rights: sports stadiums, schools, police cars, and many more. This happens to connect to the subject of a post I intended to write two falls ago. Perhaps I still will, so let me not try to produce a version of it here. The starting point was to be the line with which Waldron opens his review of Sandel’s book, “Pecunia non olet,” or “Money doesn’t stink.” Let’s turn to wikipedia for a quick review of the meaning:
The phrase is ascribed to the Roman emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 CE). Vespasian imposed a Urine Tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. (The Roman lower classes urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools.) The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient for several chemical processes. It was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woollen togas. The buyers of the urine paid the tax.
The Roman historian Suetonius reports that when Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked, whether he felt offended by smell. When Titus said “No,” he replied, “Yet it comes from urine.”
The phrase Pecunia non olet is still used today to say that the value of money is not tainted by its origins.
My never-finished post was inspired in part* by a NYT article on the transformation of MIT’s campus by top architects. Working my way through an accompanying slide show, I came upon the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Yes, that David Koch, the libertarian multibillionaire whose political contributions have propped up the Tea Party movement and had a corrosive effect on our politics. (See Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article from two years ago for background on the Koch brothers.) Koch’s name is also on the former New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, home to the New York City Ballet.
*I need to credit my son, Joel, for further inspiration for the still-to-be-written post. He introduced me to the Latin phrase in a different context.
Which gets us back to naming rights. A deal with the devil? Dirty money? Or just good economic sense? I’m not talking specifically about the MIT and Lincoln Center buildings to which Koch has contributed generously. Rather, I’m raising the question in general.
You must have your favorite example of a building you wish had its traditional name, or at least some name that wasn’t changing every few years as companies go out of business, are sold, or fail to keep their end of a naming deal. (Remember Enron Field, the original name of the Houston Astros’ home when it opened in 2000? No doubt millions of people first heard of Enron thanks to this naming deal. The name didn’t last. The field is now Minute Maid Park.) Sandel asks us not to decry this trend, or applaud it, but instead to think through what a suitable basis would be for objecting to monetization. He offers guidance, leaving us to engage in the process ourselves.
In closing, Sandel returns to sports stadiums, which have not only commercial names attached, but also skyboxes and frightful ticket prices. Like him, I remember the days just a few decades ago when all tickets were affordable. He writes about the modest pricing of tickets for Minnesota Twins baseball games. In the early 1970s, when I was a student, I would buy Celtics tickets just before game time at Boston’s North Station. They never sold out. You could just walk up to the counter a few minutes before the game, next to the train ticket windows, and pay $2, $3, $4, $5, or $6. (I sure wish I splurged for those $6 tickets just once.) Now that seems like a dream.
Sandel concludes that we
need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live. As naming rights and municipal marketing appropriate the common world, they diminish its public character. … commercialism erodes commonality. The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be. The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but for those looking down.
Something similar has been happening throughout our society. At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.
Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.
And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?
Whether you agree or not, you will find it a worthwhile exercise to work through Sandel’s examples. We learn in the Acknowledgments that Sandel has himself tested them in joint classes with economists who argue the other side. Those would be rewarding discussions to listen in on.**
**But why must Sandel make it a point to tell us that all these people are his friends? For example, he co-taught a course at Harvard with Larry Summers in 2005, and they were “joined for some sessions by my friend Thomas Friedman,” Summers having already been described in the text as a friend. And on occasion, “my friend Richard Posner … has joined me … for debates about the moral limits of markets.” Should I point out that I was once friends with Summers’ future wife? Really, I was. But so what?
[NYT, May 5, 2012]
It’s not that I hate the Yankees. Maybe I do. But what I hate more is the incessant coverage of them. Which is my loss, because it gets in the way of my appreciating the individual players, even when they are exemplars of the game or admirable human beings (though who ever knows the truth about that?).
Thus, when Mariano Rivera — generally accepted to be the greatest reliever ever and, just maybe, a pretty fine person as well — tore his ACL the other night while having his usual pre-game fun fielding batting practice, I reacted not with the appropriate dismay. Rather, I thought, oh no, we’re about to be overrun with coverage.
And overrun we were. Just check out yesterday’s NYT.
But amidst the noise, there was Roger Angell, the best writer on baseball of the last half century. He quickly put up a two-paragraph post at the New Yorker website. From the first paragraph:
No player of our time imposed his will and style more firmly on the game and in our minds than Mariano, or more quietly. In more than a thousand games, across eighteen seasons, we saw his pause on the mound, with the glove and ball held motionless at his waist, his downcast gaze, and then the easy, pleasing motion, with the arm well up and then slashing downward, and the ball—the cutter again, no doubt—quickly writing a final game stat across a sliver of the strike zone. The batter, whether he’d swung or just stood there, was also part of the process, and seemed to share Mo’s pre-pitch gravity as he turned away uncomplaining, almost agreeing, to begin the rest of his afternoon or evening. Game over.
As for yesterday’s blanket NYT coverage, there was a graphic worth studying (see above). What do you know? His nemesis was Edgar Martinez. Career batting average against Rivera: .625. Career on-base percentage: .700. Career slugging percentage: 1.188.
I suppose it figures. After all, Edgar was the greatest pure hitter in the American League for over a decade. His Hall of Fame case may be going nowhere (and these numbers aren’t in themselves reason for him to be enshrined), but his performance against Rivera is telling. I hope he finds his way into the Hall sooner, but if he is destined to wait years longer, I’d love to see him enter alongside Rivera.
[Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe]
JetBlue Park at Fenway South (yes, really, that is its official name) opened last month in Fort Myers, Florida. It is the new spring training site for the Boston Red Sox. The great conceit underlying its design is that any proper Red Sox home must have a wall in left field. The Fenway South wall, as Stan Grossfeld explained in the Boston Globe last week, ” isn’t identical to the Old Wall. It’s higher, has seats inside, and there is no way to manually change the numbers from inside the scoreboard.” The scoreboard is manual, just like the one in the Fens. The problem is that it
sticks out only 6 inches from the existing wall, so manually dropping in the numbers from behind it is impossible.
The door that was part of the original scoreboard leads nowhere. The Sox had to put in another door, 50 feet closer to the left-field foul line. That leads on one side to the tiny 8-foot-by-8-foot scoreboard operator’s room. There you’ll find Kevin Walsh, 23, a perky Red Sox intern chosen from more than 650 applicants for this plum assignment.
But Walsh has some unique issues. Changing the scoreboard at JetBlue Park means dashing onto the field carrying numbered panels that weigh 2 pounds and measure 12 by 16 inches, and lugging a 6-foot ladder. And the view from the tiny window makes it impossible to see the entire field.
You can see photos here. Not all are interesting, but there are a couple of Kevin with his ladder, and a good one of Jim Rice.
I can’t think of a feature of Safeco Field that would be worth replicating down in Peoria. The retractable roof? Of course, the Mariners share the field with the Padres, who would want to incorporate a distinctive Petco Park feature. Maybe it’s best to leave this gimmick to the Red Sox.
Boston Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans is one of my heroes. Of course, everyone on the 1975 Red Sox is one of my heroes, so that’s not saying much. But I was always impressed with how Dewey, regarded by all Sox fans as the greatest defensive right fielder of the time, turned himself into a great hitter too. In 1983, at the age of 31, despite winning a gold glove, he had a terrible year at the plate, with a batting average was .238, OBP of .338, slugging .436, with 22 homers and 58 RBIs. (See here for stats.) I thought he would only get worse. Instead, he got better. Four years later, an all-star year, his numbers were .305/.417/.569, with 34 homers, 123 RBIs, and a league-leading 106 walks.
You can study the numbers. Indeed you should, because what we’re talking about is a player with a Hall of Fame level career who has never gotten his due. Fortunately, Bill James has now made the case, in a persuasive piece published a week ago at Grantland titled An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame About Dwight Evans. (Hat tip: Joe Posnanski, without whom I would have missed this.) With James on the case, I needn’t say more. I’ll turn it over to him, quoting just the opening of his extended argument:
I hope you understand that I would never sacrifice my reputation by arguing that a player belongs in the Hall of Fame if I did not sincerely believe this to be true. Yes, Dwight Evans works for the Red Sox, and I work for the Red Sox, and I’m not saying this is not relevant to why I am writing, but … I wouldn’t argue that Dwight Evans had a Hall of Fame quality career if the kinds of analysis that I do all the time did not show this to be true. It’s not really that I wouldn’t; I couldn’t. I’ve spent years explaining to the public every step I take in evaluating a player. If I didn’t follow those steps, the people who have read my stuff over the years would know immediately that I wasn’t playing by the rules, and they would tear me a newbie over it right away.
Let us start with the proposition that Dwight Evans is one of the most underrated players in baseball history. There are certain things that make players underrated. The most important of these is that a player who does several things well will always be underrated compared to a specialist, just because of the way the human mind works. We absorb simple concepts more readily than complex ones. If a player hits .325, if he hits 40 homers, if he steals 70 bases, we get that immediately. If a player does many things well but no one thing spectacularly well, he may have equal value but it takes longer for the public to catch on.
Dwight Evans was a player who did many things very well — hitting almost 400 home runs, drawing a lot of walks, winning a long string of Gold Gloves, and even registering pretty decent batting averages, .290 or better five times in eight years. His batting average, however, was not his specialty, particularly early in his career, and given that batting average was at that time regarded as the center of the baseball universe, so to speak, this also caused him to be underrated.
On-base percentage is much more closely tied to scoring runs (and to winning games) than is batting average, and in the 21st century all baseball people know this. But in the 1970s very few people knew it, so Dwight Evans was evaluated by the baseball writers of his time more based on his batting averages, which were OK, than on his on-base percentages, which were outstanding.
Then there is the problem of first impressions, that when the place of a player is settled in the public’s mind, it is difficult for him to change how he is seen. The public image of Dwight Evans — as for every player — was formed by his first few years in the major leagues, and in those years he was not a great player; he was a good player, but not yet a great one. Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.
James closes with the claim that “Dwight Evans is a Hall of Famer.” Amen.