Archive for category: Commentary

A quantum of Oriole

25 Jul
July 25, 2014

This essay appears in the July 21, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated.  It appears on this site with the gracious permission of the magazine’s editors.   

 

To the beaten dog, every sudden movement is another impending brutality in a lifetime of such. Eventually, even the most modest and trivial move in the mutt’s direction induces a simpering cower.

Tell me on June 16 that Matt Wieters, after playing only 26 games, will cross into the valley of the shadow of Tommy John, and I am supposed to mark that date as the moment when the Baltimore Orioles of 2014 ceased to matter. Flay me with the knowledge that Chris Davis—he of the 53 jacks a year ago—will be hitting a buck-ninety-nine at the All-Star break, and I am supposed to lower my head to your rolled-up newspaper. Push my cold little nose into the mess that has come of Ubaldo Jimenez’s first Baltimore season on a four-year, $50 million contract—he’s 3–8 and now disabled—and I ought to accept the rain of blows that surely follows.

And yet, Steve Pearce.

Anything that can happen, will. And in an infinite universe, it will happen repeatedly. The full implications of the second law of thermodynamics apply to the American League East just as soundly as to a million monkeys at a million typewriters. Eventually, and regardless of all prior history, the Baltimore Orioles are going to type the complete works of Shakespeare.

How do we know this?

Well, for one thing, there is no God. There is only science. If there were a God, he would be—as evidenced by all of modern baseball history—a devoted fan of the Yankees. And God, at least the Judeo-Christian version of Him rather than the Aristotelian unmoved mover, is said to be good. Ergo, there is no God.

So, alone in this cold and expanding universe, we are left to consider the random motion of atoms, of protons and electrons and quarks, as these elemental essences dance and glance their way through the hollow space of, say, a Camden Yards, a Fenway, a Yankee Stadium. There is no romance to the matter, no theology, no purposed narrative even—if by narrative you mean a tale with a moral, with cause and effect, fate or redemption, hubris or vindication. No one is making a point here; the monkeys just keep typing.

Entering play on Thursday, the Orioles were 10 games over .500, three up on a Toronto team that was dominant a month ago and also three ahead of a battered, shield-down Yankees Death Star. The O’s run differential is +24—encouraging news indeed when you consider that the oh-why-the-hell-not O’s of two years ago, the ones who won 93, were only +7 as they stole every one-run and extra-inning game.

The current Orioles, sitting pretty atop the once-vaunted AL East, are actually more legitimate in some ways than the 2012 team that went to the playoffs for the first time since Clinton was president, Lewinsky was a name known but to him, and the world was still debating whether all electronics would cease to operate properly at the stroke of the millennium.

In other words, all I am saying is give Pearce a chance. We can win this.

Why? Because the Yankees’ rotation is shredded and their lineup ordinary, and because Tanaka couldn’t pitch every game and now may not be able to pitch at all. Because Toronto’s batting order—topped with speed and stacked with power—is now hollowed by injury, so much so that talk of trading only for a front-line starter now yields to talk of trading for some of everything. Because Boston is as flat as Shane Victorino on the trainer’s table, awaiting another epidural. And the Rays? Where did those guys go?

The electrons dance away from the great as well as the good. Overall, this is no comfort whatsoever; to accept probability theory is to acknowledge that eventually the United States and the Russians must engage in a nuclear exchange or that your goodly wife will eventually screw the mailman or the yoga instructor. But it also means the American League East can’t forever be the home of predominance.

All right, you say, maybe Baltimore can win the division. Maybe Jimenez gets off the DL and reels off a half-dozen wins. Maybe Davis finds his stroke. Maybe the monkeys can produce a Cymbeline or a Titus Andronicus.

But for Hamlet or Lear, you’re thinking I’m going to need more simians and more keyboards. In the AL Central, Detroit is running away and showing no holes. And the Athletics are throwing up gaudy numbers. Here you sit, Simon, hermetically sealed in your 12-foot-wide South Baltimore row house, nattering on about the Orioles’ run differential? Really? The A’s have scored 163 runs more than their opponents—better than a run and a half more in every game. That’s a statistic that doesn’t smell of probability theory but stinks of certitude.

To which, I reply by discarding stats entirely. To hell with Billy Beane. Chew instead on more quantum mechanics—the uncertainty principle of which clearly states that any effort to measure quantities is disturbed by the very act of observation. In other words Heisenberg has Bill James by the ass.

Remember: Anything that can happen in an infinite and expanding universe eventually will. And despite some long years wandering amid the deep-space weight of baseball dark matter, Baltimore has now crawled from its black hole.

I’m a scribbler by trade. And like all the other scribblers, I know it’s as tempting to assert for a narrative of tragedy as to exalt in glory. Either outcome is food and fuel for poets, who can throw meter at men in the thrush of righteous victory or, even easier, at those bravely facing inevitable doom. We want it all to Mean Something.

I have a close friend, an Emmy-nominated writer, who expends his finest verbiage sending out midseason pontifications on his beloved Cubbies—missives writ in the lofty stylings of a Mencken or a Perelman, speckled with almost as much literary and historical reference as North Sider profanity. Strung together, end on end, season after season, these emails are as comic and inflated a baseball jeremiad as ever committed to language.

Of course my friend, being a lifelong Cubs fan, would wish to remain paper-bag anonymous, but anonymity is for Mob witnesses. His name is Jim Yoshimura, and he is a romantic and a chump and is playing a mug’s game. The Cubs are merely the Orioles of tomorrow. The quarks are still in play for them as well, and all things, mathematically, must pass. Believe in the expanding universe, Jimmy. Believe as I do.

Except, well, there’s this:

In 2003, at the University of Plymouth in England, researchers experimented with a half-dozen Sulawesi crested macaques in a Devon zoo, and discovered there were more unexpected variables than mere simian typing. After a month the monkeys had produced only five pages of work, heavily invoking the letter s throughout. And the lead male eventually took to smashing his machine with a rock, after which the other monkeys urinated and defecated on the keyboard.

So if Chris Davis could start hitting the baseball, that’d be nice too.

Libel per se – UPDATED TWICE

02 Jul
July 2, 2014

UPDATE:  12 p.m., July 4

I am informed that the Huff Post piece has now removed the reference to my having been fired.  Instead, apparently, my revenge was had upon editors who spiked one of my articles because my writing wasn’t “Dickensian” enough.  They never said anything of the sort to me or anyone else, and that is not actually the reason that particular article was spiked.  I carefully related the actual sequence of events to Dr. Williams in my April memo as a discussion of  that particular article and its fate features throughout her manuscript, but no matter.  With regard to the Huff Post essay at least, I am libeled no more and I thank the author for her apology at the bottom of the essay.

A brief word on the non-performance of the Huffington Post in this matter, on their publishing ethic, and on the manner in which this institution conducts its business:

The abdication of editorial responsibility in the case of aggregated sites such as Wikipedia or barely-edited copy dumps such as the Huffington Post is one of the sad retrenchments in news distribution and commentary.  The ethos of such entities — hey, we don’t write the stuff; we’re just the blackboard it’s scrawled upon —  sounds at first to be an ennobled argument for an open and unfettered marketplace of ideas, where some unseen hand of libertarian idealism ensures that better notions triumph over bad ones, and the lies are all, in the end, run down and brutalized by more powerful truths before much harm is done.  Demagogues from Huey Long to Joseph Goebbels have an answer to that naivete; shit, John Kerry will sell you a used Swift Boat if you’re credulous enough to believe such tripe.   These policies are not ennobled.  They are craven.  They allow web entities to profit off the slanders, provocations and irresponsible claims in the real-time battles that make their sites central and profitable to every argument. Lies and cheap provocations become as essential to the dynamic as the truth, and accuracy and falsehood are accorded equal honor.  It’s yellow stuff indeed.  

Some of the best and most courageous journalism that I’ve witnessed involved the decision by good and careful editors NOT to publishing something incomplete, or inaccurate, or ethically impaired.  Such things seldom happen with our present internet.  Instead, the editors of the Huffington Post are not only untroubled at the thought of unknowingly participating in a libel, they prove comfortable with maintaining that libel even when its falsehood is known.  They throw up their hands, cry that we shouldn’t shoot the piano player, who’s merely playing the music of others.  As if carrying a lie about another citizen to a mass of people isn’t still the tort of libel and a thoroughly scumsucking thing with which to be engaged.

UPDATE:  2 p.m., July 3

Today, I spoke with the director of Duke University Press.  He informs me that Dr. Williams’ book, which had been sent to the printer without any changes since I viewed the manuscript three months ago, is now on hold while the publisher consults with its author and with legal counsel.  Given that this gentleman was coming to this issue suddenly and without prior knowledge, and, too, that some time is required to reach people, gather information and address complicated matters, I’m inclined to leave it here and keep the details of my conversation private.  At present, I am content to believe that Duke University Press is trying to address the issue.   More to come.  Or not.  Hard to know. 

ORIGINAL  TEXT:  July 2

The permanent churn of the internet is such that if you allow a dishonesty to stand for more than a moment, it will be endlessly repeated as fact for as long as there are humans left to link to it.   We all sense this.  And even so, for some falsehoods, we have to laugh and let it ride; the stakes just aren’t that high.

But every now and then comes a moment when — as someone who counted himself as a professional reporter for some certain years — I find myself stunned, like a cow with a sledgehammer, to see just how indifferent another practitioner is to any basic responsibility and ethics.

In this instance, the practitioner is an academic author, Linda Williams, who has published a book of themes and arguments relating to a television show I once wrote and produced, “The Wire.”  Her book, published by Duke University Press, is currently being hawked as new books always are, and Ms. Williams has written a piece for the Huffington Post, which appears on that site today as part of that publicity campaign.  For obvious reasons, I will not link to it because of the libel contained therein.

Understand, it is not merely an error.  Everyone makes mistakes.

The reason that I can attest that this is no mere error is that a few months ago, Duke University Press sent me a galley of the book and asked that I look at it.  As I explained to them, I am without public opinion as to Dr. Williams’ thoughts and theories regarding “The Wire.”  She is welcome to all of them.  I do, however, find myself capable of opinion on any narrative that suggests I was at any point unethical as a newspaperman.  Those years matter to me to a much greater degree than how anyone might view my later performance in the entertainment industry.

And indeed, embedded in the original manuscript was a theme, conjured from god knows where by the author, that I had been fired from the newspaper after a falling out with editors that involved an ethical breach on my part.

I don’t know how else to say this:  There was no ethical breach.  No lapse in any ethical standard of journalism was ever suggested or referenced in any of my work, even by those editors with whom I had deep and fundamental disagreements over the direction and priorities of the newspaper.  No ethical question was ever raised by those editors with me, nor with any of my immediate supervisors.  Nothing of the sort was ever discussed or brought to my attention in any way, ever.  It.  Just.  Did.  Not.  Happen.

I was not fired at all.  In fact, because of more philosophical disagreements, I elected to leave the Sun voluntarily in November 1995, taking a buyout with about 120 other newsroom employees who were offered a year’s salary and benefits to leave the newspaper.  Further, when it became clear to the editors in question that I was determined to depart the paper, one of them, Mr. Marimow by name, came to me in the last hours of the buyout window and put a slip of paper in my hand.  It promised a $5,000 raise immediately if I would withdraw my buyout papers, and a second raise in the subsequent fiscal year.  I thanked him, but noted that my differences with him and with Mr. Carroll were not really about money, and I left the paper.

And yet, here I am in the Huffington Post today under the byline of Dr. Williams, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley:  “Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once fired him from the Baltimore Sun…”

Again, I conveyed all of the above corrective facts to Dr. Williams and her publisher both, in writing, by early April.  I wrote that they should look at the material and endeavor to do the proper and responsible thing.  I did not hear back from them.  I do not know if substantive changes have been made to the book manuscript.  I only know that I am nonetheless, in today’s published essay, someone who needed to be fired from his newspaper.

Being fired from any job certainly implies cause.  It is defamatory on its face.  And when a writer is informed in advance of the facts and chooses to publish such a claim regardless, it meets the definition for libel, and actionable libel even of a public person.

Today, I’ve written to my original contacts at Duke University Press, asking, in effect, what the fuck.  I also attempted to correct the record using the disembodied and bureaucratic uselessness that is the Huffington Post’s corrections and legal inquiry forms.  Nada.  No replies.   No follow through at all.  As of a few moments ago, the lie stands, comfortably, amid the warm breezes of a web where truth is always late to the picnic.

There is a presumption that the academy — with its research standards and its intellectual rigor — is ever superior to the slapdash, first-draft-of-history half-assedness that is daily journalism.  We made mistakes in print all the time.  Yes, we did.  But if someone sent me corrective material months in advance of publication and I still managed to print a libel without regard to that material, I would have been, well, fired.  And I would not have complained.

It’s carnival time

04 Mar
March 4, 2014

A carnival season memory from the other night:

I am walking with my daughter, just shy of four years, from what we know as the Sugar Store toward the Krewe D’Etat parade.  She has mango sorbet on the tip of her nose as she negotiates a fat cone of the stuff.  Three blocks away, the drum tattoo of a high school band gives way to a passing float and the throw-me-something cheers of a crowd.

She squints down the block, sees the lighted float cruise through.

“We missed that one.”

“There’ll be another.  It’s a long parade.”

“Okay.”

Long pause.

“Can everything stay just like it is now?”

“What do you mean?”

She examines her sorbet cone, then looks directly at me.

“Everybody dies.  You’re going to die.  One day I’m going to die.”

My breath leaves me.  Try explaining the ultimate tragedy of life to a four year old.  Try doing it without falling back on the tropes and cliches of theology.  Try telling the truth at this moment. I don’t even know how to begin.

Instead, a calico  bounds off the porch of a shotgun double.

“Oh look,” she says.  “A kitty cat.”

And she rushes toward it, laughing.

*   *   *

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.

 

“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes…”

08 Jan
January 8, 2014

He knew.

We can say this now with certainty if we ask ourselves one basic question about human nature:  What good does it do a political operative to screw over the opposition if you can’t then tell your boss about it?  Where is the  joy for any lickspittle hack in the office hierarchy if he or she can’t pull off a dirty trick against a political adversary, then walk down the hall and tell the boss just how well you did on his behalf?  What would be the point?

I’ve actually found New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bluster and anger to be endearing at times, if only for the plain-speaking insistence on results.  I don’t find anger to be a particularly negative trait when that anger is offered on behalf of others, nor do I regard argument as anything other than a worthy endeavor if the argument is actually about something.  I didn’t agree with Mr. Christie on any number of issues, but I found him credible as a public servant.  He reminded me in some respects of the late Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer — Mayor Annoyed as we knew him, the angriest, melon-headedest white man in our tarnished state’s political firmament.  “Do It Now,” was Mr. Schaefer’s daily mantra, and while he could be stubborn and bullying at points — and petty and juvenile at his worst moments — he got quite a bit done during his tenure.  My city and state could have done a lot worse with more restrained and thoughtful leadership.

But even Mr. Schaefer’s petulance and childishness had its limits.  He might read a letter to the editor from a complaining citizen and call that individual in a cranky rage.  He might tell reporters off-the-record to go fuck themselves and their editors.  He might play every all-in-the-game political angle to reward friends and harm adversaries and take pride in the result.  He would not, however, snarl some Maryland traffic purposely, endangering residents of his state, to achieve the most petty kind of payback.  He wouldn’t purposely set his state’s performance back for a petty and vicious comeuppance.  Mayor Annoyed had spent too many years filling potholes to dig any of his own, for any reason.

For that kind of behavior you need someone really, really small.  For the anger and argument to become that self-absorbed and infantile, you need someone with even more selfish insecurity and fractured ego than Mr. Schaefer could offer.  You need someone who saw himself as being not only larger than the sum of his constituents, but larger than the commonweal itself.  Add in the potential for actually harming innocent people — ambulances unable to reach calls, school buses unable to transport children — and you have something that leaves the Schaefers of the political world entirely incapable.  For this kind of petty venality, you have to look to a Huey Long or a Richard Nixon, someone for whom any fealty to democratic processes and public service no longer matters when personal ambition and aggrandizement are at stake.

Think on this:  A 91-year-old woman in Fort Lee, New Jersey, unreachable by an ambulance with life-support equipment caught in a traffic jam engineered as Governor Christie’s retribution for the denial of a political endorsement, died later that day at an area hospital.  I’d like to know her name.  I’d like to see her photograph.  I’d like to hear from her family.  I’d like the governor to know her name, to see her photograph, to visit with and apologize to her family.  He owes them that much.

Because he knew.

If Mr. Christie didn’t order this mayhem himself, then he knew because the aides who achieved this carnage on his behalf were so successful in doing so that they could not have possibly held their silence.  Not over the course of four long days of maintaining the traffic snarl in Fort Lee. All of us who have worked in an office, who have experienced institutional hierarchy, who have seen the wages of unthinking loyalty to the boss — we know this much.  The same kind of people who would embark on such an action would not be able to do anything but run right down the hall to tell the governor how they had delivered pain to his political enemy.  They would then wait on their attaboy.  People of that ilk live for the attaboy.   Like cats with a fresh-caught mouse, they were bringing home a prize.  And there’s no joy for any housecat if the prize can’t be displayed to the master of the house.

I’m sorry for Mr. Christie, who seems in his better moments to be something of a leader.  But anger and argument lose all charm when they are employed for stakes so small, stupid and selfish.  He knew.  And he’s lying about it now.

The Pogues project – clarified

29 Dec
December 29, 2013

Seems I let a cat slip from the bag in the Q-and-A session after a recent gig in Australia by mentioning some work undertaken in conjunction with a possible stage musical involving the songs of The Pogues.   I was offering an answer to a question about whether I had thought about undertaking work in media other than prose or television.  What has ensued with the Irish press, and then with the likes of Rolling Stone, has been a little surprising, if not entirely premature.

To more carefully ground this in fact:

I’ve been a fan of The Pogues and their music since the late 1980s.  After we had used some of their songs in The Wire, I had a chance to meet the bandmembers through George Pelecanos, who had been invited to one of their concerts in Washington, D.C.  Shortly thereafter, during some time in London, I was approached by Phil Chevron about the possibility of writing a musical that would utilize the band’s discography.  Interested, I was then introduced to the estimable director Garry Hynes of Ireland’s Druid Theater, who had also been engaged by Mr. Chevron.

In turn, I approached Mr. Pelecanos and my wife, novelist Laura Lippman, to help create a storyline for such a musical.  George, my colleague on The Wire and Treme, is also a longstanding Pogues admirer and Laura, who has the lyrics of every Sondheim show memorized, has forgotten more about American musicals than I have so far learned.  We sat, worked the problem, ran it by both Ms. Hynes and Mr. Chevron, who offered notes, suggestion, encouragement and help overall.

Earlier this year, after a couple abortive drafts of leaden misery, I turned in a completed draft that was at least free of shame-inducing hackery.  The draft went to Ms. Hynes, with a copy to Phil Chevron, who was struggling with late-stage cancer.  I was glad to have produced something at least worthy of their consideration before Mr. Chevron passed away in October, if only because it was Phil’s love and understanding of the stage musical and his advocacy for this project that it exists.

Meetings and readings of the material are scheduled for later this spring, involving the writers, Ms. Hynes and her Druid team, and members of The Pogues.  After that, a second draft — this one involving Pelecanos and Lippman — is likely. And once Ms. Hynes and her team fully instruct and guide us, I have little doubt that third and fourth drafts will also be forthcoming.  Much more work by all is going to be required before such a project can be properly developed.

It is not a musical about The Pogues, as was reported, but a tale written to utilize their musical canon. It is not David Simon’s next project after Treme.  It is not the Druid Theater’s next project.  Casting calls remain unscheduled.  Rehearsal space has not been rented.  Tickets and playbills are not being printed anywhere for any purpose.  Shane Macgowan has not been assigned his house seats for the duration of the run.  No, a fellow in Sydney, Australia asked a question and without thinking too much, I answered him correctly without realizing that the internet’s reach includes the southern hemisphere.  Cat rebagged, I hope.  Or at the least, it’s a housecat at this point, not a stalking tiger.

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