Sunday, April 29, 2007


The myth of the closer

The MLB average ERA was around 4.50 in 2006, and the average team yielded an additional 10% unearned runs above their earned run total.

So a hypothetical average pitcher on an average team who has logged 50 innings will have yielded 28 runs, 25 of them earned.

Suppose this hypothetical average pitcher is the closer, who appears for 1 inning in each of 50 save situations (Note: The average team in 2006 had 60 save situations, several of which would have arisen when the regular closer wasn't available.)

The save situation by definition means a lead of 1-3 runs when the opponent comes up for its final at bat. A likely distribution of these leads would be: 28 - 1-run leads, 15 - 2-run leads and 7 - 3-run leads.

Suppose our Hypothetical Average Closer ("HAC") gives up his 28 runs by allowing exactly 1 run in 28 of his appearances. This is an unlikely distribution, since runs often come in bunches, but if these 1-run outings were evenly distributed, you see that the HAC closer would wind up with 34 saves. He'd blow 16 of the 28 1-run leads, but preserve all the 2- and 3- run leads. It's a lot of blown saves, and you wouldn't hold him in high regard as a closer. Note, however, that the MLB average rate of converted save opportunities is 66% and this HAC closer has converted 68% of his saves.

But his 28 runs would be more bunched up. Let's suppose a distribution of 2 outings with 3 runs allowed, 6 outings with 2 runs allowed and 10 outings with 1 run allowed. This means 32 outings with no runs allowed. That's 32 converted saves right off the bat. Suppose the other outings are distributed somewhat evenly (the asterisks signify blown saves):


This plausibe situation involving an average pitcher with an ERA of 4.50 results in 40 saves out of 50 opportunities. 40 saves is enough to get a pticher rated as a "premier closer" and the 80% save conversion rate is above the league average. Our HAC closer also has an 0-3 won-loss record, but losing records for closers are quite unremarkable and considered par for the course. (Trevor Hoffman, last year's top NL reliever was 0-2, and 30% of the winners of the Rolaids Relief Man Award in the past 20 years have had losing records.)

Under this very straightforward reasoning (that an average pitcher gives up around 1 run every two innings, and runs are allowed in bunches, not entirely in ones) we can figure that an average pitcher should save significantly more than half of his 1-run save opportunities.

What does all this mean? Not that the closing role is unimportant and can or should always effectively be filled by average pitchers. But it supports two radical theories (neither mine):

1) Bill James's argument that many save situations (e.g., 2 or 3 run leads, or 1 run leads with the bottom of the order coming up) don't call for your best relief pitcher;

2) Billy Beane's theory that you can take an average pitcher, pump up his stats so that he looks like a "premier closer" who is thereafter totally overvalued in the trade market, and trade him for some real (undervalued) talent. (See the career stats of former Oakland A's "closer" Billy Taylor for an illustration.)

In other words, most of the pitchers who you think are first-rate closers are not really that good. And most teams probably have 2-3 guys in the bullpen, other than the designated closer, who could serve equally well in the closing role -- they just don't get the opportunity to put together closing stats. This being true, the closing role could, and probably should, return to what it was before the early 1980s -- just another relief situation where a manager could plug in the guy who seems right for the job in that situation on that day.


The sweetness of life

Yesterday as B and I went for a lengthy walk around the neighborhood on a beautiful spring day, I stepped into a small gardening excavation at the edge of the sidewalk and turned my ankle.

B, a believer in the healing powers of liniment, kept hocking me to put some on "as soon as we get home." Finally, my will to resist was overborne:
"Alright, already! I'll put a little liniment on it!"
That's the sentence that formed in my mind, but it came out somewhat garbled.

Why don't you try it? I'll put a little liniment on it! Three times fast.

Isn't life wonderful? It deals you a sprained ankle, but then turns right around and provides you with a previously-unknown tongue-twister that you can use to surprise and delight your friends!

At this rate of exchange, I'll be dead in less than 20 years.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Existential Friday on Saturday: being who you are

How many of us would like being Bob Dylan? Or Michael Douglas? Okay, maybe not them now, but when they were young and hot.

The irony is that Bob Dylan and Michael Douglas want to be someone else. Check out the video for Things Have Changed, the Dylan's Oscar-winning theme song for the film The Wonder Boys, one of my favorite movies of all time.

In it, Dylan plays out (again) his fantasy of being a movie actor, and I think Douglas at least hints of playing out a fantasy of being a rock star.


Existential Friday on Saturday: what are we going to die of?

B has a new Apple laptop which indicates that there are 13 wireless internet networks whose signals are reaching us as we sip coffee at Grandma Moses, our favorite coffee house.

We don't subscribe to any wireless networks at home. Our reasoning? Crazy enough as it now sounds, it was because we didn't want to have wireless signals bombarding our house. Of course, now we receive about 7 different wireless network signals at home.

Maybe all these signals are perfectly benign. It's interesting how our society rushes headlong into new technologies always giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are safe and not cancer-producing. And now, of course, we all wonder how we could possibly have lived our lives in the past without constant and ubiquitous mobile internet access.

And what if they wireless signals turn out to be a health hazard?

Friday, April 27, 2007


Where do I start?

There is nothing unusual or surprising about this story, about 49-year old actor Alec Baldwin:
Baldwin to apologize for calling daughter a pig
Not the story itself, nor any of its details, nor the fact that it blares off the web page of CNN, nor the fact that my internet explorer homepage, the Dell default page, listed it as one of the top three stories of the morning.

Nothing in the least noteworthy. And yet I have to comment.

Here's the lead, right off the wire of the respectable Reuters news agency:
Actor Alec Baldwin will apologize to his daughter on national television on Friday for calling her a "thoughtless little pig," according to excerpts from a pre-taped ABC interview released on Thursday.
Apparently, Baldwin is in a raging custody battle with his former wife, Kim Basinger, over this self-same TLP (thoughtless little pig). When Baldwin's ranting voice mail message calling the 11-year-old a TLP wound up on the internet, this thing blew up. Was it Baldwin's publicist, or his divorce lawyer, or both who recommended that he apologize to TLP on The View?

Baldwin certainly is not to blame for a social system in which celebrities' personal heartaches are national news, even though he chose to make up with his daughter indirectly, by speaking to 11 million of their closest friends.

But what pushed me over the edge, from eyerolling to a guffaw, was this one additional detail. When a fading, one-time A-list megastar is upset by a bitter custody battle with his one-time mega-babe A-list ex-wife and then calls their daughter, over whom he's trying to increase custody rights, a "thoughtless little pig," furthering his own feelings of alienation and emotional pain, what shrink does he turn to?

Why... Dr. Phil, of course!

I guess it stands to reason that a movie star figures that only a media-star shrink will really understand his problems. Dr. Phil and Baldwin had "an intense, far-reaching conversation" (Dr. Phil's words) about the situation between Baldwin and his daughter. How do we know this?

Well, in the highest traditions of psychologist-patient confidentiality, we know this because Dr. Phil himself announced the fact on Larry King Live.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Crouching tiger

Baseball cognoscenti have been theorizing for nearly 20 years about the reasons for surges in home run hitting. Here's one they've missed.

In 1987, before steroids were on the radar screen, there was a major spike in the home run production. Back then, the theory was advanced that MLB was using a more tightly wound, "rabbit" baseball, one that would travel faster and farther when struck by the bat.

The next home run surge -- the one that gave us Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, and that lingers to this day -- began in 1995, the season after the worst baseball strike in history cancelled the World Series.

At first, the "rabbit ball" theory returned, along with a theory that umpires were instructed to reduce the strike zone, pursuant to an MLB conspiracy to increase run-scoring in order to recapture the fans lost due to the players strike. Though steroid use had not really gotten on the radar screen in a big way, baseball mavens talked about the increased strength and bat speed of hitters, resulting primarily from weightlifting and physical bulking up, combined with lighter, thinner-handled bats with thicker barrels that could be whipped faster through the hitting zone.

And of course, it was argued that hitting norms themselves had changed: more emphasis on hitting home runs, and more financial reward for doing so. Thus, fewer and fewer hitters try to master the skills of hitting for high average, of bunting, of moving runners ahead with skillfully placed ground balls. And hitters now all grip bats at the end of the handle rather than choking up (more whip action and thus bat speed), because they're trying to hit home runs rather than poke the ball through or over the infield.

The pitching side of things was also mined for theories. Commenters noted a new unwillingness of pitchers to throw "brushback" or even "inside" pitches.* The reluctance resulted from a new tendency of hitters to charge the mound if they believed the pitcher was throwing at them, combined with tougher rules against intentionally throwing at hitters. By not brushing back or throwing inside, it was argued, the hitter would feel more comfortable "digging in" (whatever that means) and could more easily reach pitches on the "outside" half of the strike zone.

Finally, in the late 1990s to a couple of years ago, the dominant theory of increased home run hitting has been steroids. Really, though, steroids are an explanation for the way many hitters may have "bulked up" their bodies, increasing their strength and bat speed.

There's probably something to all these theories, yet something important is missing. This idea came to me last night when, after the Mets' deflating 7-3 loss to the Braves, I cheered myself up by watching a DVD showing highlights from the Mets' 1969 World Series victory.

The 1969 season was undoubtedly still characterized by a dominance of pitching over hitting. In 1968, earned run averages as well as batting averages hit all time lows. (Carl Yastrzemski led the AL in batting with a .301 average.) The game seemed sufficiently out of balance to MLB authorities that a decision was made to "lower" the pitching mound... that is to set an official limit to the permissible height of pitching mounds at a figure lower than what most ballparks tended to build.

Offense increased a bit in 1969 as a result, but pitching stats remained somewhat eye-popping. The AL pennant-winning Baltimore Orioles had a starting rotation whose 1-4 pitchers won 23, 20, 16 and 14 games respectively. Mets ace Tom Seaver went 25-7 with a 2.28 ERA, and the Mets number 4 starter had an ERA of 3.01.

It's not surprising, then, that the 1969 Series featured dominant pitching. The scores were 4-1, Baltimore; followed by 4 consecutive Mets wins of 2-1, 5-0, 2-1 and 5-3. Except for a handful of home runs, hits were almost all scratch singles -- seeing eye grounders through the infield, bloops in to the shallow outfield. The outfielders seemed to play shallow, yet never seemed to have to back up to catch a fly ball.

The relative lack of power hitting was visually remarkable, but what was particularly striking was how virtually every hitter batted more or less from a crouch. Not necessarily the extreme, practically-doubled over stance of Pete Rose or Wade Boggs. But nobody -- not even the power hitters -- stood up straight. To a man, the batters took their stance by bending over at the waist and rounding their shoulders.

When you watch hitters today, you don't see that. Hitters' upper bodies are canted forward, yes, but not because they're crouching. Rather, it's a natural, upright posture resulting from bending at the knees.

Modern batting stances are "yogic," something like chair pose in that respect. And although the commentators don't discuss it, this body positioning is a major part of an approach to hitting that generates more power. Hitter's today increase their bat speed with body torque. The hips begin aligned at approximately right angles to the path of the ball, then swivel toward the ball. The upper torso and shoulders swivel slightly behind, followed by the swiveling of the arms. This segmented torquing creates a mechanical advantage, with each segment -- hips, torso, arms moving with greater force and speed since they travel a greater distance through the same arc, like the difference between the handle and the end of a whip. All this generates a lot of power. If you don't believe me, look at Albert Pujols, today's most feared hitter. His stance has the most pronounced knee bend combined with upright torso. But all hitters do some version of this now.

chair albert_pujols_atbat_vs_chan_ho_park_pitc
Left: chair pose. Right: Pujols.

Bending at the waist and crouching disrupts this torquing. If I really knew this stuff I could explain why, but with the upper body curving toward the ground at shoulders and waist, any swiveling will be in the wrong direction -- not forward, but downward. In fact, no one could hit that way, and in order to make contact with the ball, crouched hitters, would have to come out of their crouch. They would lose valuable time, achieve less torque, rely more on arm motion with less torso motion, and generate less power. If you watch footage of hitters from the 1970s and earlier, you see a lot more looping arm swings, more independence between arm and torso, as though they were taking two-handed tennis racket strokes. In contrast to today's hitters, whose hips are almost always square to the pitch when their bat connects, these crouched hitters are more likely not to have come fully around at the moment of contact.

Look at the rounded shoulders on Ernie Banks! As a power hitter,
his would have been one of the more upright stances of his era.

Even Don Mattingly in 1982 is bent over at the waist.

Given the great emphasis that sports knowledge places on kinesiology -- "body mechanics" to baseball people -- it's an astonishing oversight that commentators haven't offered this explanation for the modern "power surge" in hitting.

Why did it take so long for baseball to discover the upright batting stance? The more-or-less crouched batting stance had been taught to hitters for decades. The theory behind it was (1) you create a smaller body profile and thus a smaller, more difficult "strike zone" for the pitcher to target; (2) this is how we've always taught it. Baseball is a conservative sport, where dumb ideas die hard.

Crouching just seems athletic. It creates an aura of being "ready for action." But the idea of readiness means being coiled to unleash energy, and getting up out of a crouch, for a baseball hitter, had all the unleashing power of getting up out of a chair.

*On the off chance any non-fans are still reading this, "inside" pitches are close to the batter, and "brushback" pitches are so close that the batter has to dodge out of the way to avoid being hit.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Does this make me a bad person?

The other day, the New York Times "Science Times" section ran a photo of a young Dr. Jane Goodall, and all I could think was, "what a babe! I had no idea!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Brick by brick


I never really thought about how brick facades are put up on modern buildings. Come to think of it, you don't see bricklayers standing on scaffolding many stories up in the air laying bricks one at a time. I guess it stands to reason that brick wall facades are prefabricated.


Up it goes!


DSCN7534 DSCN7539

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Insult to injury

One of the little indignities we well-fed people all suffer is the occasional compulsion to buy food that we know will be really bad and overpriced because we're a captive audience. At the airport, of course, or for me, the lunch stand in the law school buidling. The least objectionable food today was a ham and cheese sandwich that looks like it was made by a sullen 12-year-old, with two slices of ham and one of cheese slapped between two large, floppy slices of bread. No nuthin else on it. $3.75.

And how's this for holding down labor costs: The sandwich wasn't even cut into halves. What is it about holding and biting into an uncut sandwich on bread shaped like this

that makes it taste like a slab of recycled paper?


Calling Jeremy Freese...

I called B on her cell phone early yesterday evening. She was at an airport whose name is being withheld for purposes of this post.

I could have sworn I heard the airport announcer in the background making this announcement:

Will Jeremy Freese please report to the customer service desk. Jeremy... Freese ....

How weird is that? Does that count as a blogger meet up?

Monday, April 16, 2007


Watermelon Man: the importance of context

You may remember that I'm someone who is profoundly ignornant of and indifferent to jazz.

For example, until last night, I would not have been able to tell you the name of the song Watermelon Man (1962) or the artist who created it (Herbie Hancock), even though I'd have instantly recognized it as a song I've heard approximately 6,000 times. (Listen to it here, if you share my jazz ignorance, so you'll follow my point.)

Watermelon Man is one of those jazz standards that had too much success, if that's possible. Played so often in its 45 years of existence, it is now an insufferable musical cliche.

Interestingly, though, the version we've heard the most was a cover by Afro-Cuban Latin jazz giant (I've never heard of the guy -- that's from Wikipedia) Mongo Santamaria. Listen to this version for a few bars, and it cries out "documentary about the early '60s" or "TV commercial."

The radio show last night played the Latin version as part of a set list of otherwise nondescript Latin numbers (mambo? samba? I dunno...) that get your hips moving in spite of yourself. In that context, hearing how Watermelon Man must have arisen as a riff on a Latin musical idiom, you can catch a glimpse of its brilliance, before it recedes into musical cliche once again.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


The camera lies

This photo doesn't come close to capturing the fleeting magic of seeing a shimmering curtain of tiny orange flicks, as drops of melting spring snow caught the reflection of sunset. But if you look carefully, you can see some of them.


Saturday, April 14, 2007


Citizen soldiers

There was a time when political lefties had a thing about campus ROTC ("rot-cee") as a big, bad government institution, and fierce opposition to ROTC was part and parcel of opposition to the Vietnam War. That association of ideas lingers to this day for many people. And of course, there has been a longstanding academic objection to ROTC, insofar as course credit for things other than phys ed could be garned through gut courses taught by ROTC instructors. (I don't know whether that's still the case.)

That academic rigor issue aside, I have no objection to ROTC as a political matter. In fact, it's probably a beneficial institution, since it builds a citizen-soldier element into an officer corps that would otherwise be entirely drawn from a "professional army" military academy cadre.

The ROTCees at my university happen to finish their gym workouts just around the time I arrive in the morning for my hockey scrimmages. They are suited up in shorts and t-shirts that say "Army" and gray windbreakers and reflector belts looped around their torsos on a shoulder-to-opposite-hip diagonal. It's like a Sam Browne belt, but without the horizantal belt around the waist and in flourescent yellow-green. They look sort of like the safety patrol at the nearby elementary school.

On this gray, drizzly morning, I wish I had my camera to snap a picture of the ROTCees, as they walk out of the gym in packs and in ones, twos or threes, get into their cars, a whole line of cars.

This answers one question and raises another. Now I know why all the street parking in front of the gym is taken up at 7:30 a.m. But why the hell are they driving to the gym?

Increasing our dependence on the very foreign oil they're going to get sent off to fight for.

Increasing the evidence flabbiness of our armed forces, reinforcing the impression I get from time to time with photos from Iraq, showing a t-shirt wearing solider with flab hanging over his belt.

And what are those reflective belts for, anyhow? Shouldn't they be double-timing it to the gym to the cadence of "I don't know but I been told..." or something like that?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Blogs are weird. Or the internet is. Or maybe it's just me.

Let's review the facts:

Last autumn, I fell into a prolonged blog depression, one that may yet prove fatal, and trail off blogging to about once every week or two.

A brief flurry of travel blogging from Israel in December failed to snap me out of it.

My loyal readers gradually and understandably slipped away. And so... traffic hits an all time high. I'm now averaging 250 hits a day. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I had 350 hits.

What the...? Closer analysis of the "entry page" data shows that only about 10% of hits are to the first page in my blog, compared to around 50% in my heyday, suggesting the traffic comes clicking through from links.

And what links? According to the referral page data, virtually all of my traffic now comes from Google image searches.

So basically, my best-ever blog hit numbers represent random internet noise. Maybe Google did something to tweak its image search function. Maybe I've posted a critical mass of photos that elevates my Google Image presence.

What does it all mean? It means: you're not reading this.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Stupid Red Sox fans or Yankee fans in disguise?

The Red Sox paid over $100 million to sign six years of Japanese pitching phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka (including over $50 million up front to buy "negotiating rights"). As you've heard by now, "Daisuke" is pronounced "dice-K," which of course lends itself to clever nicknames. Like "Dice-K."

And, of course, fan pictographs. Matsuzaka pitched very well in his debut, and a number of news organizations carried versions of this picture

1175795074_5808 Vp23raAk

with a caption like "Red Sox fans cheer on Dice-K."

I'm no expert in these things, but I read that as "Die-K."

Thursday, April 05, 2007


(Organic free range) Eggs for breakfast

I had eggs for breakfast and, lacking a cereal box to read, I read the egg carton.
"A good source of PROTEIN"
That's one of the milder marketing boasts you'll ever see. Have people forgotten that eggs in fact are a source of protein? Hmmm.
"Our free range hens are fed a 100% organic vegetarian diet."
That's is more like it. Though I have to admit that I felt a bit... defensive, as I imagined more hard nosed acquaintances mocking me for "overpriced, politically correct" eating habits. As in:
Hahaha, your chickens are organic vegetarians! I bet they drive Priuses and handmake all their clothes from hemp!
In case that mocking thought is in your mind, however, I ask you what it says on your egg carton. If your egg carton was as matter-of-fact as mine, and if there were truth and justice in the world of advertizing, your egg carton would say something like this:
Our hens are fed a diet of 80% meat and meat-by-products. They eat intestines, beaks, combs and claws of other chickens! They eat chicken brains! It's all ground up into a brown sludge, and then we throw in some dried corn. And a few feathers. They love it! You like eating chicken don't you? So why shouldn't they? Oh, and some horse hooves too.

They sit in a cage all day unable to move, and if that doesn't make them fat and tender enough we pump them so full of estrogen that even you will get PMS, even if you're a guy! How cool is that?

Okay, maybe not so much, but it's cheaper than the other eggs.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Better than the numbers indicate

I watched the final game of the Mets' three game spank-o-rama of the Cardinals in St. Louis, over which the Mets outscored the Cards by 20-2. This is almost exactly the same Cardinals ball club that, I suppose in some technical sense, "won" the "World Series" last season, so it was extra sweet to see this humiliation imposed while Cardinals home-town announcer Joe Buck made comments like "that World Series ring looks really great."

Tonight's announcers on ESPN grew bored with the game in front of them, and went on a lengthy riff about whether Barry Bonds would break the home run record this year. Commentator Steve Phillips pronounced Bonds "healthy" and went on to predict that Bonds will hit 40 or more home runs this year. This man, Phillips, is the same guy who, as Mets GM, pronounced Mo Vaughn "healthy" after watching him for an hour in Vaughn's personal batting cage after Vaughn missed the entire 2001 season due to injury. Phillips traded for Vaughn and his $46 million 3-year contract. Vaughn broke down 37 games into the second year and never played baseball again.

The Cardinals, hurting for starting pitchers, have converted mediocre reliever Braden Looper into an undoubtedly mediocre starting pitcher, by the ESPN guys really wanted the story line of this game -- a 10-0 Mets win -- to be Looper's surprisingly good first-ever pitching start. He threw five shutout innings, but got touched up for 3 runs in the sixth and left the game with a pitching line of 6 innings, 8 hits, 3 earned runs, 4.50 ERA, and his team losing 3-0. This is the very definition of a so-so performance, but the announcers must have said at least 6 times that he pitched "better than the numbers indicate." I don't get that at all. He pitched exactly as well as the numbers indicated.

Last week I happened to catch a few innings of the 1982 World Series (Cardinals-Brewers) on the Classic Sports Network. Despite having two former major leaguers as commentators (Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek), the announcing team found almost nothing to say about the game that my mom couldn't have come up with by watching on TV without the sound. They would describe the play in the most general terms -- "a single," "a fly out," "a swing and a miss" -- but they never said a word of "inside baseball." I don't think they even identified the pitch type, even once.

It really puts tonight's exceedingly lame ESPN broadcast into perspective. Not nearly as dumb as their words indicate.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


What kind of fan are you?

My kind: worry wart.

The Mets opened their 2007 campaign Sunday with a neat 6-1 spanking of the "World Champion" St. Louis Cardinals, making the Cards' ace Chris Carpenter really get in touch with his inner .500 pitcher. Pretty much everyone up and down the Mets' lineup hit, the Mets' pitching looked good, and the defense was unbelievable.

Indeed, the Mets defensive play looked like a weeks' worth of Sports Center "Web Gems" for the entire Major Leagues. The Mets turned 4 lovely double plays, only one of which was routine, and one featuring a dive-and-glove-flip by 37-year-old Jose Valentin plus a kind of leaping wrist-toss by Jose Reyes on the relay throw.

40-year old Moises Alou made a diving catch to stop what would have been a key hit, and Carlos Beltran, in the same inning, gunned out the speedy David Eckstein at home plate with one of the most perfect throws you'll ever see: the ball went straight into the catcher's glove in tagging position, on a line -- no bounce.

All this defensive finesse is particularly impressive on the first day of the season, when lots of players are still working the kinks out. (Is that kind of solid-preseason preparation the kind of thing you can credit manager Willie Randolph with? I say: yes!)

You can't ask for more, and of course everyone is picking the Mets to win the division. But I'm a wood-toucher. The only weakness people talk about is the pitching, but I'm worried about the Mets' much-vaunted offense. Here are all the things that can go wrong.

If my "whale curve" thesis holds true, then Paul Loduca and Carlos Beltran are both due for significant declines in production. Beltran, 29, may have had his first spike year last year, and thus may never again reach last year's power numbers. LoDuca almost certainly had his second spike year last year and will never be that good again. It wouldn't be surprising for him to have his worst-ever season. Meanwhile, Carlos Delgado is a year older and will turn 35 this year. Can he continue to hit like a young man, or will he look like he did during his massive mid-season slump?

So, basically, the 2-3-4 hitters could have major falloffs in production. Reyes and Wright are good shots to continue to improve, but can they carry the team? The rest of the lineup -- fading stars Moises Alou (40), Shawn Green (34) and Jose Valentin (37), plus backup outfielder Endy Chavez whose .300 average last year was a revelation -- wouldn't really surprise anybody if they each batted around .220.

The only player on the roster who is on his career upside and could step up offensively is Lastings Milledge. But his playing time is going to be significantly checked by the "veterans' preferences" for Alou and Green, and Milledge would only take over after one or the other of them performed miserably for a couple of months. And of course, there's some chance that Mets management will panic and trade Milledge for some mediocre starting pitcher.

If all this bad stuff happened, the Mets would finish with 83-87 wins in third place.

Mark you, I don't predict any of these things, and I most certainly don't want them to happen. I love being wrong about this stuff. I'm just saying...

Sunday, April 01, 2007



I finally got around to seeing Borat last night.

I used to drive my good friend Kevin crazy. Very witty, and a great storyteller, Kevin would come into work every day with some tale of bringing someone down a peg -- some pompous gasbag, or outrageously mean storekeeper -- by flashing out the perfect stroke of rapier-like wit at the perfect moment.

This is how I drove Kevin crazy. He would tell the story, and I, on the very edge of laughter, would always ask: "Did you really say that?" If he really did say that, I'd guffaw. If he didn't -- if he hadn't said the great bon mot right there on the scene, and only thought it up later -- my smile would shrink a bit and I'd chuckle.

Kevin's view was "if it's funny, it's funny! It doesn't matter whether I 'really' said it or not." But to me it mattered. Timing is everything, or almost everything, in comedy, and it really is less funny if the mean-spirited and pompous got away with it and were only skewered in Kevin's imagination hours later as he came up with what he should have said. It's the difference between Oscar Wilde and mere esprit d'escalier (the clever comeback that comes to you too late, as you're going down the stairs).

The entire Borat movie was like that. Yes, it had laugh-out-loud parts, and uncomfortable edgy satire parts. But the whole time I was thinking, that to really know how funny or how sharp this movie is, I'd need to know which of the scenes were genuine "candid camera" moments and which were staged. Comedy where you don't know how hard to laugh until you've done a bunch of background research has a major timing problem.

I've heard, for instance, that Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator and performer of the Borat character, was sued by the disgusting frat boys who picked him up in an RV on the road to Vegas. But I didn't hear that he was sued by Pamela Anderson -- so that whole thing was plainly staged. And so on.

As a satire, the "point" of Borat is create a character who's extreme cultural backwardness is turned on us as a mirror to show how culturally backward we are here in the U.S. A supposed TV newscaster from Kazakhstan, Borat (despite his "elite" position in Kazakh society) lives in a hovel in an impoverished peasant town characterized by cultural "norms" of rape, incest and Jew-baiting. Borat travels to the United States where he gains access to cultural events, people's homes and workplaces, and even local TV news broadcasts because his dupes (the people he captures on film) are purportedly convinced that he really is a Kazhak journalist making a documentary.

It's an interesting cultural/psychological setup. The American dupes tolerate, at least up to a point, some really outrageous behavior on Borat's part. This depends in equal measure upon both the friendly, trusting openness of many Americans (a trait that has a nice side but makes people gullible), but also, of course, on our gross ignorance of the world. Only people who are truly clueless about life on other continents would believe, for instance, that a journalist from Kazakhstan would return from the bathroom to the dinner table with his poop in a bag because he didn't know how to use the toilet. Meanwhile, by putting his American hosts in anapparent position of patronizing their backwards guest, Borat catches unguarded behavior displaying a level of cultural backwardness -- ignorance, prejudice, superstitious religiosity -- that sinks to the level of the movie's fictional Kazakhstan.

Okay, so there are many truly ignorant and scarily backwards people in this country. (Including me, insofar as I couldn't even spell Kazakhstan without looking it up.) I'm not sure what we're supposed to do with this information, which isn't really news in any event. Another satire shooting at the usual ducks in a barrel: southern and southwestern conservatives, small-town dwellers, evangelical Christians. Remember Michael Moore dwelling on the rabbit lady in Roger and Me? That was 16 years ago, so Borat's target is not exactly fresh meat. You want to watch over an hour of that?

Cohen is funny and talented, and I was not bored watching Borat, but in the end what impressed me most was Cohen's ability to stay in character. So really the movie is a kind of 90 minute audition demo tape. And if the audition is successful, I hope the next part is not Borat again.

Some random thoughts:

1. If Sacha Baron Cohen didn't use his middle name, you'd always have to say, "no, not the ice skater, the comedian" whenever you talked about him. Maybe you have to anyhow.

2. How could Cohen and the filmmakers sell the Borat premise to people when they plainly had to get them to sign "model releases" in order to use their images in the film? There has to have been a lot more deception going on than merely Cohen's character.

3. It was interesting and amusing to see the diverse reactions to Cohen/Borat's version of the Kazakh greeting: cheek kiss on both sides, followed (sometimes) by a kiss on the nose or lips.

4. Even though it's not the satirical "point," Cohen plays the backwards, Jew-hating, barn-animal-screwing Kazakh stereotype for all it's worth. That stereotype is the source of many would-be laughs in the movie. Until the 1990s, it was still okay to use such broad stereotypes of gays for comic purposes; until the 1940s or 1950s, blacks; and so on. I guess it's a sort of progress that we have to reach geographically farther to find acceptable demeaning stereotypes for comedy. Isn't it?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]