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Baseball, Basketball, Science, School Teachers, and Supply and Demand

Mostly we follow the political and economic news here at The Central Standard Times, being the civic-minded and clinically glum types we are, but occasionally we’ll turn a hopeful eye to the sports pages. There’s usually some dreary political and economic subplot there, however, and so it is with the case of the big deal baseball story about Bryce Harper signing with the Philadelphia Phillies
In case you’re one of those atheistic commie pinko America-hating types who don’t closely follow our national pastime, Harper is one hell of a player. There’s a strong case to be made that he’s not as good a player as the more clean-shaven Mike Trout, who is under contract to the Los Angeles Angels for the next months and then seems headed toward a big payday, but after six spectacular seasons with the Washington Nationals Harper was clearly the best player on this season’s free agent market, so the bidding war wound up at $330 million for 13 years in Philadelphia. Our faith in the ruthless and sometimes crazy laws of supply and demand tell us that even that eye-popping amount is reasonable compensation given the large number of teams seeking a player with Harper’s rare statistics, even if the atheistic commie pinko America-hating types will want to compare it to a school teacher’s pay, and we note with some regret that Harper’s bottom-line agent had to take politics into account in the negotiations.
A presumably apolitical sports writer at The Log Angeles Times reports that the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants offered Harper more money, but not enough more to compensate for the wide gulf of tax rates between California and Pennsylvania. California has the nation’s highest state income tax rate at 13.3 percent, Pennsylvania imposes a rare flat tax rate of 3.07 percent on both millionaires and minimun wage earners alike, and that makes hiring a rare talent such as Harper far more expensive in the Golden State. We imagine the same is true of those rare talents in the arguably more important science and technology and engineering and mathematics fields, not to mention school teachers, and being longtime red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists we can’t help noticing how excessive taxation and other political interventions distort markets.
Even the almighty market forces don’t determine the ultimate outcome in sports and life, though, and neither do the futile interventions of mere humans and their petty politics. The Phillies will likely be better with Harper on the roster, but he’ll only be one of nine guys in the lineup, and he can’t guarantee a championship. The Los Angeles Angels haven’t won much with the arguably Trout in the lineup, The Los Angeles Lakers paid big buck for the arguably best-of-all-time LeBron James in its starting five and seems likely to miss the playoffs, and some guys are we’ve never heard of and don’t seem to have any impressive stats on the Denver Nuggets are going currently toe-to-toe with the almighty Golden State Warriors in the National Basketball Association’s western division. Our beloved New York Yankees are expected to contend for a championship this next baseball season, despite that state’s high tax rate and other left-wing craziness.
Somehow the the high-tax states seem to be faring to be faring well in the arguably more important science and technology and engineering and mathematic fields, and their school teachers aren’t so restive, and we can only surmise that all sorts of geographic and demographic climatic factors somehow figure in it all. Here in our part of Kansas the Wichita State University Wheatshockers are above .500 in conference and overall play even in a down season, the University of Kansas Jayhawks have ended a 14-year run as Big XII conference championships but the Kansas State University Wildcats are still in the chase, and the local economy is doing pretty good despite all the trade wars and tax cuts and tax hikes and other human interventions in the free market and the best efforts of our fellow human beings.
At this point all we have to say , about both sports and politics, is let the best team win.

— Bud Norman

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Opening Day

There’s plenty of serious and seriously depressing news out there, as always, but it’s hard to shake a certain sense of hopefulness on baseball’s Opening Day. It’s one of our favorite secular holidays for a number of reasons.
Much like the upcoming sacred holiday, Opening Day heralds the imminent arrival of warmer weather, for one thing, and after another long Kansas winter that will be most welcome. The first games played in the northeast will be chilly, but by the all-star game break they’ll be sweltering, and they’ll still be playing when it cools down in October. There’s something reassuring about such certainties.
Also much like the upcoming sacred holiday, baseball’s Opening Day offers everyone the chance to start life anew with an unblemished record and a shot at immortality. When the day’s last out goes into the record books half the teams will have a losing record, the other half will be briefly undefeated, but the next day brings another chance to win or lose, by the end of the season the worst teams will have won some and the best ones will have lost some, and there’s also something reassuring about such certainties of life as that.
As with politics and the rest of real life, we all take sides in baseball, and on this opening day we like our guys’ chances in baseball a lot better than we do our guys’ chances in politics. It’s a long story involving our Okie heritage and the late, great Mickey Mantle, but we’re lifelong fans of The New York Yankees, who look to be pretty darned good this year. Last year their emerging core of youthful stars, including a Rookie of the Year who smacked 51 homers, came a game short of reaching the World Series, and during the cold winter they signed a free-agent slugger who knocked 56 out of the park.
On a presumably warmer night a few weeks from now the unaffiliated Double-A Wichita Wingnuts will have their home opener down at the aging but venerable local ballpark by the Arkansas River, and that’s when baseball becomes serious. We’ve seen the Wingnuts play some great baseball from our seats in the smoking section with a couple of cigar-chomping friends, and last year they fell just a couple of runs short of a league championship, and we’re expecting another great season from our guys.
It looks likely the city will then tear down that aging but venerable local ballpark, which is the seventh-oldest professional ballpark in the world and witness to performances by such legends as Satchel Paige and Ron Guidry and Barry Bonds, and replace it with some shiny new structure and an affiliated Triple-A team with a presumably less goofy name than Wingnuts. Our old-fashioned conservative souls hate it, of course, but in baseball and the rest of the secular worlds things don’t always turn out to our liking. We’ll be back on the news today, in between watching the scores, but we’ll take time out to wish your team the best of luck and to wish you a very happy Easter.

— Bud Norman

A Dreary Look at the Latest Standings

Around this time of every year two of our daily news-reading rituals are checking in on the Major League Baseball standings, with a particular eye on where The New York Yankees stand in the American League’s eastern division, and a similarly quick glance at the essential Real Clear Politics internet sites’ widely watched averages of all the political polls, usually with an even more fervent rooting interest in how the Republican candidates are faring. During this recently hot and humid and stormy early summer, both have been rather dreary chores.
At the moment our Yankees are a couple of games under .500 and tied for last place in their division, even if they’re still within shouting distance of their rather mediocre rivals and there’s plenty of season of left before the Fall Classic, but their in-the-red run differential proves they’ve been eking out their wins and getting blown out in their more numerous losses and after a full third of the season we’ve yet to find anything in all the statistics that inspires much hope for their championship chances. Meanwhile the Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee is also behind but within shouting distance if not within the margin-of-error of the Democratic party’s worse-than-mediocre presumptive presidential nominee in the aggregate of all the polls, and there’s also plenty of season left in that game, but the obsessive sort of sports fan who delves deeper into the numbers will find few championship hopes.
Not only do the latest data show Donald J. Trump losing to Hillary Clinton by 5.8 percentage points, but the same poll he used to lavishly praise when it routinely and correctly showed him in the lead in the Republican primary races now has him losing by a landslide 12 percentage points, another poll that has so far proved prescient has a whopping 70 percent of the country regarding him unfavorably and a more-than-decisive 55 percent saying they’d never vote for him, which exceeds even the unusually high disapproval of his worse-than-mediocre rival, the electoral map is more daunting yet, and although Trump is within shouting distance in some big swing states he’s somehow in trouble in such small but reliably Republican states as Utah and Kansas. Worse yet, these numbers come after what should have been a good week for Trump.

The big story of the past week has been the mass murder of 50 people and the serious wounding of many more at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub by a nutcase Islamist who had phoned in his fealty to the nutcase Islamic State before committing his slaughter, and as horrific as it was we’d have expected any old presumptive Republican nominee to get a bump from it. Another all-too-common mass slaughter on American soil by and Islamist nutcase and tied directly to the nutcase Islamic State was once again weakly addressed by a Democratic administration that seemed more offended by the Republican nominee than the mass-murderer and was reduced to angrily explaining why it won’t use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” and had not so long dismissed the Islamic State that arose in the aftermath of its premature withdrawal from Iraq as “jayvee team” of terrorism, and although the presumptive Democratic nominee felt obliged to tell the press she was “happy” to call it radical Islamic terrorism it should have been a good week for any presumptive Republican nominee. During this hot and humid and stormy early summer, though, the presumptive Republican nominee seems to have lost this gimme game to his worse-than-mediocre rivals.
Maybe it’s the way his immediately “tweeted” response was to congratulate himself for having predicted another terrorist attack on American soil rather than offering thoughts and prayers to the victims and their loved ones, as if it would require some sort of Nostradamus to make such a prophecy, or the way he immediately pandered to the homosexual community that had been targeted in the murders and using the cacophonous neologism “bigly” in the process, or that his past stands on the Islamic State have ranged from bombing the barnyard epithet against them and sending in up to 30,000 ground troops to outsourcing the problem that alluringly strong Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, or the way he failed to make case the case that Obama’s policies and had led to the tragedy and instead said something in his typically un-parsable English that allowed to press to plausibly characterize it as yet another of his frequent bizarre conspiracy theories, but in any case Trump seems to have fared more badly in the polls than even the worse-than-mediocre President Barack Obama and the even more unpopular presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and their utterly worthless responses on the issue.
It’s all a shame, because even in such a hot and humid and stormy early summer it could have been different. The New York Yankees have the biggest media market and a winning tradition and despite all that salary cap socialism they have the most resources and could have made a couple of trades or free agent signings that would have at least put them in contention, and the Republican party had at least three or four and as many 16 other choices that would have a big lead over the worse-than-mediocre competition at this point. Although we’re no longer taking any rooting interest in the race we believe that the presumptive Republican nominee’s self-aggrandizing and opportunistic and illiterate response was at least better than the opposition’s willful denial of an ongoing problem their policies have promulgated, and we can’t help but think that if the Republicans had a team that knows how to play this game it would be sitting on a cheering lead about now.

— Bud Norman

Baseball, Politics, and Prognastication

Watching the opinion polls at this point in a presidential race is as pointless as checking the baseball standings in the first few weeks of the season, but we’re the obsessive sort of fans who do both. It’s never too early to start cheering your favorites, in politics or baseball, those early season wins and losses count, and there’s a certain fascination in watching it all play out over time.
At an analogous point in the recently concluded baseball season we were confidently predicting The New York Yankees would outlast The Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles to win the American League East, that The Detroit Tigers would be a in nip-and-tuck race with the Kansas City Royals down to the wire in the Central, and that all that talent on The Los Angeles Angels would eventually prevail in the West. We did slightly better predicting the outcome of the National League races, partly because they’re more predictable and partly because we paid less attention, although we would have never guessed the Chicago Cubs being in the playoffs. Any analysis of the political races is therefore offered with due humility, but we can’t resist a few too-early observations.
There’s a new poll from Iowa indicating that formerly inevitable Hillary Clinton is deep trouble in that first-to-vote and therefore inordinately influential state, and we think it’s predictive of future problems. Although she’s still leading the current field in the primary race, she has less than a majority and her lead over self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has shrunk to 11 points, and when you add the now seemingly inevitable entrance of Vice President Joe Biden into the race it shrinks further to five points. Among all of the state’s registered voters, Clinton is currently enduring a blow-out. Her unfavorable rating is at 59 percent, and after a quarter century in the public eye it’s hard to see how she can turn that around, and she’s losing badly to all of the possible Republican contenders in hypothetical match-ups. She fares worst, interestingly enough, against the former high-tech executive and failed senatorial candidate and equally female Carly Fiorina, who is currently beating her by a 52-38 margin.
A lawyer friend of ours who’s a Democrat by profession and a Kansas City Royals fan by vocation always bets on the money and brand name, and is convinced that whatever candidate has the biggest campaign chest and most recognizable name will always prevail, and that his beloved small-market ball club will always be denied its due by some evil free-agent-laden franchise from the bigger, badder cities and their capitalist ways. This is the way to bet, as Ring Lardner would have put it, so there’s no denying our friend right is more often than wrong, but his gal Clinton is looking a lot like one of the exceptions to the rule. We’ve rooted for The New York Yankees long enough to know that money and brand name don’t always translate into performance on the field, and Clinton’s game thus far has not been up to a self-described socialist and Vermont senator or an as-yet-undeclared Vice President Joe Biden, or even a trio of Republican political neophytes or a smattering of Republicans who have actually held public office but might be sufficiently anti-establishment to satisfy the party’s ravenous base. Throw in the fact that Sanders is reportedly raising even more money than Clinton, and with a far broader base of admittedly less well-heeled donors, and is drawing crowds that exceed the big rock star tour that candidate Barack Obama headlined back in ’08, and Sanders is looking like one of those small-market contenders that occasionally win the title.
Another prediction offered with due humility is that Biden will get into the race, and with the implicit or explicit endorsement of President Barack Obama, thus garnering all the dwindling yet still significant-voters within-the-Democratic-Party that entails, as well as the significant organizational and fund-raising benefits that go along with it, and that he’ll mostly draw his support from Clinton. We’ve seen exactly one Clinton bumper sticker, which was somehow sitting outside the local grocery store, but at all the culture-vulture and hipster events we attend there are far more Sanders ’16 buttons. The Sanders constituency seems to genuinely like the guy, the Clinton supporters seem to be betting on money and name recognition, and even this early on it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is one of those exceptions to the rules.
The rules seem to be enforced with the now usual disregard on the Republican side, as well, where the buffoonish billionaire and political neophyte Donald Trump is still leading what was once thought a strong field. That’s still true in that same Iowa poll that showed Clinton in trouble, although his lead has been whittled down by retired neurosurgeon and fellow political neophyte Ben Carson, with that pesky female Fiorina in third place and within striking distance. We can’t help noticing a newer poll that shows the soft-spoken and humble Carson ahead of the brusque and self-aggrandizing Trump, through, and we take that as a hopeful trend. Trump seems to have already hit that part of the season where that .600 average inevitably starts to run up against gravitational forces, and the same faith we place in both the Republican Party and the American League gives us hope he won’t make the finals. We’ll take Carson over Trump any day, and we’re liking Fiorina better all the time, even if she has to run against some old white guy, but we’re still holding out hope for someone who has actually held office, and it looks to be an interesting race.
Baseball’s post-season should prove interesting, as well. Our New York Yankees, for all their money and brand name and free-agent-laden roster, are down to one game against a Houston Astros squad we never expected. They’ve got the home field advantage, at least, which would have meant an automatic slot in the quarterfinals before this newfangled socialistic system, and in any case we expect it to come down to the small market Royals and Toronto Blue Jays, and despite a one-game deficit over the regular season the Blue Jays suddenly seem the team to beat, and we won’t wager any actual money on how it turns out. Over on the National League side The St. Louis Cardinals seem the way to bet, but that doesn’t always work out. At this point, out best advice for politics and baseball is to stay tuned.

— Bud Norman

Yogi Berra, RIP

Although we rarely comment about sports, even on those all-too-frequent occasions when it spills over into the political news, we do try to take note of matters of importance to the broader American culture. The death of New York Yankee legend Yogi Berra, therefore, demands respectful mention.
Berra was, by consensus of expert opinion, one of the very best to ever play America’s pastime, and by objective measure he was he one of the most successful athletes in the entire history of American professional team sports. By all accounts he was also a man of high moral character, who bravely served his country in war and was devoted to his wife from their courtship until her death and played the game by the strictest standards of sportsmanship and spent 70 years in the public eye without a hint of any scandal. Somehow, though, he is best remembered as a funny-looking guy who said things funny. Add it all up, and he was one of those all-too-infrequent characters who enriched the American scene by pure American individualism.
You wouldn’t have known it by looking at his short, squat, graceless body, but a glance at Berra’s numbers makes clear that he could play some serious ball. You can look it up, as they like to say in baseball. He was a three-time Most Valuable Player, finished in the top four in MVP voting four other times, was an 18-time All-Star,  smacked 358 homers and batted in 1,430 runs, and as a catcher he earned a reputation as the best friend a pitcher ever had, among many other notable individual accomplishments. What his teams accomplished with him behind the plate was even more impressive, as The New York Yankees played in 14 World Series, won ten of them, and were almost always in contention. Those teams were loaded with such all-time talents as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to be sure, but there were seven seasons when Berra led the team in RBI and never a time when even his more heralded teammates didn’t acknowledge that he was the most essential Yankee. All those World Series appearances allowed Berra to set seemingly unbreakable “Fall Classic” records for games played and at-bats and hits and RBI and doubles, not to mention the perfect game he caught from journeyman pitcher Don Larsen, and he trails only Mantle and Babe Ruth for most home runs hit in October. In American professional sports history, the ten championships he won are surpassed only by the 11 that Bill Russell won with the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association and Henri Richard won with the Montreal Canadiens in the National Hockey League, and both of those guys also played on teams laden with all-time talent.
The New York Yankees’ many years of dominance, which had begun even before Berra arrived, with his mentor Bill Dickey manning the plate, made the team so hated everywhere outside the five boroughs that they became better known as The Damn Yankees. Berra, though, was such a appealing fellow that even a Boston Red Sox fan found it hard to work up a mild dislike for him. It helped that he wasn’t a handsome hunk who was always being photographed at a  swank nightclub with a couple of hotties hanging on his arms, like DiMaggio or Mantle, but was instead going home to his beloved and equally plain wife in a simple place in New Jersey that he described as “nothing but rooms.” He didn’t like to talk about his years in the Navy, which included hazardous duty just a hundred yards off Omaha Beach on D-Day, but the stories got out and enhanced the good guy reputation he so earnestly earned on the field. Teammates and opponents alike vouched for the quality of the man, and so far as we know no one ever disputed it over the many decades he spent in baseball as a coach, manager, and goodwill ambassador of the game.
Despite all that, the first thing people think of when Berra’s name is invoked are all the “Yogi-isms,” and the inadvertently comic character they created. A “Yogi-ism” is something that Berra would blurt out which makes no sense at all if parsed according to the rules of the English language, but makes perfect and often profound sense if you hear them the way he meant to say it. The brilliantly redundant “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “It’s deja vu all over again” are now part of the popular lexicon, and his observations that “baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical” and “in baseball you don’t know nothing” are probably the most oft-cited explanations of the seemingly complicated game. Another record that Berra holds is the most citations in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of any athlete, and we note that he also has more than any living president. Some of Berra’s gems are less well-known, but prove to us that Berra truly was a sort of Yogi. His advice that “You should always go to other people’s funerals, or they won’t go to yours,” and that “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else,” and “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” and “You can observe a lot by watching,” or that line about “When you reach a fork in the road, take it,” which is by now a staple of college commencement speeches, all strike us as more eloquently deep than anything Shakespeare could think of for Polonius to tell Laertes. Berra always insisted such philosophical malapropisms simply fell out of his funny-looking face, and he titled his autobiography “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said,” but they’ll probably be what ensures his place in American mythology next to Mike Fink and Huck Finn and Mr. Dooley and all those other quotable fictional characters.
Berra became such a myth that one must take care to sadly note the passing of the man, and of the better era of baseball and America from whence he came. A more careful observer of the current sporting scene notes that the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey is widely regarded as the best catcher of this day, and that he needs to triple his numbers to approach Berra’s achievements. Nor do we note anyone in professional sports who can boast of Berra’s military record or exemplary personal life or stellar reputation as one of the good guys, and if there were someone who could he probably would boast of it, which Berra never did. Baseball still offers such stellar wits as Bob Uecker and John Kruk, and something about the way the game forces even its greatest players to constantly confront failure ensures that it will always have the best sense of humor, but it just doesn’t seem to fall right out of their funny-looking faces with the same profundity.
Yogi Berra was the kind of guy who went to other people’s funerals, so we’re sure that they’ll all go to his, and he lived 90 years in a world that wouldn’t have been more perfect even if it had been perfect, and he won ten World Series, and in this imperfect world he got to lose four of them, and he was always in contention, and he spent the rest of his life in the game he loved and most of it with the woman he loved, and he wasn’t the sort to complain, so we’ll take comfort in that. When his wife once asked if he’d like to be buried in St Louis, where he grew up in an Italian slum, or New York City, where he became a legend, or New Jersey, where he quietly lived most of his life in that house full of nothing but rooms, Berra reportedly told her, “Surprise me.” Wherever that short, squat, graceless, and yet three-times most valuable body ends up, we hope and pray that his spirit is at long last safe at home. And we hold out faint hope that we’ll see the likes of him again.

— Bud Norman

The Great Debate

Wednesday night was a good one. Our beloved New York Yankees at long last clinched the American League’s eastern division title with a 14-to-2 win over the hated Boston Red Sox, and then our man Mitt Romney scored an even more lopsided victory over Barack Obama in their first presidential debate.

Debates are scored by highly subjective criteria, one of their many disadvantages relative to baseball, but we were not alone in declaring Romney the winner. The consensus of conservative pundit opinion agreed, and conservative pundits are notoriously harsh critics of their candidates. The astute fellows at the Powerline site called it a “knockout” for Romney, mixing in a boxing metaphor, and The National Review’s estimable Jonah Goldberg wrote that “Romney simply dominated and deflated Obama.” Matt Welch of the libertarian journal Reason quipped that “Romney just took Obama for a cross country drive strapped to the roof of his car.”

Liberal pundits are usually harsher yet toward conservatives, of course, but even they were forced to concede a Romney victory. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, famous for admitting to feeling a thrill go up his leg every time Obama speaks, was on the air sputtering “What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed.” Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast, who has an even more homoerotic attraction to the president, called the debate “a disaster.” Foul-mouthed comedian Bill Maher, who has raised a million dollars for the president’s campaign, “tweeted” in his typically illiterate style that “i can’t believe i’m saying this; but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.” Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, who currently holds the world record for smugness, further confirmed Romney’s victory when she said “I personally do not know who won this debate tonight.”

More important by far was the public’s reaction, and the early returns indicate most viewers also saw Romney as the winner. The Cable News Network, usually reluctant to report anything embarrassing to Obama, revealed that their viewers picked Romney by 67 to 25 percent. Viewers of the Columbia Broadcast System were less enthusiastic, but still picked Romney by a more than two-to-one plurality. Future polls that will include voters who only heard about the debate will likely show an even larger number declaring Romney the winner.

Much of the result can be attributed to a very poor performance by Obama. Once lauded by the star-struck press as the world’s greatest orator, he was hesitant, halting, defensive, and downright dull throughout the evening. Part of the problem was that he was forced to defend a very hard-to-defend record, such as when Romney noted that candidate Obama had promised to cut the deficit in half within four years but instead had more than doubled it, and with no way to plausibly deny the charges he was unable to come up with any inspiring excuses.

Obama was also clearly out of practice at facing such tough questions, having spent the last four years being coddled by an adoring press corps, a staff full of yes-men and yes-women, and the die-hard fans who still show up for his campaign rallies. At one point during a discussion of tax rates he noted that Donald Trump would be considered a small businessman “although I’m sure Donald doesn’t like to be thought of as small in any way,” then paused for the uproarious laughter that would have surely followed from his usual friendlier crowds, and he seemed stunned by the silence that instead resulted.

The other important reason for Obama’s widely conceded defeat was a very strong performance by Romney. The Republican candidate did much to dispel the image that the Democrats have tried to pin on him simply by walking on to the stage without a top hat, spats, diamond-studded walking stick, and villainous curled moustache, but he further helped himself by coming off as informed, thoughtful, dignified, and friendly and likeable even as he aggressively pressed the case against his opponent. He also helped himself by vigorously denying Obama’s oft-repeated claim that the Republican ticket intends to raise taxes on the middle class while lowering taxes for the filthy rich, and making the most of his opportunity to dispel various other lies that have been told about him. Romney made a solid defense of free market economics while retaining his centrist credentials by acknowledging the need for sensible regulations, and generally seemed the more reasonable of the two candidates.

There’s still a lot of campaign left, just as there’s still plenty of baseball to be played, but it was a good night for the good guys.

— Bud Norman