Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?

Billy Barnes is not exactly a household name in the annals of the Great American songbook but he had a successful career as a composer and lyricist.  Maybe his relative anonymity is because so much of his work was for TV rather than the stage, but one recognizable hit alone catapulted him into the company of some of the greats, "(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair."  My attraction to the song is similar to the one I have for Jerry Herman’s romantic ballad, “I Won’t Send Roses,” both bittersweet, haunting, regretful.

It takes an exceptional lyricist to make a great song so memorable.  Barnes’ song crafting created a certain kind of poignancy in this one, rendering it a classic.  One can listen to two completely different  versions on YouTube, Barbra Streisand’s highly stylized rendition recorded early in her career and Rosemary Clooney’s recorded late in hers.  Clooney has the perspective of an older woman with life’s experience to “sell” the song.  After all, it is more about a mature, “successful” woman, now alone “in a carnival city.”

My own piano recording can’t do the song justice without the words and you’ll note the ambiguity of my timing.  The song is written in 4/4 time, but the lyrics cry out for it to be played in a waltz tempo so frequently associated with the merry-go-round of the lyrics and I’m constantly drawn in and then  out of that tempo so my version is simply the way I feel it, wrong timing and all.  But I would like to add this to my YouTube library of some of my favorites.

For a full appreciation, the lyrics are necessary:

I wanted the music to play on forever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I wanted the clown to be constantly clever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I bought my blue ribbons to tie up my hair
But couldn't find anybody to care
The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
Oh mother dear, I know you're very proud
Your little girl in gingham is so far from the crowd
No daddy dear, you never could have known
That I would be successful, yet so very alone
I wanted to live in a carnival city
With laughter everywhere
I wanted my friends to be thrilling and witty
I wanted somebody to care
I found my blue ribbons all shiny and new
But now I discover them no longer blue
The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
There's nothing to win
And there's no one to want me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Pitch Captures the Essence of the Game

Everything you wanted to know about pitching but were afraid to ask: Tyler Kepner’s K; A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches

My hard cover collection of books is mostly by novelists and short-story writers I have admired over the years as well as hard-to-toss gems from my years as a publisher and even some reaching back into my college days. 

So, it was unusual for me to spend the 20 bucks or so for a baseball book, but I did so as it addresses the heart of the game, pitching, and as a former sandlot pitcher in my salad days, a crafty lefty as I thought of myself, using “’junk” pitches to get guys out who were accustomed to seeing only fast balls from my contemporaries, I thought this book would be ideal to feed boyhood fantasies.  Having played the game adds to the appreciation of what (I think, but I’m prejudiced) is the most perfect game invented, mirroring the game of life itself.

I liked the way Tyler Kepner describes his history, devoting “a chapter apiece to the fastball, the curveball, the sinker, the slider, the cutter, the changeup, the splitter, the screwball, the knuckleball and the spitball.”  Finally I thought to myself, here is a book about baseball from the inside, not just players recollecting about the old days, but much about strategy and the execution of these pitches. 

I threw some of them myself, although back then, and I’m talking the 1950’s, we didn’t have the variety of names for all of them and when I was throwing my fastball (which given my size was not very fast), it was with a hope I could place it accurately.  Mostly, I relied on a curve ball, slider and the little thrown and understood screwball.

Kepner does not cover the natural movement of a lefty’s fastball.  Lefty pitchers simply have more movement on their fastballs away from right handed hitters, although he does acknowledge that “because lefties are harder to find, they tend to get more chances to stick….Lefty relievers invariably need a breaking ball that moves away from a lefty hitter; once they have that to go with a fastball, there’s usually little need for a third pitch.”  Well I did need a #3 and my screwball was simply a more exaggerated variation off my fastball, at a slower speed and a bigger break.  In effect it was my changeup.  My bread and butter pitch to right-hander hitters, the big decision being when and how often in a batter’s pitch count to throw it.

One thing that adequately comes across in Kepner’s book is one of the reasons I could never move beyond high school with my pitching skills.  The bigger you are, the harder you could throw and generally the larger your hands. 

Small-in-stature pitchers were and are a rarity. No wonder my idol as a kid was 5’6” Bobby Shantz who played for a number of teams in the 50’s and 60’s, including the NY Yankees.  He pitched with guile and a great curve ball and earned the MVP award in 1952, when I started to follow him, with 24 wins.  He ended his career with a 3.38 ERA which, today, would get you a $10 million a year contract over multi years.  Bobby never saw that kind of $$ and Kepner’s book doesn’t mention him although he does address the size issue and, not surprisingly, under the screwball chapter.

Left hander Daniel Ray Herrera of the Reds “made 131 appearances from 2008 to 2011, and without the screwball, he would have made none.  He used it because he could not throw a changeup and it distinguished him just enough to give him his modest career.  Herrera’s quirky profile fit the pitch: 5 foot 6, and at the time of his debut, no pitcher had been shorter in more than 50 years,” perhaps a veiled reference to Shantz.

Of course, he can’t cover everyone, and that is not why I was slightly disappointed by this book.  Maybe I was expecting too much, an easy to follow and interesting narrative of these ten pitches, how they’re thrown, and the strategy of throwing them when they are thrown.  Kepner does address these issues, but in an encyclopedic, almost academic way.  After all he interviewed some 300 people and this book is distilled from those interviews, almost chaotically, and a little repetitiously I thought.  It was nice to hear the inside stories of so many of the pitchers I admired over the years, but this book often fails to be a coherent narrative.  Sometimes it reads more like a dissertation without the footnotes.

Nonetheless, being so familiar with the game itself, there were revelatory elements.  What especially stood out is the “hand me down” nature of throwing these pitches, how one generation passed on the skill to others.  And that is part of the mystery of pitching as well; each pitcher modifies these pitches to fit their unique hands, delivery, and to compliment their other pitches.  No pitcher throws all ten and few throw and hold the pitch the exact same way.   This is why it’s an art as much as a science.

All pitchers though in the majors need some kind of fast ball even if it is “only” in the high 80 mph range, to make their other bread and butter pitches more effective.   I used to experiment with fork balls, splitters but my hands were just too small to hold those pitches properly.  This comes through so clearly in Kepner’s account:  if you want to pitch in the big leagues, throwing hard and having large hands are clear advantages. 

There are anecdotes galore in this book, a gold mine of information, but trying to piece them altogether into the narrative I had expected was frustrating.  Still, I now have it as a reference work. Play ball!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

It’s Time to Rumble

Before the Democrats destroy themselves in their debates, here’s my 2 cents so I can look back and remind myself how wrong I was.

The Democratic Party must strategize, not so the “best” man/woman runs against Trump, but so the most electable ticket is running.  The priority is to defeat someone who should not have been elected in the first place, a confluence of events which perfectly came together to elect the unelectable.  One can simply list these, the modern-day enigma of the Electoral College, the bogus Russian inspired Facebook accounts which spewed propaganda into swing states, Wiki Leaks, team Trump’s nescient campaign tactics (e.g. the meeting with the Russians), Hillary’s arrogance not campaigning in rust belt states, Comey’s eleventh hour reversal on Hillary’s email, and one could go on to document Clinton’s popular vote Pyrrhic victory, while going down where it counts in the Electoral College.  I tried to detail them following the election more than two years ago. 

So if that was the result, how to reverse it in 2020?  The Democrats seem to live in a MSNBC echo chamber.  Biden is the “safe” candidate while Elizabeth Warren seems to be emerging as the progressive favorite.  I worry about Biden in a head to head with Trump.  Yes, he’ll say all the right things. Everyone on MSNBC agrees upon the non-Presidential nature of Trump, that he is corrupt, a liar, and an embarrassment in the international community.  The retort to that was emblazoned on someone’s tee shirt I saw on TV at Trump’s recent Orlando rally: “I didn’t elect a Saint.”  They don’t care.  They feel that Trump is the first politician who has their backs; how ironic is that given he was born with a tarnished silver spoon and has lavished his rich friends with most of the “benefits” of his presidency.

Elizabeth Warren on the other hand is not the “safe” candidate, but sort of like the hand grenade Trump was in 2016.  But will it explode in the Democrat’s faces?  Dare they chance it?  Trump has already branded her a “socialist.” Have the Trump supporters ever considered SOCIAL Security, public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, and all the benefits they would never want taken away (oh, except Medicaid if it was needed by the good-for-nothing unemployed or indigent).  Warren would be tougher on the financial system which is gamed to benefit those who are part of the Plutocracy.  But is that going to bring out the rust belt voter?  If she runs for President, the now favorite Trump mantra will be emblazoned in our brains, “Freedom vs. Socialism,” 24 x 7, Fox and Friends, taking up the cause.   

I’m hoping for a candidate from the “flyover” country and I’m focusing on Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, or Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, all more moderate candidates from fly-over states, ones who can drain some of the on the fence Republican voters, capture the independents, and retain the Democratic base.  Pragmatism over idealism. Perhaps someone such as Kamala Harris would run as the VP on the ticket to satisfy the more progressive minds and get a woman on the ticket.  In other words, I’m simply hoping for a WINNING ticket against Trump and all he symbolizes. 

Warren vs. Trump might be fun in the Twitter universe, but I’d be concerned about what people would do in the privacy of the voting booth.  How many people are there, who were Republican, and now call themselves “Independents” and who claim they detest Trump personally but are sympathetic to his “accomplishments” (like what, stacking SOTUS with conservatives)?  I’m not saying a fly-over candidate is going to win all these people over, but some?  Especially in the important swing states? 

In any case, this is a rumble, a gang war coming up.  Grab your zip guns even though they have AR-15s. Confront him with the least assailable ticket.

P.S.  Coincidentally, a MarketWatch article published the day after I wrote this sort of underscores the argument :  “If [Warren is] the Democratic nominee, that may help Trump, too. Politicians from Massachusetts generally blow presidential elections, and always for the same reason. They can’t campaign in Middle America.” The opinion is based on shifts in the betting odds. Money on the line beats any poll and the Democrats, as in 2016, may be taking this for granted, especially with a far left of center candidate from a Blue coastal State.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

A Cuban Humanitarian Crisis in the Making

The Cuban people have been pursuing the benefits of becoming more of a capitalist society.  This was evolving even before President Obama made it possible for Americans to once again visit the island.  Since then it has been accelerating, particularly in the tourist related industries with cruise lines being able to dock there.  The Cuban tourist industry had been dependent on European and Canadian visitors, but after Obama’s effort at detente more Cubans secured governmental licenses to work as private entrepreneurs, mostly in the tourism and related industries. 

The Trump administration has been diligently working on dismantling anything remotely connected with Obama.  It had been slowly reversing détente with Cuba and last week suddenly, without warning, went into high gear by eliminating “people to people” visits, including those by American cruise lines.  In one fell swoop, it cruelly damaged our relations with the Cuban people.   I underscore “people” as they are the ones who will mostly suffer this action.

Here was a golden opportunity to further win over the Cuban people, neighbors only 100 miles off shore. Instead, we could have undertaken a humanitarian effort to address food shortages (don’t our farmers have an excess of food capacity because of the China trade war?).  In part these shortages are due to the Trump administration’s U.S. trade embargo, as well as poor central planning by the Cuban government, and the decline in aid from Venezuela because of its political turmoil.  The confluence of all three has hastened a serious food shortage.

The Bolton hardliners see isolating Cuba as a way of punishing the Cuban government for helping keep Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro in power.  But the US clearly has another agenda and that is to overthrow the Cuban government.

So much more could be won by continuing to help the Cuban people on their path to democratization by supporting their ability to make a living through entrepreneurship.  Many Cuban’s now make their living as guides, taxis drivers, managing B&Bs and running restaurants. 

We were among the 800,000 who have visited the island via a cruise line, and as we had booked it before the first of the Trump reprisals went into effect, we were able to engage independent Cuban guides and tours without any effort. 

Our guide in Havana said his main income now was from being a guide rather than work as a well educated engineer.  Our guides in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba were now full-time guides, working for Cuban companies which would not have been possible only a few years before.  Each guide enlisted a driver for one of the old 50s cars for the day.  These men diligently and proudly keep up these old automobiles.  They cleverly fabricate parts which haven’t been available in decades.  They too have become victims of this ill conceived decree as well. Entrepreneurship is burgeoning in Cuba and we are helping to kill it.  

To put a face on this argument, here are the guides pictured with Ann:

 Our Havana Guide:

   Our Cienfuegos guide:

   Our Santiago de Cuba guide:

A strategy of working with the Cuban people on the one hand, and negotiating with the government on the other would seem to be preferable.  It certainly was bearing fruit under the Obama administration.  It is yet another failure of the cold and compassionless Trump administration; I feel for the Cuban people.  Those we met had such high hopes that American tourism would lead them all into greater prosperity and increase the chances of repairing relations between governments.  I can imagine how this cruel act will be turned into anti-American fodder by the Cuban government.