You never forget your first time

These days a mini-season ticket package for the Houston Astros gets you a seat to 28 games out of the 81-game home schedule, at least one game in every series the team plays at Minute Maid Park over the long baseball season.  My ticket for last Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers has been sitting on the shelf in my office since March, drawing no more attention than any of the 27 others on the pre-perforated sheets that I keep in the original mailing envelope.  When a colleague at work asked on Friday morning who that night’s starters would be, I had no idea and had to look it up.

The big news about this interleague series between one-time National League rivals was that Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ two best pitchers—two of the best in baseball—were to face the Astros on Saturday and Sunday.  The Dodgers’ Friday starter Brett Anderson was OK but not up to the level of his teammates, and the Astros’ Mike Fiers…well, he’s new here, and hasn’t really shown much so far.  The match-up didn’t generate much enthusiasm.

When I got to my seat the thing that had my full attention was something I’d forgotten.  At the game on Tuesday my friend Paul was wearing an AstrospMLB2-16625621dt blue batting practice jersey with the name and number of a player not on the team any more. He explained that he and other friends had wandered into a store that sells jerseys that were worn by players in real games, and as a joke they decided to treat themselves to the shirts of some players who might be said to have laid the groundwork for the first-place Astros of today.  That is, bad players who aren’t here anymore, or so-so players who’d been traded for better players: Paul was wearing Jarred Cosart’s Number 48, David had Brett Wallace’s Number 29.  He suggested I join the fun.

Sure, why not.  But that night the one store carrying those jerseys closed before I could get there, and Friday night I forgot all about it until I got to our seats and saw Paul.  So, with a giant beer in one hand and a giant soft pretzel in the other, and only fifteen minutes before first pitch, I set off: down from our upper level seats behind home plate to the concourse, around the concourse to a stairwell, down three flights of stairs to the main level, and the rest of the way around to the shop behind center field.  To improve my overall mobility, I stuffed the pretzel in my mouth and swallowed the last of it as I arrived at the Island of Misfit’s Jerseys, and put the can of beer on the ground so I could dig through the racks.  I must have spent four whole minutes grubbing through the hangers until I found a jersey that fit: not only from a player who fit the requirements for inclusion in our little stunt, but a shirt that fit me.  I walked away with the Number 22 of former backup catcher Carlos Corporan, in a size 50.  Jersey sizes run pretty big.

I was feeling it: not content to carry my trophy IMG_0220back upstairs folded up in a plastic bag, I threw it on over the shirt I was wearing, picked up my big beer and retraced my steps back around the concourse to the stairwell, up three flights to the View Deck (no, really, that’s what the upper level is called at Minute Maid Park), back around behind home and back to my section as the national anthem began.  I waited on the stairs, and after “…home of the brave” I bounced up on the front of our section, yelled for Paul’s attention and spun around to show off my prize.  He laughed as I dragged myself up the last six rows and plopped down before the first pitch.

Fiers had a slow start and was throwing a lot of pitches; I was sweating in the air conditioned building, a combination of catching my breath from my impromptu shopping trip and, as mentioned, I was wearing two shirts; before the Dodgers went down in the first I’d unbuttoned the Corporan.  By the end of the second I needed another beer, so that’s another trip down from Row 6, over to the concession stand that sells the cold beer (gotta know these things to be an Astros fan), and then back upstairs; I’d cooled off enough by then that I could button the jersey back up and look presentable.  The Astros’ pitcher had throw to the plate 60 times by the end of the third inning and didn’t look sharp, probably not long for this game.

By that time Paul had adjourned to meet other friends and I was fiddling with my phone, trying to get Twitter to work either with or without the stadium’s wi-fi and not having any luck.  I remember looking up at the scoreboard each inning and seeing that the Dodgers still had no hits, and thinking there was no way Fiers could stay in the game until the end.  But he kept coming back…and back…and back again.  He struck out the side in the 8th.

The Astros did nothing in the 8th, and every eye around me turned to the home team dugout:

Yep, by then I was getting some connection on Twitter and I decided to see if my fat typing thumbs on a tiny virtual keyboard could keep up with the action:

Now wait a minute…

…this could really happen…

(It was Chase Utley’s first game with the Dodgers after the trade, and it took me until the middle of the game to realize: he was back together with Jimmy Rollins, his teammate from the Phillies who’d signed with Los Angeles in the off season.  So much for being aware of what’s going on!)

And that brought up Justin Turner, a Dodger I really had never heard of before…

I think this is going to happen…

Yes, I really think this is about to happen…here comes pitch number 134 of the night:

20150821_astrosdodgers_btc_12IMG_0219First no hitter in Mike Fiers’ career, which now totals just 59 starts, only three of them for Houston since he came over in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers just under the waiver deadline last month.  It’s the first no hitter ever thrown at Minute Maid Park, now in its sixteenth season, and the first one I’ve seen in person in a baseball-watching career that’s significantly longer than sixteen years.  I’m proud to say that I had enough awareness in the moment to turn on the camera on my phone and point it at the players celebrating on the field, and also at the people around me who were a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ and jumpin’ ever’ which way at this most unexpected turn of events on a Friday night.  I’m less proud of my skill at operating the smartphone and Twitter:

Yes, there was grumbling from the Dodgers on Friday about the umpiring, and a story today about accusations of a foreign substance seen in Fiers’ glove, but it really did happen: I got a new shirt just in time to see a little baseball history made in this unlikeliest of Houston Astros’ seasons.

Equal protection: it’s what we do here at the ol’ USA

The first time I wrote about gay marriage rights here was more than four and half years ago  (“Equal justice for all: the gay rights tide has turned,” Oct. 15, 2010) and the kernel of the argument was already formed:

We can proclaim not to understand why people are homosexual, or embrace a religious belief that homosexual activity is a sin, but none of that matters in a tolerant, secular, civil society.  The experts can’t say why a person is sexually attracted to one gender or the other.  And it violates the rights of due process and free speech guaranteed to each American in the Constitution to treat someone differently because of their sexual orientation just as it would to treat them differently because of their gender or their ancestry.


You don’t have to “understand” gay people any more than you have to “understand” people of a different race or a different religion.  You only have to understand that these people are Americans like you, who believe in American rights like you do, who want to enjoy American freedoms like you do…

This week, history: a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court of the United States in Obergefell v Hopkins takes its place alongside the great civil rights and civil liberties decisions of American jurisprudence.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of all Americans to civil marriage, and all its advantages and protections, be they heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.  As far as the civil law is concerned this isn’t about sex: it’s about equal treatment under the law.

Homosexual conduct is no longer a civil crime in this country, and thus is no reason to withhold the full rights and exercise of citizenship from homosexuals.  Homosexual conduct is objectionable within many organized religions, to be sure, and virtually all of the opposition to extending the right to marry to gays and lesbians has come on religious grounds.  For the most part I don’t question the sincerity of that religious belief (although it would be prudent to account for the cynical exploiters, primarily from the political realm).

But that’s beside the crucial point, which is that, in this country, civil law is not answerable to religious law.  The First Amendment guarantees that we each and all get the freedom to practice our religions, but also guarantees that none of those religions wields authority directly over civil society.  The Constitution protects us from any majority that would try to force one or another religious doctrine onto everyone—because the Constitution takes religious liberty for all just that seriously—and guarantees that all men and women deserve equal treatment under law.  Despite the nearly hysterical dissenting opinions of some of his colleagues, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision didn’t create a new right; it reminded us about a right that’s been there all along…and my friend Mr. Jefferson recognized the rationale by which Kennedy connected the dots (and Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph reminded via the Twitterverse) long ago:

Obergefell does not mean that First Amendment protections of religious liberties are at risk, despite what you’ve heard.  Some of that reaction is well-intentioned misinformation; most is hot air from right-wing politicians and conservative religious extremists who need a boogieman to scare their supporters into donating money.  (I’m looking at you, Governor Abbott—thanks, Evan Smith for the Tweet-tip.)  In either case, they are wrong.  Religious organizations are exempt from this ruling, as they are exempt from many other laws, like, say, tax laws.  As Lisa Falkenberg put it in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, this ruling has no applicability to individuals in their private lives or to private religious institutions: “It does not keep anyone from judging, or hating, or even just politely refusing to acknowledge gay people.  No court ruling has ever told a pastor whose wedding he or she can bless.  That hasn’t changed.”

It is possible to believe in the religious sacrament of marriage and still accept this court’s decision on civil marriage rights for homosexuals.  Michigan Representative Justin Amash, a Tea Party/Libertarian/Republican, made the point quite nicely this week on Facebook:

Throughout history, different cultures have defined marriage according to their own customs and practices. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists do not share identical views on marriage. In fact, significant differences regarding marriage exist even within Christianity.

What makes marriage traditional is not its adherence to a universal definition but rather that it is defined by personal faith, not by government. For thousands of years, marriage flourished without a universal definition and without government intervention. Then came licensing of marriage. In recent decades, we’ve seen state legislatures and ballot initiatives define marriage, putting government improperly at the helm of this sacred institution.

Those who care about liberty should not be satisfied with the current situation. Government intervention in marriage presents new threats to religious freedom and provides no advantages, for gay or straight couples, over unlicensed (i.e., traditional) marriage. But we shouldn’t blame the Supreme Court for where things stand.

To the extent that Americans across the political spectrum view government marriage as authoritative and unlicensed marriage as quaint, our laws must treat marriage—and the corresponding legal benefits that attach—as they would any other government institution. So, while today’s Supreme Court opinion rests upon the false premise that government licensure is necessary to validate the intimate relationships of consenting adults, I applaud the important principle enshrined in this opinion: that government may not violate the equal rights of individuals in any area in which it asserts authority. (emphasis added)

The civil right of marriage is open to all Americans.  We must be diligent about making sure that the implementation of this decision protects the First Amendment rights of those with a religious objection to same-sex marriage, keeping in mind that it doesn’t give them the right to ignore the law.  And while we’re at it we should work on getting rid of the laws which still permit discrimination against gay Americans in the areas of housing and hiring and other aspects of day to day life, and any other laws that violate anyone’s right to equal treatment.  Because we’re Americans, and that’s what we do.

Dear Pat Ryan,

I just thought I’d check in to see how things are going with you.  Some of us have gotten a little curious because we haven’t heard much of anything from you in a while now and we started to wonder what was going on.  I mean, if you say you’re going to write a blog, it is customary to actually write something from time to time.  You know, something to make the customers realize that you’re not stone dead, or ignoring them, or “too busy with work and other things” to be bothered keeping up with your commitments.  C’mon, just six damn posts in the last four months?  What’s the deal?

I mean, fercryingoutloud, in just the last few months you’ve passed up the chance to say something about:

You’ve sort of led people to believe that you cared about civil liberties and the whole gay marriage thing, or were at least interested in the subject, but when

you observe radio silence.  I mean, you gotta understand why the people would at least wonder if you’ve given up, or converted or something.

You even let this great picture on Twitter go by without any acknowledgement!


So anyway, I’d just like to say I hope you get your shit together and try to be a little more regular contributor in this space, or the owners may start thinking seriously about changing the name up there at the top of the page.

Furlough Journal: Lunatics, yes…fringe, not so much

Happy Columbus Day, which is the last day I can sit home doing nothing and still get paid during our partial government shutdown, now about to begin its third exciting week!  I used some of the time today on Twitter keeping up with developments in Washington as the Senate leaders took their turn at not only resolving the shutdown but avoiding a potential government default later this week when the debt ceiling is expected to be reached.  Good times.

The proximate cause of the shutdown that started October 1 was the inability of Congress to pass a law, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep all of the federal government departments and agencies fully funded and functioning; they pass a CR to extend funding at the prior year’s budget levels because they are totally incapable of passing a new budget—been that way for years now.  As noted at the time (Furlough Journal: Blaming the guilty, 10/2/2013) , this shutdown can be credited to the extremist Republican members of the House who were holding a gun to America’s head demanding concessions from the president on the Affordable Care Act.  Plenty of conservatives who oppose Obamacare were and are critical of the tea partiers for using this tactic at this time, for being oblivious to political reality.

Ah, but just what reality are we, or they, talking about?  You’ve probably seen more and more analysis that argues, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase, that the extremists aren’t interested in whatever “reality” the mainstream members and Congressional leadership are trying to protect and advance; they are out to do what they said they would do when they were elected—shrink the government and fight the good fight against liberals in general and Barack Obama in particular.  To the extent that they are trying to do what they promised they would do if elected and are fighting for a cause they believe in without compromising their principles, they should be applauded.  To the extent that their actions have consequences for their fellow citizens, they should take responsibility and must accept criticism.

Among the chattering classes there’s lately been a lot of effort put into trying to explain the beliefs and the motives and the actions of these extremists, to find an historical precedent for this kind of obstructionism, to give the average American a frame of reference.  To my surprise, a lot of writers are going back to the pre-Civil War South to find one!

Late last month (At this point in the discussion there is really only one question left, 9/30/2013) I wrote about a James Fallows piece in The Atlantic in which he argued that this fight is entirely within the Republican Party and that there’s nothing anyone else can say that will persuade, likening it to “the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward.”  More recently I’ve found a few making the argument that today’s tea party extremists are philosophically aligned with John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers before the Civil War.  Frank Rich in New York Magazine this weekend is just the latest:

The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree.


At the heart of the current rebels’ ideology is the anti-Washington credo of nullification, codified by the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun in the 1830s and rarely lacking for avid followers ever since. Our inability to accept the anti-government right’s persistence is in part an astonishing case of denial.


For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.


…1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.

Rich goes on to make some thoughtful points; it’s worth your time.  So is Charles C.W. Cooke’s de facto rebuttal in the National Review.  Cooke is an opponent of Obamacare who has sharply criticized the extremists for marching into this battle with no plan for how to win, but he’s not ready to cede the nullification argument, pointing out that the Constitution itself separates power in our federal government and no one should be surprised when they are disagreements among people trying to wield power:

To understand the American system is to grasp that our current impasse is by no means exceptional, and, in consequence, that there is little point in wasting time looking around for bogeymen or ghosts when the culprit is there in plain sight. If you want to blame someone for our problems, it should be James Madison, not John Calhoun.


Some progressives like simplistically to claim that America’s two parties “switched places” in 1964 — a trade leading to the predominance of racist white southerners in the GOP eager to burn down the government to get what they wanted. If so, then one has to wonder why the vast majority of funding gaps occurred at the insistence of the good guys in what, by the time the first such gap came along in 1976, was allegedly the New Democratic party.


…if staunch congressional opposition, government shutdowns, and high-profile debt-limit fights are now to be cast as examples of nullification, then Congress has evidently tried to nullify not only the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also those of Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.


My suspicion is that, as much as anything else, “nullification” is a word that is used consciously and deliberately as a cudgel — especially at the moment, when we have a president who is black. Accusing someone in America of seeking to “nullify” a given power is rhetorically akin to sticking the label “defenders of states’ rights” onto advocates of robust federalism. The accusers do not simply intend to imply that their opponents’ actions are illegal or illegitimate; they mean to taint them with the racism brush…

This is an interesting discussion to be having right now, and it keeps our minds off the latest news about the National Security Agency copying your email contacts list while we twiddle our thumbs and wait for our elected members of Congress to do their damn jobs.

Just because there’s been another mass shooting is no reason to think that there’s a problem here

Reaction to this morning’s shootings at the Washington Navy Yard are running pretty much as you expect them to: most people are concerned and frightened and interested to know more details, and the cable television news is falling all over itself to bring you the very latest on this BREAKING STORY but generally not helping clear up the confusion that’s only to be expected immediately after an event of this sort.  (Wolf Blitzer, I’m talking to you.)  The pro-gun/anti-gun rhetoric that’s followed all the recent major shootings is no doubt on its way; this morning from his Twitter account David Frum gave us all a head start:

Let’s just wait and see: I bet Frum’s suggestions are pretty close to what we’ll see and hear in the next few days.  It’s sad to think that we’re not capable of any more constructive civic discussion than this…or are we?

Oh, there’s one more thing: