It can’t get any worse? The hell you say

Now, a brief interruption of this blog’s on-going obsession with the intolerable behavior of our #IMPOTUS, to offer evidence of the complete falsity of that old saying: it can’t get any worse.

Despite national championships from its professional basketball and baseball teams, and never even once from its NFL team, Houston is a football town in a football state.  Always been that way.  The Houston Oilers were the champions the first two years of the American Football League and never won it all again, but they were still the darlings of this town.  Even when they set a league record for blowing the biggest lead ever in a playoff game (a record that still stands!), the people generally got over it by the start of the next season.  (Didn’t forget, mind you, but bravely pressed on.)  Their owner was hated, but the team was loved, and in 1997 when the hated owner made good on his threat and packed the team off to Tennessee, general melancholy set in among the folks left behind to mourn.

For many, a reason to live again came with the NFL expansion Houston Texans, who started league play in 2002 in a shiny new stadium that made the Astrodome look…well, just sad.  Like most expansion teams (except the Oilers), the Texans were terrible; and yet, they have never not played before a sellout crowd in their home stadium.  Because Houston is a football town, and the Texans are our team no matter what.  In the past few years they have pretty regularly won the division in which they play, but have a losing record in the playoffs and have never gotten to the conference championship game and had a chance at the league championship game (which dare not speak its name).  This year they had a come-from-behind victory in the first round of the playoffs which got them to a second round game against a team they had beaten during this regular season, and they started that game this past Sunday with a 24 point lead in the first quarter and so it looked like everything was going to go right this time.  Right up until it didn’t.  They gave up the whole 24 point lead, and more…much more; they were an utter embarrassment, far worse than most people predicted: I mean, c’mon, what kind of team allows the opponent to score touchdowns on SEVEN CONSECUTIVE POSSESSIONS?!?!

Today, there was general malaise, a lot of moping around, at least among those who weren’t still screaming at the execrable performance from Sunday or receiving treatment for their high blood pressure resulting therefrom.  Disbelieving stares were exchanged in offices between co-workers who just couldn’t believe what they had seen on Sunday.  The weather today also stunk, in the 50s and low 60s, drizzly and rainy all day long, nothing to help lighten the mood, even just a little.  So when the bad news came today about the Houston Astros—and it was bad—it reminded me of the line from “Body Heat” when Ned Racine said “Sometimes the shit comes down so heavy I feel like I should wear a hat.”

Major League Baseball has apparently had its eye on the Astros for some time now, due to allegations that the team was breaking the written rules of baseball by using technology to steal the other team’s signs.  Late last year, pitcher Mike Fiers was quoted saying that when he was an Astro in 2017—the year they won their one and only World Series championship—there was an elaborate plan to signal the batters so they would know what pitch was coming.  That sparked a new investigation…today, Commissioner Rob Manfred released the report:  in summary, it said that, yes, the Astros cheated; they cheated even after all the teams had been specifically warned not to do this very thing (after an investigation into allegations against the Boston Red Sox); that although the front office wasn’t behind the scheme the folks up there should have known and done something about it; and that the field manager, who knew what was going on but disapproved, didn’t stop it, either.  (I’m still chewing on that: how does a manager who disapproves of his players conspiring to steal signs and sending signals to their teammates by beating on a trash can not put a stop to it?)

As punishment: the Astros lose first and second round draft choices in 2020 and 2021, pay a five million dollar fine, and the general manager and the field manager are each suspended without pay for all of the 2020 season!

Wow.  Let me start right there — wow: big fine, four top draft picks gone, and the loss for a season of the general manager who transformed a train wreck into a winner and the manager who made it work and was widely regarded as one of the best in the business these days.  Thinking that this was about as low as we could go, right…nope:

The owner fired the GM and the manager!  Baseball suspended them but Jim Crane fired them both: “I felt that, with what came out of the report, they both had responsibility.  Jeff [Luhnow] running the baseball operation and overseeing AJ [Hinch]  and all of those people associated with that. And AJ, on the bench and was aware, if you read the report, it’s pretty clear. AJ didn’t endorse this, and neither did Jeff. Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it. And that’s how we came to the conclusion.”

We’ll see if Crane is right, if his extreme punishment is enough to convince the fans in this town that his team is serious about playing by the rules, and they keep on creating traffic jams on the concourses at Minute Maid Park.  We’ll see who the team hires to take over for Luhnow to run the baseball operation and who replaces Hinch in the dugout, with only a month to go before pitchers and catchers report to training camp.

One thing is for sure. though: I will not assume that the worst is over.

Furlough Journal: The good, the bad, and the stupid

Surely this is happening all around the country, as we’re in the fifth week of a totally avoidable shutdown of parts of our federal government.  (Including the part that employs me.)  But I know it’s happening here in Houston, because this morning Houston’s Leading Information Source tells me it is.  Of the 800,000 or so federal employees who are out on furlough and learning to do without paychecks—because, essentially, a girl on Fox News challenged the manhood of our tiny-fingered president and that led him to renege on his commitment to sign a bill funding the government—more than 200,000 of them are in Texas and 30,000 of those in the Houston area.  It’s heartening to read about the local businesses taking action to help neighbors and customers who are strapped for cash.

There are restaurants offering free meals to federal employees; pharmacies charging discounted prices on prescriptions; banks waiving late fees or allowing customers to miss a payment with no penalty; a credit union offering interest-free loans to furloughed workers to cover their missing paychecks; phone and internet companies and utilities offering payment plans.  I’m keeping a list of these good neighbors so I can patronize them in the future, and maybe take them up on their offers if I have to as we wait to see where this unprecedented national hostage-taking leads us.

In the meantime, what’s being done to end this nasty situation and get us back to our normal routine of overeating and underexercising, staring blankly at cat videos, and worrying about whether our favorite social media influencers are getting enough online attention?  Well, after more than a month of not even talking about a single damn thing that the president hadn’t already said he would agree with (BTW, why should that be a concern with a president who never keeps his word?), the leadership in the Unites States Senate plans to take a couple of votes it already believes are doomed to failure.  But at least they’re trying, right?  Because that’s what a co-equal branch of government charged by the Constitution with providing checks and balances on the other branches of government is supposed to do, not act like it has no authority or free will or good judgment of its own and shout over and over again “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”.

The White House appears to have come to a complete and safe stop about any and all other issues—except for the president’s yes-I-will-oh-no-you-won’t fight with the House speaker over a State of the Union speech next week, and the president’s laughable “threats” to the family of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that have given Cohen a laughable excuse to cancel his scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill about…what was it again?  Oh, yeah, about his financial crimes and possibly the campaign finance law violations in which he implicated his former boss.  Good times.

But there is some targeted action in the Senate intended to keep this jackassery from happening again in the future, and for that I am very glad if not downright giddy:

Seatbacks in the upright and locked position, please; we’re about to encounter some (more) turbulence

If you were thinking that someday the chickens of justice would come home to roust, probably in that thing on the top of Donald Trump’s head, then today could be the day they start.  Very excited at the news of the first indictments in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation and of charges against three people, including a guilty plea that ties the Trump presidential campaign to Russian attempts to influence the election.  En garde!

One-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner Rick Gates are named in indictments alleging felony conspiracy, but the indictments make no reference to the presidential campaign nor any reference to coordination between the campaign and Russia.  Up front, let’s remember that an indictment is not proof of a crime, and that Manafort and Gates both pleaded not guilty to the charges today.  But let’s remember as well that an experienced and skilled investigator and prosecutor like Mueller doesn’t go the grand jury with charges without having a strong case.  (Yes, yes, I know about grand juries and ham sandwiches, but still.)  Also, we should have faith that this is just the first public step in a well-developed-and-researched case(s), not the last.

Why was it again that Manafort was the former campaign chairman?  Oh yeah, because he was fired from the campaign after it was learned he’d received more than $12 million in payments from a former president of Ukraine, a pro-Russia politician whom he had worked with for years, that he had failed to disclose.  And for what has he been indicted?  Conspiracy against the United States of America, conspiracy to launder money, and more.

I believe in giving credit where it’s due, especially in areas where it rarely ever is: the president was accurate when he tweeted this morning that the indictments of Manafort and Gates make no reference to the Trump campaign, nor do they allege wrongdoing in relation to the campaign.  Now, on the other hand (you saw this coming), he tweets that as if it’s all that needs to be said ever again on the topic, as if that proves the ultimate innocence of Trump, and all the Trumpets, and the campaign, of all the Russia allegations, and then (of course) uses it as a springboard (again) to suggest the real investigation should be aimed at Hillary Clinton.  (Heavy sigh.)

But he offers no comment at all on the rest of the indictment news, which I think is far more important on its face: the fact that former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pled guilty earlier this month to lying to the FBI in the Mueller probe, which is the “most explicit evidence [so far] connecting the Trump campaign to the Russian government’s meddling in last year’s election.”

Short version: Papadopoulos tried repeatedly to arrange a meeting between a London-based professor and Trump campaign officials…because he was told by the professor in April of 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, at a time long before the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign were public knowledge…and then he lied to the FBI about how valuable he considered the professor but now acknowledges he knew then that the professor had “substantial connections” to Vladimir Putin’s government.

It’s unbecoming for a graying, overweight man in his 60s who is not Santa Claus to be giddy, but I’m right on the edge of that with today’s news.  Mueller is ready to start showing his cards, and I trust that he (a) is smart enough to believe he has the goods, and (b) has all the ducks properly aligned, before he starts to deal the cards.  Charles Pierce has the same feeling: this is just the beginning, or as he puts it, the snowball has started to roll downhill:

For a while on Monday, whomever in the White House is charged with the task of hiding the presidential* telephone had done a fairly good job. The president*’s Twitter account was rigged for silent running. Republican congresscritters also were maintaining a discreet distance in the immediate aftermath of the news. (Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin popped up on Three Dolts On A Divan to say “dossier,” “Hillary,” and “uranium” a few times, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it.)

At the very least, it would seem to me, Republican congressional leaders ought to be forced to take a position as to what they would do if the president* fired Robert Mueller now that the first shoe has dropped. This should be an easy one, of course, but there is that tax bill to pass, and all that money to shove upwards to the donors, so obligations to the Constitution can wait.

This isn’t going to go like a Perry Mason murder trial, where the real killer suddenly feels remorse and rises to confess the whole thing.  Trump won’t go away easy; we can expect he’ll resist every step of the way because he still believes he’s smarter and luckier (and richer, and better looking) than everyone else.   And of course, there’s the general understanding that he will lie…about everything, as he has done, even when lying doesn’t help his cause.  He operates as if he firmly believes that everyone accepts everything he says as gospel because, well, because it’s him saying it; the fact that he is often wrong and contradicts himself is apparently irrelevant to the true believers.  Now, that was probably a good bet to be true when he lived in a universe wholly populated by people dependent on him for their financial well being.  For the rest of us, the vast majority of the world’s people who don’t have a financial relationship with Trump, it’s annoying and pathetic.  But we know it’s coming, so we’ll deal with it.

Despite the agony I imagine the president will put the country through, I admit I relish the thought of that day when we’ll get to see this guy go up in flames.  But it won’t be tomorrow…author Kevin Kruse (@KevinMKruse) tweeted a reminder earlier today that it was almost two years between the first Watergate-related indictments (of the Watergate burglars) and Richard Nixon’s resignation.  And it was close to the end of that period before the Republican Congressional leadership moved past their private disgust and went public with their opposition to the president of their own party.

There’s no encouraging reading yet on how far the Republicans who control Congress today will let this go before publicly standing up to the White House.  You’d like to think they’d already be taking a stand against a good bit of what Trump has been doing, but as Pierce noted, there are still rich Americans in desperate need of tax cuts, which means Republicans have some pipers to pay before they can stand up for America.

No news is actually excellent news

It’s not that nothing happened…but today, when the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States decided not to take up any of the pending cases on same-sex marriage, as they were expected to, the decision not to decide—at least not yet—was another sign that homosexual Americans can look forward an end to legalized discrimination sooner rather than later.  Some of them saw no reason to wait—same-sex marriages started in Virginia within hours of the news this morning.

The decision not to hear arguments in any of the cases where federal appeals courts had in essence ruled in favor of same-sex marriage means that those rulings stand, clearing the way for legal same-sex marriages in as many as 11 more states, bringing the number of states on the right side of history to 30 so far (and don’t forget the District of Columbia!).  Vox.com has a good explainer here of what today’s actions mean, with links to an update on where each state’s court case stands and graphics showing how gay marriage is being recognized in law as the right thing to do even in places where many citizens disagree.  But that’s what courts are for, to enforce law and equity in the face of majority ignorance.

Why did the justices decide as they did?  I don’t know, and the justices are not compelled to explain.  But it means that, for whatever reason or reasons, there weren’t at least four justices who were willing to take one or more of these cases right now.  I’ve read some theories that the court decided not to hear any cases because there was no disagreement: all the pending court cases were in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, so they felt there was no conflict that required their special wisdom to resolve.  The argument goes that once there are one or more cases with the opposite finding, the nation’s highest court will step in; I guess we’ll see if that’s so, but this court’s ruling in Windsor v. United States overturning the Defense of Marriage Act as a deprivation of equal protection under the law should give a good hint what they might say.

I’ve said it before (“SCOTUS dumps DOMA: fair, simple, American”), and I’d like to say it again:

This is not about what one religion or another teaches about homosexuality; this is about how the civil law treats American citizens regardless of their religious belief, or their gender or their race or national origin.  A religion is free to believe and teach what it wants about the morality of homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage, and its teachings and laws are important to the members in good standing of that particular faith.  But those teachings are not binding on Americans who are not members of that denomination.  The civil law, which orders how we all deal with one another in the secular society outside the confines of our many private clubs, is blind to such moral questions.  States have the right to decide who can “marry” and who can’t, and the federal government has to treat all “married” couples in the same way, regardless of the gender of the spouses.  Simple, really.  Fair.  American.  Congratulations, U.S.A., on another successful day at the office.

The odd obsession of CBS Sports

There is so much going on right now; what should I write about:

Yeah, that’s it: what is it with CBS Sports and the wives and children of PGA golfers?  It’s seemed to me for some time that Jim Nantz and the CBS golf broadcast are inordinately interested in naming, and showing, the wives/girlfriends/children of PGA pros when they win a tournament.  Frighteningly so.  Obsessed, even.

Not that I paid as much attention to golf on television then as I do now, but I don’t remember seeing Nicklaus’ and Palmer’s wives and kids showing up on the 18th green to hug daddy after a win.  Maybe it started with Tiger.  Tiger was such a phenomenon: so young, and so good, a new kind of golfer.  Way back when, the revered amateur golfer Bobby Jones* offered quite a compliment when he said young Jack Nicklaus played a game with which he was not familiar, and Nicklaus famously said the same about Tiger.  And when young Tiger would win, he’d walk off the green and hug his mom and dad.  It was kind of heartwarming, yes…but the TV couldn’t stop there.  Next it was Tiger hugging his bikini model-girlfriend du jour; then it was his fiancée, then his wife, but still his mom and dad.  And then after his dad died, just his wife.

(By the way, the CBS guys only ever call him “Tiger,” no need for last names…it shows they’re tight, I guess. Even if some bluenoses like me think it’s inappropriate for people covering a news event—even a sporting news event—to be quite so familiar with the people they’re covering—or even worse, to appear to be fawning over the people they’re covering—for fear that the presumption of objectivity and fairness will disappear.  Others say it’s better to be honest and not feign objectivity or pretend they don’t have favorites, and that may be the most charitable explanation I can offer for the overly familiar references from CBS, and the rest of the golfing press and TV, too, to be fair.)

Or maybe it was Phil (again, no need for a last name here) because he was hugging and kissing his pretty blonde wife, and later his pretty blonde kids which called to mind the legacy of the 1999 U.S. Open when he lost to Payne Stewart just before his first child was born.  And then even more so when Amy (yes, even some of the wives are first-name only) was being treated for cancer and she showed up to congratulate him at the 18th after a win, and that was sweet, too.

Somewhere along the way, the CBS golf producers got it stuck in their heads that the money shot from any tournament coverage was the winner being greeted by children and wives after sinking the final putt.  Eventually I realized it was happening at every tournament, every week, seemingly without exception.  Yes, some golfers have their wives/girlfriends/families with them on the road all the time; some of them are lucky enough to win a tournament being played near where their families live; but for the wives and kids to be there ever single week?  Too much.

Yesterday at The Barclay’s, the first playoff event for this year’s FedEx Cup, and Hunter Mahan is winning…yep, Cinderella story, comin’ outta nowhere…and Jim Nantz slides into that here-comes-the-fairy-tale-ending tone of his as he almost giddily whispers to a national TV audience that “hey, Hunter’s wife and daughter are HERE—I mean, they ACTUALLY FLEW HERE FROM ANOTHER STATE last night or this morning when it looked like he might win.  Have you ever seen such a thing in your whole life ever?!”  He even managed to slip in that she “NetJet-ted in.”  Imagine, if you can, the frontier grit it took for that woman to actually go to a local airfield and climb aboard a private luxury jet operated by one of her wealthy husband’s sponsors and ride in it all the way from Dallas to Teterboro?  (Yep, Nantz even told me which New York area airport she utilized!)

Mahan made his last putt, congratulated the others in his group, turned to walk off and you could see a little smile of surprise and recognition when he saw his wife and daughter on the other side of the green.  He was also trying to be a considerate competitor and get off the green as quickly as possible because there were still golfers on the course behind him waiting to finish the hole, but the cameras were in his way, hawking around waiting to capture the de rigeur heartwarming image of the man picking up his toddler and kissing his wife.  The camera even followed behind the little family as Mahan walked to the official’s tent to sign his scorecard, and we got to overhear as Mrs. asks “Weren’t you surprised to see us?”  A few minutes later the last group on the course finishes up and Mahan’s win is official; so, cue the CBS reporter for the perfunctory post-tournament “interview,” and damned if Peter Kostis didn’t make it part of the premise of his first question!

Today on my way to lunch I heard on CBS radio that Mahan won the Barclay’s AND OMIGOD HIS WIFE AND LITTLE DAUGHTER WERE THERE TO GREET HIM WHEN HE CAME OFF THE 18TH GREEN—WOWSERS!  This afternoon I was checking facts for this post, and this was the prominent picture on the front page of CBS Sports’ golf section:

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Pul-leeze, give it a rest.  You’re trying way too hard to prove…what is it that you’re trying to prove again, exactly?  Look, the journalism bar is much lower for sports than for news, but there still is a bar, or there should be.  We tune in to watch a golf tournament, not a reality show/soap opera about the golfer and his family.  Nobody’s buying what you’re selling here…not even you, I bet.

(*updated: quote originally, and inaccurately, attributed to Ben Hogan — PR)