A call to allies

One of the two best things I learned from watching the major political parties’ national conventions was that a four-night-long television mini-series with no drama about who will win the competition is much better when you concede that the live action in the hall doesn’t matter, so just producing it as a TV show works fine.  Probably better.  The second is that there’s a law called the Hatch Act that was designed to protect government workers from undue pressure and threat to their jobs from political parties and their operatives, but it also prohibits government facilities and workers who are on the clock from being used for partisan political purposes.

Truth is I actually knew that one before.  What I learned last week is that it’s just one more time-honored political tradition that President Trump and his party dumped on because, well, they are who they are.

I watched both major parties’ political conventions because I always do, because I thought I ought to so I’d have first-hand knowledge of what happened, and because I wanted to see what they would do since they couldn’t gather tens of thousands of people together in close quarters during the COVID-19 pandemic.  There was, shall we say, a distinct difference with respect to the medically-accepted protocols on how to fight the spread of a virus that is still killing a thousand Americans a day.

If you needed another opportunity to see the president give a rambling speech that focused on his many personal grievances, you got that.  If you are confused about how the incumbent president could offer a catalog of problems facing our country today—problems that started during his term or which became worse during that time—and try to scare you into believing those things are Joe Biden’s fault and will get worse if Trump loses the election, well, I’m with you on that one.  If you’re wondering how Joe Biden (or anyone, for that matter) could abolish the suburbs, I do not know.

For a faster and more entertaining version of the highlights of those lies, CNN’s Daniel Dale has it nailed.

Facing re-election is when most politicians take time to consider how to broaden their appeal and improve their chances.  Safe to say we can all agree that Donald Trump is not most politicians.  He is not trying to broaden his appeal.  He is counting on frightening those of our fellow citizens who supported him four years ago into doing so again, while taking actions which he thinks will make it harder for those who oppose him to vote at all.  And he’s hoping that his supporters will just overlook the fact that during his three and a half years in office he has weakened if not poisoned our relationships with international allies while sucking up to dictators, that he started trade wars that hurt American businesses and farmers, that his see-no-evil response to the pandemic is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and the cratering economy that was a direct result of our effort to protect ourselves from the virus, that he and his family businesses have siphoned off millions of tax dollars, that he overtly supports and encourages racists while never expressing concern for their actions (should we give him credit for honesty, for not pretending to care?), that he thumbs his nose at the laws of the land when they would inconvenience him and dares anyone to stop him.

To ignore the fact that so many of “the best people” he hired for his administration have ended up guilty of crimes committed in thrall to Trump and have served or are still serving time.  That he was impeached for trying to bribe another country to damage a political opponent.  That he lies to us every day in such an obvious way that it would embarrass a four year old.

Please don’t ignore this: former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, now a professor of international studies at Stanford, outlines the signs and symbols from last week’s Republican National Convention that identify Trump as an autocrat in the making:

Are you like me, do you read that list and hear the ring of truth?

For those who want to treat this election in a more traditional way and focus on “the issues,” I found a nice website that will help you with that.  It’s keepamericagreat.com and we’re all for that, right; here’s what you will find:

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The cool thing is it lays out what Trump promised four years ago in areas such as the economy and jobs, immigration, foreign policy and more, and reports whether he made good on those promises or not.  (Hint: they say he did not.)  The hilarious thing is the site, sponsored by the Biden campaign, snatched up the URL of a variant of Trump’s mantra because, well, the Trumpsters apparently didn’t think to do it themselves.

I am encouraged to read of many Republicans coming out publicly against Trump…too bad there are so few Republicans in federal office who are doing the same.  I sympathize with people like life-long Republican William Treadway, a West Point graduate who swore an oath (as did Trump himself!) to protect this country from enemies both foreign and domestic.

Well, we have met the enemy, and he is a bigoted, failed businessman whose primary use of the American presidency has been to dodge accountability for his own misdeeds, to distract from ongoing Russian attacks on both our election systems and our soldiers, and of course, to line his pockets with money squeezed from the blood and sweat and suffering of Americans nationwide.

He has even sent federal agents, dressed like my soldiers were in Afghanistan, to a city near you with the prime goal of beating, assaulting and abducting women, veterans, and others exercising their First Amendment rights as part of a program of unconstitutional “proactive arrests.” (Never has a more Stalinist term been uttered in this decade.)

Trump is an existential threat to the United States. That is not hyperbole. Many Republican friends will say that they, too, understand that fact, and find his behavior abhorrent. Yet, when it comes to considering Joe Biden, the struggle remains very real.

Their solution instead is to pick a third party, write-in Captain America or simply not cast a ballot at all.

This would be an evasion of civic responsibility. The right to vote is sacred and hard-earned, and to waste it on what amounts to abstention is an insult to those who have given their lives to protect that privilege. (emphasis added)

The only powers we citizens have against such a reckless and cruel administration as Trump’s are the voice and the vote. While one voice and one vote may seem too minimal to have any impact against a government so powerful, if we all join in chorus, a nationwide roar, we can reclaim our America from under the boot of an abusive, corrupt and shameful administration.

Staying home this fall or voting for a write-in under these conditions would be a gutless act. The two-century experiment in self-government that’s given us all so much is in need of just one thing to keep from withering: A sensible vote from responsible citizens.

In the face of a national leader so toxic to the Republic and her people as Trump, the policy goals of his opponent become irrelevant next to the preservation of the Union. What we need right now more than anything is stable, honest leadership and serious accountability for those who’ve wronged this nation and her people. We need a President Joe Biden.

(snip)

I’m willing to announce it, openly and proudly, because while it may not align with my policy goals, it aligns perfectly with my oath to protect this nation from danger. I understand that others cannot take that position publicly. But when you fill out your ballot, whether you do it at home or in a voting booth, remember: I’m on your side, and always have been.

We’ll be secret allies for now, and later, when our country has healed, we will take pride together, knowing that we did our part to save it.

Finally, there was one

Two weeks.  It’s been almost two weeks now since Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued his report finding my Houston Astros guilty of cheating in 2017 and 2018 for using technology to steal signs from their opponents, and only now has the first of the 2017 Astros manned up to make a substantive comment.  It’s a now-former Astros player, and a pitcher at that, so it’s a guy who conceivably wouldn’t have been involved in stealing signs and sending signals to the batters but he might have been, and he reportedly did not elaborate on what his own role in the operation was (or was not).  But still, good on you, Dallas Keuchel.

Keuchel signed with the Atlanta Braves as aKeuchel free agent in 2019 and just last month signed with the Chicago White Sox for this year, which is why he was at “Sox Fest” in Chicago on Friday and was asked about the cheating scandal.  Unlike all of his former teammates, including Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman who refused to admit or deny involvement or express any remorse when questioned during an Astros fan event one week ago, Keuchel responded.

“First and foremost I think apologies should be in order for, if not everybody on the team,” then himself, Keuchel told reporters during a scheduled media session. “It was never intended to be what it is made to be right now. I think when stuff comes out about things that happen over the course of a major-league ball season, it’s always blown up to the point of ‘Oh, my gosh, this has never happened before.’ ”

(snip)

Keuchel wouldn’t go into detail, but he implied other teams had similar schemes during the 2017 playoffs, saying, “Everybody’s using multiple signs. … It’s just what the state of baseball was at that point in time. Was it against the rules? Yes it was. I personally am sorry for what’s come about the whole situation. It is what it is and we’ve got to move past that. I never thought anything would’ve come like it did. I, myself, am sorry, but we’ve just got to move on.”

It’s not sackcloth and ashes, but it’s a start.  Major League Baseball investigated and concluded the Astros cheated; so far not a single person associated with the team has said that the commissioner’s office is wrong, that the Astros are not guilty of the charge.  Not the manager or the general manager, who were both fired for not stopping the cheating; not any of the players who are accused of having been behind the scheme.  No one.  The owner said that once the players get to spring training next month and all have a chance to discuss how to handle this, they will apologize.  Yeah, that sounds like it’ll be pretty sincere.

My bet is the players are going to be plenty sincere when they agree with one more thing Keuchel told the Sox fans Friday: that what is really unfortunate is that former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers violated the sanctity of the clubhouse when he went on the record about the Astros cheating and sparked the MLB investigation.

“That’s a tough subject because it’s such a tight-knit community in the clubhouse,” Keuchel said of Fiers. “In baseball especially, you’re playing 162 games in the regular season, plus spring training and the maybe in the playoffs if you’re lucky, so you’re pushing 185 (to) 200 games. It sucks to the extent of the clubhouse rule was broken. That’s where I’ll go with that, I don’t have much else to say about it.”

But then later, he added, “A lot of guys are not happy with the fact that Mike (Fiers) came out and said something. But at the same time, there is some sorrow in guys’ voices — I have talked to guys before. This will be going on for a long time. I’m sure in the back of guys’ minds this will stick forever.”

Not just in the players’ minds, you know: people are not going to just forget that these Houston Astros cheated the year they won the World Series, no more than they’ve forgotten the way the Chicago Black Sox colluded with gamblers to fix the outcome of the 1919 World Series.  And no, I don’t think that comparison is over the top.

Keuchel’s feeling that “It is what it is and we’ve got to move past that” is understandable, and true to an extent.  It’s hard to admit you did wrong, and it’s natural to hope we can all give a tacit nod without the guys who broke the rules having to say so in so many words.  They want to move forward, and so do the rest of us.  But we can’t move forward and start rebuilding trust if “we” don’t acknowledge the bad thing that has happened, and in this case by “we” I mean “you.”  I need you to say to all the rest of us that you acknowledge you intentionally broke the rules, and that you’re sorry for doing so if you really are, and that you’ll try to do better.  Then, we take the first steps of moving on.

Just don’t expect a lot of sympathy for having been “victimized” by a guy who broke a clubhouse rule to come clean about the team cheating.

One piece is still missing

Two days.  It’s been two days since Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued his report finding my Houston Astros guilty of cheating in 2017 and 2018 for using technology to steal signs from their opponents.  Guilty of violating an official, written rule that applies to all teams, and having continued to do so after all the teams had been directly warned not to do this very thing.  Guilty of action that potentially effected the outcome of games, a threat to the integrity of the sport not so far removed from the one posed by players gambling on baseball, the thing that led to the Black Sox Scandal and the creation of the office of the commissioner and any number of suspensions and “banned for life”s of players and managers and coaches over the years.

The team will pay a very large fine, lose its top two draft choices this year and next year, and proceed without the general manager and field manager who are credited with turning the worst team in baseball into the 2017 World Series Champions.  That’s a pretty stiff penalty.  The manager admits knowing what was going on and regrets not doing enough anything to stop it; the general manager claims not to have known what was going on, but the report’s conclusions indicate he did, at least to some extent.  They were both suspended by the league, and then fired by the team’s owner, because leaders are responsible for the actions of those they lead, and this time the leaders are taking the fall.

For the Houston Astros players.  Who, as best as I can tell, have so far said absolutely nothing about the report that labels some of them cheaters.

The report finds

The Astros’ methods in 2017 and 2018 to decode and communicate to the batter an opposing Club’s signs were not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club’s top baseball operations officials. Rather, the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of [then bench coach Alex] Cora, player-driven and player-executed. (Emphasis added.)

(snip)

Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can. Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules. (Emphases added again, with regret.)

Then why didn’t baseball punish the players?  This is Manfred’s answer:

I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players. I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club’s General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision. Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability. It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.

We, each of us, may choose to argue the commissioner’s rationale (or perhaps, rationalization), but there it is.  Players will not be assessed fines or suspensions or the like.  But they will suffer, justifiably, in the court of public opinion.

Grown men, some very young and some a bit older, but all adults who should have known better; men who told the investigators they would have stopped cheating if only their manager had told them to stop.  He didn’t, and I still don’t understand why he didn’t, but the players who for years had nothing bad to say about their skipper (at least not in public) have cost him his job and maybe his career.  And not one of them has had anything to say.

No one has denied that they cheated.  No one has claimed they exercised bad judgment, or felt peer pressure to break the rules, or tried to explain that they didn’t think that what they did was really so bad after all.  Not a single one of them has said “I’m sorry,” at least not that I’ve been able to find.

Today’s professional athlete has plenty of ways to communicate with the fans, even in the off-season, and they don’t have to wait until a reporter from a local outlet runs them down to get a comment.  I checked around to see if any of the the big names of the 2017 Astros have “reached out,” as they like to say.  Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Springer, Gurriel, and Reddick; Verlander and Keuchel and McCullers and McHugh; Marisnick and Beltran and Marwin and Evan Gattis; even Max Stassi!  Not a one of them has peeped since Manfred lowered the boom Monday morning or since owner Jim Crane fired GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch Monday afternoon.  Crane has had his say; Luhnow and Hinch have released statements; but from the players, nothing.

Surely none of them thinks he is going to be able to dodge this forever, or even for long.  There will be no getting away with sitting on the dais at “the facility” and proclaiming “I’m not here to talk about that today, I’m here to talk about the new season.”  And if I get even a whiff of “the team did not make the players available for comment,” I will surely open a vein, or send a sternly-worded letter…somewhere.  Jeez.

Fellas, you owe it to the fans.  We may not forgive you and get over it right away even if you mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa all over the place, but I can promise you that a hell of a lot of us will never get over it if you don’t even try.

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.

Submitted for your consideration

The Congressional election just two weeks away will lead us down one of only a few possible paths.  If the Republicans who control the House and the Senate maintain their majorities in both chambers, there’s no reason to think that they will then choose to start exerting more constitutional authority as a counterweight to President Trump’s apparent on-going violations of constitutionally-mandated behavior of a government official, or have any new political reason to begin to seriously challenge or even oppose their party’s leader.  If they lose control of both houses, the Democrats would take command of the constitutional machinery that could restrict the president’s future activities and investigate or prosecute some of his apparent past crimes.  If the GOP loses control of just one chamber, life will get more confusing…more confusing than it already is, and that’s saying something.  Despite polling which shows less than half of the country approves of the president’s performance in office, the outcome for November 6 is unclear.

It’s no great pronouncement to say that American politics is polarized today, which by the way is not the same as having two major political parties with different opinions about the means to achieve goals…or which have completely different goals.  As they say on the Internet, I’m old enough to remember when having opposing beliefs or values from other people did not mean that I was good and pure and true and a Real Loyal Patriotic American and that they were stupid and evil and dishonest and corrupt and traitorous.  How’d we get from there to here?

Submitted for your consideration: the October 25th edition of The Daily, the podcast of the New York Times, which explores the premise that the 1994 midterm elections—in which the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House of Representatives to take control for the first time in 40 years—holds the seeds to the political divisiveness that rules the day today.  Give it a listen: host Michael Barbaro talks with opinion writer Jennifer Senior about the 1994 midterm elections, which she covered as a reporter, and she interviews former congressman Vin Weber, a Republican from Minnesota who left Congress in 1993 but whose friendship and political alliance with Newt Gingrich made him a behind-the-scenes force in the 1994 elections which resulted in Gingrich becoming speaker of the House.

Without question, Gingrich and the GOP played a clever political game to maximize the party’s gain of seats beyond what is usual for the party out of the White House.  They focused on wedge issues—they created the term “wedge issues,” I think—which were successful that day, and which have been driving wedges in our lives ever since.  Whether or not the politicians were sincere in their stated belief in the positions they advocated can be argued, but as a tactic it worked beyond their expectations.

Was it a good thing to have done?  Did Republicans of 1994 do the country a disservice in opening a rift in civil society that’s only gotten worse in the years since?  Good questions to consider, I think…