Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back, Looking Forward...

Another year gone by, quicker than the last one which was, until this one, the quickest year of my life. Yes, everything my elders told me as a child came true, time does indeed seem to go faster the older you get. With that bit of stating the obvious out of the way, 2015 by and large was a pretty good year for us. For starters, no one close to us died. I know that's setting the bar awfully low but after last year it was quite a relief.

My son graduated from elementary school and got into his first choice of high schools. He made the freshman baseball team and has been amazing us with his perseverance in keeping up with his new rigorous schedule including three grueling afternoons per week of sports conditioning. My wife had a magnificent exhibition of her ceramic art in the form a site-specific installation piece on the site of the old Peabody mansion in Oakbrook, Illinois. Our daughter, now in third grade, continually amazes us with her insight and remarkable capacity for compassion and empathy. Just today at lunch with my mom, she reprimanded me for a mildly disparaging remark about someone, leading me to comment that she was my conscience.

There were no great milestones for me this year but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that something I did late last year turned my life around, I bought a smartphone. For a long time I resisted the temptation to indulge myself with what I used to consider one of the scourges of society, see this. In some ways I still consider cellphones a scourge but me criticizing other cellphone users would truly be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, just ask my mother. Turning me into just another rude, obnoxious lout with a smartphone isn't what turned my life around, as I already was a rude, obnoxious lout. It was the image-making capability of the device and the ability to take a camera with me everywhere I go.

You see, photography was my first passion and that passion for the medium and my work was once the driving force of my life. Then I got married and started a family, and my work took a back seat. There hasn't been one second of my life when I regretted that decision as today it is my family who keeps me alive and vital. I never actually stopped taking pictures since my son was born almost fifteen years ago, it's just that it became harder to justify and motivate myself to spend time away from the family, especially countless hours in the darkroom. Digital photography has eliminated much of the need for the darkroom which is a mixed blessing; it has put still photography and film making, another passion of mine, into the hands of people who never would have been able to master the specialized skill sets of the two media or afford serious equipment. Of course image making involves more than access to gear and knowing how to use it. Just like owning a computer with a word processor does not make you a writer, owning a digital camera and a copy of PhotoShop doesn't make you a photographer, at least a good one.

Unfortunately that point has been lost on many companies (including newspapers), who used to employ professional photographers and no longer do so because they believe any employee can take acceptable pictures with their cellphone. Consequently the profession has taken a beating.

OK I've gotten myself off track which is another thing that happens when you get old.

It was the cellphone that got me back to photographing on a regular basis. The device I have, an iPhone 6, has a very sophisticated on-board camera. I wouldn't attempt to make huge prints with files produced with my iPhone, but it's perfectly suitable for reasonably sized prints and great for images viewed on a computer screen. Still I don't feel like a serious photographer when I'm out and about taking pictures with my cellphone. After all, the thing is designed for making calls (actually I spend way more time taking pictures with it than making calls), and to me at least, it still doesn't feel right as a camera.

So I got myself a real camera, and my New Year's resolution is to use it and my iPhone to get more than my feet wet in the medium that has been so important in my life. Another resolution (actually a plan that has been in the works for sometime but not fully realized), is to populate this blog with more images on a regular basis.

That said, here are of what I consider some of my best images from the past year, my top fifteen
if you will:

Going back to my past, photographing in black and white in the parks again, this for a post about what will be lost if the Barack Obama Presidential Library is built on public park land.

This photo was taken from one of the top floors of City Museum, in the words of a good friend, "St. Louis's greatest gift to the world." I cannot disagree.

On the day of the official opening of Chicago's 606 Trail, I made this photograph of a family on their front stoop in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where residents fear the new trail will bring unwanted change to the community. 

Unaware at the time that the platform upon which I was standing would soon be history, I made this, one of the best photographs I ever made in Chicago's Loop.

Exercising my formalist side, this was made in the Bowmanville neighborhood of a factory building I've always admired.

Italianate facades dominate this shot of the Randolph/Wabash elevated station, also not long for this world.

My wife Beth Iska's installation piece at Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oakbrook, Illinois.

This is the view my mother gets to wake up to every morning. 

More formalist exercises, this one at the Adams/Wabash El stop, here,,, 

...and here. 

Octogenarian Coach Harold giving some pointers to one of my son's teammates.

This was made on a foggy way to work last week.

For a soon to be published post on what may be the next addition to the endangered architecture of Chicago list, this is the James R. Thompson Center.

I'm a strong opponent of texting while driving, but not making photographs while driving. I once took a picture with a twin lens reflex camera while driving over the Williamsburgh Bridge in New York City.  It was a pretty good picture too, but not as good as this one, made on the Clark Street Bridge over the Chicago River.

The first good picture made with my new lens.

And so it goes. I hope to be posting more work very soon but now am struggling to stay awake until midnight to greet in 2016.

To all of you I wish you a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Fall of the Suburbs?

Cities are a product of time. They are the molds in which men's lifetimes have cooled and congealed, giving lasting shape, by way of art, to moments that would otherwise vanish with the living and leave no means of renewal or wider participation behind them. In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record, more subject to the gaze of many men than the scattered artifacts of the countryside, leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent. Through the material fact of preservation, time challenges time, time clashes with time: habits and values carry over beyond the living group, streaking with different strata of time the character of any single generation. Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself is finally threatened with suffocation: then, in sheer defense, modern man invents the museum. 
By the diversity of its time-structures, the city in part escapes the tyranny of a single present, and the monotony of a future that consists in repeating only a single beat heard in the past. Through its social division of labor, life in the city takes on the character of a symphony: specialized human aptitudes, specialized instruments, give rise to sonorous results which, neither in volume nor in quality, could be achieved by any single piece.
-Lewis Mumford - Introduction to The Culture of Cities

In the debate between the virtues of the city versus the suburbs, a typical defender of our great urban centers might look upon these words of the great writer-philosopher Lewis Mumford rhapsodizing the city, as a mission statement for his or her cause.

With the dichotomy between left/right political ideologies tearing this nation apart, words like Mumford's probably appeal more to the left than the right, as demographically speaking, big cities, and those  who believe in them, traditionally have been populated by people of a liberal bent compared to the suburbs.

Enter Charles Marohn, a city planner with a background in civil engineering, and an avowed conservative Republican from Brainerd, Minnesota.

According to a MINNPOST article from earlier this month, Marohn came to the conclusion that the way we have come to design communities since the mid-twentieth century is a dead end, after saving the skin of a small community whose sewer line was compromised during the building of a highway. The community could not afford to rebuild its sewer so Marohn came up with a plan to not only fix the sewer but expand it, paving the way for further development (or urban sprawl if  you prefer), down the road. To some, the promise of growth for growth's sake is an aphrodisiac, signalling jobs and economic opportunity. Marohn's plan appealed to the federal government who paid the lion's share of the cost of the project, while the small community would kick in a fraction of what the original project would have cost them had Marohn not brought in the Feds.

Still, that chunk of money was more than the bedroom community could afford and in time not only were they faced with having to pay off their share of the project, but were also stuck with the repair bills when the system inevitably malfunctioned. The piece quotes Marohn as saying:
I bought them time, but I gave them a giant unfunded liability.
It dawned on him that while the construction of residential communities built far from cities and their economic base, may create temporary economic opportunities, but once those communities are built, they are unable to generate enough new revenue to sustain themselves.

Quoting from the article:
It’s a perspective that has led Marohn to conclude that the nation’s 70-year experiment with suburban development is a failure — because it is economically unsustainable. That is, the lack of density does not produce tax revenue necessary to cover current services, let alone the long-term costs of maintaining and replacing those services. And because suburbs were built as fully developed places, they don’t have the flexibility to adapt, to become more dense in response to fiscal realities.
There you have it, nothing more than bottom line common sense, in the true spirit of conservative laissez-faire economics, with some social Darwinism thrown in for good measure. Distant suburbs and more distant exurbs according to Charles Marohn, should be allowed to die, as they are too weak to survive.

Could this issue become a common ground between liberals and conservatives in this country? I hardly think so. So entrenched are a significant number of Americans who live in abject fear of the city and all that entails, so enamored of the automobile are these folks, and so bought into the myth of the quasi "country life" found in the land beyond the airport, it's hard to imagine many dyed-in-the-wool suburbanites buying into Marohn's ideas. As he describes it, his is a voice crying out in the wilderness.

That's not for lack of trying. Marohn created his website, Strong Towns back in 2008 and regularly tours the country preaching his notion that communities with any chance of long term economic growth, need to evolve slowly, rather than be built as ready-made communities. Just like Jane Jacobs, Marohn believes that the traditional wisdom of building cities that existed for millennia still works, while the new systems which have evolved since the end of World War II, simply put, do not.

You can read the mission statement of Strong Towns here.

A must read for anyone interested in the future of the city, Marohn is truly a man after my own heart.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

My New Lens and I in the Loop

In the days before digital photography, you could make an investment in serious gear and expect it to last a lifetime. Now photographic equipment evolves almost as quickly as do computers, so in order to keep up you have to invest in new equipment on a regular basis. 

Of course the good part of that is you get to buy new stuff.

A good photographer can take a good picture with a ten dollar camera in his or her back yard but let's face it, there's no shot in the arm more satisfying than getting a new piece of gear.

Last week I bit the bullet and invested in a new camera and a serious lens, my first big photographic purchase in a decade.

The lens arrived the other day but I'm still waiting for the camera. I jumped ships going from Nikon to Canon which means the new lens won't fit my old camera, so to test it out I slapped the lens on a borrowed camera. These were taken the other day in my own back yard so to speak, Chicago's Loop, with a cheap camera and an expensive lens.

I'm particularly happy with this last one.

The camera won't arrive until after Christmas so I'll have to be a good boy and wait.

Merry Christmas to all! 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Our Fragile Democracy

In the wake of the Paris attacks last month, a meme scattered about social media presented a map of the United States with each state colored to represent its political leanings. As has been the custom of late, the states which have voted predominantly Republican in recent years were colored red while those preferring Democrats were blue. Leaving no doubt as to the political leanings of its creator, instead of labeling them as such, in the map's legend, the red states were labeled "The United States of America" while the blue states were labeled "Dumfuckistan."

I assured my friend who re-posted the map on Facebook that the feeing about the other side was mutual in the blue states.

I've been around a long time and can't for the life of me remember when there was so much acrimony between the right and the left in this country. The first presidential election I can recall was back in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson faced off against Barry Goldwater. The Senator from Arizona was a staunch conservative (for the time) whose hawkish stance on Vietnam and communism, and his apparent willingness to use nuclear weapons was considered by many to be extreme. That stance inspired perhaps the most controversial political ad of all time. The spot featured a little girl counting the petals she plucked off a daisy while an ominous male voice is heard in the background counting down from ten. The girl looks up into the sky as the camera zooms into her face. When the countdown reaches zero the shot of the closeup of the little girl's face dissolves into an explosion, clearly the result of a nuclear weapon. Some words follow from President Johnson including a quote from W.H. Auden: "we must love one another or die", then a voiceover admonishes the voters to: "Vote for President Johnson..." because "...the stakes are too high for you to stay home." The message was clear to TV viewers during the height of the cold war: vote for LBJ or the little daisy girl dies.

As a five year old, I was oblivious to all that, all I knew was that my parents were vehemently opposed to Goldwater. I remember walking by a huge photograph of the Republican candidate at a campaign office during the election and asking my mother if he was a bad man. No my mom said, he's not a bad man. we just don't agree with him.

It was a huge distinction that I'm afraid is lost on many of us today.

Johnson won that election by a landslide but despite campaigning as the peace candidate, he and his administration ended up escalating the Vietnam war. That war along with the struggle for civil rights tore this nation apart in the sixties. The man who replaced Johnson in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon. also promised to end the war but instead expanded it into Laos and Cambodia. Nixon who was never liked by the left, nor by much of the right for that matter, was indeed a divisive president, less so after the coverup surrounding the Watergate Hotel break in came to light. That event, more than any other I think, ushered in a wave of cynicism that has defined our relationship with politics and those we elect to run this country ever since.

An even more polarizing figure in the White House was Ronald Reagan. To the left he was a bumbling old movie actor whose views on the economy, social justice and the environment set this country back fifty years. To the right, by bringing the US out of the economic morass, stagnation and self-doubt of the seventies, Ronald Reagan did nothing less than save this country.

As divided as the left and right were during the Reagan era, things still got done in Congress, people understood that in order for a democratic republic to function, those of different opinions needed to get together and work out a compromise. The Democrats in the time of the Reagan era, perhaps at their weakest point in a century and on the brink of irrelevance. still looked upon themselves as the loyal opposition.

After twelve years of Republican hegemony in the White House and Congress, Bill Clinton became president. The first baby boomer president, Clinton's politics was largely forged out of the cynicism of the sixties and seventies and he gave back that cynicism to this country in spades. The Republicans hated him for it to the point of impeaching him over of all things, the coverup of a sex scandal. With that we became the laughing stock of the world.

The Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment of Bill Clinton in my opinion took this country to unprecedented depths of cynicism and mistrust of government, from which point we have kept diving deeper and deeper ever since. George W. Bush, seemingly a lightweight, intellectually challenged candidate, won the 2000 presidential election under dubious circumstances, and had zero support from Democrats until the fateful morning of September 11, 2001. The terrible events of that day had the potential of bringing this country together like no other since the attack on Pearl Harbor. But the Bush administration dropped the ball when under the guise of national security, they used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq, purging it of its admittedly horrific dictator Sadam Hussein, and creating a power vacuum in that country which at the very least is partially responsible for the terrible situation we find ourselves in today in that part of the world. Then in 2008 came the economic collapse, the seeds of which were planted long before, during the bullish economic optimism of the Clinton administration and beyond.

When Barack Obama was elected president in November of 2008, he inherited the uncharted territory of this nation fighting a war on two fronts combined with an economic crisis the likes of which we hadn't seen since the Great Depression.

One would think that in such a time of crisis. a newly elected president would enjoy at least the tacit support of the overwhelming majority of Americans, rooting for him to succeed in bringing the nation out of its doldrums. But that was not the case as there were Republicans who pledged from day one of the Obama administration to work tirelessly, not for the betterment of this nation, but merely to defeat Barack Obama. For whatever reason, a tidal wave of Americans agreed with them and in fact, rooted for the president to fail.

Now at the twilight of the Obama administration, the jury is still out on the efficacy of his presidency. One can only imagine that jury will be split along party lines.

Perhaps the most salient and depressing symbol we have of our political landscape at the moment is the current crop of Republican presidential candidates hoping to win their party's nomination this summer.  You have to dig deep in order to find a credible candidate in the bunch. While millions of Americans scratch their heads over how anyone in their right mind could possibly support someone like Donald Trump, millions more believe he speaks for them.

The title of a Washington Post editorial published the day after the last Republican debate in Las Vegas says it all: For Republicans, bigotry is the new normal

The editorial goes on to say that while most of the Republican candidates distance themselves from Donald Trump's rants about Muslims, Mexicans, and other minorities, that distance is less than you might imagine as a plurality of registered Republicans agree with Trump on even his most outrageous stands. It took a real whopper, Trump's idea that ALL Muslims should be barred from entering the United States to get any reaction from his fellow Republican candidates, perhaps only because that idea runs so counter to what this country is supposed to stand for, even the most ardent supporter of the strictest immigration controls, except of course Trump, had to cry foul.

Which makes you think, are these guys and one woman really as bigoted as their plattforms would lead you to believe, or are they just telling their constituents what they want to hear. No question mark needed at the end of the last sentence because no one should be the least bit surprised that candidates say all kinds of things in order to one up their opponents.

On the other side, the Democratic race lacks the side show quality of the Republican circus, but let's face it, the candidate who is the darling of the left, Bernie Sanders, much like Trump, is telling his followers exactly what they want to hear. Unlike the Republicans, I haven't the slightest doubt that Sanders is sincere about what he's telling people on the campaign trail. A dyed-in-the-wool socialist, Sanders makes no bones about telling America he believes in the re-distribution of the wealth of this country, that everyone should be assured of cradle to grave health care, a college education, and a job waiting for them when they get out, all paid for by the government. After all, if Denmark can do it, so can we. Of course what Sanders fails to mention in his vision of a utopian America modeled after Denmark is that in order to sustain their utopia, the Danes contribute about 56 percent of thier income to the government. Good luck trying to convince Americans that it would be a good idea to do the same.

The only other serious candidate on the Democratic side is Hillary Clinton who has so much baggage in her past that, save for her zealous supporters, most of the people who consider themselves likely to vote for her come November, 2016 seem to be holding their collective nose.

Not a good choice at all in my opinion on either side. If I had to predict the outcome of the upcoming election, I don't think I'm too far out of line by saying chances are pretty good that Hillary Clinton will be our next president, if only because the Bernie Sanders is too extreme and the Republican Party is in disarray. I don't think they could elect someone to the proverbial office of dog catcher on a national level these days. As someone who has voted Democrat far more often than Republican, you might think I would be happy right now, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. I believe that in order for our democracy to survive, we need at the very least, two credible parties that can freely represent differing points of view in a reasonable, logical manner, without slipping into the morass of intolerance, fear, bigotry, and sheer stupidity, which seems to be the rule of the day. There will always be special interest groups, some of them with inordinate amounts of money and power to sway elected officials this way or that, which is why I think the Supreme Court's recent ruling on campaign financing was such a disaster. In the end however, I still believe the will of the people ideally is stronger than the power of the special interest groups. In the end, we still have the ultimate say as to who gets in and who does not, if only we choose to do so.

In an address to the British House of Commons as World War II was coming to a close, Winston Churchill said this:
At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.
The problem we have is this, our political system has become so petty, ugly and mean spirited. that the majority of Americans, especially young ones, have absolutely no interest in participating. This does not bode well for our future.

Beyond participation, as I see it, a democracy needs two things in order to work, the minority needs to accept the will of the majority, while the majority needs to accept the rights of the minority. This can actually be boiled down to one essential ingredient, both sides need to respect each another, accepting that we cannot agree on everything. As my mother so wisely taught me 51 years ago, people who hold different opinions are not necessarily bad people. Chances are good that we may have more in common with the people on the other side of the fence than differences, if only we took the time to find out.

Democracy cannot succeed (at least at the moment) in a place like Iraq where people on opposite sides are mortal enemies who have no interest in accepting the will or the rights of the other side. Our leaders, including those in the current administration, are foolish to assume that democracy will naturally sweep in to fill the vacuum of vanquished tyrants. They're even more foolish to believe that democracy will actually succeed if by some chance it is introduced.

Our country seems to be headed in the direction of splitting into two separate states, one red, one blue, divided by political ideology and defined by intransigence, rather than one country strengthened and emboldened by reasonable and rational discourse.

I've lived through an era where the likelihood of the destruction of the planet was on everyone's mind because chances of it happening was not at all out of the question. I've seen cities including my own burn over racial hatred and intolerance. I have seen one president assassinated, one impeached, and another resign before he could be impeached. I've seen the nation torn apart over wars that we should not have fought, and I saw the Twin Towers collapse before my eyes, live on TV. Trust me, we've been through worse crises just in my lifetime. That doesn't include two world wars, the Great Depression, and on and on and on...

We survived those crises because somehow we managed to come together in times of trouble, mending our fences and working as one. We are a nation that has come together not because we share a nationality or religion or even an ideology. What we do share is the basic idea that our strength as Americans is our differences. It is defined by a motto written in Latin and found on the back side of our currency, "E pluribus unum", out of many, one.

Our fragile democracy above all is the glue that binds us together and makes us one, It can only survive if we learn to respect and talk to one another, and most important, to fulfill our right and responsibility as citizens by participating in government, at the very least in the electoral process. Failure to vote is not a valid form of protest, it only sends a message to the powers that be that we simply don't care. Once that is established, any form of tyranny can rule the day, and it will be nobody's fault but our own.

The closing line from that old LBJ commercial rings as true today as it did a half century ago,

The stakes are too high for you to stay home.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Next Time

One of the useful things about writing a blog for a while is being able to look into the archives to see what you were doing at a specific moment in your life. For a very long time, it has been a tradition of ours to go up to Milwaukee on the weekend after Thanksgiving which also happens to correspond with my birthday. I knew we didn't make it up there last year, but was quite certain we were there the year before.

Thanks to this blog's archive, and the realization that I wrote about Milwaukee the last time we made it up there, it turns out our last post-Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Cream City (named after the color of bricks typically found on its buildings), took place in 2012, three years ago.

Our periodic visits to Milwaukee confirm two of the most undeniable facts in human existence: things change (the title of my last piece on Milwaukee), and the scariest of them all, time flies. Because of that and our all too infrequent visits to one of my favorite cities, I've learned not to take another concept for granted, "next time."

In all my travels, next time comes up whenever I reckon I'll have the opportunity to do something I didn't get around to doing, the next time I visit a city. Until recently, the thought that there may not be a next time never occurred to me. That revelation struck me perhaps the first time a few years ago when I visited Melbourne. Quite frankly, despite how much I enjoyed that lovely city in Victoria, Australia, the idea of getting another opportunity to fly half way around the world to visit Melbourne again seemed quite unlikely indeed. 

Being only ninety minutes away by car, Milwaukee is obviously a different story. We could go up there at the drop of a hat if we choose, but somehow life seems to get in the way.

A couple things came to mind when I discovered that it's been three years since our last Thanksgiving visit. If we wait another three years, who knows what will have changed in our lives, but two things will be certain, I'll be sixty years old and my son will be a senior in high school, perhaps without the slightest desire to join us.

Also unknown is what will change in Milwaukee in the next three years. Both my wife and I have long histories with the city. She lived and studied there in her late teens and early twenties. and I've been going up regularly since childhood, starting with summer vacations with my grandparents. Since my wife and I have been going there together, we've observed the changes that have occurred, usually lamenting the loss of one favorite haunt or other.

Fortunately at this writing, more than a handful of Milwaukee institutions remain intact, unchanged since, well at least as long as I can remember, and no doubt much longer. 

My surrogate grandfather was from Germany and whenever we visited we inevitably dined in at least one of the city's great German restaurants, Maders and Karl Ratzsch's. Much later I had my first legal beer at Maders when I was nineteen, which was the drinking age in Wisconsin back then, two years younger than my home state, explaining the extraordinary concentration of police at the Illinois-Wisconsin state border on weekend evenings back in the seventies.

But Karl Ratzsch's at least in my opinion is superior to Maders in every way and my dear family obliges me on my birthday with a visit to my favorite restaurant on the planet. (Allegedly it was Frank Lloyd Wright's as well).

Looking exactly as it did in my childhood, the redoubtable Karl Ratzsch's restaurant
As you can see in the picture, the joint wasn't exactly jumping when we were there a couple weeks ago. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that German restaurants with their heavy fare are not popular these days, perhaps for good reason. But to me this kind of cooking is the ultimate comfort food, introduced by my Czech father who passed on his passion for delicacies such as roast duck, wiener schnitzel and liver dumpling soup to his only son. The food combined with the gemutlichkeit, accompanied by a soundtrack of Johann Strauss waltzes and other light classical and old pop standards. kept the memory of my father, surrogate grandfather and my long lost childhood alive.

Unfortunately, as yet I have been unable to pass along the passion for Central European cuisine to my own children and I'm probably not alone. My fear is one day we'll drive up to Milwaukee and Karl Ratzsch's and Maders will be gone, victims of changing times, appetites and wastelines. 

Knowing the visit to Karl Ratzsch's would take up a good chunk of our limited time and money, I had reservations about visiting it this trip. Yet well aware of my new found appreciation of next time, I decided we had to go. It was the right decision and it made me very happy to be in the venerable restaurant again, hopefully there will be a next time.

Another valued treasure in Milwaukee is the Hotel Pfister which first opened its doors in the 1890s. The hotel expanded in the sixties, perhaps tripling its number of rooms when it built the adjacent Pfister Tower, one of the butt- ugliest sixties era buildings in a city filled with them. Fortunately the old building remains in tact and as you can see in the photo, every effort has been made to retain its 19th century charm.

The sumbtuous lobby of the Hotel Pfister
In the vicinity of Karl Ratzch's and the Pfister, another Milwaukee institution is still there but eroding before our eyes. George Watts & Son, in business since the 1870s, is famous for its tea room which is still going strong. In addition, Watts once had a retail establishment that occupied the rest of the two floors of its lovely building at the corner of  Mason and Jefferson Streets. The Watts Gift Shop, similar in feel to the one featured in the classic Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, specialized in exceptionally courteous service and high quality odds and ends. In my wife's words, Watts featured "expertly curated, lovely but non-essential items for the kitchen and dining room," Watts was the go to place for wedding registries and Christmas gifts for the well heeled of Milwaukee's North Shore. Every year we'd take the opportunity to purchase gifts, especially for my mom for whom the shop was perfectly suited. About ten years ago we noticed that the company was reducing the footprint of its shop, renting out bits of space in their building to other high end retail establishments like a bridal salon and an art gallery. Today Watts Gift Shop is limited to the vestibule of their building and one small room on the first floor. Worst of all, a sizable portion of the second floor now is now occupied by a law office. My wife lamented putting off buying many things she had her eye on because she always assumed Watts would be there the next time we visited. Now she's not so sure.

In a post I wrote way back in 2010, I enumerated five of my favorite things in the world that were found in Milwaukee. Today, one of those establishments, Palermo Villa is gone, Alterra Coffee and Sendiks Grocery on Downer Street have both changed hands and altered in the process. We didn't visit Ben's Cycle this time but they have grown considerably and as a reliable source, our friend who is Ben's cousin assures us, the business is doing quite well thank you very much. Of the fives laces listed, only Karl Ratsch's seems to have changed not one iota.

There has been one change in Milwaukee since our last visit that pleased me to no end. Back when I was visiting the city with my grandparents in the sixties, we always made time for a brewery tour. Milwaukee of course is best known as a center of brewing and when I was a kid, the city boasted three major breweries, Schlitz, Pabst and Miller. We visited them all. To me the most impressive part of any brewery tour was the brewhouse and its enormous kettles which boil the liquid known as wort, extracted from mashed, malted barley and other grains. Into those kettles at various times in the brewing process, hops are introduced, typically by hand. From a historic postcard of the Pabst brewhouse that I collected as a child, this is how it looked:

Image from a fifties postcard showing Pabst Brewery workers
monitoring and adding hops to the brewing wort.
Notice in the background of the photograph there is a stained glass window. That window depicts the legendary King Gambrinus, the "patron saint of beer." You can imagine how impressive this room would have been to a little kid. What cannot be conveyed in the photograph is the tremendous aroma of the cooking sweet wort, combined with the spicy fragrance of the hops. That smell is not to everyone's liking but it is definitely unforgettable and in the rare circumstances when I encounter it, I'm magically transported to that very room, c. 1965.

The brewing industry fell upon hard times a decade later, Schitz closed its doors in the eighties and Pabst followed suit in the nineties. Since that time I often wondered what became of that beautiful room with its glorious kettles and stained glass window. Here's a link to a Flicker site devoted to some of Milwaukee's industrial ruins including the old brewhouse. Some of the photographs show markings on the floor where the mash tuns once sat, several stories above the brew kettles. They were no doubt removed in order to salvage their copper. But the beautiful kettles remained, covered with a patina of dust, as grass took seed within the grout of the old ceramic tiles on the floor. I can only guess why those old tanks didn't meet the same fate as the other equipment in the brewhouse, someone must have figured they had not completely worn out their usefulness.

A few months ago, the Pabst Company (whose chief product is now contract brewed by the Miller Brewing Company on the west side of town), announced that it will open up a boutique micro-brewery on the site of their old downtown plant. Naturally I had to go see.

One of my childhood haunts, the Pabst Brewery,
closed in the nineties and left to decay for twenty years
is finding new life. The brewhouse is the building on the right.
Today in the former Pabst guest house where the brewery tours used to originate, there is a gift shop that sells memorabilia from all the old Milwaukee breweries. There I inquired about the plans for the new brewery. Mistakenly I thought it would take advantage of some of the old equipment, thinking of course about the brewhouse. I was told the new micro brewery would be built inside an old church building on the edge of the property. What then I asked would be the fate of the old brew kettles? Clearly I hadn't been to Milwaukee in a while.

It turns out the brewhouse has been converted into a hotel, appropriately named, the Brewhouse Inn. The centerpiece of the new hotel is the lobby one floor above the reception area featuring what else, the six magnificent kettles and the window, all of which have been lovingly restored. The rooms of the hotel sit where the mash tuns used to be, and all overlook the lobby and the brew kettles.

The interior of the Pabst brewhouse as it appears today as the lobby of the new
Brewhouse Inn in Downtown Milwaukee.  
Like an iceberg, the majority of a working brew kettle exists below the surface, except for these giants as their bottoms have been lopped off. You can now stand underneath them one floor below and look up into the inside of the massive tanks from the reception area of the hotel. For a guest just arriving at the hotel not knowing what was going on upstairs, these massive copper voids in the ceiling must appear as brazen, abstract statements of modern interior architecture. 

As I told the doorman who judging from his appearance, could not possibly remember the old brewery, the one thing they couldn't replicate was the smell. He humored me but I got the distinct impression he thought those were the ramblings of a crazy old man. Perhaps he was right, I just couldn't hide my giddiness.

Standing in that room again after so many years, seeing these magnificent symbols of Milwaukee's industrial past as well as my own childhood, made me extraordinarily happy. Yet there was a tinge of sadness as the amputation of their bases means the kettles will never again function as they were intended. They are now only props, relics of a lost past. The lack of the natural aroma of brewing beer drove that point home even more. Without that function, when and if the curiosity of this room wears off, who knows how long the kettles will remain, as they and that space are no doubt costly to maintain. I was just glad to be able to show them and what I consider  one of the most remarkable interior spaces anywhere to my wife and children.

As the sun set in the west on a wonderful day, we left the city of Milwaukee for home, secure in the knowledge that like any great living city, it looks toward the future without forgetting its past. Change is a natural, inevitable fact of life. Cities that do not change along with the world around them, wither and die.  

It's sad to see old friends go away, but that's part of life. Perhaps if you're lucky, one day when you least expect it, they might return. Having said that, I leave you with this:

Yours truly posing with a statue of Good King Gambrinus
restored to his former glory and back in his old home at the former Pabst Brewery

Friday, November 27, 2015

Our Turn

Add Laquan McDonald to the tragic list of young men whose violent deaths over the past year have caused a public outcry over police brutality and the perception that men of color are targeted by law enforcement authorities in cities all over the United States. Beyond the race of the decedents and the occupation of their killers, there are few similarities in the number of deaths at the hands of the police, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis, Eric Garner in New York City, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Jamar Clark in Minneapolis and now McDonald in Chicago. All were involved in petty criminal activity at the time of their deaths, all resisted arrest during confrontations with the police, and all but McDonald were un-armed.

Of all the cases, the one of McDonald, a 17 year old who was killed on the southwest side of Chicago in October of 2014, stands out in starkest contrast. For starters, his story did not become a full blown media event until last week, more than a year after his death. The attention came after a lawsuit was filed that forced the City of Chicago and the Chicago  Police Department to release a video made from a camera mounted aboard a police vehicle which recorded the shooting of the teenager.

It's understandable why the CPD and the city didn't want that video released. In the soundless video, we see McDonald surrounded by police vehicles. He walks away from the camera in the direction of the two cops pointing their guns at him but veering away from them to the right. At no time is he any closer than 15 feet from the officers. Then he suddenly drops to the ground and you can see puffs of gun smoke as the young man twists and turns on the pavement. You then see an officer kick an object (the knife) away from the motionless form of McDonald.

In the end, CPD officer Jason Van Dyke emptied his gun into McDonald, shooting him 16 times, most the the shots striking him after he was on the ground. When Van Dyke went to reload his gun with another cartridge, his partner, the cop who kicked the knife away from McDonald, apparently told him to hold his fire.

But that's only the beginning...

Shortly after the shooting, officers entered a Burger King that was close to the scene and asked to view surveillance video shot by a number of cameras mounted in and around the restaurant. The manager obliged and the officers spent about three hours alone with the video equipment. The next day when investigators returned to inspect the video, they found that about an hour of footage from the evening of the shooting had been deleted. Ironically what did survive were images of the cops inspecting and presumably, erasing video.

The police department continues to claim there is no "credible" evidence to prove that members of the CPD intentionally deleted the files that contained video that may have been pertinent to the death of Laquan McDonald, yet offer no plausible explanation for the missing video.

Furthermore, according to Craig Futterman, founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago and one of the plaintiffs responsible for the lawsuit forcing the release of the video, an eyewitness who screamed at the officer to stop shooting at McDonald after he had fallen to the ground, refused to leave the scene despite the insistence of police. She was taken into custody for a brief period of time and claims to have been "intimidated" and told that she "did not see what she saw."

This past Tuesday on the eve of the public release of the video, Officer Van Dyke was indicted on first degree murder charges in the death of Laquan McDonald. Why it took so long to press charges against the officer and release the video is complicated and the cause of much anguish about town in the wake of the events of this week.

The case of the death of Laquan McDonald could have fallen through the cracks and been forgotten had it not been for a confidential tip from an insider in the police department that brought Futterman's attention to the the police dashcam video which showed that the officer's contention that his life was threatened by McDonald was nonsense. On April 13, the Corporation Council of the City of Chicago, Stephen Patton announced to a panel of aldermen that an FBI probe, (joined by the Independent Police Review Authority and the States Attorney's office), on the shooting was underway. Given the severity of the case and the public climate relating to police vis a vis the African American Community, Patton recommended that the city settle out of court with McDonald's family to the tune of five million dollars. The city's finance committee and the full City Council agreed to the settlement.  Still, Mayor Emanuel and police commissioner Garry McCarthy objected to the public release of the video on the grounds of the FBI investigation into the case was still underway. In can also be assumed that part of their logic was to avoid the unrest that occurred in other cities around the US. For the record, Laquan's family also objected to the public release of the video of the murder of their loved one.

The public's response to the video was swift and predictable; the rage, understandable.

McDonald was behaving erratically, having been high on PCP at the time of his death. The young man threatened a person with his knife, which prompted the original 911 call to the police. He allegedly attempted to break into several parked vehicles and took police on a half mile journey through streets and alleys before Van Dyke shot him. Up until that point the police strategy was to corral McDonald using their vehicles to prevent him from coming in contact with passersby, while waiting for other cops to arrive with tasers which could have non-lethally subdued him. The video shows the police to have McDonald cornered when Van Dyke and his partner got out of their vehicle, guns drawn. Within seconds, Van Dyke opened fire.

While some police officers contend that the dashcam video does not tell the complete story of the tragic event, it is clear that it was unnecessary for Van Dyke to shoot McDonald once, let alone 16 times.

Since the release of the video there have been numerous peaceful demonstrations in the city. At this writing, the day after Thanksgiving, marchers are organizing on north Michigan Avenue, Chicago's prominent shopping district, on this, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Clearly this is an attempt to gain as much visibility as possible, drawing attention to an abominable injustice that took place and arguably continues. That is the inalienable right of free people in a free society.

How it all plays out is anybody's guess; hopefully the demonstrations will be peaceful, and the police will to keep their cool. The best thing that can happen out of all this is reform and a real dialog between the police and the communities they have been entrusted to protect. I think the last thing anybody wants, with the exception of some people who might hope to gain personal advantage from the situation, is to bring back the turmoil of the disastrous events of  Chicago, 1968.

Once again, the whole world is watching.

POST SCRIPT: The March up Michigan Avenue protesting the death of Laquan McDonald took place on (Black) Friday, November 27th. It came off without much incident from either side, the demonstrators or the police, and life has returned pretty much to normal on the Magnificent Mile. The protesters did manage to prevent shoppers from entering the stores on that street for much of the day which no doubt cost businesses a great deal in lost revenue on their busiest day of the year. The Reverend Michael Pfleger, one of the leaders of the march stated that shutting down the economy was the one thing that would get the attention of the powers that be. That may be true but one of the things overlooked by the good reverend and the marchers was the fact that the folks who were hurt most by the store closings were not the business owners who have plenty of resources to keep them going, but store workers, restaurant staffs and other working stiffs who depend on commissions and tips for their livelihoods. If poverty is indeed one of the core causes for much of the trouble experienced in our cities today, the shutting down of one of this city's biggest economic engines on its most important day seems to me at least, foolish and self-defeating.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Simple Answers to Difficult Questions

We once had a priest who gave the shortest homilies (sermons) possible, sometimes they would consist of only two or three sentences. Somehow he always managed to get the point across in those few words better than his colleagues could with their multiple page dissertations. You might say I could learn a lesson or two from him when it comes to writing blog posts.

The truth is, it's possible to sum up the core principles of any faith, or for that matter ideology, simply and briefly. Hillel the Elder, a rabbi who lived at the time of Christ, is responsible for some of the most profound utterances distilling the true essence of faith into a few words:
If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
The legend goes that one day, a skeptic came to Hillel with this challenge: if Hillel could recite the Torah while standing on one leg, the man would become a believer. Hillel's response while on one leg was the following:
What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbors. That is the whole of Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go study.
Which the man did.

The problem with religions or ideologies is that the commentary often becomes more important than the core values. To put it another way, the letter of the law becomes more important than the spirit of the law. Anyone who has ever read the Christian bible, (the first five books of which are a translation of the Torah), knows that when passages are taken out of context, they can be used to justify virtually anything.

That explains thousands of sects of Christianity, each one claiming the Truth to be found exclusively in their own interpretation, and the ultimate favor of God, only for themselves.

The same is true to varying degrees in Judaism, Islam, Buddism, Hinduism Zoroastrinism, Paganism, Atheism (which is also when you think about it, nothing more than a faith), and every other belief system that has ever been devised.

Yesterday, unspeakable acts of violence committed in the name of God took place in Baghdad, Beirut and Paris. It is my sincere belief that religion is not responsible for these despicable acts, rather the perversion of religion.

Fear and hatred are among our basest, basic instincts.. Religion, at least my own experience of it, seeks to teach us a higher level of existence, as expressed through love, forgiveness, and compassion. These things don't come naturally to us, they are taught. Hatred by contrast, does not need to be taught, it just happens. We all experience fear and hatred, and hopefully teach ourselves to overcome those instincts.

We have seen all too frequently that unchecked hatred combined with an overdose of religious indoctrination based upon ideas cherry picked out of scripture is a lethal combination.

As usual, I've gone on too long. These ideas have been better expressed in a meme that's been making the rounds of social media lately. I'm not much for re-posting these quite often smarmy platitudes on the human condition, but I did yesterday as this one seemed to be particularly appropriate. Here is what it said:
A Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Pagan, and an Atheist all walk into a coffee shop and they talk, laugh, drink coffee and become good friends.

It's not a joke, it's what happens when you're not an asshole.
Assholes above all, seek to have power over other people. It's very difficult to achieve power by affecting a great many people's lives in a positive way. It takes commitment, self-sacrifice, patience and the will to do good. It's very easy to achieve the power to affect many lives negatively, all it takes it a weapon and of course, the will.

We've seen that the sadistic assholes of Daesh (ISIS) not only seek to achieve power, but also take a great deal of pleasure in afflicting pain and suffering upon others. They do it in the guise of faith but let's face it, you don't need religion to be an asshole. Case in point, there were a whole bunch of assholes in Central Europe in the mid-twentieth century whose hatred was fueled by not by religion , but by nationalism, revenge, and political ideology. Around seventy million people died as a result. Today there are assholes roaming the streets of Chicago who apparently believe in nothing other than nothing is sacred, not even the lives of innocent children.

Late yesterday evening, a remarkable image was broadcast. It showed a group of perhaps a couple hundred thousand individuals gathered in Paris's Place de la Republique with a sign that read in English, "not afraid." That happened early this year after the massacre in the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. After that horrible event, millions of Parisians of all colors and faiths marched in the streets of that great city. Expect to see more demonstrations of a similar nature today, tomorrow and in the days to come.

Today we are in solidarity with the citizens of Baghdad, Beirut and Paris, as we should be everyday for people everywhere who want peace, regardless of their creed, color or nationality. Fortunately there are more of us than the assholes, regardless of all the attention they get through the suffering they are willing to inflict upon civilization.

We cannot and will not let them win.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

You Never Know II

These are some of the perplexing questions people have been grappling with for millennia: "How did we get here?", "What's the meaning of life?", and "Does God exist?"

As of a couple weeks ago, we can add a new question to the list: "What the hell happened to the Cubs this year?"

OK all two of you who haven't yet pressed the go back button know exactly what I'm talking about.

We left off the last post at the beginning of the 2015 Major League Baseball National and American League Championship Series. Representing the Nationals were the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. The American League gave us the Toronto Blue Jays and last year's pennant winners, the Kansas City Royals.

The beauty of those two matchups was that three of the teams had not been in the post-season, let alone a World Series for quite a while. Before last year, neither had the Royals. Last year the Mets, Cubs and Blue Jays all finished behind their respective division winners by double digit margins, and none of them were predicted to do much this year. For most baseball fans I suspect, it was a breath of fresh air not having to watch the Cardinals, Giants or the Red Sox play in November again, unless of course you were a fan of those teams. To those folks, I offer my condolences and apologies.

As I wrote in the last post, the four divisional series were highly entertaining, loaded with plenty of drama and the unexpected. Most of the games were close and all but one of the series went the maximum five games.

Those four divisional series were a tough act to follow and predictably, the subsequent two championship series were a let down.

Another big name pitcher who has had problems in the post-season is David Price of the Blue Jays. He was cruising along in Game Two of the ALCS in Kansas City, retiring 18 in a row after giving up a leadoff single to Alcedes Escobar. Then came the disastrous seventh inning where five singles and a double added up to five runs, all of them charged to Price, and all KC would need for the sweep of the first two games at home. Toronto managed to take two out of three in their building but the Royals finished off the Blue Jays and Daivd Price again in game six in Kansas City. The score was 4-3, the only close game of that series.

Then there were the Mets and Cubs.

No one in Chicago who had been paying attention, believed the hype that the Cubs would trounce the Mets as they had during the regular season. After all, the Mets were a different team with the mid-season acquisition of center fielder Yoannis Cespedis and a new groove the team found, led by its young, flame-throwing pitching staff. On the other hand, the Cubs were a different team as well, one of the hottest in the majors. Their strength, beyond the ridiculous success of Jake Arrieta (see the last post) came from a young group of sluggers led by the 26 year old veteran, Anthony Rizzo.

The series, most folks suspected, would be a classic matchup of strength versus strength.

Save for the excellent pitching of the Mets, I don't think anyone expected the series to turn out the way it did. The Cubs were able to spread out only eight runs over four games. The Mets by contrast were not the least bit intimidated by Cubs aces Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, who showed signs in his last two games of being merely human. New York teed off on Jason Hammel in game four. The only Cubs starter who managed to get away with a no decision was Kyle Hendricks who was pulled for a pinch hitter in the fourth inning of Game Three with the score of that game tied.

The Mets scored in the first inning of every game, while the Cubs were only able to get the lead-off man on base four times in 36 innings. Least expected was the ace in the hole for the Mets, second baseman Daniel Murphy. Murphy has put up very good offensive numbers in his seven year career but was never considered a home run hitter, until now. In those seven years, he averaged less than nine home runs per season. In the Cubs/Mets series, Murphy hit one home run in each game. If you remember from the last post, he hit a home run in each of the last two games of the NLDS against the Dodgers, making that six consecutive playoff games in which he hit a home run. Even Mr. October, Reggie Jackson never did that. Carlos Beltran of the Astros hit five in 2004, no one else had ever hit more. Adding another home run he hit in the Dodgers series, Murphy hit a total of seven playoff home runs by the end of the NLCS, exactly half the number he hit all season, but more on him later.

To say the Mets had their way with the Cubs would be a gross understatement. Not once did the Cubs have a lead, in fact the Mets held the lead in every full inning of the series except one where the teams were tied. This year's NLCS was a definitive statement, at least in that time and place, that in every aspect of the game the Mets were the superior team.

Baseball is a strange game. Were the Mets that good and/or the Cubs all of a sudden really that bad? What possessed Daniel Murphy of all people to channel his inner Babe Ruth? What made the young players on the Cubs who played fast and easy as if they didn't have a care in the only world during the regular season and in the  playoffs against the two best teams in baseball, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, look like they were carrying the burden of 70 years of the team's futility on their shoulders against the Mets?

After game four a friend texted me asking tongue-in-cheek if that whole thing about Mrs. O'Leary's goat was for real.

I don't know, perhaps. Maybe you could throw in Fred Merkle, a black cat, Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John,  Steve Bartman, the 1979 Blizzard, Don Young, Leon Durham and the Dave Matthews Band bus for good measure. The only answer I have is to a question Harry Caray posed years ago: "What do a mama bear on the pill and the World Series have in common?" The answer: no Cubs.

Sometimes the best a fan can do is shrug his shoulders, throw up his hands and say well, you never know.


There are people who take baseball so seriously they devised a system designed to take the you never know out of the game. That system raised to the level of a science, was named sabrmetrics by the most well known practitioner of the art of the analytical study of baseball statistics, Bill James. The work of sabretricians who employ scientific method and mathematical analysis to pour over oceans of data, has brought into question much of the conventional wisdom developed over the last century and half regarding what it takes to win a baseball game. As you can imagine, this caused a great deal of friction between baseball people who actually played the game, and the folks with their slide rules, (later computers), and inscrutable formulas.

In applying sabrmetrics to baseball strategy, once you have all the data figured out, the trick is pretty simple, calculate the statistical costs versus the benefits of a strategy in a particular situation, and employ only the moves with the greatest probability of success.

It's hard to argue with success. When a few struggling teams hired sabrmetricians including Bill James to consult on player acquisitions and strategies, and actually won games, pennants and championships, even the most stalwart baseball traditionalists had to take notice. Today you won't find a major league team looking to gain a competitive advantage without some sabrmetric help.

The downside of managing a baseball team like an insurance actuary is that it takes takes a lot of the fun out of the game. For example, you hardly ever see sacrifice bunts anymore (and the possibility of a batter squaring off then pulling back and slamming a single past the drawn in infield), as it has been determined that statistically, giving up an out in order to advance runners is less successful percentage-wise, than just swinging away. Sabrmetricians have devalued speed on the basepaths and determined that the risk of base stealing is usually greater than the benefits. Consequently one of the most exciting aspects of the game, the stolen base, is way down. Likewise, less emphasis has been put on fielding, and more has been put on power over average, consequently we're seeing more sluggers in the field who can't play a lick of defense. They're striking out more too.

The really smart baseball people, Bill James included, realize there are far too many variables in the game of baseball to understand it completely through numbers.  Turns out, there is some value to the element of surprise after all, and it's not always prudent to paint yourself into a corner by employing only a limited number of predictable strategies. Fortunately, you never know is not dead, yet.

Case in point, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals under their manager Ned Yost, don't do anything by the book. They steal and run the bases with abandon, guys in the middle of the lineup bunt, they don't hit many home runs and most of all, they hardly ever strike out. They're a very opportunistic team, as we saw in the World Series against the Mets; if you make a mistake against them, they will make you pay.

The Royals are a team designed to fit the idiosyncrasies of their ballpark, Kaufmann Stadium. That park is known to be extremely stingy for giving up home runs, so the team that calls it home concentrates on contact hitting, as swinging for the fence in Kansas City usually results in a deep fly out. As Kaufmann Stadium's outfield is about the size of Texas, team speed is also built into the roster. That became apparent in the bottom of the first inning of the World Series when KC's leadoff man, Alcides Escobar hit a deep drive to center field. The Met's centerfielder Yoannis Cespedis misjudged the ball and ended up kicking it out of the reach of left fielder Michael Conforto who was backing him up. When the ball was finally relayed back to the infield, the speedy Escobar had already circled the bases for an inside the park home run.

Another aspect of the Royals is they never give up, evidenced by the number of comeback wins they had in the playoffs. Some would attribute this to the character of the team, an idea scoffed at by many in the sabrmetric community, perhaps because character is something that cannot be accurately measured. In the top of the eighth with the score tied and two on and two out, Eric Hosmer misplayed a ground ball allowing the go-ahead run to score, a play that bore a haunting resemblance to the ball that went through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series, also against the Mets.

Unlike Buckner and the '86 Red Sox, Hosmer's teammates picked him up, first in the ninth when Alex Gordon hit a solo home run off the previously untouchable Mets closer Jeurys Familia to send the game into extra innings. Then in the bottom of the 14th, the Royals exploited a David Wright error which resulted in a runner at third who scored when who else but Hosmer drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly.

After a complete game two hitter thrown by newly acquired KC pitcher Johnny Queto, the teams traveled to New York. Like the Cubs in the same situation, down two games to none but heading home, the Mets were still optimistic about their chances. Unlike the Cubs they did something about it and made a definitive statement that they weren't going down without a fight, winning that game 9-3. In Game Four the Mets were on the verge of tying the series as they took a 3-2 lead into the 8th inning. Tyler Clippard in relief who had been very effective in the series up to that point, walked two straight KC batters. He was yanked for the closer Familia. Eric Hosmer hit a ground ball to Damiel Murphy's left. Murphy hustled to make the play before the runners could advance, but ran past the ball which ended up in right field. That costly error opened the door for three runs which would prove to be enough to put KC over the top with a 3-1 series lead over the Mets.

Still all was not lost for the Mets as Game Five featured arguably their best pitcher Matt Harvey against Edinson Volquez who just returned after attending his father's funeral in the Dominican Republic. No one knew how Volquez would fare after what had to be a tumultuous four days for the young pitcher, beginning when he learned of his father's death after coming off the mound in the seventh inning of Game One. If the Mets could win this game, they'd have to face Johnny Cueto again in Game Six. However Cueto had been erratic since coming to Kansas City, and if they could steal a win against him, they'd face Yordano Ventura whom they beat handily in Game Three.

You never know, stranger things have happened

The possibility that the Mets would at least get out of New York still alive in this series looked very good late in the game as Matt Harvey was brilliant, shutting out the Royals for eight innings, holding them to only four hits. He also struck out nine batters on the team who never strikes out.

When Harvey came off the mound at the end of the eighth, things got really interesting. As he met up with Mets manager Terry Collins in the dugout, viewers watching on TV could clearly read Collins's lips telling Harvey he was done for the night. An emotional Harvey in turn, told his manager "I want the ball."

Terry Collins had a decision to make...

For most big league managers, there would be only one choice, go with the closer. Conventional wisdom dictates that complete games are all but a thing of the past, especially in the post-season. Before Johnny Cueto pitched his complete game masterpiece in Game Two, the last American League pitcher who tossed a complete game in the World Series was Jack Morris in 1991. It hasn't been that long for National League pitchers but you get the idea. In the regular season, most managers yank the starter when he reaches the 100 pitch mark, but during the post season with lots more help available from the bullpen, starters are usually given a much shorter leash. At the end of eight innings in Game Five, Matt Harvey was flirting with 100 pitches. Even more compelling, last season Harvey had Tommy John (elbow) surgery which sidelined him for the entire year. He pitched well in 2015 but many thought he was being over-used and there was speculation that he might not be used at all in the post-season. Given the circumstances, it was a no-brainer that Collins would want to pull Harvey.

On the other hand, Harvey was pitching magnificently and win or lose, this would be his last game of the season. On top of that, Jeurys Familia had blown two saves already in the series (admittedly not entirely his fault). It happens all the time, the starting pitcher pitches eight magnificent innings only to have a reliever come in and blow the game in the ninth. For Collins it was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. His decision would ultimately not be judged on its merits, only by the results. If it worked he'd be hailed a genius, if not, he'd be second guessed for eternity.

The tension built in the bottom of the eighth as the Mets' top of the order came up to bat. The nearly 45,000 fans at CITI Field in Flushing, Queens, were on their feet and at least 40,000 of them demanded to see Harvey back on the mound in the top of the ninth. As the moment arrived, the Mets took the field  one by one, but there was one player conspicuously missing from the field, the pitcher. After a long pause no doubt intended for dramatic effect, out of the dugout stormed Matt Harvey. The fans went crazy; they were about to witness, or so they thought, the culmination of one of the classic pitching performances in World Series history.

You could tell by the body language that Matt Harvey was pumped.

Lorenzo Cain led off. The Royal centerfielder was twice the victim of Harvey strikeouts. This time Cain battled at the plate working the count to 3-2. After seven pitches, Harvey lost Cain to the dreaded lead-off walk.

Collins stubbornly stuck with his man. 

Cain stole second on the first pitch to Eric Hosmer.

The next pitch would be Matt Harvey's last pitch of the season, and it was a good one, a low fastball on the outside corner. Unfortunately for Harvey, Hosmer's hit was better than the pitch. The lefty first baseman went with Harvey's offering, slamming it to the opposite field for a double that easily scored Cain. No sooner did Cain cross the plate when Terry Collins was out of the dugout headed for the mound, which was precisely the moment the second guessing that will follow him the rest of his days began.

And yet, the Mets were still up 2-1 with their star closer finally in the game, and still very much in control.

Next up was third baseman Mike Moustakas who hit the ball exactly where he needed to, grounding out to first and advancing the runner to third. With one out and the tying run ninety feet away, the dangerous Salvador Perez came to the plate. Familia got Perez to hit the ball exactly where he wanted him to, a ground ball to third. David Wright did exactly what he was supposed to do, cleanly field the ball, look the runner back to third, then fire to first to get the hitter for the second out. The only person who didn't cooperate with the plan was Eric Hosmer, the runner at third.

Now in Conventional Baseball Wisdom 101, one of the first things you learn as a base runner is to never let yourself get thrown out on a base or home plate for the first or the third out of an inning. This applies to the first inning of a game in early April as it does to the ninth inning of a World Series game.

Mets first baseman Lucas Duda was very familiar with that rule, so ingrained was it in his DNA that it probably never crossed his mind that Hosmer might try something. Hosmer on the other hand apparently missed that class. A millisecond after Wright threw to first, he broke for home. A good throw from Duda would have nailed Hosmer at the plate by at least five feet and the Mets would have been packing their bags for Game Six in Kansas City. But Duda, as astonished as everyone else by Hosmer's temerity, made as bad a throw as a major league ball player could make, about three feet to the right of catcher Travis d'Arnaud who had no chance to make the play.

"Hosmer's mad dash home" as it has been called, scored the tying run, and ripped the hearts out of Mets fans everywhere. Familia was able to get out of the inning without further damage, but after Hosmer's daring play, it was all academic. The stage was set for the Royals bullpen to shut the Mets down as they had done to American League teams for the past two years. It took a few innings but eventually the Royals did what they do best at the plate, manufacture a run with a single, a stolen base, a runner advancing on a ground out, and another single. Daniel Murphy's error that followed, almost a carbon copy of the one he made the night before, was only the icing on the cake as it turned out the Royals didn't need the four unearned runs that followed. Closer Wade Davis came in and struck out the side (with a Michael Conforto base hit in between) to put the Mets and their fans out of their misery.

When it was over, there was no clear cut MVP, but they had to give out the award just the same. It went to Salvador Perez, the de facto leader of the Royals. Perez was the indestructible man after taking more foul tips to the body this series than anyone has a right to. It was a good choice to award a team win by giving the MVP to the team leader.

It wasn't always pretty but this year's season proved there's more than one way to win a ballgame. You don't need the highest payroll or play the way you're "supposed to" in order to win the World Series. It was good old fashioned baseball in the best sense of the term, with all or nothing base running, manufactured runs, and unconventional wisdom ruling the day. I secretly rooted for the Royals because I like their approach to the game, no superstars, just a very solid lineup top to bottom, willing to do whatever it takes to win a game. Truth be told, I liked the Mets only slightly less for the same reasons.

Kansas City beat New York in five games, but it wasn't as one sided as that number might indicate. The cruel truth of baseball is that one day you can be on top of the world, and the next day be a bum. Without Daniel Murphy's head's up base running and a series clinching home in the NLDS, the Dodgers would have ended up playing the Cubs for the pennant, not the Mets. Who knows how that would have turned out. Murphy's bat and glove contributed in a big way to the NLCS, so much so he was awarded the MVP of that series. Yet without his crucial error in Game Four of the World Series, the Mets might have lived to play another day, maybe two, or maybe even a win a championship.

Ditto for Duda. Despite all the good things he did all season, in the playoffs and the World Series, he will always be remembered for that bad throw.

Terry Collins's unconventional decision to listen to his starter and leave him in to pitch the ninth inning of Game Five will go down as one of the worst managerial calls in World Series history, and with perfect 20-20 hindsight, it was the wrong call. Of course, Collins could have sent Jeruys Familia in to face Cain and Hosmer with exactly the same results, and Collins would most liely have been chastised for not thinking "outside the box."

Hosmer could have stayed on third as conventional wisdom would have dictated in that situation. His breaking for home will no doubt be remembered for a long time. It's already been compared to one of the most famous plays in World Series history, when Enos Slaughter ran through a stop sign at third and scored on a close play at the plate to win the 1946 World Series for the Cardinals.

Of course, had Duda made a good throw and the Mets come back to win the World Series in Kansas City, Hosmer would be remembered for something completely different.

It's what a friend of mine calls the "razor thin margin between genius and stupidity" that makes baseball so audacious, frustrating, heart-breaking, compelling, and wonderful, all at the same time.

The Mets are a good young team, they'll get another chance as they'll be around for a while. So will the Cubs and the Pirates.

At this writing there are only 97 days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

I can't wait.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

You Never Know...

We lost baseball's great wordsmith in September when Yogi Berra died at the good ripe age of ninety. Berra was unquestionably one of the greatest catchers ever, but today he is probably best known for his quotes, a mixture of homespun wisdom:
Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.
It's like déjà vu all over again.
a unique take on mathematical concepts:
Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
hilarious malaprops:
He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious.
and redundant tautologies:
We have deep depth.
So quotable and numerous were his utterances that the word yogism was coined to describe not only things Yogi Berra said, but goofy things other people said that were credited to him. On that he commented:
I never said most of the things I said.
Probably the most famous thing Yogi Berra never said had something to do with an event not concluding without the benefit of song from a woman of large proportion. 

Berra was the master of stating the obvious. Who would have realized for example that you could learn a lot about something simply by watching, that a record would stand until it was broken, and of course, that something's not over, until it's over.

That last observation, probably his most famous, simple-minded as it may sound, is remarkably profound when it comes to the profession Yogi Berra mastered. An equally quotable man with a much different style, the late Baltimore Oriole manager Earl Weaver put it this way:
You can't sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You've got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That's why baseball is the greatest game of them all.
Unlike games ruled by the clock, there is no such thing as an insurmountable lead in baseball. Difficult as it might be, it is still possible to score ten runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to win or tie a ballgame. It probably even happened once somewhere, sometime. As Yori Berra might have said (but didn't):
If there is one word that best describes baseball it's this: You never know.
That wannabe yogism was actually uttered by all-star pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who sadly also passed away this past September. You never know describes the wonderful unpredictability of baseball, especially the game as it is played today.

This year's baseball season which concluded last Sunday was defined by you never know, making it one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory. At least four teams came seemingly out of nowhere to make it into the playoffs, and the team that won it all, came from behind late in games five times in the post-season, proving once and for all what messers Berra and Weaver intimated, you should never leave a ball game until the last out is recorded.

I've always contended that what makes sports so compelling is the outcome is not contrived like theater, rather the drama is created before your very eyes. Last year's World Series pitted the San Francisco Giants against the Kansas City Royals. These were two very good teams, but that series was dominated by the performance of one man, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner. That's not to say there was no drama. The Royals ended up one swing away from winning the Series, down by one with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a runner at third, and Salvador Perez at the plate. But in reality the outcome was never in doubt. Like a fictional heroic epic, when all looks the bleakest, you know the hero would find a way out. That's exactly what Luke Skywalker Bumgarner did. Perez, playing the role of Darth Vader in this drama, wanted desperately to go where no man had gone before by hitting a walk-off come from behind home run in game seven of the World Series. The Giant lefty responded with fast balls all out of the strike zone and Perez swinging for Kansas City, Kansas, took the bait. Instead of immortality, the best the Royal catcher could do to catch up to Bumgarner's heat was a harmless foul pop-up to third baseman Pablo Sandoval for game, set and championship.

If the drama of last year's post-season could be compared to Star Wars, this year's was a little more compelling, perhaps Hamlet meets The Shining, with a little Dr. Strangelove and Abbot and Costello thrown in for good measure. The theme tying it all together was you never know.

Each 162 game major league baseball season is an arduous journey with many pitfalls along the way. Players get injured, go into slumps, or check themselves into rehab at inopportune times. Truly good teams seem to overcome adversity and find ways to be successful. Other teams get hot for whatever reason at the right time and come up on top one year, never to be heard from again. You never know.

At the beginning of the year, things were looking good for teams with big name stars like the Nationals, and the Angels, Likewise by virtue of their being defending champions, the Giants were expected to make the postseason. All those teams fizzled, thwarted by teams who were re-building and considered a year or two away from contention, namely the Mets who won their division, and the Astros and Cubs who won wild card spots. The Astros went on to upset the Yankees (who lost their division to another unlikely team, the Blue Jays) in a one game wild card playoff.

The current setup in major league baseball where two wild card teams are selected from each league (in addition to the three division champs), is in its third year. On one hand, the system rewards teams who have good records but play in strong divisions. This year however, we had the strange occurrence of  the three best teams in baseball all coming from the same division, the National League Central. Consequently the second and third best teams in the game had to play each other in a one game playoff, meaning a high seeded team would be assured of making an early exit from the post-season. That dubious distinction went, for the second consecutive year, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team who has been rebuilding it seems forever. All their 98 wins and second best record in baseball got them this year was a one game ticket to Palookaville, punched by Jake Arrieta and the Cubs. Expect changes in the playoff structure next year which would give a playoff advantage to wild card teams with better records than divisional champions.

Speaking of Arrieta, no pitcher was hotter in the second half of the season. The 22 game winner posted a phenomenal 1.77 ERA for the regular season. But that's only the tip of the iceberg:
  • The last game Arrieta lost in the regular season was on July 25th. For the rest of the season he started twelve games, and won eleven of them with one no decision, a game the Cubs eventually won. 
  • Nine of the twelve games he started (granted he didn't finish them all) were shutouts. 
  • He pitched a no-hitter against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on August 30.
  • He pitched six perfect innings against the Pirates on September 27 in a one hit shutout. 
  • In those twelve games, Arrieta pitched 88 1/3 innings and gave up only 4 earned runs which adds up to an ERA of 0.41. 
  • That does not count the one game wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh where Arrieta pitched a complete game shutout.
In a normal year, off-the-chart numbers like those would have made Arrieta a shoe-in for the National League Cy Young award. But in this crazy, you never know year, two pitchers both with the Dodgers, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw had phenomenal seasons of their own and posted comparable numbers for the year. At this writing we are still awaiting the announcement of the award.

The Dodgers faced the Mets in a coast to coast dream matchup for the networks who were no doubt reeling from the early departure of the Yankees. The rap on Kershaw for all his prowess, was that he couldn't win the big game. The winner of the 2014 Cy Young award, Kershaw had two rough post-seasons, last year, losing two games in the Dodgers' best of five National League Division Series loss to St. Louis, and two more the year before in the National League Championship Series, also against the Cardinals

This year, Kershaw made it five post-season losses in a row in a 3-2 loss in game one against the Mets and their young ace, Jacob deGroom. Zack Greinke had better luck with run support from his team the next game, winning it 5-2.  In game four, Kershaw finally got the monkey off his back, this time after only three days rest, pitching brilliantly in a three hit masterpiece, a do or die game in New York. In that game, Kershaw allowed only on run on a solo home run by Daniel Murphy (more on him later). LA took the game 3-1.

Things were looking up for the Dodgers as they headed home for the definitive game five with Zach Greinke on the mound. After giving up one run in the top of the first, the Dodgers immediately jumped on Jake deGroom in the bottom of the frame, scoring two runs. Greinke was looking pretty good until the fourth inning when he gave up a single to Daniel Murphy. Next up was the lefty hitter Lucas Duda who as usual received an extreme infield shift where the Dodger third baseman was positioned in short right field. Duda drew a walk, advancing Murphy to second. Then performing a revival of the classic Abbott and Costello routine, "who's on first, what's on second, I don't know's on third", the Dodgers didn't know who was on third either, and Murphy calmly waltzed to third base while the Dodgers just stood and watched. Next up was catcher Travis d'Arnaud who hit a fly ball to right that was hooking foul. Dodger left fielder Andre Ethier bore down on the ball and made a splendid running catch, one or two strides into foul territory. Murphy tagged and scored easily, tying the game.

That catch brought up the question, should Ethier have let the ball drop in foul territory, thereby conceding the out but not allowing the tying run to score? Now there's a question that will be pondered for eternity. In the sixth, Murphy (much more on him later), hit a solo home run off Greinke and that was it, the Mets beat the Dodgers three games to two.

News of the Dodgers' demise was music to the ears of Cubs fans whose team had beaten the Cardinals in the other NLDS two days before. That matchup was the first time those ancient rivals had faced each other in the post-season since 1886 when the St. Louis Browns, champions of the long defunct American Association, beat the National League Champion Chicago White Stockings (same teams, different names), in a previous incarnation of the World Series. Chicago fans had long relished the thought of meeting the Mets in the NLCS as A) lingering hatred still burns in the hearts of old-timers for the New York National Leaguers since the great Chicago collapse of 1969 and B) the Cubs owned the Mets during the regular season, taking all seven games from them.

Little did they know...

Anyway, the unusual outcome of the Mets/Dodgers series was nothing compared to what went down the day before in Toronto. Under the dome in the Great White North, the Blue Jays were battling the Texas Rangers in another deciding fifth game of a divisional series. Toronto dug itself into a deep hole after losing the first two games at home, but redeemed themselves in Arlington winning both games on the road, 5-1 and 8-4. In game five the score was tied 2-2 by the time the seventh inning rolled around. 53 minutes later, that inning would go down in history as one of the strangest ever. The weirdness started with Rangers Shin-Soo Choo at the plate and Rougned Odor at third. On a throw back to the pitcher, Toronto catcher Russell Martin inadvertently bounced the ball off Choo's bat and it ended up in the infield between third base and the pitcher's mound. Odor immediately took off for home while the plate umpire signaled a dead ball. Meanwhile the Toronto infielders were slow to react and Odor crossed the plate easily. The original call was no play (presumably due to batter interference) and not surprisingly, an argument ensued. After a video review, the umpires reversed their call, saying that the ball was indeed live as Choo and his bat did not interfere with the throw, and the go-ahead run for the Rangers counted.

Quite understandably, Blue Jay manager John Gibbons came out and rightly I believe, protested that since the umpire signaled the ball dead during the play, the play should have been ruled dead, just as in football where a play is automatically dead whenever an official blows the whistle, regardless of the reason for the whistle. Gibbons lost the argument and announced that the game was being played under protest. Toronto fans agreed and showed their displeasure by hurling trash onto the field.

It turned out to be a moot point as in the bottom of the inning, the Jays loaded the bases on three consecutive Ranger errors. Toronto scored the tying run on a fielder's choice, then the roof caved in when Jose Bautista hit a monster three run home run off a Sam Dyson sinker that didn't sink. Dyson took exception with Bautista's now legendary prodigious bat flip before he rounded the bases. A kerfuffle ensued and more trash found its way onto the field. After the dust settled, the Blue Jays found themselves up 6-3, and that's how the game and series ended.

The other ALDS saw 2014 American League Champion Kansas City Royals against the feisty Astros. Like Toronto, the Royals appeared they would be down two games do none at home. But in game two of the series, Kansas City began their streak of late come-from-behind playoff wins, by winning that game and preserving a split of the first two games of the series. Once again, in game four, six outs away from elimination, the Royals down by four in the 8th scored five runs, then two more in the ninth to move the series to a fifth game in Kansas City where newly acquired pitcher Johnny Cueto won easily, 7-2.

Whew, all that and we still haven't made it to the League Championship Series. I guess that will have to wait for another day and post.