Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Photographs of the Month

North Harbor Drive, July 7

Bowmanville, July 9

Rogers Park, July 13

Uptown, July 16
Field Museum, July 17

West Ridge, July 25

Monday, July 30, 2018

Analytically Speaking

This article written by Alan Jacobs for the Weekly Standard, pretty much sums up my feelings about the game of baseball as it has been played at the major league level for the past several years.

In essence, Jacobs says the current scientific approach to the game, the in-depth analysis, the putting into action strategies for the sole reason that they statistically achieve slightly better results than traditional old school approaches, have all made the game for the most part, predictable and boring to watch.

In his article, Jacobs describes his youthful appreciation of the old Baltimore Oriole teams managed by the late Earl Weaver in the seventies and eighties. Going against conventional baseball wisdom, Weaver eschewed traadional strategies such as base stealing and bunting to advance runners, otherwise known as small ball, his logic being that too many things have to go right with that strategy to produce a minimum number of runs. Going for the big inning, Weaver encouraged his batters to get on base any way they could, then let the batter with runners on base swing for the fences to hit a home run, which he believed was a much more efficient way to produce runs.

Conversely he had his pitchers challenge batters with pitches down the middle of the plate, rather than risking walking batters and accumulating base runners. Yes they gave up more home runs, but they were typically one run homers which were usually more than made up for by the big innings his batting strategy was designed to produce.

It was during Weaver's tenure as manager when very serious fans such as Bill James, began to probe deeper than anyone ever had into the inner workings of baseball. James built his passion into a serious career as a writer, analyist, and ultimately a consultant to major league teams. He is considered to be one of the greatest minds in the game, and is probably the single most influential pratitioner of Sabermetrics, a term he coined for what in his words is "the search for objective knowledge about baseball."

The Earl of Baltimore's unorthodox strategy was ultimately backed up by Bill James and others who proved that statistically, Weaver's methods resulted in a greater probability of producing more runs for his team, and giving up fewer runs for the other teaam, which of course translated to more wins.

Sabermetricians like James were originally labeled as crackpots by the baseball community. After all, what could eggheads sitting in front of their computers who never played the game know about baseball? That scenario is portrayed brilliantly in a scene from the film Moneyball, where a portly nerd of a Sabermetrician named Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), who is hired by the woebegone Oakland A's to be their braintrust, sits at a table with what would become the former braintrust, the old school scounts, coaches and manager of the team. Rejecting traditioanal baseball logic, Brand, a fictional character based upon the real Paul DePodesta, convinces his boss, Oakland GM Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) to dump over-paid and sabrmetrically under-performing players, in favor of bargain basement players rejected by other teams. Needless to say, the old baseball foagies thought the nerdy fat guy was full of shit. Nonetheless, Beane and Brand (in reality, DePodesta who bears no physical resemblance to Hill) turned a losing team with little capital into a contender for the American League pennant in 2002.

It's hard to argue with success, MLB teams took notice and before long every team was employing Sabermetric analysis for everything from player personnel to the tiniest minutiae of game management. Take for example the lowly bunt. Traditional baseball logic dictates that when there are two runners on base and nobody out, the batter should bunt, in other words square up and tap the ball about ten feet rather than taking a full swing to drive the ball. If the bunt is successful as it used to be nine times out of ten in the hands of a major league player, the two runners advance bases and the batter is usually, but not always, thrown out at first base. In baseball parleance this is called a sacrifice because the batter sacrifices himself in order for his teammates to be in a better position to score.

Thanks to sabermetrics, sacrifice bunts are all but a thing of the past as the analysis of data drawn from hundreds of thousands of situations shows that the probablity of scoring runs while swinging away, is greater than giving up an out in order to advance the runners.

Another victim of sabermetrics is one of the most exciting parts of the game, the stolen base. Analysis has shown that the risks of being thrown out while attempting to steal a base outweigh the benefits of a successful steal. The general rule of thumb with MLB teams these days is if a runner's stolen base success rate is worse than eighty percent, he's better off staying put on base and wait to be advanced by the batter, hopefully by a home run. And with pitchers better at holding runners on base and catchers being able to throw runners out, hardly anybody can steal a base eight out of ten times in the big leagues today.

Slugger Jose Abreu of the White Sox with a home run swing on July 6, 2014.
As you can see at the top right, the result was a very impressive foul ball.
To the best of my recollection, he struck out on the next pitch.
Sabermetrically speaking, the home run is the most valuable outcome of an at bat. That should come as no surprise, as it is the most efficient method to score a run, one swing, one run, plus one run for each runner on base. However there is a definite risk factor with home run hitters as they are typically more likely to strike out. Not to worry say the Sabermetricians, in this case, the benefit of efficiently scoring runs by swinging for the fences, outweighs the risk of striking out. Consequently in current major league rosters, it's not unusual to see power hitters up and down the lineup, taking away the spots previously left for batters who hit for average, or weaker hitters who excel at defense.

It's also not unusual to see dramatic shifts for power hitters, especially lefties. Well detailed spray charts are provided for all MLB players showing the location where every single ball hit off their bat landed on the field. Managers place their fielders accordingly, even if it means shifting the entire infield, with the exception of the first baseman, to one side of the field. One would think this would provide an excellent opportunity for the batter to place his hits, or as Wee Willy Keeler a long time ago suggested, "hit 'em where they ain't", for an almost certain free base. Not so, the analyists say, it's still more statistically feasible to damn the shift and swing away for a home run, rather than settle for a piddly base hit.

To counter all those home runs, MLB teams won't even look at pitching prospects who cannot throw the ball a minimum of 90 plus mph. What used to be a once in a generation phenominon, you can find pitchers who can throw in excess of 100mph on about half of the big league rosters. Consquently, serious injuries to young pitchers have become commonplace and teams adhere to strict pitch counts to protect the arms of their valuable assets. Combined with the relatively recent practice of the situational use of multiple relief pitchers in one game. what was once commonplace, a pitcher tossing a complete game, is extremely rare these days, as we saw recently when a couple of pitchers were pulled from games while throwing no-hitters.

Anatomy of a 100 mph fastball.
Reliever Kelvin Herrera with the Kansas City Royals in 2016.
Another asset the sabrmetricians highly value is the base on balls. In days of old, it was considered unmanly for a batter to be walked as it was thought to be the error of the pitcher rather than the achievement of the hitter to reach base that way. That obviously is foolish thinking, but the premium on the walk is probably the single biggest contributor to the ungodly length of major league baseball games today. That is because batters have become so adept at fouling off pitches that it's not unusual to see double-digit pitch at bats as the rule these days, as batters try to foul off every strike, either to draw a walk, or force the pitcher to make the mistake of offering a hittable pitch. As pitchers get better and better, able to throw pitches that just graze the corner of the strike zone on command, and batters get better at fouling them off, these contests of one foul ball after an other after another, are only going to increase.

There is absolutely no question that ballplayers have never been better than they are today. Current players are bigger, stronger, faster, more agile, and probably smarter, at least in terms of the objective knowledge of the game, than they ever were. As MLB's official historian John Thorn points out, the great players we revere from the past, would never make it onto a big league roster today, (that is if you were to somehow transport them from their glory days to today). Baseball writing is better than ever, in no small part thanks to Bill James, who beyond his remarkable analytical skills is a wonderful writer. The same can be said of the level of scholarly research of baseball history which was once the exclusive domain of jaded sportwriters with a personal axe to grind. And as we've just seen thanks to the work of the Sabermetricians, analytical research into the complicated workings of the game has never been more precise and thorough.

The problem with all that as Alan Jacobs suggests, is that armed with the same data and analytical conclusions, and the universally high level of talent and skill among the players, there is little variation in each big league team's approach to the game. Today, every team plays like Earl Weaver's Orioles, without of course, Weaver's legendary histrionics. Today's game seems to be run by actuaries, risk managers rather than baseball managers.

Perhaps it's inevitable with the quantum leaps of player athleticism and skillsets, and the knowledge of how to successfully win baseball games by the people who pull the strings, that a typical game played at its highest level in the future might look something like this:

Game begins. After a 20 pitch at bat, the batter finally succeeds in either getting hit by a pitch or walking. He stands on first base while his teammate waits at the plate with the other side offereing him a free base hit by placing all their fielders on one side of the field. After fouling off 12 consecutive pitches, he defiantly swings as hard as he can in the fielders' direction in the hopes of hitting the ball over their heads for a home run. He either strikes out on a 110 mph fastball, or lines out to the third baseman perfectly positioned in short right field. Repeat twice. Inning over. Repeat entire process 16 times switching sides with each repetition. On the next iteration, first batter succeeds to hit 750 foot home run of a 115mph pitch. Game over. Final score, 1-0. Crowd goes wild.

Sheesh, almost makes you want to become a soccer fan.

Not to woryy however. Thank God Sabermetrics hasn't found its way yet into youth baseball, which is still the greatest game around.

Now that's better. The game as it was meant to be played.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Rhyming History

Here's an apt quote for the day, one often mis-attributed like so many others, to Samuel Clemmons, aka Mark Twain:
History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
The following is an even better quote which is in fact from Mark Twain:
It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.
Re-examinging one of the most famous and significant chapters in Chicago history in preparation for a forward to a book I have been asked to write, I've been struck by how issues that tore our city and country apart almost one and one half centuries ago, still resonate today. Not that we re-construct history brick by brick, but it's clear that we create the same problems for ourselves over and over and over again.

The event is the Haymarket Affair, the late nineteenth century struggle for workers' rights which led to a disastrous confrontation between workers and the police on May 4th, 1886. Eight police officers and an untold number of protestors died as a result of a bomb thrown toward a phalanx of officers as they tried to break up an otherwise peaceful rally in Haymarket Square on the near west side of the city. The business community as well as the general public, who were influenced by biased and incendiary coverage in the local media, were shocked and appalled by the deaths and demanded that the organizers of the event, most of whom were not even present when the bomb went off, pay with their lives for the deaths of the police officers. Even though the identity of the bomb thrower was never known, four men, all well known leaders of the workers' rights movement, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer, went to the gallows on November 11th of the following year. A fifth defendant, Louis Lingg, cheated the hangman by committing suicide the night before his scheduled execution. Three other defendants had their sentences commuted and were eventually pardonned.

Today the trial that condemned the five men known to this day the world over as the Haymarket Martyrs, is by and large considered a sham, a show trial, and a gross miscarriage of justice, with neither the judge nor the jury making any attempt to disguise their prejudice against the defendants and their cause.

Obviously we don't hang people anymore for allegedly inciting riots, so we're not, literally at least, repeating that part of history. Yet reading about the buildup to the Haymarket Affair, one cannot help but see the connection to current events such as pitting the rights of one group of people against another, the role and the mistrust of police in society, and most important, the resentment, fear and sometimes outright hatred of newly arrived immigrants to this country. In fact the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed by prominent members of nineteenth century society, while perhaps a trfile more bellicose, seems to hauntingly reflect the statements of some current day pundits on the subject .

Consider these words from lead States Attorney Julius Grinnell in his closing argument at the Haymarket trial. Describing how scores of working people in Chicago, mostly German and Bohemian immigrants would react should the "jurymen unjustly acquit the anarchists", Grinnell told the jury...
...all the slimy vermin who have taken cover in the holes and byways of the city during this trial, will flock out again like a lot of rats.
That statement was met by a cheer of approval from spectators at the trial as well as from members of the jury.

A particularly vocal critic of the workers movement was former Chicago mayor and owner of the Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill who once wrote in an editorial in his paper about the day when he joyfully imagined:
...communistic carcasses decorating the lamp-posts of Chicago.
Granted the threat of violence from the workers as witnessed by the Haymarket Riot was real, but much of it was a reaction to violence committed agaisnt striking workers by the police and by private security companies hired by the companies they were striking against. In fact the May 4th  Haymarket rally was a direct response to the killing of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works complex on the south side the day before. Parsons and Spies, who had both been radicalized by the brutal treament of striking workers, spoke at the rally. It is said that Spies only agreed to speak if the mention of protestors arming themselves was deleted from pamphlets advertising the event. After Parsons spoke to the assembled crowd, he left the rally and was not present at the time of the bomb blast. One of the condemned, George Engel, was at home playing cards during the entire event. Only two of the Haymarket defendants, Spies and Samuel Felden who was speaking at the time the police began their advance on the crowd, were present at the time of the blast.

So what was all the fuss about? The issue was fairly simple; the over-riding concern of the workers was the enofcement of a state law banning companies from forcing their employees to work more than eight hours per day. That law which was put into the books in 1867 had no teeth, and was consequently all but ignored. The argument of the industrialists was that no one was forced to work for them and there were plenty of people in those economically depressed times willing to replace striking workers. The argument of the workers, who were paid on average $1.50 per day which was cut by 25 cents during particularly difficult times, was that such demanding hours, often 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week, essentially enslaved the wage earner to his job which didn't provide him the time to develop other skills in which he could enrich his life and better his situation. In other words, the struggle was between the rights of the capitalists to make the rules in their own compnies and the rights of the workers to earn a fair and living wage under reasonable and humane conditions.

Like Spies and Parsons, the newly arrived immigrants from central Europe and Scandinavia, many of whom were already aquainted with the work of Karl Marx and other writers promoting radical change, were deeply concerend by the over-zealous reaction of the powers-that-be, and the ruthless sometimes deadly force used against them by the police. The few who chose to arm themselves, admittedly encouraged by people like Spies and Parsons, did so for their own self-defense.

Not surprisingly, native born Americans, many of whom could only claim one or two generations of American ancestry themselves, reacted bitterly to this new wave of immigrants. Because of the relative few who committed violent acts, they painted all immigrants who came to these shores with the simple intent to better their lives, with a very broad brush, protraying them as  interlopers who seemed hell-bent on destroying the American way of life.

Sound at all familiar?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Summer in the City

Summer of late has lost its glimmer for me, especially this one which so far has been unfortunately defined by the death of a dear loved one. I remember talking with my late cousin Bob when my children were small about the fate of a parent. He said: "Small children small problems, big children...". He didn't need to complete the thought. Truth be told, my wife and I have been blessed with two wonderful children who hardly give us any problems. Yet it is a fact of life that as kids get older and more independent, parents are faced with ever increasing challenges. but that's a story for another day. The bottom line as far as this story gores is this, summer just isn't as much fun as it used to be when the kids were small.

That said, my daughter and I took advantage of a lovely summer evening last week to go to one of this city's premier summer attractions, a concert in the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. Sadly it's something we don't take advantage of enough as the park is across the street from where I work. The last time we wre there was nine years ago when we attended a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. As I wrote in my post about it, that night wasn't exactly my finest moment. I was appalled by the crwod who were practically oblivious of being in the presence of over one hundrend young musicians and chorus members working their butts off performing one of the greatest works of music ever written, Judging by the way they carried on their conversations at full volume as the music played, they could have just as easily been at a barbeque in their backyard.

Anyway, I didn't behave well that evening as the people who were with me at the time, namely my wife and children keep reminding me.

Nine years older and wiser, I now realize that you cannot expect much from an outdoor audience at a free concert, I resolved to behave myself this year during the program that featured works of Haydn, Beethoven again, and Wagner.

Armed with that resolve, it was wonderful, even though the quiet strains ending the obscenely beautiful Tannhauser Overture, the piece that ended the concert, were all but drowned out by the crowd. 

Well at least we got our money's worth and then some, it was a lovely evening, one that I, and hopefully my daughter will remember for a long time.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

My Cousin Bob

This month, my family said goodbye to the finest human being I have ever known, my first cousin Bob Hoggatt. Bob was the eldest child of my mother's only sibling, her late brother Robert. In that role, my Uncle Bob's namesake son was the patriarch of our family. He wore that distinction well.

Bob Hoggatt
I've known Bob all my life, but fifteen years his junior, my early memories of him are sketchy as during our family get togethers, I was more inclined to hang out with his youngest siblings who were closer to my age, my cousins Bill and Betty. I hardly have any recollections of Bob at all without Bridget, who married him when I was ten years old. While it is quite impossible to think of Bob without Bridget, the two were far from being attached at the hip, The couple consisted of two strong minded, strong willed, distinct individuals who perfectly complimented the other. I remember a conversation Bob and I had a long time ago about relationships and the pride he showed when he spoke of how he and his wife were perfect equals, that neither one of them could ever claim to be the dominant partner of the two. Being the wisest person I ever knew however, Bob was quick to point out that in even the most egalitarian of relationships, there are times when one partner is more equal than the other. We had a great laugh over that one.

Bob and I became close around the time I was a teenager, when I began to look for role models who weren't my parents. As I was raised an only child, he was the big brother I never had. Perhaps the greatest of his many qualities was his ability to be attentive to other people. Despite being older and much wiser, he never talked down or offered me unsolicited advice. That is something my children, who were both devastated by his death, picked up upon as well. It didn't matter if you were the Archbishop of Chicago, or the hospital attendant cleaning bedpans, in every encounter with Bob, you came away feeling that you were the most important person in the world. The important thing to note here is the fact that when you were with Bob, you were the most important person in the world to him, it was not an act.

That's not to say Bob didn't have what our grandmonther would have called "a little bit of the divil (sic) in him." Our closest time together was during my father's final days, as he lay in a semi-conscious state in a pallative care facility in Arizona. During that six week ordeal, Bob who was still working at the time and living in Chicago, visited my mother and me at least two or three times.. He provided us immeasurable compassion, comfort and companionship during that difficult time. He also provided a few much needed laughs.

My father's primary care physician at the facility was a man who obviously had a very high opinion of himself. His deep tan and long locks, along with a perfectly pressed western shirt, tight jeans and snakeskin boots gave him an almost movie star-like presence. The only thing that contradicted the effect was the voice. To compare that man's voice to Mickey Mouse would be a gross understatement. It was as if he walked around connected to a tank of helium. Bob first met this doctor at a meeting with my mother and me, where he spelled out all his great plans to prolong (not the word he used) my father's at the time miserable existance. As the doctor went on and on trying to give us what we all understood to be false hope, Bob listened intently, giving the conversation all the gravitas it deserved.

After the doctor departed, my mother asked Bob what he thought. Surprizing us both, Bob, never once breaking from his serious expression replied: "Well the first thing I have to say is what's up with that doctor's voice?" I have to say that I can't remember laughing harder in my entire life. As a devout man, Bob probably wouldn't like to be remembered as someone who got a laugh off of someone else's expense. But the truth is Bob deeply understood where his priorities were; the tremendous gift of laughter he provided my mother and me in our time of darkness, more than outweighed the transgression of poking a little fun of someone's affliction.

Bob in his natural state, yukking it up with family
members this past Christmas
That was how Bob lived his life. He lived the Gospel every day, but was not dogmatic about it. He understood what was important, that the most fundamental gifts spelled out by his faith are love, compassion and generosity. Despite his passionate love of the English language and his remarkable facility with it, he knew the most effective way he could communicate his faith was through example rather than words. 

We've spoken ad nauseam lately over the importance of following reason rather than blind faith. But I strongly believe that faith has a very powerful purpose in our lives, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. On the day he died I got a call on my phone at work. I didn't recognoze the number and as I typically do, considered ignoring it as nine times out of ten, these are recorded sales calls. But something told me to to answer the phone. For a moment my original suspicions were confirmed as there was a long delay at the other end which is always the case with recorded calls. Yet still I hung on the line. After about five seconds a halting, barely audible voice came over the phone. It was my cousin Bill delievering the news. While Bob had numerous health issues over the past five years, his death was unexpected and a complete shock. In fact we had plans to celebrate his 75th birthday the following week, and his health was at the time, the farthest thing from my mind. Think whatever you will but I am convinced it was Bob who told me to pick up the phone, as no one else in the family could bear to break the news to my mother who loved Bob as if he were her own son.

There have been other unusual moments in the days since his death that we are all convinced were influnced by Bob. I know scads of people who would take pains to point out that these events all had  perfectly rational explanations. Well those folks can believe whatever they want.

No matter what you believe, the truth is that our loved ones live on in those of us they leave behind. I'll know Bob is with me everytime I hug my children and God willing, someday my grandchildren, as his family was the greatest joy of his life. I'll know he's with me whenever I listen to those in pain, building up their self-esteem by letting them know what good and impostant people they truly are, as Bob often did. I'll know he's alive whever I treat a stranger like my oldest friend.

Bob, Bridget and their six grandchidren
On the other hand, I realize that neither I nor anyone could ever replace Bob. I doubt I'll ever make a point of visiting the gravesites of my family on their birthdays like he did. It's highly unlikely that I will keep a list of the sick and downhearted, and every night before I go to bed, remember each and every one of them in my prayers as he did. And I'll never have the boundess love and compassion for others that he did.

In her beautiful eulogy for her brother, my cousin Betty, herself no slouch when it comes to boundless love and compassion, reflected upon just that, recalling a particularly difficult chapter in their family's history:
For many reasons, every day was challenging and hard. At one point, I gave up. Most of us had nothing left in us to give. But Bob, just when you thought he had nothing left...he would dig deeper and keep going.
In short, it would take an entire extended family and then some to come close to fill the void of one Bob Hoggatt. His was a life well lived, one that despite our incalculable loss, my family will celebrate for as long as we are on this planet.

It is customary when someone dies to wish them a peacful rest. That will never happen with my cousin Bob. While he is no longer in need of our prayers, we deperately need his. It is my firm belief that wherever Bob is, he is at this moment working tirelessly on our behalf and as always, will never let us down.

And it is my fervent belief that one day Bob and I will see each other again and have a good laugh over this crazy and beautiful world.

Until that day comes, I'll miss you Bob.