Sunday, March 31, 2013

Take Me Out Of the Ballgame

A couple of weeks ago, I went with my wife and son and his girlfriend to a spring training baseball game in Tucson between the San Diego Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks. It will be my last game. Not my last spring training game; not my last game between the Padres and the Diamondbacks.

My last professional baseball game. Let me elaborate.

My father took me to first game at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia in the 1950s. My last game was two weeks ago, at the ridiculously named Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson (formerly the also inelegantly named Tucson Electric Park).

Why am I out? Let me count the ways:

1. Class inequity. A visit to a major league ballpark these days has become an exercise in rank status-stratifying, with corporate fat-cats who grab the best season seats (and often write off the costs as business expenses) treated like top-luxury five-star hotel guests, while the rest of the fans are treated like Motel 6 clientele. In the Wall Street Journal on Friday (alas, blocked by paywall), an op-ed piece by Mark Yost, a Journal sports editor, described how he and his 14-year-old son are in the midst of a long odyssey to visit all 30 major league ballparks by the time the boy graduates from high school in 2016, but the joy seems to be going. While ticket prices are soaring even for the cheap seats (and in most cases, you can’t even purchase the best seats if you want because they’re all scarfed up in advance by corporations), a normal fan’s trip to a ballpark these days is like an international flight on an airplane nine-across in the back of coach. “…Even after you’ve shelled out for decent seats – but not the top-of-the-line ones – you’re constantly reminded by the host team that you’re a second-class fan,” Yost writes. Many ballparks are strictly segregated by class, with exclusivity enforced for those  with “premium seating.” In many ballparks, the unwashed majority can’t even set foot in the swanky concourses reserved for those with premium seats.

2.  Racketeering. Professional baseball has become a nasty racket whose sole purpose is to shake obscene amounts of money out of the pockets of the  fans, while treating most of them like marks at a carnival bunko booth. The Yankees payroll for this season is $230.4 million, which is the best example of the astonishing dough that defines baseball, and the vig that the fans need to pony up to keep this racket solvent: The Yankees’ star third baseman Alex Rodriguez, currently in year five of a $275 million 10-year contract that is the most lucrative in the history of sports – a contract that was partly negotiated with the assistance of executives from … uh, Goldman Sachs. Rodriguez is currently injured, and his role this season is uncertain.  Oh, a few months ago, as reported in the Times yesterday, “ Rodriguez’s name surfaced in connection with an anti-aging clinic in South Florida that was suspected of supplying Rodriguez and other players with performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez, through a publicist, denied the allegation.”  Another example, same city: Mets pitcher Johan Santana is out for this season with a shoulder injury, though the Mets  will pay him $25.5 million  for this year,  the last year in his monumental six-year $137.7 million contract. Santana also missed the entire 2011 season with an injury.  Closer  to home for me, the fans at the game in Tucson a few weeks ago ( one of only two spring training games played this spring in Tucson, which used to have an full spring-training season with multiple teams), unaccountably seemed to be cheering for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the game with the Padres, the home team because the Padres minor league team plays in Tucson. They cheered even though  the Diamondbacks had skulked out of town two years ago to take a better deal to play their spring training games in the Phoenix area – leaving Tucson stuck with the bill for  a beautiful $38 million stadium built by the taxpayers expressly because of the vibrant spring-training season that no longer exists in town. [By the way, Major League Baseball is also tanking big-time in the TV ratings. Here.]

3. Rampant jingoism. I love the tradition of standing for the Star Spangled Banner right before the home-plate umpire hollers “Play ball!”--  with that beautiful flag whipping in the breeze at center field. It can still seem grand in Tucson, where they have a terrific barbershop quartet sing the anthem, not some caterwauling reality-TV wannabe with a merely casual acquaintance with the notion of musical pitch. But why, two weeks ago, was there hissing in the stands at a few fans who decided to sit down right after the Star Spangled Banner, rather than continuing to stand at attention while some sad-sack “honor guard” from the U.S. Border Patrol (the Border Patrol!) slowly marched off the field like some platoon in a comic opera?  Even worse, there is the practice, which spread in ballparks in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, of requiring everyone to stand at attention during the traditional 7th Inning Stretch, and sing along with a loud recording of that execrable, cynical lardbucket Kate Smith bellowing "God Bless America." Decades earlier, it had been bad enough, actually, when the traditional 7th Inning Stretch became the occasion for the standing and mass singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” back in the 1970s  (the same decade those irritating mascots started showing up, dancing on the dugouts and otherwise annoying those who wanted to watch baseball).  But “God Bless America” bellowed by the late unlamented Kate Smith, with all in the stadium expected to remove caps, stand at attention and join in? It’s like those infernal flag-pins that politicians now have to always have stuck on  their lapels – once you start that stuff you can’t pull it back, because the right-wing loons will scream about a war on patriotism or the flag or God. And they enforce the 7th Inning Stretch jingoism, too. A few years ago at Yankee Stadium, New York cops grabbed and ejected a man who attempted to walk to the men’s room while the holy song was being belted out in the stands. (A lawsuit followed, and the NYPD agreed not to physically restrain anyone from moving about during the sacred singing.). Since then, some ballparks have backed off the forced singalong, but it’s still fairly common, along with the fan pressure to stand at attention with hats doffed -- as if this is the way baseball has always been played.
“God Bless America!” blasting forth at ear-pounding volume! Yo, baseball fans, it’s a ballgame, not at a religious revival!

It is not. There’s a reason we commonly say ballpark, in a pastoral evocation, even when the official name is “stadium.”

Hey, I’m a veteran. I salute the flag! But I’m not inclined to salute the Border Patrol -- and I won’t stand for Kate Smith. Incidentally, Kate Smith and that Irving Berlin bit of jingoism originally infiltrated sports in my hometown in the 1970s when the aging 300-pound songbird hooked up with one of the ugliest, nastiest teams in modern sports history, the brawling Philadelphia Flyers hockey team of those years. In fact, the phrase “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” derives not from a wry comment on opera (as is often assumed) but from the Philadelphia Flyers home games of that era, when Kate Smith bellowed out “God Bless America” as a good luck gesture that began to be played at the end, as well as the start, of the hockey games.

Anyway, that’s it between baseball and me, after an admittedly wonderful half-century fling that started in Philly, in the ballpark, Connie Mack Stadium, in the years when the great pitcher Robin Roberts routinely won 20 games, many by a single little run, in seasons when the Phillies were averaging only about 60 total wins. In an era when the great Richie Ashburn, so persistent at fouling off third strikes in maddening succession that he once fouled off a strike that hit a lady in the third-base stands and, still at bat a few pitches later, fouled off another one that hit the same woman as she was being carried out of the stands.  In the years when you could see Willie Mays on the visiting Giants rear back and fire a long arcing throw from deep center, back toward the 447-foot mark, that could nail a runner headed to the plate on one single bounce, no cutoff man required.

But that was a long time ago, that was before Kate Smith and the dancing mascots and the $25 million a year contracts, and the socially stratified ballparks – or, I should say stadiums.

For baseball and me these days, in fact on what we used to look forward to with such a thrill as Opening Day, it’s three strikes, and I’m out.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Packing for the Airport (Cont'd)

If it's Friday, it must be time for the weekly report from the TSA on guns and other weapons that people bring to airports and get caught trying to carry onto planes.

A typical week: TSA screeners found 32 guns, 27 of them loaded, five with rounds chambered.

Here's the TSA blog post.

And here's the gun tally:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Newtown Killer's Gun Stockpile: Whose Weapons Were They Really?

Media narratives die hard, as in the case of the homicidal maniac who massacred those children and teachers in Newtown, Conn., in December. The narrative: This was the spontaneous act of a lone killer who snapped.

Adam Lanza was a deeply disturbed young man, obviously. But what about the role of his mother, whom he also murdered that awful day? In a few media accounts, which much of the mainstream media has chosen to ignore or at least not to pursue, Nancy Lanza was described by people who knew her -- including her sister in law -- as a well-armed "prepper," who was preparing herself (and presumably her son) for a social and economic meltdown that members of the paranoid survivalist movement believe is coming soon in America.

Search warrants released today show that a veritable arsenal of guns and ammunition and other weapons were in the Lanza home -- which the media accounts all seem to refer to as the "killer's home." Like this one.

Actually, in the interests of accuracy and perhaps a more clear-eyed understanding of how this horrific massacre was able (or enabled) to happen, the home was the killer's mother's home. The guns belonged not to the 20-year-old murderer, but to the boy's evidently also-troubled mother.

A gun safe, where some weapons were stored (not including the four he took with him to the elementary school for his massacre rampage), was found in Adam Lanza's bedroom, along with more than 1,400 rounds of ammunition. The police also found the killer's membership card to the National Rifle Association.

All of the guns were legally owned by the mother.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fewer Passengers, More-Crowded Airplanes

Here are the key passenger-misery metrics from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics report on airline traffic in 2012 released today: Number of domestic and international passengers on U.S. airlines, up 0.8 percent. Number of flights down 2.0 percent. Available seats down 0.2 percent. Load factor (the percentage of seats filled with paying passengers) up 1.7 percentage points, to a record 81.5 percent.
Overall, U.S. airlines carried 736.6 million passengers in 2012 (measured by enplanements, or the number of passengers boarding individual flights, including connecting flights) -- up from 730.8 in 2011.

Table 1: Scheduled System (Domestic and International) Airline Travel on U.S. Airlines 

Dec 2011
Dec 2012
Change %
Change %
Passengers (in millions)
Flights (in thousands)
Revenue Passenger Miles (in billions)
Available Seat-Miles (in billions)
Load Factor*
Flight Stage Length**
Passenger Trip Length***
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, T-100 Market and Segment 
*Change in load factor points

Friday, March 22, 2013

'Fast and Furious' Was Botched -- in Arizona

Many of the usual suspects in the media are fully invested in the accepted narrative of the "Fast and Furious" gun-sting mess that centered on an incident in which a Border Patrol agent was murdered in 2010 with a gun that had been part of the federal weapons-tracking operation that went very wrong. That accepted narrative is that the blame could be laid directly on the Obama administration (and specifically Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security and Eric Holder at Justice).

But for some time, it's been clear that the accepted narrative, and variations on same flogged by right-wing propagandists, is a little more complicated. Several previous reports, ignored or badly downplayed in the major media, have indicated that complicated gun-politics in Phoenix, where the investigation was centered, had a whole lot to do with what went so wrong.

A new, detailed report today from the Inspector General office at Homeland Security reiterates that more complicated view of 'Fast and Furious.' The basic errors began in and were mainly confined to operations in Phoenix, where a disinclination to upset the gun lobby was strong. Arizona-based agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, collaborating with a Homeland Security investigator working on the Arizona-Mexico border, and in touch with the federal prosecutor in Phoenix, are singled out again.  Homeland Security officials in Washington learned about 'Fast and Furious" only after the Border Patrol agent was killed.

Rather than depending on half-baked media accounts, including any spin from the likes of the right wing radicals' hysteric handmaiden Drudge, read the full report here.

Last September, the Justice Department's a report on the operation that had much more detail about the roles of the ATF Phoenix field office and the U.S. Attorney General's office in Phoenix. 

Last June, a groundbreaking report in Fortune by Katherine Eban laid out facts on how this particular egg got scrambled. That article is definitely worth reading. Here.


'Sequester' Bites at FAA

As threatened, the F.A.A. plans to shut 149 small-scale air control towers beginning April 7 as part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan. These are airports at which air traffic control is managed by workers under contract to the F.A.A.

"We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration."

Flight operations will still be able to continue at these airports, but pilots will need to manage takeoffs and landings by radio among themselves. .

Here's a link to the list.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's Always Somethin' ...

News item: Unexpected surge in demand in U.S. housing market. But there's a downside, I guess ...


Screening Hysterical Media

I've been AWOL from the post, so to speak, for about a month. Back on duty now.

Let's spend a little time, shall we, looking at the media and the T.S.A. -- particularly at nearly hysterical media accounts that portray the T.S.A. as a collection of ham-brained dopes.

Here and there, T.S.A. screeners do some dumb things, and some of them occasionally act like asshats, to use a term that really ought to be more easily employed in the common rhetoric these days. But by and large, it seems to me, the T.S.A. does a good job under tough circumstances, many of which (hello, Congress, where the asshats truly rein) are not of its own doing.

Specifically, have a look at the latest flap, the supposed humiliation of a disabled Marine who was supposedly ordered to remove his artificial legs by thuggish screeners. The Arizona Republic  (another gem in the tinplate Gannett crown) flogged this one for a while. The video link to a report on KPNX-TV (a station also owned by Gannett and operated in close affiliation with the newspaper, which shares its Web site)  shows one of those terribly earnest, wide-eyed TV anchor wonderwomen revealing that the fury over the alleged incident "is going all the way to Congress" (when, actually, it  was a congressional office that started the ball rolling on this non-story). The Phoenix newspaper still seems to be equivocating and crouching into that famed "well, there are two sides to every story" media defense in its online update today, even though it and the other media outlets who jumped on this hype have been informed that the story is false. (As Chico Marx once said, in a line later reiterated by Pryor: "Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes?")

From the wires: "...This time the agency faces allegations that it 'humiliated' a wounded 22-year-old Marine at a security checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.The controversy took hold after witnesses traveling with Cpl. Toran Gaal – the wounded Marine – contacted Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to say TSA agents forced Gaal to remove his prosthetic legs and try to walk at the checkpoint."

From the Arizona Republic account, which is based on half-baked information from the office of a California Republican representative, Duncan Hunter: 
"Gaal was in a wheelchair carrying his military identification. Witnesses told Hunter's office the ordeal dragged on for at least 10 minutes.
"Gaal was directed to two screening stations, ordered to remove his prosthetic legs and at one point stand up for a second inspection. Other TSA agents sat and watched as he tried to stand painfully and as his wheelchair was checked for explosives, Hunter wrote Monday."
The Republic and other torch-carriers now at least are making note of the T.S.A.'s response to these charges, which is that they are not true. Says the newspaper: "Those accounts came from a man accompanying five San Diego-area Marines to a spring-training game as part of a volunteer effort to help wounded veterans with their recovery, Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said."

Rep. Duncan is himself a former Marine who perhaps ought to be keeping closer inspection on the stuff his office puts out.  

Actually, here's the T.S.A.'s account by its blogger, Bob Burns, which is even more notable because it states that the two screeners in question are themselves military veterans:

"There have been many reports about a U.S. Marine Wounded Warrior who was recently screened at Phoenix (PHX). Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misreporting. 

After reviewing TSA video (CCTV), interviewing and receiving written statements from all officers involved, we found that the soldier was not asked and did not remove his prosthetic legs. The screening was done by the book and lasted a total of 8 minutes from beginning to end.  By chance, the screening was conducted by two TSA Officers who were prior military. One was in the U.S. Air Force for 18 years, and the other was in the U.S. Marine Corps for 13 years.

Nevertheless, we strive to ensure that all veterans and individuals with medical concerns are treated with dignity and respect. 25 percent of TSA employees are prior military. Some are even still serving in the reserves and guard. I’m a veteran as well. We have the greatest respect for our men and women serving in the military and strive to screen them with the dignity they deserve. 

Through our Wounded Warrior Screening program, we strive to make the overall experience for 
wounded service members as simple and trouble-free as possible. In the coming days, we will expand the Wounded Warriors Screening program to offer TSA Pre✓™, or expedited screening, to this group of veterans.

TSA Officers at Phoenix (PHX) alone have screened and assisted 164 Wounded Warriors over the past year. We value the continued commitment of our veterans and active duty military employees to TSA’s mission, and to ensuring the safety of all Americans.  See some of TSA’s proud servicemen and women here."