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Jul. 13 2010 — 12:37 pm | 113 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The Real Steinbrenner, Gone But Not Forgotten

It’s hard to convince any Yankee fan who has grown up in the love fest era of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter that George Steinbrenner is or was anything but a kindly old man who benignly sprinkled money on gifted young men fortunate enough to wear the pinstripes. You have to be older to appreciate Steinbrenner for the blustering comic villain that he was, not the feckless loudmouth who lives on in episodes of Seinfeld, but a despot in a blue blazer and white turtleneck who thought he could win championships for the greatest city in the world by dominating the back pages of the tabloids with bluster and invective.

Like cheesy reality television and genital-flashing starlets and so many of the the other circuses which we alternately deplore and enjoy, Steinbrenner’s ignorant bullying of his managers and players was thought to be great entertainment. His torturing of managers, including the classy Dick Howser, the iconic Yogi Berra, and most especially the insecure, alcoholic Billy Martin, was appalling. His nasty badgering of stars like Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield showed his ignorance. His petulant harangues over the failures of his young players was simply disgraceful. A commissioner with guts would have fined him until he shut up. It wasn’t until Steinbrenner himself went beyond the beyond and paid the gambler Howard Spira to find damaging information on Winfield that Steinbrenner finally received some punishment for his crimes against baseball.

Ironically, it was during that absence that the seeds of Steinbrenner’s rehabilitation were sown. General Manager Gene Michael drafted Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera who formed the nucleus of the modern dynasty. When Joe Torre was hired in 1996, a genuinely new Yankees took the stage, one that was accessible, professional, smart and triumphant, a team that New Yorkers have been proud to root for and have supported far more enthusiastically that Bronx Bombastics of King George’s prime. During these last fifteen years, as an increasingly enriched Steinbrenner took a back seat to the real stars of his franchise, his image evolved into that of a somewhat demanding but kindly old man. As his mind faded, others forgot as well. As for me, I’ll cherish the memory of Steinbrenner, angry about losing a game to the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series, breaking his hand by punching a wall in an elevator, and then claiming he hurt it fighting with classless Dodger fans who had impugned the honor of the Yankees.

It’s a moment that should go on his plaque in Cooperstown.

Jul. 1 2010 — 12:35 pm | 84 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments


Yesterday Rep. Michele Bachman, the insane yet oddly alluring Republican congresswoman from Minnesota (is it the gleam of insanity that makes her eyes shine so bright?), offered a commentary on the G-20 nations. During an interview, when a conservative radio host asked Bachmann for her thoughts on the G-20 summit in Toronto, the congresswoman said that she is concerned that the G-20 is trying to “bind together the world’s economies.” Elaborating, Bachmann said “I don’t want the United States to be in a global economy where our economic future is bound to that of Zimbabwe. We can’t necessarily trust the decisions that are being made financially in other countries. I don’t like the decisions that are being made in our own country, but certainly I don’t want to trust the value of my currency and my future to that of like a Chavez down in Venezuela. . . .Clearly this is a very bad direction because when you join the economic policy of different nations, it is one short step to joining political unity and then you would have literally, a one world government. That’s not going to be, I think, helpful in the future for our country and I don’t want to cede United States authority to a transnational organization.”

Geez, what could we do to make Bachmann feel more comfortable with the G-20? First, someone could tell her that if she would bother to Google “G20” she would learn that neither Zimbabwe nor Venezuela nor any other bogeyman country is a member. Second, someone might remind her that the US owes its very existence to a globalized economy that inspired Europeans to cross the Atlantic and establish colonies and engage in lucrative global trade raw materials, finished products, slaves, and all sorts of other things, and that much of our prosperity yea, up until this very moment, is due to global exchange. And third, perhaps she will relax if someone would remind her that from what we have seen of the future, Captain James Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise represent not the United States, nor even Earth, but the United Federation of Planets. What this tells me is that not only is this global government idea a done deal, but it’s only a stepping stone to the time, just a few centuries hence, we’re going to be involved in interplanetary government. Sharing decision-making with Zimbabwe will be child’s play compared to working with Vulcans and Klingons, but as the evidence shows us, it can be done.

So chill, Congresswoman. Go half-acquire a little more knowledge to help boost your absurdity levels.

Jun. 3 2010 — 7:12 pm | 38 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Hey Bud–What Happened to the Spirit of the Rules?

For all those who said that baseball had no precedent for overruling the blatantly erroneous call of umpire Jim Joyce and validating the perfect game that Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga had so obviously pitched, please travel with me back to Yankee Stadium on the sultry afternoon of July 24, 1983, when a two-run home run by George Brett of the Kansas City Royals was voided because an umpire ruled that Brett had too much pine tar on his bat. The Royals protested–at first vehemently, on the field, and then rather more decorously in the office of American League president Lee MacPhail, who decided that the rule was a technical one and since Brett “did not violate the spirit of the rules” with his tarry bat, he voided the Yankee victory, restored the home run, and ordered the game resumed from the point of Brett’s home run.

MacPhail evidently had not only the good sense that Bud Selig lacks, but a better appreciation of baseball’s role in American life. “The spirit of the rules” is precisely the sort of thing that needs to be invoked at this time. It needs to be invoked because Galarraga was so obviously jobbed, because nobody would be in any injured by an act of magnaminity, because no untoward precedent will be set because nothing like this will happen again in our lifetimes, because once, just once, I would like to see a person of public responsibility strike a blow for justice. And what if something like it did happen again? Well, let’s leave it to our descendants to act in the spirit of the rules as they sort through the issues. They couldn’t do a less enlightened job than Selig.

May. 18 2010 — 12:09 pm | 72 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

CCTV and the New York Subways: No Panacea

Squired by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg made a ballyhooed visit to the main control room of the London Underground last week, and came away favorably impressed with the ability of the Tube’s management to use its CCTV system to monitor events on any and every station and platform in the system. Bloomberg flew home with visions of of monitors in his head.

I had the opportunity of visiting the same control center early in 2009 for an article I was reporting that eventually appeared in The Washington Monthly, and it’s damned impressive. The large wall mounted screens enable the people in charge to see for themselves what is happening, and this certainly leads to clearer information and better decision. The management team told me about how the CCTV system helped them in the aftermath of the July 7, 2007 bombings to close the system, safely evacuate a quarter million passengers. and most miraculously, reopen for business the following morning.

But before Mayor Bloomberg gets too enthusiastic, he should realize that there are important differences between the systems that would impact the experience. For one thing, many New York stations (perhaps even most) have a series of I-beam columns running the length of the platforms. Those will certainly block the view of any cameras set up to survey the platforms. More significantly, most Tube stations are heavily staffed with a large number of personnel. Many of them are almost like doormen, greeting passengers, giving directions and explaining the fare systems. These people are instructed to initiate contact with people who seem confused. It would be shocking if New York were to make that heavy investment in personnel, but it’s those people, and not so much the CCTV, that helps make the Tube virtually a crime-free environment. Indeed, the director of the Tube told me that have been most useful in telling managers when tracks have been cleared after a suicide, and normal traffic can be resumed.

But what about the striking CCTV images we saw of the men who perpetrated the bombing of 7/7, and the failed bombing attempts two weeks alter? Weren’t the cameras useful in identifying and capturing the terrorists? Yes, certainly they were. But the secret is while were captivated by the images that were captured, we missed the fact that they were only some of the images that should have been available. There were a lot of cameras that were broken or empty of film. Indeed, the day after, when police shot and killed an unarmed Brazilian tourist who resembled one of those caught on film but who did not respond to commands to halt, no cameras in the vicinity were functioning. Still, the cameras were useful because by having the images of the suspects, authorities were able to restore a sense of order and calm. “It sends the message that someone is in charge, that we know who committed this act and that we’re going to find them,” Tim O’Toole, the director of the Underground, told me.

May. 13 2010 — 10:17 am | 140 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Elena Kagan, Softball Player

When I was an editor at Spy a couple of decades ago, we used to run an item called The Spy List, which was almost invariably a simple set of names that were connected by–well, that was for the reader to figure out, or to speculate upon. Basically it was a way we could print rumors about people without risking the moral or legal consequences of spreading gossip initiated by unnamed and perhaps unreliable sources. And we were able to get away with it because we operated out on the edge, at a deliberate distance from the mainstream.

The Wall Street Journal, which fancies itself a mainstream, important, powerful newspaper, veered sharply into Spy List territory the other day when it published on its front page a 17 year-old photograph of Solicitor General Elena Kagan, now a nominee to the Supreme Court, playing softball.

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