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Is the L.A. Times' Shame Our Shame, Too? If there's anything worse than Serious Writers waxing poetical about the pasturo-national joys of baseball, or harrumphing and tenured journalistic scolds lamenting the lack of standards of everyone but themselves, or people who confuse the non-prescribed use of otherwise legal drugs in baseball with inflationary offensive factors such as expansion and smaller ballparks ... well, then it's all three combined. Ladies and gentlemen, for some of the most turgid prose this side of A.W. Merrick, I present to you the unintentionally comic stylings of Tim Rutten, in a piece entitled "Baseball's Shame Is Our Shame Too."

It's an epoch that now has acquired its own designation: the Steroid Era.

It's also a period in which all American professional sports declined from sports into spectacles, multibillion-dollar adjuncts of the digital entertainment industry. Stadiums and even the events themselves lost their names and became expensive billboards auctioned off to the highest bidders. A vast apparatus of sports journalism was created to provide entertaining coverage of this new industry and yet, somehow, all but a handful of lonely sportswriters seem to have missed the biggest story of their era -- the transformation of baseball clubhouses into the plush equivalent of crack houses.

Sure, crack is illegal in every form, highly potent and addictive, and offers zero competitive advantage, while the vast majority of performance-enhancers are legal drugs that don't get you high and are only made illegal when obtained without a proper prescription so that athletes can recover more quickly after injury and/or lifting weights.... And yes, complaining in 2007 that sporting events are "spectacles" is a bit like criticizing heavy metal concerts for being loud ... but why quibble when we're talking poetry?
Barzun is right about baseball's intimacy with the American spirit. What other game could have coaxed poetic sentiment from both Walt Whitman and Calvin Coolidge? The game of baseball speaks to us of that idyllic national past we imagine in common. It is played in a green and open space -- as if such things were not now the luxury they are for so many. Every baseball game -- not match or contest, but game -- is rich with infinite promise, just as we believe American lives once were. We chalk the diamond's boundaries and we allocate each game nine innings, but -- theoretically -- once the first pitch is thrown, every baseball game could go on indefinitely and every ball once hit could, if it stayed between the foul lines, remain in play forever, pursued through all eternity by some tireless fielder.

Alone among the games we play, baseball records -- and rewards -- individual effort, team play ... and sacrifice.

Baseball's seasonal rhythms are those of our own rural paradise lost -- hopeful promise in springtime; diligent toil through summer; harvest and reward in autumn; the warmth of well-earned rest in winter. So it was in that long ago America of our collectively imagined past. So, somehow, it seems it might be still -- or, perhaps, again -- as we sit in the sunlight and pass a couple of hours of time that stands apart from normal time, watching the young, the strong and the fleet play our game.

Oh. Dear. God.

Rutten climaxes with a little Lewis Lapham-style chin music to the Numbered Beast of capitalism (or is it "late capitalism"?).

Unfortunately our sporting culture, like our society as a whole, has bitten too deeply into the forbidden fruit -- not the grandly evil produce of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but that of its stunted and stunting stepsister, the tree of profit and loss.

There may be no going back. Eden, even of the wishful sort, is closed to a people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

At least we'll always have Cuba!

Emmanuelle's reaction to Rutten's headline: "I'm sorry, why should I feel ashamed about boring baseball?"

12/15/2007 05:39 PM  |  Comment (8)

For the 1% of You Who Know Who Baseball Historian John Thorn Is: This Hardball Times interview might raise your eyebrows a time or two. For instance:

Can you tell us a little about yourself (age, background, family -- general stuff)?

I'm 60 but not despairing about the onset of old age. After all, I've been preparing for this my whole life. My parents were born in Poland and, as Jews, struggled to stay alive in the war, to put it mildly. Those who might have been my grandparents and uncles and aunts did not survive. I was born in a displaced persons camp in occupied West Germany in 1947 and came to these shores in 1949. [...]

Alan Schwarz' The Numbers Game mentions that you had a stroke at a very young age. How serious was it and do you have any lasting effects from it?

I had the stroke at age 19 and it was severe, knocking out my left-side function for months as well as patches of personal memory (though not the powerful visual memory I retain for images and facts and statistics). Athletics were over for me, and I walked with a limp, took anti-spasticity medication, and suffered continuing neurological brownouts for about 20 years. I have been far healthier from 40 to 60 than I was from 19 to 39.

12/09/2007 02:40 PM  |  Comment (1)

Beware a Newspaper Columnist's "Big Ideas" About Transit: L.A. Times "Consumer Confidential" scribe David Lazarus continues the paper's proud tradition of Business Section columnists who aren't gonna let a little economics get in the way of utopian noodling. Today comes a Lazarus column that hides the warning in the headline: "Southland transit is in need of big ideas." In newspaperese, if an idea is "big" enough, it's exempt from the usual critical cross-examination and reality-checking.

Here's how the column begins:

The traffic in L.A. bites -- you know that. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Are we going to continue down our current path, pouring money into gridlocked streets and freeways, bickering endlessly about our pathetic urban rail system?

Or are we going to embrace a grander -- and much costlier -- plan to redefine quality of life in Southern California?

In other words, subway or monorail?

Note the ease with which spending money on the transportation infrastructure that Southern Californians actually use -- streets and freeways -- is dismissed. Since they're "gridlocked," they get no more money! To seal the case against cars, Lazarus quotes the 25-year-old "transit activist" and Harvard alum Damien Goodmon:
"The freeway experiment has failed," Goodmon said. "That's not even up for debate any more."
Well, much as Goodmon would like to stifle debate, we held precisely that on the L.A.T. Opinion section's website in March, between Reason Foundation mobility guru Ted Balaker and Transit Coalition Executive Director Bart Reed. Here's a relevant Balaker section about the real-world choices of Angelenos and their government representatives:
[D]uring recent decades L.A. officials have spent more than $10 billion on light and heavy rail; they even constructed one of the nation's longest commuter rail systems. Yet the percentage of L.A.-area commuters who use transit to get to work declined. Given the extra dough and the booming population, boosting transit ridership should have been an easy task, but today's transit ridership is actually lower than it was 20 years ago.

Although it accounts for fewer than 5% of work trips and just 1.8% of total travel, L.A. devotes 58% of planned spending ($67 billion) to transit. Yet transit is expected to carry only about 7% of rush-hour commuters by 2030. Private vehicles will account for the vast majority of the growth in travel, further straining our already clogged roads.

The reason few of us trade in our cars for transit passes is simple: Even with mounting congestion, car travel is usually faster than transit, and additional factors, like time spent getting to stations and waiting for transit vehicles, makes transit trips slower still. Transit commutes generally take about twice as long as car commutes.

Note hyperlinks to actual studies and stuff. (Also, for those of you who might suspect the Reason Foundation to condemn poor folk to ride their donkeys, Balaker's proposals include reducing bus fare by 40%, drastically increasing the number of buses, and giving legal sanction to private bus systems.)

So what's Lazarus' cost-benefit analysis in favor of subways and monorails?

Having lived abroad for many years, including seven years in Japan, I can claim some experience with mega-subways and monorails. Both work.
Convincing! After all, quibbling on details while we're Thinking Big is like farting in an elevator. Here's the business columnist's close:
But our true goal should be a complete reinvention of L.A. from boundless sprawl to an interlinked collection of urban villages, where getting from Point A to Point B is both simple and routine.

This is by all means a business story. Think of it -- L.A. without the traffic hassles. Who wouldn't buy that product?

Unburdened by having to make an actual argument, it's amazing how fast you can then proceed to a "complete reinvention" of a built-out, 10 million-population county. Or, as I wrote in October:
At any given time, roughly 72% of the commentary about transit is based on the Invisible Rabbit of transit-oriented development and "sustainable growth": That what we really need to do is to "get people out of their cars." City observers -- who I would bet out-drive the parents of public-school kids by a ratio of at least 2 to 1 -- are perpetually surprised that their fellow car owners insist on using them, no matter how close they live to the spiffy new urban village.
Standard disclaimer: I enjoy and support L.A.'s subway system, and we're soon moving to a new urban village in Washington, D.C. where I can walk to work and we can leave the T-Bird behind in California.

12/09/2007 09:49 AM  |  Comment (12)

Hi! What are you doing down here?

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