Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lights, Camera, Loss of Faith in Representative Democracy

Today is the unofficial start of baseball spring training in Florida and Arizona, but you’d never know it from the major media outlets. Today is all about Roger Clemens. I’m still going to refrain from direct commentary, but I found verbose blogger Joe Posnanski’s angle on yesterday’s hearings to be interesting. Though he covered a lot of ground (and he always does), his main focus was not on Clemens or McNamee, or even Andy Pettitte, but on the lawmakers who were questioning them. Joe included this particularly apt assessment of questioning by William Lacy Clay (D-Mo):

Ugh. He filled two suck-up roles in this proceedings — first he asked the obligatory, “Roger, what should we tell the kids,” question which did allow Clemens to get on his high horse and talk about how he has always taken very, very seriously the responsibility of being a role model for children, you know, except for that time he threw the bat at Mike Piazza or the time cursed out the umpire or threw the ball at Piazza’s head or the time he whined about carrying his own luggage or made that really hilarious remark about Asians during the World Baseball Classic or was popping Vioxx or whatever. Still, it was touching.

Posnanski points out that Clay followed up by asking what uniform Clemens was planning on wearing into the Hall of Fame. This is the quality of character you get in places like the Missouri 1st District, where elections are about as competitive as they are in Parador.

The whole incident reminded me that aside from Mark McGwire’s evasiveness and Raphael Palmiero’s finger wagging (which was only memorable in light of subsequent events), my lasting memory of the last time that ballplayers appeared before Congress was of just how dumb the Representatives sounded. Lots of grandstanding and posturing and softball questions. Yesterday was more of the same.

Come to think of it, my strongest memory of the Clarence Thomas hearings (salacious details about Coke cans aside) is the hazy blabbering of Howell Heflin and the clueless slurring cue card recitations of Strom Thurmond. I’m having trouble remembering the last time that there were widely televised congressional hearings where members of congress came out looking good. I’ve seen obscure hearings on C-SPAN and in person, and they were much more informed and productive that what we see when the whole world is watching. For the most part, these are really smart people, but they can’t stay away from television cameras to save themselves, and once people are performing for the cameras, something turns them stupid. Little wonder that the Supreme Court continues to exclude cameras from the courtroom under most circumstances.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Extended Network

I’m surprised to find myself plugging Slate for the second time in as many days, but: I somehow missed this back in December, but given Roger Clemens’ recent return to the headlines, it remains relevant. The good folks at Slate took information on who was using and distributing steroids in baseball, and arranged them into a social network. Pretty interesting.

They refer to arms of the network as “crews” (like this is The Sopranos or something), but they correlate pretty directly to clubhouses, with the Yankees, Orioles, Dodgers and Rockies locker rooms being the chief hotbeds in the network.

The Mitchell Report isn’t comprehensive by any stretch, but notice that many of the clubhouses that were infested with juice were for some of the worst teams in baseball. Also notice that a good number of the players involved were mediocre with or without the roids. This suggests to me a couple of things:

1. A good deal of the motivation for these guys wasn’t competitive edge, it was desperation. A close look at the report shows a lot of players struggling to make it to the majors, struggling to stay in the majors, or trying to recover from injury. Doesn’t make it right, but most of these guys weren’t Barry Bonds, using for money and ego.

2. The benefit of using performance enhancing substances is hit or miss. For Bonds, Giambi, McGwire and perhaps Clemens, the effect was pretty clear, but for a lot of the guys on this list they might as well have been injecting salt water for all the good it did them. Again, not an excuse, but something contrary to popular perception that’s worth mentioning.

I’ll save the moralizing and outrage for another time, except for this: I hear a lot of whining, especially from the Clemens people about how unfair it is for innocent players to be accused. I’m calling bullshit. The Mitchell and Balco investigations prove that the steroids culture was pervasive and players were well aware of what was going on. I don’t recall a single whistle blower when the problem as at its height. Players who kept the wall of silence aren’t as guilty as the guys who used, but I think that present suspicion is the price that they pay for looking the other way the whole time. In the specific case of Clemens, at the very least you have to think that he knew his besteest buddy Andy Petite was using and chose not to tell anyone about it. Even if Roger never put a needle in his body, his silence helped to earn the speculation that now surrounds him.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

SlateV Redeemed (partially)

I know that SlateV is supposed to trade on the popularity of YouTube and demonstrate Slate’s commitment to passe internet buzzwords like “vodcast”, but I learned pretty quickly that their deft combination of vapid subject matter and complete lack of intellectual curiosity left me wanting hit myself in the head with the nearest blunt object. Seriously, this blog isn’t breaking any new ground in the expansion of human knowledge, but dancing hamsters and The Really Big Button That Doesn’t Do Anything are more valid uses of bandwidth than Dear Prudence. We are all dumber for SlaveV being out there somewhere.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon NPR personage extraordinary Alex Chadwick on SlateV doing a series called Interviews 50 Cents. It turns out that Interviews 50 Cents is an old project of Alex’s that has recently been repurposed by the blind squirrels over at SlaveV.

Typical of Chadwick, the idea is simple, but what is produced is amazing for it’s honesty in exploring the scope of human experience. Basically, it’s an interviewer set up at a public place with two microphones, a card table and a homemade sign reading “Interviews 50 Cents.” On display is Chadwick’s genuine interest in people and their stores. Alex’s style was basically the inspiration for Ira Glass and This American Life, and you can see the connection pretty clearly here.

Definitely worth checking out, if only to see Alex looking like Hannibal Lecter from the last scene of Silence of the Lambs.