Sunday, August 5, 2012

Your Mission, Mr. Phelps...

Indianapollis, August 8, 2,000: a gangly 15 year old from North Baltimore grabs a snack and heads back to his room, restless on the eve of his first Olympic trials.  As he passes a phone booth (hey - it was Indianapolis in the year 2,000) the sudden first ring of the phone startles him and he pauses.  Three, four, five rings, finally he thinks why not and picks up the handset.  Before he can start a "hello", a deep but otherwise nondescript voice instructs him, "Michael, open the envelope taped to the bottom of the shelf below the phone" and then the call goes to dial tone.   After a momentary hesitation, he grabs the envelope, opens it carefully and slides out a small tape recorder, loaded with a tape and a print of the classic photo of Mark Spitz wearing his seven gold medals. Hitting play, the deep, non-descript voice returns: "Mr. Phelps, your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to win twenty-two Olympic medals, eighteen of them gold, eight of those golds won in a single Olympics, to become the greatest swimmer and most decorated Olympian in history and to turn this photo into the answer to a trivia question.  This tape will self-destruct in five seconds."  His jaw drops as he stands in stunned silence for a moment, but he's forced to move quickly when an acrid smoke fills the booth.

Congratulations, Mr. Phelps, maybe that last national anthem should have included an encore

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Montesino's Out Early?  The Supreme Court of Peru has reduced the prison sentence of Vladimir Montesinos, Peru's former Intelligence Minister, from 25 years to 20 years.  Montesinos was originally convicted of crimes against humanity for operating death squads during anti-terror campaigns in the 1990s (remember Shining Path and Tupat Maru - the group that held hostages in the Japanese Embassy for months?).  The Court decided the evidence supported only the lesser charge of civil rights violations.

Good Ruling? Possibly, but the real problem is that Montesinos abused his Intelligence Ministry to blackmail half the country and run a shadow cleptocracy throughout most of the years Alberto Fujimori was in power. Vlad's on the right in the photo, counting a $2 Million payment he received to arrange an appointment to a military court judgeship.  If he had been tried for these crimes, he would be serving multiple life sentences and never see the outside of a jail cell again.  The human rights charges were a way for Peru to put Montesinos away without involving the many "reputable" citizens who helped manage Montesino's cleptocracy, and now the human rights fig leaf seems to be slipping.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Whatever Lola the 2012 World Series

Pictured: Sean Hayes and Jane Krakowski in Damn Yankees on Broadway
Strange events are brewing in baseball and the time is ripe for a Damn Yankees revival.  You know the story.  Joe Boyd, long-suffering fan of the hapless Washington Senators, makes a temporary deal with the satanic Mr. Applegate.  Boyd becomes ace pitcher Joe Hardy, leading the Senators in a pennant race with the hated Yankees (spoiler alert - the Broadway musical is based on the 1954 novel The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant).  Applegate, with help from temptress Lola, want to make that temporary arrangement permanent, while Joe wants both his soul and the pennant.  So what does all that have to do with the 2012 standings?  Who are today's Washington Senators, who is Joe Hardy and do the Yankees have anything to worry about?

The Washington Nationals are conspicuous atop the National League East standings.  Ace Steven Strasberg is making a miraculous comeback in his first season after Tommy John surgery, and like Joe Hardy, his deal is only temporary.  Management plans to bench him after 160 innings to protect his shoulder, and his career.  Will Joe, I mean Steven, find a way to keep pitching down the stretch and into the post season if a championship is at stake?  Can he keep his shoulder intact and win the World Series?

The last team to bear the name Washington Senators is now the Texas Rangers, who are riding high above the American League West.  Slugger Josh Hamilton has skirmished with some personal demons- and yes - there's something about the smirk of former Ranger owner George W. Bush that just smacks of Mr. Applegate.

The original Washington Senators (who were in D.C. when Joe Hardy was created) are now the Minnesota Twins.  Dead last in the feeble American League Central, they are still only 11 games back, perfectly positioned for a Damn Yankees style playoff run, if only they can catch on fire fast.  Who could lead them?  Well the Twins have Joe Mauer, a catcher with three batting titles and a national shampoo commercial. Catchers normally get to endorse chewing tobacco - if they are lucky- and win one batting title, tops, before the constant crouching turns them into senior citizens on the base paths.    Clearly Joe Hardy, er Mauer, has already made a deal with someone.  

Finally, consider the Pittsburgh Pirates.  What do the Bucs have to do with the Washington Senators?  Historically and geographically, nothing, but spiritually, everything.  The closest baseball has ever come to a Joe Hardy moment is Bill Mazeroski's home run to beat the powerful Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.  Today's Bucs are fighting with the Reds for the NL Central lead and well positioned for a wild card spot even  if they can't beat out the Reds. A.J. Burnett has gone from throwing pies to throwing strikes, but Andrew McCutchen has gone from promising young outfielder to Superman.  McCutchen is having the kind of season that cannot be explained without recourse to the supernatural.

So who does Lola want in 2012?  The Washington Nationals suffered for a few years as an expansion team, but reached success with surprising speed.  This is not the sort of prolonged torture that drove Joe Boyd to risk his mortal soul.  The Texas Rangers are not even an underdog.  They have looked like the top team in the American League for the last two years.  Why bargain with Mr. Applegate if you can win on merit?  The Twins might need some supernatural help to break through this year, but they are the poster child for the successful small market franchise.  Sign stars like Mauer and Morneau, find good role players to keep costs down and break through for a title once in a while when they all have a good year together.  Not the Yankees, but still not in sell your soul territory, even in an off year.  

That leaves the Bucs.  Last World Series in 1979.  Last playoff appearance sometime before Barry Bonds learned about steroids.  A team that spent nearly a decade worrying that it would win too much and jeopardize its receipt of luxury tax payments.   Andrew, I hate to do this, but really, is one soul too much too risk for a Pirate world series win?  Sure you have some temporary deal now, and you can probably wriggle out of it like Joe Boyd, but when the chips are down maybe you should just go all the way..... I'm sure that's what Lola would want.   

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Doc Gurby reelected with 97% of Vote



Doc won reelection to another 5 year term - yawn. It's news that he held an election at all, but the Times makes the point, 3 or 4 or maybe 5 times, that the other candidates were tokens from the same party. In fact, the Times uses Doc's win as an excuse to run a brief seminar on elections in central Asia. Expert A from UCLA notes that any election, even a rigged one, involves some risk and holding an election is a sign of strength. Expert B from Barnard opines that the sheer number of voters and overwhelming margin of victory prove the depth of support.

So, Doc holds Turkmenistan's first election and what does he get from the Times? One good word, progress, and 1,000 qualifications. What else did the Times have to say? Doc is rebuilding the insane personality cult of his predecessor. What supports this? He has a nickname. That's right, the Times has concluded that the cheering crowds chant of Arkadag ("the Protector in Turkmen") must be step 1 in Doc's plan to become a human god, because otherwise why would he have a nickname.

So is Doc really sliding backwards or is the election a sign of a very gradual shift toward democracy? As always, the Times fails to assess potential successors - the most important information needed to answer this question. Does Doc have a son or protege he wants to put in power, or will he be happy to see autocracy end with his own rule and willing to work toward democracy? Who knows? Not the NY Times.