Thursday, August 11, 2011

Moonlight Graham

In difficult times like these, it's useful to step back and remember what is important in life.  In that vein, I've decided to take a moment to file a rant on a 1989 Kevin Costner movie.

Field of Dreams was a cultural and commercial success.  I saw in in the theatre, as my mom took advantage of a promotion whereby you got into the theatre for free if you brought a pillow.   My mom is good like that.

For those who haven't seen it or don't remember the details, Ray (played by Costner) and Terrance (played by James Earl Jones), go on an adventure prompted by Ray's talking corn-field.  Ray builds a baseball field in the corn-stalks on his farm and, again prompted by the talking corn, drives to Boston to take Terrance to a Red Sox game.  Did I mention that there are ghosts playing baseball on the field?  No?  Well, they are. 

Anyway, Ray finds Terrance, they go to a Sox game, and the Fenway Park scoreboard tells them to find a baseball player named Moonlight Graham, who played one game in 1922 and never got an at-bat: 

(Off topic, but this scene freaked me out when I first saw it.  Every time I looked at a scoreboard, I said a little prayer that it wouldn't show me an eerie message.  Being 10 years old is terrifying.)

So, Ray and Terrance drive to Minnesota and learn that Moonlight is not-so-much alive anymore.  This is of no matter to Ray, who promptly visits 1972 to have a chat with Moonlight (who is an elderly local doctor). 

Upon leaving Minnesota, they pick up a hitchhiker: a wide-eyed young baseball player named Moonlight Graham.  They bring him to Ray's cornfield, where famous dead professional baseballers are having a rousing game of ball.  Moonlight gets into the game, realizing his dream.  He comes up to bat and hits a sacrifice fly to center in his only plate appearance.  Immediately after, Ray's daughter chokes on a hot dog, Moonlight steps from the field, transforms back into the weathered doctor, saves Ray's daughter, then walks into the corn and disappears.  So, if you're scoring at home, Moonlight has gone from dead, to old, to young, to old, and back to dead in about an hour of screen-time. 

Now, I have no problem with any of this.  As the credits roll, Ray has saved his farm and gets to play catch with his deceased father- a rather solid ending.  The baseball scenes are authentic looking, the parts of the movie that are supposed to be funny are funny, and the actors do a great job in the movie (except maybe for Ray's wife, who is excruciating).  In fact, the movie got an Oscar nomination for best picture, and this was back before every movie got a nomination.

My issue is that they haven't addressed Moonlight's statistical deficiency.  As seen in the clip above, the scoreboard at Fenway  stated that Moonlight had one game, but no at bats.  Ray and Terrance clearly state their intention to remedy the fact that he has no at bats.  He comes to bat in the movie, and flies out to the outfield, scoring the runner from third base.  It's a sacrifice fly- get it? he sacrifices himself!- but a sacrifice fly is not counted as an official "at bat" under the official scoring rules of baseball!    This has driven me crazy since I first saw the movie. 

I've tried to reconcile this with the baseball rules.  Maybe a sacrifice fly counted as an at bat in 1922?  Nope.  Nor did it count as an at bat in 1989 (when the movie came out).  At certain points, the official rules did count this as an at bat, but those times were short-lived (prior to 1908 and between 1940-1954).  Since we're told that most of the players on the field were banned from baseball in 1919, it seems quite unlikely that they'd be playing using the rules of either era. 

The players in Ray's field were most likely not keeping any statistics outside of each team's run total, but since the characters expended so much effort to get Moonlight his one "at bat", this is a huge oversight. 

Next week I'll break down the jurisprudence of Night Court, to see if I can suck all the fun out of that too....

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Karate School.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The S&P downgrade of the Federal Government

I've been a (moderately) active investor since I've had two nickels to rub together (circa 2006).  Between then and now, I've watched the market be relatively stable, crash, stabilize, crash again, bounce, and crash again while I'm typing this.

Today's drop can be directly attributed to Standard & Poor's (S&P) downgrading the federal government's credit rating, from AAA (the highest) to AA+ (the second highest). 

This has rattled investors, who have started indiscriminately selling stocks to put their money into cash. 

However, I would argue that this sell-off has much more to do with fear and confusion than it does to do with any sort of financial reason.

Note to Government: Stop doing anything.

The one thing I have learned from investing is that federal government action = stocks go down.  Obama talking about the economy = stocks go down.  Congress doing anything = stocks go down.  Congress does nothing and it shows up on the news = stocks go down.

The debt ceiling debacle has smacked the economic recovery in the face.  We can handle the fact that our elected officials are corrupt or that they're imbeciles.  But we never realized how badly their idiocy could fuck us until the country was brought to the brink of default for political reasons.

What the hell is S&P and what is its function? 

Standard & Poor's has a super-important sounding name.  S&P is the name of a stock index that shows up on the news along with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the NASDAQ.  It has the word "Standard" in it.  Is it a government agency?  What sort of power does it have?

Well, S&P is actually a private company, owned by McGraw-Hill.  Yes, McGraw-Hill the book publisher. 

Its function is as a "ratings agency."  A ratings agency is a company that rates (assesses the ability of borrowers to pay back loans) debts that are for sale.  In the federal government's case, the government issues bonds to raise money.  A government bond is an IOU from the government, stating that they will repay the IOU plus interest.  A downgrade of the federal governments rating means that S&P believes that there is a higher likelihood of the federal government electing to not pay back their IOUs. 

S&P rates all sorts of bonds, from straight corporate bonds to bonds backed up by assets (such as mortgages).  For the record, a whole lot of loans that rating agencies (including S&P) said had virtually no chance of going bad did just that during the financial crisis.  Investors who relied on the ratings and thought they were being conservative were hit hard.  S&Ps inflated ratings were most likely caused by either (i) not knowing what they were doing, or (ii) refusing to give bad ratings to the bond issuers, who coincidentally were paying the rating agencies to produce the ratings.  S&P was nice enough to lower their ratings during the financial crisis, thus throwing more gas on the fire that they helped to start.

What does the downgrade actually mean? 

The interesting dynamic here is that the federal government can print money.  It can literally turn on a printer and produce bills.  It's like lending someone on a beach a bunch of sea-water and telling them that they need to pay you back a bucket of sea-water every month.  That borrower can always get more water- the only risk to the lender is that the borrower refuses to do so.  Likewise, the question is not whether the government can pay its debts, but instead the question is will the government refuse to pay its debts.

Essentially, the downgrade is directly tied to the government's inability to get things done.  If one of the two parties is willing to use government default as leverage to get its way, it naturally follows that eventually the other side will refuse to budge.

So, what's the end result?

Investors are selling their shares and getting out of the market.  In a different time, the market might having other investors coming in to the market to buy stocks at a discount.  After the financial crisis, investors know that just because a stock is cheap, it can still get cheaper (much, much cheaper). 

Americans have no real faith in the government to address the nation's financial problems.  If the debt ceiling debate (which was, at best, an egregious waste of time and resources) could almost sink our economy, what faith should we have in government to actually make progress?  The financial rules are constantly in flux and Washington's indecision is causing corporate America to sit on its collective hands.  Companies are incentivized to hold their money until there is more clarity (such as figuring out where this extra $1.5 trillion in budget cuts are going to come from).  The economy was stuck in neutral, and now our government has attached a trailer to it. 

So, when you hear Republicans blaming Democrats and vice versa, know that the problem is not that either party's plan was neccessarily better, but that no one knows if they can stop bickering long enough to repay the pail of water every month. 

As for S&P, they aren't telling us anything we don't already know.  The timing, however, could not be worse.   Gas, meet fire. 

In conclusion, what we have here is on-going failure on behalf of our elected officials.  And the downgrade?  That's just a non-trustworthy private company telling us that idiots (Congress) will continue to act like idiots, which should not be a surprise to anyone.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Charlotte Hornets' Starter Jacket

I love watching baseball clips from the 1950s and earlier.  Aside from the unpredictable camera angles, I love seeing the crowd and what they wore to games:

Spectators are in shirts, ties, long jackets and fedoras.  For years, going to a game was like going to a broadway show, except with more yelling, smoking, and overt racism. 

No one at the game in the clip above is wearing a team hat or a jersey except for those people actually participating in the game and the teams' coaches, who inexplicably still wear uniforms to this day.

Through the 70s and 80s, fans began dressing more casually for games.  Perhaps this was because society moved to a more casual style of dress, or maybe it was the number of teams who started playing in the south and the west.  After all, who wants to wear a suit and a fedora to a day game in Atlanta in July?

With this casual dress, fans started wearing t-shirts with their team's logo on it.  They began wearing team caps.  Eventually, spectators (adults and children) started wearing their team's jerseys to game (except Miami Heat fans, who dress like they're going to a white party on P-Diddy's yacht):

These items finally became fashion statements in the 1980s.  Converse and Nike started associating their sneakers with players, and quickly moved to putting player names and logos on t-shirts, caps, and jackets. 

The first major fashion statement team gear was the Los Angeles Raiders' hat, popularized by rap icons NWA and Public Enemy.  Raiders gear was not the highest selling team brand because the team was good or because of Howie Long.  They were a cultural statement.  I recall watching a late-80s post-game interview with Patriots' receiver Irving Fryar, who was wearing a Raiders' cap in the locker room.  No one seemed to think this is odd, possibly because I was the sole human watching Patriots post-game interviews at the time.

Other sports teams, seeing popularity of the black and white color scheme, came on board.  The Chicago White Sox and the L.A. Kings changed their color scheme, clearly to cash in on this merchandising craze. 

There's only one other item that comes close to the Raiders' cap in terms on influence, and that was the Charlotte Hornets' Starter jacket. 

If you were born between 1974 and 1980, you cannot look at this picture without conjuring up the feelings of either (i) the jacket you cherished or (ii) the jacket you wished your parents bought for you.

The Charlotte Hornets became an expansion franchise in 1988.  In 1991, they drafted UNLV star Larry Johnson, seen here: 

The Hornets color scheme was an instant success.  Teal and purple.  Those colors are an aesthetic nightmare.  That jacket makes me cringe, but it's harmless, right?

(BTW: Do Converse and Larry Johnson get royalties for "Big Mamma's House"?)

Well, lets look at what happened after every 13-year-old in the country asked their parents for the Hornets starter jacket:

Expansion teams:
1991- San Jose Sharks (Hockey)- Teal, white & black
1993- Colorado Rockies (Baseball)- Purple and black
1993- Florida Marlins (Baseball)- Teal and black
1993- Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (Hockey)- Jade green, eggplant and white (and their uniforms looked every bit as bad as you'd think)

1995- Toronto Raptors (Basketball)- Purple, red and black

1995- Carolina Panthers (Football)- Black, teal & white (without a doubt the ugliest unis in the NFL)

1995- Jacksonville Jaguars (Football)- Teal, black & gold
1996- Baltimore Ravens (Football)- Purple & black
1998- Arizona Diamondbacks (Baseball)- Purple, black, and a whole bunch of awful

1998- Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Baseball)- I don't know, but this happened:

Fortunately, these teams all came to the same general conclusion: this color scheme is fugly.  Nearly all of the teams listed have either jettisoned teal and/or purple or significantly downplayed those colors, as if to say: "let's all pretend this didn't happen."  Agreed and agreed... but I still want that jacket.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Would you rather?

On a recent trip,  a game of "Would you rather?" broke out with my family.  Some gems...

- Would you rather lose vision in one eye or have everyone in Canada tear their ACLs?
- Would you rather never sleep in the same room twice or attend every single event at your local church for the rest of your life?
- Would you rather say the opposite of every statement you make, wait a beat, and say "Not!" or eat every meal from gas station kiosks (clarification: not the nice mini-marts, but those bullet-proof glass booths with the slot that you push your money through)?
- Would you rather never drive faster than 25 miles per hour or wear a giant Styrofoam cowboy hat every waking minute of your life?
- Would you rather say everything you ever say loudly into a megaphone or have to try to hug every person you have a conversation with?